October 24, 2004
Where Have You Gone, Engaged Citizenry?

A writer mulls our focus on the trivial

Not us, of course, but some people in this election season aren’t paying much attention to the issues. There’s that cloud of orange alerts circling overhead, grim war news pouring in relentlessly, and no flu vaccine, but we are busy obsessing about the curse that Ruth built or, at our most engaged, which candidate we’d rather kick back and relax with.

“I can think about Bush’s tax policy, about which I can do nothing, or I can think about his cocaine use,” says Jay Cantor, author of Great Neck, Krazy Kat, and The Death of Che Guevara, novels whose characters are passionately involved in their times. He and I are hunched over our coffee in the People’s Republic, talking about why, in this time when so much is critically important, we are eager, instead, to be entertained. It’s the Scott Peterson trial, the Dan Rather apology that draw our attention away from questions about social security privatization, adequate military funding, alternative fuel development. What reaches out and grabs us is the constant parade of advertising and entertainment images and gossip passing for news, what Cantor refers to as “the spectacle.” His argument is that it happens precisely because things are so important, and so seemingly out of our hands.

“If I can have no substantive effect on what is happening,” he says, “what’s more entertaining is what I’ll turn to. The spectacle is overwhelming and interesting, and it is so omnipresent and the techniques are so good.”

The election spectacle, on the other hand, now lasts as long as the term of office and has been known to cause serious campaign fatigue, especially here in a state that already has its assigned color. Some citizens of the Athens of America continue to follow every detail, to be sure. But it gets harder to concentrate all the time, especially since the television networks declared themselves officially irrelevant last summer with their truncated convention coverage. And when some of the most cogent commentary is on the Comedy Channel. But even if we remain engaged as war deaths mount and America edges farther from the international community, we seem to doubt that we can have any influence.

“We feel helpless,” says Cantor. “And when I feel helpless, I watch soap operas. During a divorce, what are most of us doing? We’re home under a blanket watching soap operas. Now politics becomes the soap opera. I may feel I have a rooting interest, but it doesn’t affect the outcome. And if I don’t think I’m going to have any effect, soap opera is more interesting.”

Politically, Cantor and I both carry a ‘60s sensibility. I find it impossible to understand disengagement, indecisiveness. Cantor, who is a MacArthur Prize Fellow and a professor at Tufts, points out that, in the ‘60s people knew political involvement was important and felt they could make a difference. And they felt the difference was literally one of life or death.

“During the Vietnam War if you were worried that you might die or you felt guilty about those who had died, it focused your attention. The sheer violence, the possibility of mass atomic death--people felt not only could the world change, it had better change. The successes of the civil rights movement gave people the sense that the world could be entirely different. Drugs played a role, too. It made people feel that their community, their work could be erotic, pleasurable, that nothing was fixed about the world.”

In the 2000 election, by contrast, Cantor says, the feeling was that history was, in some real way, over, that whatever the outcome, the difference would be imperceptible. Although one sunny September morning and two subsequent wars ended that illusion, it somehow did not dislodge our sense of being powerless in the process. This election is poised to teach us either that we can have an impact or that we’d better.

What we’re reading now: As he thinks about his next book, Jay Cantor is reading about the English revolution. On his reading list are The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, both by Christopher Hill. I’m reading Starting in Our Own Backyards , a look at family, work, and community, by Ann Bookman, who is the director of the MIT Workplace Center.

What are you reading? Write to citytype@globe.com. Past columns are at ellensteinbaum.com.

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Excerpt from Great Neck
by Jay Cantor

“They assembled outside, and David wondered, as he looked at the crowd, if he had the courage to restore himself now, when an opportunity for a victory finally welled before them? What more would he risk for justice in Mississippi?

“Today they sang We are not afraid (because they were afraid), and We shall overcome, because maybe this time, afraid or not, they would. Joshua said, ‘We’re not stopping now. Let’s go down to register.’”

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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