By Mr. Fish
There it sits on the calendar, Election Day, like a megaton turd of brain-draining Kryptonite, its intellectually deleterious effects emanating out from the Tuesday after the first Monday of November like moron radiation from a black hole of empty pomp and circumscription so devoid of meaning that not even irony can escape it. And there I sit, unable to set pen to paper for editorial cartooning because the political discourse has become so insular and platitudinous that satire can appear only derivative of the reality it’s attempting to exaggerate.
What kind of joke, after all, can one write when it is literally true that the only thing preventing the end of the world from happening is the fact that retailers haven’t yet figured out how to sell the DOOMSDAY—Everything Must Go Sale! to advertisers? Worse than granting the right of personhood to corporations, of course, is the omission of the addendum requiring that a conscience also be included, which makes me wonder whether the word person should be removed from the legislative language and replaced with the far more accurate descriptor remote-controlled gargantuan zombie with no soul.
“Drill everywhere. There is no such thing as global warming,” says candidate Rick Santorum to the sort of unbridled applause that one might otherwise expect in the face of reason. And look, there’s Michele Bachmann commenting on gay marriage by saying, “They can get married. They can marry a man if they’re a woman. Or they can marry a woman if they’re a man.” Remarkably, she is not hit in the head with a shoe. Herman Cain is there too, squaring his jaw and explaining what it means to be a man. “The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is. A manly man don’t want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza,” he says. His approval rating soars.
Mitt Romney, speaking from beneath a hairdo assembled at the Fortress of Sophistry by GM robots: “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” Newt Gingrich, speaking ominously while the Winning Our Future super PAC flicks the light switch on and off and makes lightening and thunder sounds with its mouth: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Is there no more convincing proof that there is nothing like a presidential campaign to demonstrate just how profoundly detached we are as a nation from recognizing why ours is a functioning democracy in reputation alone? It happens every four years. Candidates emerge from the self-glorifying sanctimoniousness of their own private fortunes to thump their coffers and bestow the folksy wisdom of hillbillies baffled by science, contemptuous of foreigners, humbled by the hard-won saintliness of rich folk, nauseated by feminists and homosexuals, googly-eyed over the muscular Christianity of Uncle Sam and 100 percent sure that capitalism is the same goddamn thing as democracy, by golly, and worth exporting to the rest of the world as if it were a putrid and oftentimes lethal penicillin.
At least that’s on the GOP side. For the liberals it’s usually less Nugent-centric and slightly more Utne-ish and urbane. Democratic candidates typically emerge from the self-glorifying sanctimoniousness of their own private fortunes to thump their coffers and bestow the folksy wisdom of untenured community college English professors baffled by behavior unbefitting of crossword puzzles, saddle shoes, decaf coffee and the sanctity of the dean’s mediocre golf game, all the while googly-eyed over the muscular Christianity of Uncle Sam and 100 percent sure that capitalism is the same goddamn thing as democracy, by golly, and worth exporting to the rest of the world as if it were a putrid and oftentimes lethal penicillin.
It even happened with Obama, who was introduced to the nation in 2004 as the soigné and sophisticated Sidney Poitier alternative to the Texas-tea version of the white Washington establishment, but who, by Inauguration Day in 2009, had morphed into the Walter-Mondale-as-portrayed-by-Sidney-Poitier-type character we’ve all learned to tolerate in anticipation of something that our system of government simply seems too morally and ethically timid to be able to deliver. Interestingly, I recently stumbled upon a notebook containing the transcript to an unpublished conversation that I had during the 2008 campaign with Joan Baez about whether the world might change for the better as a result of the recent election. Rereading it, I could almost hear the clicketyclack of the roller coaster car as it climbed toward the limitless sky just before running out of tracks in ascension.
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Fish: Well, let me ask this—how has the culture changed over the last 40 years—or maybe the question should be how have you changed over the last 40 years? I assume that with an artist such as yourself, who is so politically and socially minded, that you’ve experienced both terrific camaraderie [with] and genuine disdain for American society as it succeeds and fails to maintain its most widely publicized virtues.
Baez: Well, I came from an era when there were a lot of causes, and I was very active in many of them, particularly those that related to nonviolence. Then I believe there came a very dry spell during which time we were taken backwards in many respects.
Fish: Was that during the ’80s?
Baez: Yes, the ’80s and part of the ’90s.
Fish: Well, let’s be specific about your legacy just so we have a point of comparison from which to measure the societal changes I’m talking about. All one needs to do is look at old footage from the 1960s of you performing “There but for Fortune” and “Oh, Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome,” and one gets a real sense of how deeply you and your audience cared about how important it was to propagate peace, justice, community, etc. These were spiritual events, and your dedication to humanitarian values was terribly authentic, and there seemed to be a real reverence towards the enormity of that responsibility. Are you able to find contemporary venues and audiences capable of recreating that sense of purpose and optimism?
Baez: Yeah, well, at the moment, I’m not trying to do a great deal with that, but I do know that when I walk onstage, I either represent history or the anti-Christ to people. I prefer history.
Fish: Is performing still a fresh experience for you?
Baez: In this atmosphere, with Barack Obama being elected president and becoming a real catalyst for change, yes, it’s totally fresh. For instance, I’m doing songs now that I haven’t done for many years because I thought they were just a nostalgia trip for people—songs like “[With] God on Our Side”—and I’m perfectly comfortable singing them now.
Fish: Particularly in light of what we had to endure during eight years of George W. Bush. I’ve often wondered about people like you—people who have committed themselves to adopting a lifestyle that reflects their politics so precisely. How frustrating is it to have the public perception of your values perverted by an administration that has, in effect, fought tirelessly to promote a cultural agenda that is the antithesis of everything your generation hoped for?
Baez: I’m not the only one who’s had to struggle hard to hang onto my Gandhian roots. It’s very difficult sometimes. But as far as frustration goes, the more you expect and the less that happens, the more frustrated you’ll be. For many years, including now, I haven’t expected too much from the human race, so it’s been easier to face whatever happens.
Fish: How would you compare the political activism and participation of young people today with young people in the 1960s?
Baez: Most of the interviews that I do nowadays are with kids who are really struggling to build a movement—a movement that has some meaning that makes sense because the legacy that we’ve given them is greed and a feeling of entitlement. [Americans] simply assume that they’re better than everybody else and that they deserve things and that nothing needs to be earned.
Fish: Right—peace and love is a brand nowadays and requires no commitment whatsoever. It’s easy to shop for the right outfit and to become a Gap hippie. They’re like goth kids who are as likely to become real vampires as somebody who puts on a baseball cap is to get a Cy Young Award. Now I don’t want to be overly condescending of anybody who might prefer the hippie lifestyle to, I don’t know, the Wall Street lifestyle. Still, it seems to me that, as compared to previous generations, a lot of people act like they’re carnivores for social justice; they understand the language of revolution, but they have no stomach for hunting.
Baez: I think that the word ‘sacrifice’ left our vocabulary a long time ago. Any serious social change does not take place without stepping way outside your comfort zone.
Fish: Well, your first husband went to jail for resisting the draft.
Baez: He sure did, for 20 months.
Fish: And, of course, now there’s no draft. It seems that the dominant culture has been able to structure things in a way that appeases people’s natural inclination towards preferring comfort over inconvenience without making any substantial changes to the imperial tendencies of the country.
Baez: Oh, that’s very well said. It is about inconvenience—it’s about going out on a limb.
Fish: Which begs a very important question: Does a movement that best operates from being perched on that limb—call it the Progressive Movement or the radical left—attempt, now, to partner with the Obama administration for positive change or does it proceed without demanding his participation?
Baez: I think we have to demand his participation. We have to be the ones he consults and not just the same old white guys with four stars on their shoulders that always seem to be standing around the president. Unless we step up, the opinions of the warriors will be the only advice he seeks and it will be the only advice he gets. I think we have half a chance, but it will take some doing. I hope he has compassion for all people. I hope he doesn’t want to go to war.
Fish: Yeah, me too. Still, it’s horrifying to see what happens to practically everybody’s credibility when the presidential seal is looming large. How heartbreaking was it, for example, to watch while Dennis Kucinich, with his opposition to NAFTA, the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, went from being the Eugene Debs of East Capitol Street to becoming Miss Cleveland of Hooterville, USA, answering questions at the MSNBC debate about UFOs and Shirley MacLaine? My suspicion is that in four years, no matter what happens between now and then, Obama will be fighting for his [political] life because somebody else’s campaign promises sound at least as promising as his do.
Baez: Well, he’s got to be better than the dude he’s replacing.
Fish: Replacing Bush with an empty chair would be better, so I don’t think we can measure Obama fairly that way. Besides that, I’ve always thought that campaign promises are only good for one thing: They manure the ground for all the real political activity that must go on outside the Beltway when the cacophonous bullshit of the campaign season isn’t happening. So maybe we should bask in the stench of all the raw waste we got piling up to our eyeballs and figure that it’s just the very first day of planting season.
Baez: That’s one way to look at it.
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