Some precincts of Art Scatter have been ill. Not desperately ill, not hardly. But sick enough to stay home and do battle with cold germs that are tougher than Scatter is. We are not looking for sympathy, though, not for the interminable snuffling and sniffing and, um, draining, because we know that’s just part of the cold game since mankind’s days on the savannah, except now we have delicate tissues to caress our even more delicate membranes and powerful decongestants that suck every drop of liquid from the nasal system at the same time they addle the senses, a trade that seems reasonable enough when you make it.
What do we deserve some sympathy for? Well, for several days we followed the presidential campaign. On television. From the major networks to the news cable channels, from Tom Brokaw to Rachel Maddow, from Fox News to Bloomberg News, from clips of Joe Biden suggesting melodramatically that somewhere even as we watch bad men were planning to “test the mettle” of a President Obama in some drummed up foreign crisis or another soon after the election to clips of John McCain yapping about Joe the plumber as though he actually WAS a real plumber and as though we actually cared.
A few important things happened — Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, for example, a model of direct, pertinent argument. But his arguments weren’t taken up, explored, tested, extended, refuted. No, they were immediately swallowed up by the horse race, by the media chattering heads, by the spinners, who as always embarrassed themselves in the process, but never mind, they’ve done it over and over and over again in the past. And then they disappeared in the charges that Obama is a socialist for advocating tax policies that McCain supported in 2000. Or that Palin is a hypocrite for wearing $150,000 worth of fancy clothing that no real soccer mom could afford, even though soccer moms rarely face TV cameras day after day after day as they run for vice-president. Of course, this trivial criticism is matched by a legion of trivial comments made by the candidate herself, most of them serving merely to belittle herself.
This isn’t to suggest that both campaigns are equally guilty for the tenor of things, even though my examples have been drawn from both sides. For me, neither campaign has been substantial enough, but one has injured this fragile thing, government of the people by the people for the people, more than the other. That’s the one I’ll vote against. One has suggested at least some understanding of the serious problems our democracy faces, if it’s going to stay a democracy. That’s the one I’ll vote for.
But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how dismal and dirty it felt to watch a few news cycles, and then speed off to the Internet to check on the most recent polling or sharp rebuttal of something I’d just seen on TV, and then return to the chatter, the clips re-played endlessly, the anger and the sarcasm, the poorly formed arguments and the better ones that were rendered unwatchable because they were so obvious, the gaffes and the gotcha moments.
John McCain, please explain how the U.S. built up such great quantities of debt both in government and out during your party’s watch. You have not answered that question to date, not even close. The answer’s not one of your talking points. Barack Obama, please explain why you believe that engaging conservative ideologues in policy discussions about the environment or taxes or foreign affairs will generate creative ideas for improving the country. It’s hard to understand how this could be positive, but you obviously believe in it. So explain why. Give it a go. And both of you, take your time. We’re burning up countless hour following the nonsense, so we can take a long answer on something substantial. Believe me.
In the political campaign of my dreams, my own thinking is expanded, my own ideas about what constitutes a just society are tested, my assessments of the character and possibility of the candidates are based on watching substantial encounters in a variety of settings. Our history is invoked, our difficult political moments of the past are relived, theories that explain them are offered and withdrawn, the campaign becomes an open-ended seminar in the problems of democracy, in the problems of balancing fairness with individual rights, in the problems that face America as it faces the world. I think I really need that campaign. It might even cure the common cold.