Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
I’m sorry I’ve been so long in responding since you sent that last note just after July’s Republican convention, when your guy was nominated. “This’ll be a lot of fun!” you said, but not much more than that.
I haven’t known what to say. There’s been so much that’s overwhelming. I keep thinking back to our college days—remembering you called yourself “the perfect Republican”—remembering our long talks deep into the night. I’ve never been “the perfect Democrat,” but we held forth, the two of us, and though our philosophies differed, we came to agreement on many things, and our mutual affection never waned.
Those were the days of William Buckley and the National Review—Buckley on T.V. holding forth, too, every week. The guy drove me nuts, but what we did have in those days was discourse, argument in a decent post-Enlightenment sense. And not simply discourse over major issues like war or taxes. You and I could talk for hours over issues as pedestrian, so to speak, as transportation—how people should get from one place to another, who should pay for it, how to maintain what we’ve built, how to adapt as future needs emerged. We could talk for hours over military intervention, U.S. history therein, what the American role should be in world stabilization, what our sphere of influence ought to be, what the geopolitical future might hold.
These were long talks. A couple of beers, not many. We weren’t political science majors; you were economics, I was humanities.
Each of us stayed in those fields for our careers. You went into finance, made a lot of money on the side “flipping houses” (that phrase always makes me dizzy), and I worked in education, scraped by well enough.
And we’re still friends, different sides of the country, political opposites as well.
What happened to national discourse, Rick? Letter-writing disappeared, then email came along and served well enough, I guess, then emails became shorter, and along comes texting, Twitter, and since then we’ve been reduced to mere sloganeers.
But I refuse to be slogan hurler. And in this letter to you—I hope it’s not our final communication—want to let you know what I’m thinking.
I am thinking, Rick. And though I’m no Zola, the phrase J’accuse…! has been in my mind for months. But I’m split. I don’t know whether to accuse you and your fellow Republicans or to thank you.
Could go back, I guess, and accuse you, oh perfect Republican, of supporting your party’s lies to the American public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, thereby thrusting us headlong into a war that not only slaughtered 200,000 men, women, and children—4,000 of them patriotic Americans (mostly lower-income) conned into going, all of which resulted in both the destabilization of the Middle East and humanity’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. I might ask where you were in speaking out against that. We all knew that war was based on a lie. You did, too, Rick.
Could go back, too, and accuse you—especially as someone who went into finance—of standing by while the American economy (and, in extension, the world economy) nearly collapsed because of vicious and ravenous manipulation of financial markets, saved only by President Obama’s intervention. (I know: you could well accuse me of standing by when Bill Clinton’s policies allowed foxes to guard the henhouses.)
Or could go back not far at all and accuse you of standing by while the party representing you in Congress engaged in eight years of pure racism against President Obama, that racism manifesting in the form not only of Mitch McConnell’s and John Boehner’s and Paul Ryan’s and Ted Cruz’s and others’ shameless statements, but in the equally egregious refusal to act as contracted legislators, to lay waste to eight years’ time in America’s short history.
But let’s not go back that far. Let’s attend to what’s happening now, what’s happening Tuesday, Election Day.
Rick, when you referred to your man’s nomination as “fun,” the thing seemed still rather a joke, I admit. I was sure it couldn’t possibly continue: a billionaire reality show huckster who knew nothing about governing, cared even less than nothing. Surely you and your party would correct the situation, replace the guy with someone who, though still anathema to Democrats, would at least have some political standing, some measure of knowledge.
You didn’t do that, Rick. You kept the guy.
And who are you, Rick, as a perfect Republican now?
So many people have been pulled in to this political Barnum’s dark rhetoric. In some ways, I blame them. Not just that they choose to listen solely to hate radio or totalitarian T.V.—it’s that, given what’s available on the internet, there’s little excuse to be ignorant these days. (True, I know: if you haven’t been taught the skills to distinguish fact from feeling, evidence from innuendo, logic from incoherence, the internet won’t help. But there’s more than that here. This is the first time that I’ve seen a national arrogance in ignorance, almost a self-celebration over one’s unwillingness to follow through on a thought, to make a cogent topical argument.)
I accuse you, Rick, of supporting a guy who might be President and doesn’t pay income taxes. What message is that to all citizens, Rick?
I accuse you of harming your two teenage sons, Rick, injuring their psychological development as they’ve seen your representative (your avatar?) speaking so crudely of women in general, of Hillary Clinton in particular.
I accuse you of harming our nation by selecting as your choice for President someone who could hardly identify Estonia or Madagascar on a map, who cannot stay on a single topic for more than two sentences but instead “pivots” (read: diverts), who mocks others for their disabilities, who is impulsive, lashes out, who denies things he’s said though those same things have been shown on national T.V. hundreds of times, who assails and implicitly threatens the free press, whose business life has been characterized by discrimination against people of color, by cheating people who worked for him, by taking tax deductions for the losses others absorbed, whose business strategy has included serial bankruptcies.
I accuse you of supporting a man whose use of the word “she” in national debates was as if in indictment of gender, as if in expletive.
I accuse you of supporting a man running for President of our democracy who lives, literally, in gilded surroundings.
I accuse you, Rick, and all of your party, of not understanding how delicate, fragile that democracy is.
But I thank you, Rick, too, and cannot end this letter without detailing a few things for which I’m grateful.
Grateful that I’ve been shown the depth of our country’s racism. The image that comes to mind is a recent one—a tree in front of the house of one of your candidate’s supporters. (In the South, of course.) A Halloween “joke.” Two effigies of black men hung from a tree for passing young trick-or-treaters to see.
Grateful, Rick, that I’ve been shown the depth of hatred of women in our country. I am a rather naïve man, and just didn’t know the width of it, the depth of it. The vituperation against Hillary Clinton (the chants of “Lock her up!” sadistic, transparently sexual), the promise of your own party to meld their racism into misogyny by blocking legislative and judicial action should Ms. Clinton be elected, the refusal to allow Americans to ponder, if even for a moment, the historical-though-belated importance of the prospect of a first woman President… it all overwhelms but educates me.
But of course people of color aren’t surprised. And most women aren’t surprised. They’ve known this stuff all along, have seen it, encountered it most days of their lives.
I don’t know what’s going to happen Tuesday, Rick, or whether we’ll still be speaking. I hope we are. I do know, though, that if your candidate’s elected, the poor saps who were suckered into voting for him are in for a big surprise. As to the rest of us, our national stock’s already gone down, and any appetite for the spread of democracy: American style, surely has diminished—as well it should.
Rick, this is hard sentence for me to write, but it’s the truth, and I must say it: you and your fellow Republicans have destabilized our country. As for me, I did know that I’m an incurable idealist, and suspect that I’ll continue to be. But I guess I hadn’t realized my own level of patriotism until now. I thank you for that realization, at least, even as I fear for us all.
Copyright 2016 Gerald Fleming