Morning in America
Saturday, November 11 2000, 3:45 PM
Until this week, my hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, had existed in California newspapers as the source for stories on the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, on murder cases too gruesome to describe, and on drug traffickers whose flamboyance defied description. In family lore, my hometown exists as the city that installed guard towers in the mall's parking lot to ward off carjackers; the city that lost baseball's spring training and replaced it with used car dealerships; the city that sold its auditorium to the Seventh Day Adventists, the only group with the ducats or millenial disposition to buy it; in short, the city at the butt of a thousand jokes; and finally, the city my parents moved away from, after my birth home was broken into three times in one year.
On my last drive through, a childhood friend whose sweetness and good nature I recall warned me of the Mexicans and Guats (Guatemalans) taking over. In two directions, my old neighborhood has been levelled: in one, for a freeway extension that has yet to be built; in another, for a performing arts center. Soon there will also be a destination retail experience for the people who drive over from the island, where my friend's love of drawing has turned into work upholstering yachts. The people living in houses on one side of Belvedere Avenue are building traffic circles and turn-outs, in a furious race to declare themselves townships to preserve property values. Meanwhile, the houses on our side are noticeably run down, for which my friend blames the newsstands vending El Latino.
This tale of urban apocalypse is the kind that inspires cynicism and disgust towards the places some of us live, and builds public support for those who offer total solutions to problems by eradicating them. As I should point out, Al Gore offered such a solution in 1996, when he justified the Clinton Administrations goal to raze 100,000 units of public housing by the end of this year, noting, "These crime-infested monuments to a failed policy are killing the neighborhoods around them."
Thus, Gore joined a long line of reformers who would break out the moral borax to scrub away the problems of poverty from old cities like mine, as surely as "middle-class" has replaced "working-class" as the audience politicians shout out to. In this era, a popular federal antipoverty program is a work preparedness class, where the poor learn to cleanse their mouths out with soap and wash between the ears, while the possible First Lady-to-be concerns herself with what all of us are plugging into ours. Perhaps, in her efforts to deny us gangsta rap — hell, all hip-hop with swear words, and that metal stuff — Tipper believes she is creating fewer poor people. While the federal government considers devolving its historic responsibility to the poor onto the churches, the disconnect between the Gores and the Clintons, with all their sexy connections to the Children's Defense Fund, is significant.
That's one reason I gave my California vote to Ralph Nader. And it's also the reason I'm delighted to see something I scarcely knew existed: folks in my hometown who care enough to insist on the primacy of their right to vote for the candidate of their choice. It's moving enough that people have come downtown for anything other than the faux South Beach night life with which the city has attempted to revive itself. But the fact that Gore supporters, Nader supporters, Buchanan supporters, and yes, even some Bush supporters (despite the Gore v. Bush slant of Friday's headlines) have found common ground at the county courthouse, to demand a clean, fair, unimpeachable election, is fantastic. That they are thus far willing to stand their ground, despite predictable insults and pressures applied to them, is even more compelling.
I do not understand those on the Left whose quick response to Gore's defeat was to attack Nader for "costing" him the election, rather than examine the state where the declared victor's brother supervises much of its electoral machinery. This is the state where the president of its NAACP has requested federal marshals to supervise a recount, and students from Florida A&M have marched on the State House to demand one, amidst allegations that police on Election Day set up roadblocks and ran ID checks in certain parts of town. This is the state whose Southland capital (Miami) has recently had mayoral elections set aside for ballot fraud, leaving lawyer Howard Weiss well-prepared to file suit on behalf of Palm Beach County voters. This is the state where one-third of Black men have been disenfranchised by their prison records, and Lord only knows how many more are denied the right to vote by the welter of laws and practices restricting citizenship.
To point these things out is not to subscribe to a conspiracy theory that Jebby, running a crypto-fascist regime, wired the election for little George. That may prove to be untrue, yet what is true is the crab-in-a-barrel rush by some to condemn Nader, to mock the ugly duckling Green Party for not being a beautiful swan, and to criticize the hard work of these activists in such a denigrating manner as to seemingly reject the notion of building an independent Left in this country. This is as true as the difference of opinion that will likely remain between white and black Florida, over whether its election (and thereby, the country's) has been stolen.
What Left apologists for Gore have yet to explain is how their doomsday scenarios will come to pass with a Congress as deeply divided as the country. Nor have they acknowledged the possibility that Nader may have helped Democrats specifically, and progressives generally, in state and local elections, by drawing people to the polls who otherwise would have stayed home, as roughly a quarter of Nader voters said they would have.
In California, to take a cursory look, we have a vote against the forces of law-and-order — with the passage of Proposition 36, mandating rehabilitation instead of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders — and a vote against the taxpayers' associations with the passage of Proposition 39, which lowers the electoral percentage required to pass school bonds from an unobtainable two-thirds to 55%. Together with the landslide defeat of the school voucher initiative Proposition 38, these all fit the "schools not jails" agenda first advanced this spring, in the unsuccessful campaign against Proposition 21, which imposed harsher penalties for juvenile offenders.
When the Democratic and Republican party machineries consolidated in support of Prop. 21 behind police, prison guards, and district attorneys' associations, the opposition coalition was a unique formation of students, teachers, civil libertarians, clergy, judges, parole officers, social workers, and others who worked closely with youth through the system. Perhaps we're seeing the first electoral successes of that formation, arriving as stories of youth organizations uniting with teachers' unions to push a broad swath of educational reform. And college students are uniting with campus workers to unionize schools while prison moratorium activists are uniting with labor progressives to divest union pension funds from prison construction.
But I have yet to find mention of any of these alignments in the mass press. Nor has any attention been paid to local politics, nor has there been a desire to provide political context, or a willingness to consider the Greens' effect on any race other than the presidential. Instead writing has defined the Green Party as one man and suggested that both should have consigned themselves to the dustbin.
What is remarkable, in a year when protesters opposed to globalization have questioned the meaning of the vote, is the national civics lesson unfolding before our eyes. In less than two days of coverage, newscasters have blithely conceded the nationwide existence of voting irregularities. But not fraud; fraud happened once, in 1960, benefitting another Democrat, John F. Kennedy. Thus spoke the networks Thursday night, the day after their embarassment over misprojecting the race revealed all of them use the same service for election returns. This makes me wonder what further secrets of state will be revealed in days to come. And the networks' suggestion that Gore, in a fit of Nixonian grace, should concede for the good of the country, is something that democrats lower-case and upper- should reject.
The beautiful thing about all this is the emphasis it ultimately places on personal responsibility. I know this to be true, because my email box is filling as I write with unsolicited letters from friends. Some of these friends I have not spoken to in a while, and most of them refer to me more or less benignly as their "political" friend, while all of them are asking how this could happen, and are making thoughtfully reasoned statements about their degree of participation (or non-) in this election. I'm corresponding with people I've never met before, off the long strands of CC:s that accompany these letters. It's a start.
So distorted is our political landscape that we are now expected to accept lectures on personal responsibility from George W. Bush, as once we were expected to accept Martin Luther King, Jr, as the foe of affirmative action (in ads, quickly pulled, for California's Prop. 209). With images of Martin the right-wing sell-out, and Martin the "Think Different!" icon, dancing in Americans' heads, I would like to restore the concept of personal responsibility to its pre-Dubya roots. That concept exists in the existential wells of James Baldwin, for one, who wrote, "It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."
To assess the sincerity of apologists for Gore, my first question is: What did you personally do to prevent the apocalypse of the Left that is now flickering inside your skull? Did you hold a house party to proselytize your friends on the virtues of Al Gore? Did you go to your local Democratic office to phonebank, to spread the good news that Al Gore lives, and is coming back for us all? Did you walk your precinct on the day of the vote, to make sure your neighbors heard the word and got out for Al Gore? Did you send a check so that Al Gore might walk among the unkempt minions of those backwards states, to heal them of Republican apostasies and Green transgressions? Better yet, to recall an age in which the Left leapt from chairs as often as it sat in them, did you go there yourself? Did you tell others of his miracles? Did you bear witness to the glory of Al Gore? How did you testify?
Some did, as indicated by the proliferation of Greens for Gore and the heated discussions among Nader's Raiders, alleged traitors, and vote traders. I respect them all for their commitment to principle, their willingness to risk something of themselves for it, and their willingness to risk being guilty.
But many of the latter-day apologists, I venture, given their furious tongue-lashings, their flagellations, and their scrambling for position, did not attend to Gore in his time of need for the same reason I did not work for any candidate. There is nausea and persistent nagging doubt that accompanies making a choice. There is the prospect of having to justify unpopular decisions to peers, and the fear and potential embarassment of being wrong. And there is the personal effort required, finally, to be political. Nonetheless, this does not stop some Gore supporters from now telling others what they should have done to save his candidacy.
Ralph Nader is not responsible for Gore's pain, and no amount of Nader-bashing will cleanse Gore's sins (or those of the Left). The true test of the Greens' alleged irresponsibility will come in the next elections, when they either demonstrate the seriousness of their organizing with a stronger, more unified effort, or melt away like the Reform Party. But I bet the latter won't happen, because if there's one thing that has impressed me about the fractal new Left, it is its eagerness to forsake the pabulum of "advancing issues" and the like to build an organization with the muscle and flexibility to make policy.
In the meantime, there are people fighting for the chance for their vote (and ours) to mean something. To say nothing of the millions denied the right to vote. Their battles deserve our support. If only we saw the horizon wide before us.
For more information on voting irregularities in Florida, check: http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/floridavote.html.
Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.