Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Unhappiness of Jack Bauer

Not long ago “Hustle,” a BBC television series, was taken to task by a reviewer in the New York Times. She faulted it for presenting a fantastic image of contemporary London. It was too affluent to be believable, she thought, in light of British “decline.” Obviously she hasn't been to London lately. But quite apart from the question of empirical accuracy, the British have always trafficked in fantasies of affluence, just as much as Americans – perhaps even more than Americans, certainly differently than Americans. Crime and espionage movies and television are cases in point. Compare James Bond or John Steed and Emma Peel (of “The Avengers”) with Jack Bauer (of “24”). Bond wanted to save the free world, but only on the condition that he have a very good time while doing it. Steed's and Peel's Champagne hours made it clear that the idea was not merely to safeguard the West, but to do so with downright witty aplomb. To “defend” Britain while losing the ability to do what made life worth living would be the ultimate defeat, and for the British the good life is inseparable from class, style, and plain fun. Bauer, in contrast, is an utter mess. Has he even once made a witty (or even flirtatious) comment? Has he smiled, other than sadistically? The only women he telephones are his daughter and various computer operators at CTU. For him, the pursuit of justice and rightness and goodness is so consuming as to leave not one of the 24 hours in the day available for pleasure. Bauer is an icon of what the American Empire has come to: it’s just no damn fun anymore. It's all work, dangerous work, all the time, 24/7.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Who cares about politics?

Last month, the New York Times published an article on the presidential candidates' clothing – not what they're wearing (although that's been analyzed too) but what they're selling. Mostly, candidates sell themselves, but they're also selling T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers and buttons. Conversely, they're buying ad space: all over American's bumpers and bodies. The Times article was specifically about whose cars and chests they're targeting: Obama's pink baseball tees are a clear pitch to young women, while the target audience of Clinton's "Wellesley Women for Hillary" lapel pins is obvious (what's not so obvious to me is who's wearing lapels at a women's college.) I'm all for catering to outside-the-mainstream constituencies if it will make our government more representative. But what's missing here is any substantive appeal to these voters, implying that their allegiance can be bought by pink baby doll tees. Where are the articles on how Clinton's health care policy will affect young women or Obama's plans to improve education?

It doesn't matter if the President of The United States of America has good taste or good hair. It doesn't matter if the president is black or white or a woman. What matters is whether, by the next election, America will be stronger, wealthier, more respected, safer, healthier and happier. The candidates all know this, the people at the New York Times certainly know this, and I think most of America, if they bothered to ask themselves, would realize they know this too. But it doesn't make for great reading, and you can't run photos of pink T-shirts alongside it. It's more fun to criticize a candidate for yesterday's slip of the tongue. Comparing candidates' war chests is like a game. Analyzing the colors of their ties and suits makes for aesthetically appealing news reports. Taking 7-second sound bytes out of context provides instant gratification. It's all a lot sexier than reading and listening carefully to their plans and positions.

And so voters wind up reading and watching coverage of politics instead of government until they can't distinguish between the two anymore. And then we end up with articles like this one in the Times, reporting on what amounts to meta-politics that in the end really shouldn't matter at all.

But in the short-run, and perhaps to the detriment of our country, it does matter. The candidates, all of whom probably genuinely believe that they would be the best president for America, are willing to pander to voters' shallow sides in order to get elected. They know it's not really about the merchandise, but they also know that it won't matter if they campaigned "ethically" if they don't get elected. Isn't it better to sell out first and change the world later than do neither?

That's a question for another time. For now try this experiment: visit your favorite candidate's website and try and determine where he or she stands on "the issues." For an added challenge, try and find a position on issues that aren't high-profile partisan ones (a.k.a. gay marriage, Iraq, immigration, etc.) Try and find a vision for the future of America. If I could find one candidate who gave me that information before asking for my (monetary) support, he or she might actually stand a chance of earning my vote. As it stands, I remain "undecided."