2008 Election

Yes on Propositions Nuance, Charity, and Reason

Regardless of the outcome of today’s election (I can’t believe I’m saying today’s election!), there are at least two truths that we will all wake up to tomorrow: Half of America will be discouraged and maybe even resentful. None of America’s problems will have been solved.

Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers new film, Burn After Reading, suffers from the fact that it followed No Country for Old Men, last year’s best picture Oscar winner. By comparison, Reading looks a tad lightweight—a goofy black comedy without the obvious “prestige” elegance of No Country. But I think that Reading is a very good, concise, underrated film. And perhaps the Coen’s most timely movie ever.

On a filmmaking level, you have to appreciate the razor-sharp economy with which the Coens make films. In No Country, they showed just how evocative a film can be when its most crucial, waited-for moments are only implied (as in, the moment when Javier Bardem lifts up his shoe at the end of the film). In Reading, they do the same thing. The Coens use an effective narrative device—C.I.A. officials being “briefed”—to comically tell us how the most horrendously violent scenes unfold. It is often said that good filmmakers “show” rather than “tell” a scene, but in the case of violence, I think that the Coens have found a way to effectively render it in our minds without always showing it. Certainly the endings of Reading and No Country are effective in this way.

But I also appreciated Reading for other things: its great cast (Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins are especially fun), for one thing, but also its strange, quirky ability to capture the zeitgeist of America (well, Washington) in 2008.

The film has a resigned feeling to it—an almost nihilistic sense that everyone is stupid, selfish, and self-destructive. It’s a dark, cynical film, but it captures a familiar weariness that I think rings more true than ever today—in these days when Washington seems more inept than ever, more self-serving, and more prone to make a problem worse by trying to “solve” it in a quick and easy manner.

Burn After Reading never directly addresses one political party or another, and certainly it may be interpreted as a critique of the 8-year-long train wreck that has been the Bush years, but I see it more as a commentary on Washington D.C. in general, on bureaucracy, on the failed systems of power and secrecy and cover-ups that have made this generation of young Americans the most cynical ever about politics.

No Country felt timely as well, but not in a way that felt particularly American. Reading feels completely and utterly about America—about big, dumb, angry, short-tempered Americans who are scared about the future, paranoid about the present, dubious about anyone or anything “official,” and perpetually engaged in a downward spiral/comedy of errors.

At a time like this—when faith in America is dropping with the stocks, when many of us are losing all interest in the election and just wish it would end—perhaps Burn After Reading is not the best film for us. But then again, maybe it’s exactly the film we need.

Desperately Seeking Evangelicals

It seems that everyday there is a new story in the news about how evangelical Christians are "up for grabs" in this year's election. On Sunday there was this article on CNN.com about Shane Claiborne's "Jesus For President" tour, in which the dreadlocked neo-monk said, "With the respectability and the power of the church comes the temptation to prostitute our identity for every political agenda." Well said.

Could Paul Be President?

I’m not sure why the Apostle Paul would ever want to be the president of the United States, but let’s say he wanted to. Would he have a chance of being elected if he ran in 2008? In a word: NO.

Why not, you might ask? He’s a brilliant writer, thinker, and all-around passionate person, not to mention a SAINT! He wrote the texts that became the theological foundation of the Christian faith, after all. That has to count for something, right? Unfortunately Paul has a huge skeleton in his closet: a history of mercilessly persecuting and killing Christians. His past is very, very sketchy, and if you are a politician running for President of the United States these days, your past better be absolutely spotless.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant or well-spoken Paul might be. The minute word got out (and circulated via cable news) about Paul’s wild pre-conversion days as the Christian-hating Saul, he’d be toast. The James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons across America would denounce Paul as an unpatriotic anathema—someone who, with such a horrible record of unchristian behavior, could not be trusted to run the country. Let’s face it: if Paul ran for President of the United States, he might as well pick Osama bin Laden as his running mate. He’d have about as much of a chance as Ron Paul to win the presidency.

It’s a strange time when, in America—a country which has always prided itself on fresh starts and second chances—a presidential hopeful is absolutely bound to their past sins, scandals, and gaffs. The 2008 election has proven that one’s past is, perhaps, the most important determinant of one’s electability. Each of men running for president has their own personal albatross: that is, their own past baggage that could prove disastrous for their White House chances.

For Obama, the biggie is Reverend Wright—the outspoken Chicago pastor who has a penchant for colorful, impassioned critiques of America. When the Wright soundbites hit the cable news circuits a few months ago, Obama was suddenly questioned: is he unpatriotic by association? Does Obama share his pastor’s extreme and polarizing views of race, 9/11, and the American government? Even as Obama denounced Wright’s remarks and severed ties with the controversial pastor, the media seems determined to brand the Wright scandal as Obama’s potential Achilles’ heel.

John McCain’s major albatross, of course, is his association with President Bush. Now the extent of his actual association with Bush is relatively negligible in the grand scheme of Republican politics, and indeed, Bush and McCain have been bitter rivals more often than they’ve been buddy-buddy. They differ quite a bit on policies too, but the mere fact that McCain is a Republican, supports continued troop presence in Iraq, and doesn’t publicly denounce President Bush makes him “Bush II” in the many voters’ eyes. He can distance himself all he wants from the current administration, but the past eight years of Republican-led government will nevertheless haunt McCain as he tries to build a case for himself as a “different type” of Republican.

In each case, the most damaging thing for the candidate is in the past—and it’s not even something they themselves did or said! It’s some one they were associated with: Obama with Rev. Wright, McCain with Bush… Are we really ready to disqualify someone on the basis of who they know? Should politics really be about how cleanly one has kept his or her company, admitting only the most inoffensive, neutral, uncontroversial people into the inner circle? I’m not so sure this is at all what we want in a leader.

Think about Jesus: he kept company with some pretty scandalous and generally unseemly people. He openly criticized the government of the day, in much stronger language than anything Rev. Wright is saying of America today. Heck, if Paul would be a controversial presidential candidate, imagine Jesus! He wouldn’t have the murderous record of persecuting Christians to defend, but he would have to answer for those pesky claims of divinity (talk about elitism!) and his tendency to favor blunt language over politically-correct platitudes.

The point of all this is not to suggest that Christianity and politics are impossibly opposed; on the contrary, I think that Christians should get involved in politics. But it’s important to remember that our faith is about forgiveness—redemption, renewal, and the unbinding of past shackles. Our faith would be pointless if we let our past mistakes inhibit our future success. We are reliant on the reconciliatory power of the gospel—that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come”… that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins (past, present, and future) against us (2 Corinthians 5:16-19). As Christians, we’d be hypocrites to demand spotless moral records from anyone, even our presidents.

Primary Concern

It seems like this should have happened by now, but this Thursday (Jan 3) is the first actual vote in the presidential primary race. For months now (years, in the case of some), the candidates have been darting around America desperately seeking support and momentum for their campaigns. Of course, when I say “America,” I really mean Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and a handful of other states that have somehow secured the earliest caucuses and primaries. If you’re lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your view) to be a resident in one of these states, congratulations: you have the power to speak for the rest of the country in choosing the nominees for Commander-in-Chief.

The Iowa Caucus has been the first major electoral step in the president-nominating process since 1972, transforming the state from humble cornfield country to the dominant locus of electioneering every four years. Whoever wins the Iowa Caucus (in which only a few hundred thousand people participate) automatically becomes the favorite to win the nomination, because, well, I’m not sure why…

Actually I do know why. The race for the president is increasingly a game of “predicting and projecting” winners and losers. And as soon as the media (and by extension the voting public) gets wind of who is or might be a “winner,” that candidate becomes the person to beat. For lack of anything else to influence one’s decision, voting for a perceived “winner” is increasingly the method of most voters.

So what’s so wrong with this “voting for a winner” method? Well, if you have a mind for strategy and pragmatism, then nothing. But if everyone is voting for a candidate because they think he/she has the best chance of winning and not necessarily because they view them as the superior candidate, then something has gone a bit haywire with the democratic process. We fool ourselves by thinking that a candidate’s ability to win an election has little to do with our personal attraction to them as an appealing candidate. It has everything to do with it.

If everyone voted with their gut for the candidate they really wanted to win (even if he or she were last in the straw polls or had little media coverage), then that candidate would have a chance to win the election. It’s like the “Spiral of Silence” theory of communication: When there is some perceived dominant opinion being offered (in this case, the media’s crowning of “top tier candidates”), those inclined against this view will typically keep their opposition silent. Thus, even if the majority of people are in the opposition camp, chances are their silence will spiral out of control, unquestioned (groupthink style).

Here’s the implication for this election and the primary system in general: Since the media is covering this thing like flies on roadkill, it is clear that who they focus on in their coverage (and subtly cast as the “frontrunner”) will be the perceived “winner” by the masses who are planning to vote. Thus, even if said voters secretly wish for candidate “underdog” to win, they will most likely view a vote for him/her as a waste. And no one wants to waste a vote. Instead, they will likely vote for candidate “frontrunner,” placing themselves within the consensus and boosting momentum for the person most likely to make a strong showing in the national race. Do you see how this goes counter to the whole purpose of democracy?

The primary system is concerning to me, not because I don’t think states like Iowa or New Hampshire are unthinking anomalies that don’t represent the country as a whole, but because they have so much power to decide the winners and losers. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush won the Iowa Caucus and South Carolina primary handily, forcing all the other Republican candidates out the race by February (with the exception of John McCain and Alan Keyes). In 2004 on the Democratic side, Howard Dean had all the momentum going into the Iowa Caucus, but placed a surprising third (behind Kerry and Edwards), which then destroyed his chances in New Hampshire (he lost to Kerry there too), forcing him to withdraw from the race even before Super Tuesday. To summarize the impact of these early primaries: If you don’t win them, you’re not going to be president.

This harsh truth is a reality because unfortunately the American populace has been conditioned by the media to reduce everything down to winners and losers (one facet of the overarching black/white binary so pervasive in the press). If a candidate appears to be a “winner,” more people will begin to vote for him or her. Not so if there is a “loser” or “dark horse” perception. But why is this so? Why are we so simple-minded in this manipulative, herd-mentality electoral process?

Sadly I think this is all a result of our general ignorance of the issues and the actual positions candidates represent. Even in the digital era in which finding out what a candidate has to say is no harder than a Google search, most Americans have no idea what distinguishes one candidate from another. We might be able to distinguish Mike Huckabee from Mitt Romney in a lineup (though I shudder to think how many Americans couldn’t even do this), but as far as how their platforms on immigration or health care differ, the majority of us would be hard pressed to come up with anything. It’s not that we don’t care or don’t pay attention to the media, it is that we do pay attention to the media. And the media has little concern for the issues. For the media it’s not about the ingredients, it’s about the overall taste. Unfortunately for our country and its longterm democratic health, a sweet and palatable taste is not what we need in a president. We need to check the label, read the ingredients, and assess the nutritional value before we pick our next poison.