Dispatches: Rain in November

Here’s a several trillion dollar question: what really happened in Ohio in November? But it’s also a dangerous question, because it leads to: does anyone know? Is the bramble of tales of what went on too overgrown for us ever to know? And the answer to those is, of course, hopelessly uncertain.

Epistemological certainty is utopian: trying to achieve it gets us exactly nowhere. Specifically, it takes us to the scene of philosophy (to borrow from John Guillory), timeless and contemplative, whereas politics unfolds historically, socially. Sometimes too much philosophy replaces the political with the sophistical, and induces quietism. And if I’m sure of anything, it’s that quietism, keeping your head down, is exactly the wrong response to the current political situation. Citizenship requires us not only to debate, but eventually to stop debating and to act. The correct metaphor here is not the thickets of interpretation but something more combative: taking arms against a sea of troubles.

The cover story in Harper’s magazine this month is an article by the media critic Mark Crispin Miller, ‘None Dare Call It Stolen: Ohio, the Election, and America’s Servile Press,’ illustrated by a drawing of three monkeys seeing, hearing and speaking no evil. What’s coy about the whole thing is that Miller doesn’t exactly call it stolen either, at first. He finds direction by indirection, leading with the casual: ‘whichever candidate you voted for… you must admit that last’s year’s presidential race was–if nothing else–pretty interesting.’ Indeed, indeed. Miller has spent his career fighting indifference (I studied film with him at Johns Hopkins), the narcotic effects of television and advertising, and the depressing intractability of U.S. politics. In his view, mass culture promotes ironic detachment, which in turn prevents meaningful action. According to him, the stupidity of beer commercials, sitcoms–the whole of USA Today, you might say–is a trap: it makes us feel lazily clever, flattering us into a meaningless, vegetative sense of superiority. In the realm of politics, at least, I think he’s right: engagement is the crucial fight. Whether it’s the leather armchair of philosophy or the couch of the potato, get on up!

I made five trips to Ohio and Pennsylvania in October and November, driving Downtown for Democracy volunteers overnight to Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Philadelphia. We staged concerts and art shows and and brought celebrities to town and registered the people who came to vote. We threw parties and registered the people who showed to vote. We stood around on college campuses and registered the people who walked by to vote. We typed their information into a database and called them to remind them to vote. We discussed the economy and the war and the environment and abortion and gay rights and tried to get people to care. It was exhilarating but evangelical: a missionary crue of artists, writers, curators, actors, and hipsters converting on the street. It was tiring but addictive work. Registering hordes of 1s and 2s (code for Kerry voters) on a conservative Catholic campus was thrilling, being called ‘Osama’ by gangstas in Dayton, not so much. But our efforts seemed to be succeeding even beyond our nutty optimism. New voter registration in the districts we targeted went up by 250%. Post-election data showed we increased young voter turnout in our precincts by 125%. We were in love with our work.

Still, ominous obstacles of the kind detailed by Miller appeared. The narcolepsy of the media was frustrating. A few of us were interviewed by the Washington Post. We spent two hours with the reporter discussing our attempts to awaken the apolitical, our theories of the role of art in politicizing young people, and the arcane details of our database system. She went on to write a satirical fluff piece about iPods and the slogan on my Gilbert and George t-shirt (‘Are you angry or are you boring?’). More seriously, Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s Secretary of State, worked tirelessly negate to progressive efforts, to the extent of trying to declare registrations printed on the wrong paper invalid. Simply finding out which polling place in which to vote was made as difficult as possible. Someone was passing out fliers in black neighborhoods saying ‘Remember to Vote November 5!’ (the day after election day). All of this provided us with more rhetorical ammunition, though: after all, if one party is attempting to keep turnout as low as possible and the other as high, that does imply something about their differences.

On the eve of election day, Zogby opined that Ohio would be the hinge, and that the youth-voter turnout in Franklin county might well determine Ohio. This was astounding music to me: we were based in Franklin county and had succeeded drastically in registering young voters from the colossal undergraduate population of the Ohio State University. I giddily felt, that Monday night, a historical sense of being in the right place at the right time. We were going to determine a national election! (I hadn’t slept for days.)

It rained in Ohio on November 4th. Rain depresses turnout, and combined with the strategy of drastically undersupplying voting machines in Democratic precincts, made for a soggy wait to vote of up to 7 hours. Still, when Ohio was the last state showing on the board, I felt a shaky confidence. All day, the exit polls had justified my faith. As Miller puts it, “twenty-six state exit polls incorrectly predicted wins for Kerry, a statistical failure so colossal and unprecedented that the odds against its happening, according to a report last May by the National Election Data Archive Project, were 16.5 million to 1.”

Afterwards, baffled and defeated, we heard testimony like this:

“A representative from Triad Systems came into a county board of elections office un-announced. He said he was just stopping by to see if they had any questions about the up-coming recount. He then headed into the back room where the Triad supplied Tabulator (a card reader and older PC with custom software) is kept. He told them there was a problem and the system had a bad battery and had “lost all of its data”. He then took the computer apart and started swapping parts in and out of it and another “spare” tower type PC also in the room. He may have had spare parts in his coat as one of the BOE people moved it and remarked as to how very heavy it was.”

Dare we call it stolen? I don’t know, I just worked there. Things happen. But, like Watergate, these last two elections should put the lie to that most pernicious ideology, American exceptionalism. Our republic is no less bananas than any other. Corruption is endemic in the political process. Etcetera. I know, no matter who is reading this, now I’m just directing a sermon to the choir. That’s why the precept I drew from my experience of this war (for that is what this is, a war with the most retrograde forces in our society), is similar to Miller’s: indifference is a greater evil than corruption. Politicians have always used the trope of anaphora (repetition of an initial phrase: ‘We must revitalize the economy. We must give all Americans a chance. We must…”) to incite people to care about stuff they find boring. In that spirit: As deadening as it can be, we must keep repeating that repetition, we must keep socially reproducing the desire to stand up and be counted. As dull as it is, we must inculcate in each new generation the will to participate. As difficult as it is, we must convince each other not to accept the depravity of our current leaders, and to believe we will usurp them. Are you angry or are you boring? Both.

Recent Dispatches:

On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermance