|Andy Griffith as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd|
This fact struck me this week, when a Los Angeles-based TV producer Paul Papanek shared a Facebook edit of quotes taken from Elia Kazan’s controversial 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd. The movie, about a poor Southern swindler launched to fame by television, attracts opinions as divided today as sixty years ago, when then-unknown star Andy Griffith openly disparaged and humiliated his audience. It also perfectly predicts this year’s presidential contest.
Papanek precedes this clip with the disclaimer: “I try to stay as far away from politics on Facebook as possible.” It seems we have two basic attitudes about politics this year. Either people, like me, unabashedly take sides and attempt to peddle their beliefs in the way they believe morally and intellectually right; or like Papanek, they declare their apolitical tendencies… right before launching into politics without naming names.
I understand the desire to avoid taking sides politically. Standard public etiquette has long insisted that polite people should always avoid talking politics and religion in civilized company, lest somebody take such umbrage at having their position maligned that all conventional civility gets abandoned. There’s little more appalling than watching a respected friend or colleague flipping their shit because they feel obliged to defend God or Party against heathens and blasphemers.
Star Wars is garbage. This began with her observation, about the first movie, that George Lucas had crafted a science fiction universe completely void of non-white people.
If that ain’t political, tell me what is.
So if even etiquette professionals don’t mind stirring the pot occasionally, why do we accept that having political opinions in public is something awful? A writer friend I know desperately tries to avoid crafting anything “political,” an effort to avoid ginning strong negative feelings in readers. I appreciate and understand her motivations. This being the Internet, I’ve received personal insults, though not yet threats, for daring to have, and express, an opinion on controversial topics.
We can probably agree that political partisanship, that is, strong and outspoken allegiance to an organized party and its candidates, leads to some pretty ugly behavior. In response to Donald Trump’s newly uncovered comments praising outright sexual assault, I myself have engaged in name-calling (though I don’t believe I was wrong). Having strong, party-friendly political opinions can often bring out the worst in people. We’ve all seen it.
However. When confronted with a situation where choosing between Column A, the bigot, and Column B, the prevaricator, we cannot really retreat into Column C, neither. (Yeah, I know Gary Johnson and Jill Stein exist. Let’s keep the conversation streamlined.) If we accept Oxford’s definition, that “politics” is the relationship between people and power, then there is no option of having no political affiliation. The only question is, what affiliation we’ll have.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both want to change the American social landscape. Clinton wants to use government authority to defend the powerless in society, while Trump believes giving society’s best tools to the already powerful will lift everyone else up, too. We may publicly avoid endorsing either candidate, lest we start fights, but that isn’t the same as avoiding politics. Because “no change” endorses the present, which is also political.
So yeah, you can avoid choosing the elephants or the jackasses. But that doesn’t make you righteous. That just gives your vote to “Lonesome” Rhodes, the Andy Griffith character above, the guy who profits from you not thinking about things. If that lets you keep the peace at dinner parties, God bless you. But don’t think you’re escaping the political trap by giving your vote to that guy.