Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Politics of "No Politics"

Andy Griffith as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “politics” as “Public life and affairs involving matters of authority and government.” This may shock many who, like me, have long associated politics with strict partisan behavior, and the divisive consequences of party membership. But if we take Oxford’s definition, politics is much more inclusive than we’d ordinarily believe, and much more inescapable. We’re all under somebody’s authority; therefore, we’re all subject to politics.

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.

Yet even the etiquette professionals don’t buy that argument, not really. Judith Martin, the columnist known as Miss Manners, first became notorious in fan communities when, in her former capacity as Washington Post media critic, she wrote several columns on the theme that 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.

Industrialized agriculture, carbon-burning technology, the spewing of invisible toxins into America’s air, soil, and water—“no change” means letting these conditions continue. And since these trends are peddled, not by ordinary farmers, drivers, and workers, but by monied interests who profit from the status quo, the people-to-power dynamic persists, regardless of partisan allegiance. “No change” is the party of right now. Which is 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.

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