ReelThoughts: October 31, 2010

"The True Day of Horror"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


I don't think I was aware of the existence of Halloween until I was three or four years old. All I can remember about that first night was dressing up in a costume and being escorted into the night by my father. It was all rather bewildering and I recollect crying through part of the experience, although I did end up with a nice little stash of candy for my troubles. Back then, Halloween was about trick or treating, and it was for kids. Today, while trick-or-treating still exists, it has been (understandably) neutered because of safety concerns. A few razor blades in candy bars will do that. Now, Halloween is mostly about parties and it has been converted into a "holiday" that's as much for adults as for children. It's more festive than scary. Like vampires, transformed from vile living dead monsters to objects of romantic love that sparkle in the sunlight, Halloween has lost its bite. Never fear, however. The true day of horror is racing toward us. This year, it will fall on November 2. It's called Election Day - when all souls wander zombie-like into polling places and elect the bloodsuckers who will feast upon the public jugular for the next few years.

For those who worry this is going to turn into a Roger Ebert-like column extolling the virtues of one party while blasting those of the other, fear not. This will be non-partisan. I'll be blasting both parties because, although the rhetoric is different, the actions are not. Talk is cheap, as they say, and that's all anyone in Washington or on the campaign trail seems to be doing. The government is, if not broken, at least close to it, and I haven't got a clue how to fix it. All solutions seem to rely on a utopian philosophy or a belief that human beings are essentially good. I gave up on bedtime fairy tales a few decades ago. Anyone for a benevolent dictatorship?

I first became aware of politics and the political process during Watergate. My memories of that time are fragmentary, but I recall sitting in the car (in a gas line) and hearing a news report about how serious things were looking for the President. A few years later, in November 1976, I found watching the election results to be strangely compelling, even though I didn't have a horse in the race, so to speak. To a 9-year old, there wasn't a difference between Ford and Carter, except that one had a better set of hair and a more genteel accent.

By the mid-'80s, however, I was as "into" politics as someone not yet of voting age could be. Bucking the trend that most high school-age kids lean to the left, I was very much Ronald Reagan's boy. In 1984, I watched the Reagan/Mondale debates. I remember being disappointed by Reagan's stiff performance during the first one - he looked like an old man. All the commentators were shocked at how poorly The Great Communicator communicated. Things were different during the second debate, however. The charismatic, appealing Reagan had returned, flashing the easy smile and speaking in a grandfatherly tone. I never had a chance to vote for Reagan, which I surely would have done. I didn't turn 18 until September 1985 - by then, he was in the first year of his second term. I voted twice for his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, and once for Bill Clinton before my disillusionment with politics led me to give up entirely on the whole voting process.

Recently, I have heard complaints that election campaigns have become "too negative" and that we've reached a new nadir when it comes to mudslinging. Those who make such comments either have short memories, haven't studied history, or both. United States election politics have seen darker, more unpleasant times than this. The true low point was probably around the time when Abraham Lincoln was running for his first term, but there have been plenty of others. The difference between now and 150 years ago or 100 years ago or 40 years ago is that media saturation has never been what it is today. Elections in the newspaper age could be run more negatively than those in the Internet age without a concern that even the smallest of dirty tricks would go global.

What has changed, however, is that the people no longer elect a government - they only think they do. The politician who runs for election is never the one who shows up on the job. His true constituents are not the men or women living in his district (however big that might be), but the corporations who put him in office. Eisenhower coined the term "military-industrial complex" and the nascent fears he voiced in that 1961 farewell address have come to pass: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Locally, there's a candidate running right now who has a great message. He's going to reduce taxes, balance the budget, start paying off the debt, and create jobs. He doesn't give any details about how he's going to do this, so I have deduced he is a wizard. It's pretty obvious that in order to reduce taxes and work on the debt (both of which are highly desirable things), there are going to have to be some serious cuts elsewhere. Is he going to eliminate Social Security and Medicare (good luck with that)? Is he going to pull our military forces out of all foreign countries and slash the defense budget (even less likely)? Or is he going to truly eliminate all graft (stop laughing)? The point is, he talks a good game, but what will happen if he gets elected? Absolutely nothing. Check back with me in two years if you doubt this. I have lived in New Jersey for most of my adult life. I have seen governors come and go. All of them promise that their #1 goal if they get elected is to reduce property taxes. Yet, for as long as I have been paying them (since 1994), the only direction in which they have gone is up. There have been a few largely meaningless band-aids, such as a $400 rebate to defray a $10,000 bill, but those usually come and go only in election years. It's easy to promise the moon, but a lot harder to build the hardware to deliver on that promise.

I didn't vote in the last election. Right now, some of those reading this are tsk-tsking and shaking their heads. Good citizens vote, right? And how can one hope to change the status quo if he/she doesn't make his/her voice heard? Hey, I used to believe in that doctrine, too. Then I sat down and thought about it and came up with some disturbing conclusions. First and foremost, I realized that my single vote really doesn't count. Had I voted in 2008, regardless of whether I had selected Obama or McCain, nothing would have been different. Even in my local elections, my absence from the polls was meaningless. A counter-argument to this philosophy is that if enough people feel like this, the absence of such a large bloc of votes could make a difference. This is true, but I'm responsible only for myself, not for an amorphous and ill-defined "bloc." Besides, true differences between D's and R's are window-dressing. They're all beholden to the same masters, and those aren't the citizens who pull the levers.

Voting is not a responsibility, as some would have us believe. It's a right. And I choose not to exercise that right because, in my view, it's an act of futility. Yes, that's cynical - but it's also pragmatic. And, although the dictionary doesn't show those two terms as synonymous, they often are in the real world. The choice not to vote is every bit as valid as the choice made in the voting booth. It’s not because I'm lazy or ill-informed. (In fact, I am probably more aware than a majority of the electorate about the so-called positions of most candidates.) It's an abstention. It's checking an invisible box for "none of the above." Give me a candidate I can believe in and I'll vote for him. I felt that way about Reagan, but maybe that was just the naiveté of youth.

So, if I don't "participate" in the process of putting people in office, what do I do? Should I move to another country? No, I'm comfortable where I am and I still believe that, as corrupt and self-serving as our current political system is, it's better than that of many, many countries. I do not feel oppressed and, until I do, moving isn't a consideration. So I sit back and watch elections much as I would any spectator sport - curious about the outcome, but not truly invested. "Change" is a common buzzword in campaigns today - the Democrats used it in 2008; the Republicans are using it in 2010. All the word means is replacing a group of experienced bums with a group of inexperienced ones. True change will likely never happen because the deck is stacked. The members of the military-industrial complex will never allow a genuine maverick to become a major player. The candidates we get are typically second rate. (What kind of gifted individual would want to run for office in the first place?) So we're presented with a choice between a rotting fish head and a decomposing pig's foot. We grimly hold our noses and pick one rather than turning away and vomiting.

Bottom line: my proposal is to change Election Day to October 31. Then we'll put some of the dread, gloom, and horror back into Halloween, where it belongs.


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