Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The New Politics: Can America Survive?

"Can America Survive?" That was the question posed--humorously--on the faux "Newsworld" magazine cover at the end of the classic 1981 comedy Stripes. Featuring a smirking Bill Murray, the question was based on the idea of an army populated by ne'er-do-wells like Murray's character in the film, John Winger, people more interested in a good time than pretty much anything else. And again, it wasn't a serious thing at all; we know that the Armed Forces are not home to such people, that the men and women who serve do so with honor, courage, and dignity far more often than not.

But I'm using this cover and the question on it as something of a jumping off point, insofar as the future of America--the United States--is not so firm as many might hope it to be in my opinion, at least with regard to its past form and role in the world.

In the movie, John Winger and his fellow miscreants end up being the heroes of the story, rescuing their fellows from a Soviet base and then escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. Their lack of respect for the military and its culture that characterized their time in basic training remains, however. They are--throughout the movie--always looking to use the military, never serve it. In many ways, Murray's character in Stripes is no different than his character in Ghostbusters, who--as noted by the Dean of the college he is at when the story begins--regards science "as some sort of dodge."

All of this makes for fun times, paves the way for Murray's sarcasm, unserious nature, and non-stop ridiculing of pretty much everyone else in the movie, even his pals. John Winger's closest confidant in Stripes is Russell Ziskey (played by Harold Ramis), who willingly involves himself in Winger's escapades, even as he complains about them. Thus, Ziskey's moments of seriousness in the film--when he seems to register an inkling of respect for the military, appears almost ready to actually live up to the oath he took (as did Winger) when he enlisted--are constantly undone in short order by his decisions to participate in whatever shenanigans Winger dreams up.

The very basis of the movie, after all, was Winger's decision to join the Army because his life was falling apart. Ziskey goes along with him to the recruitment center and joins as well, apparently because he had nothing better to do. I can't help but wonder if there isn't an opportunity to make a similar movie, but with are two intrepid ne're-do-wells being citizens in, say, Pakistan who join al Qaeda for lack of a better option. But I digress.

Most of the other men in the platoon are just as unserious as Winger or just as willing to go along with ideas they know are less than wise. There are fools, psychopaths, and morons galore surrounding Winger in the film. Oddly though, the love interests in the film--two female MPs who take a liking to Winger and Ziskey--seem to be professional soldiers, from beginning to end. I say "oddly" but it's really not odd, at all. These two characters--Stella and Louise, played by P.J. Soles and Sean Young, respectively--are little more than cardboard-thin eye candy. Their attraction to Winger and Ziskey is so unbelievable as to be unnatural. But hey, it's a screwball comedy, right (one of my favorites, actually), so who cares whether or not it's believable?

If only the same was true of the current political environment in the United States. If it was just a screwball comedy--and not actual reality--we'd all be better off. But it's not. It's real, all too real. And we've got all the same sorts of characters: people in government who don't actually believe in the idea of government or--conversely--believe in an idea of government wholly unrelated to the one established by the Constitution, seemingly intelligent people who nonetheless hitch their wagons to such clowns, supposed leaders who are little more than eye candy or are purposefully portrayed as such by their political foes, and a collection of followers and yes-men (and women) who seem almost unhinged at times.

As much as I think many aspects of our political process are wrongly singled out as "unprecedented" (like divisive and violent rhetoric), I fear the general culture in politics is something new, largely thanks to the presence of the 24-hour news cycle, the plethora of pundits constantly trying to one-up each other, and the advent of social media. This is an idea that I have admittedly tried to reject for some time now, but I can no longer continue to do so in good conscience.

When it comes to the media--the punditry and the 24-hour news cycle--look as what passes for analysis and commentary on a daily basis. In TV, it's all about the clever quip, the search for a sound bite and a way to "stick it to" an adversary, whether real or imagined. The talking heads wear their politics on their sleeves, while pretending to be unbiased. It's a joke, nothing but a colossal joke. In the realm of the printed word, things are no better. And the corridors of power, the hall of our actual government, it's all much, much worse.

People complained about the governing by focus group approach of Bill Clinton, but that technique was at least based on discerning what people wanted--or what they at least believed they wanted--with regard to actual issues. Now, we have leaders who govern in spite of what people want, who only use focus groups as a means to discern what lies will play better. And such an approach is allowed and buttressed by the decreasing attention span of the typical citizen, who apparently is more concerned with the latest events on reality television and--despite adulthood--lives in a pre-pubescent world of celebrity gossip and fandom.

Social media is the realm wherein much of this nonsense is now realized. Pseudo-celebrities are followed, their banal observations are tweeted and shared, by people who imagine they are connected in a real sense to this world, who sadly believe they are playing an important role in what is going on in the greater world. Yet few of them have even an inkling of what is going on in their own immediate environs, are not even witnesses to local political events, much less participants (as evidenced by the decreasing level of turnout to elections, as we move from national to state to local politics). They're a part of a larger world that does not see them, for the most part, while simultaneously absent from the world in which they live.

To label all of this as dysfunctional is a severe understatement, to say the least. And looking into the future, it does not appear that things will be changing much, if at all. If anything, this trend is likely to grow as we cycle towards the 2014 and 2016 elections. Notice, I've not named any specific political leaders here, no specific parties. And that is because I know--with certainty--that people will find examples of what I describe to justify their own politics. They'll see the truth in everyone else, never in themselves or in their politics. Now that is an attitude that never changes and it wouldn't be a problem--anymore than it always is--if the background was the same as in the past. But it's not.

Cheers, all.

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