Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the Political Theatre of the Absurd . . . from a Nattering Nabob of Nihilism

by AF

When the curtain came down, it all ground to an abrupt and halting revelation.

The political drama through which our leadership and representation is determined has proven once again to be little more than a charade that exists outside of any truthful concept of democracy.

Yet, for many of us watching the often surreal events leading up to the election of our next American President, political theatrics had ominously threatened to take over as a new way of life. While the world crumbles around us we have become all but inured to the increasingly petty battles and bitter straw man arguments that had grown more disturbing in tone and direction than anything we encountered along the low road that George W. Bush had led us down these last eight years.

By tradition, the drama of a Presidential campaign presents two stark and divergent visions of the future. This time was no exception. The ruling party made the usual appeals to stay the course with minor corrections. But as the status quo had become wholly intolerable its diehard supporters grew steadily more giddy and divorced from reality. They increasingly vilified any challenge to their hold on power with baseless attacks so twisted and easily debunked as to do little more than raise serious suspicions about their own compelling desperation. In real life this boded a frightening rift in our social fabric that could have proven disastrous and irreparable if things had played out differently.

Remarkably though, as the votes were tallied at the conclusion of this bitter spectacle the high pitch emotional celebration of the victorious side was met by a mood of relatively quiet resignation on the losing side. Even among the vanquished, there was evidence of an underlying awareness that the historic milestone represented by the election's outcome was always a matter of a shared karmic destiny.

As the curtain dropped on Tuesday, concluding the long-awaited last scene of this tragi-comic drama the cast of characters filed onto stage to take their bows. Those who had played villains finally pulled off their masks, suggesting that the roles they willingly stepped into did not necessarily define their real selves.

Did you remember to suspend your disbelief?

The performance of veteran actor John McCain was viewed as erratic at best in his role as the stalwart Republican who would deny destiny and do his best to prevent history from happening. Critics have nonetheless lauded his delivery of the anti-climactic concession speech wherein he was forced to give a gracious nod to the powerful significance of having been bested by a black man in his role as wanna-be President.

Pathetically ill-cast in the role of McCain's running mate, former beauty queen Sarah Palin gave an over-the-top portrayal of a "Real American" that was so unconvincing her critics now seem determined to thwart her far-fetched dreams of an acting career on the national stage. They have continued to hound the washed up actress with exposes of her backstage diva antics even as she retreated to her home in Alaska after the play's closing.

As a supporting actress appearing briefly in the final few scenes, the plainly conceited newcomer clumsily tried to upstage the lead players who could barely conceal their resentment of her even while still in character. Her simplistic interpretation of the part only played well with those audience members whose previous experience with the theatre was limited to attending the annual Thanksgiving pageant at their local grade school. Those parents, likely failed actors themselves, gloated over Palin as they would over one of their own bratty kids who fumble through the roles forced on them as Pilgrims, Indians or turkeys.

Palin's character was scripted to effectively hammer away at the Illinois Senator's supposed ties to terrorists, his seditious leanings toward socialism, his subversive disdain of real Americans, and any other lie that could be dreamed up and sometimes ad libbed in order to demean the man who would soon be President. Her exaggerations were amateurish and merciless. Yet slinking away from the national spotlight, even the ultimate loser Palin had to backpedal enough to cast a condescending wink in the direction of history.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, in in a role scripted as the equivalent of Palin's, pretty much played it straight. He did flub a few times particularly in those improvisational moments called for by the script. This provided plenty of fodder for critics always on the lookout for a gaffe. But as a long-time player on the national stage Biden's idiosyncrasies are familiar territory to most of them who maintain a measure of respect for him based on his body of work as a whole. In fact, Biden's acceptance of a supporting role is a departure from the traditional leading-man parts he has played for most of his career. That may have been a factor in his occasional awkwardness in the part. This time, however, the kind of gaffes he is known for would have cost him less as a secondary player than they have in the past when they totally derailed him as a lead.

The rising star who dominated the stage in every act, Barack Obama, wowed the swelling crowds with a natural coolness and thoroughly convincing portrayal of the eventual winner of this staged competition for the Presidency. Critics declared Obama's accomplishment to be just about the most believable portrayal of an American President in the history of political theatre. This despite his obvious personal attributes which, in other actors with his characteristics would demand an unlikely stretching of the imagination if an audience were to see the play as serious drama rather than farce. But if we ever actually had a black President, this is what he would probably look and sound like - a spot-on performance by an accomplished young actor. The role would only be considered to miss the mark by a flaw in the script regarding the character's name.

It may be feasible in some modern African nation but US Presidents just do not get elected with names like Barack Hussein Obama. George Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford - these are the waspy kind of names we give our Presidents.

But it has long been said that life imitates art. As if to prove it against all odds, when the lights went down on this drama's two year run, Barack Obama stepped out of his starring role to a standing ovation that will follow him right into the White House as the real-life President-elect of the United States.

Bravo, Obama, Bravo!

While we drink it all in, the conclusion of this electoral soap opera seems to portend a liberating return to reality that has already inspired an outpouring of passionate testimonies. To mark the genuine momentous occasion commentators from across the media spectrum of TV networks and weblogs, quickly shifted gears. Deftly moving from whatever it was they claimed to be doing - being "objective," "balanced" or admittedly partisan - they were now waxing eloquent on the meaning for all humanity that may be found in what happened here on Tuesday.

Digging deep for solemn words that may adequately express and record our awesome national achievement, writers are naturally prone to overreach. As a frame of reference they may stumble a bit over the inconsistencies in our national experience with prior historic moments. Of course, the most pertinent area of risk in assessing history as we make it is our persistent awkwardness with issues of race.

We are, after all, a country that still suffers from deep unresolved conflicts between racial injustice and resentment, shame and denial. Can any single moment of historic magnitude really negate the enduring effects of those none-too-rare racially based lapses of humanity that continue to belie the nobility of our nation's founding principles?

Much of the reflection we read today recalls those high-minded promises laid out by our founding fathers, who we exalt as visionaries, ahead of their time. In our unbridled esteem of them however, we must face up to their glaring failure in having allowed unconscionable exemptions among the lofty ideals they would bequeath to us: foremost among them that "all men are created equal."

Among today's diverse American population the idea of "equality" that our founders professed may rightly be seen as a sanctimonious, self-serving deception. Still unfulfilled, the promise of equality enshrined in our Constitution has always seemed to allow such extrene contradictions as the denigration of an entire race of human beings to non-human, slave status on the basis of skin color and national origin.

But putting that aside for now, nearly a century and a half since the abolition of slavery the man we have willingly elevated to rule over us from the highest office in the land is a modern descendant of a people once afforded nothing under our Constitution other than the right to be bought and sold as human chattel.

Truly, there is profound meaning in this. It is huge and I do share in the exhilarating emotional response to the daring feat We the People have finally pulled off with our participation in the vote. It is an awesome achievement made all the more so by the incredible obstacles that any non-white male candidate for public office still faces in most parts of this country.

I applaud anyone who has managed to rise to the occasion and articulate their feelings in strongly resonant words and images.

I admire the pluck and gallantry of those who have found a voice to register our shared sentiments at this time, resisting the temptation of cynicism or any pull to a normally fashionable sardonic point of view. The magnitude of this moment calls for reverent reflection. We are witnesses to a fundamental turning point in history, long in the making, and this imposes on us a solemn responsibility to those who will later look back on the record for an accurate assessment of its meaning and impact on their own time in the future.

I, for one, just feel overwhelmed by the responsibility.

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