Something weird happened to me recently. Someone challenged me to defend my plans to vote for John Kerry.

The reason this struck me as strange is because most of the people I interact with fall into one of two camps: either they know me well enough that they already know my reasons, pretty much, or else they already find voting for someone other than Kerry basically inconceivable. (I live in Massachusetts. You don't see too many Bush/Cheney bumper stickers here.) While months ago I briefly debated with myself over whether to vote for Kerry or for Green Party candidate David Cobb — since, as noted, I live in Massachusetts, my vote would be nothing more than a statement vote no matter whom I chose — I had never articulated to myself why exactly I preferred Kerry to Bush, just as you have probably never articulated to yourself why exactly you would rather not stick your head into a mulching mower. So what follows is not meant to be a persuasive essay, but rather an accounting of the rationale behind my upcoming vote.

I hate to start with personality, because I've heard over and over again that people vote for the guy whom they'd rather have in their living rooms for four years, and I find that really irksome. People should be voting based on platforms, not on whom they'd rather have over for a cookout. But that said, I must confess that my primary reason for voting for Kerry is that George W. Bush offends me. I don't want him in my living room and I don't want him on my planet.

Molly Ivins has said that Bush embodies the three dominant strains of Texas culture: machismo, anti-intellectualism, and religiosity. All three of these are anathema to me. Machismo repulses me, so much so that I'm only really interested in associating with women. (I like Kerry least when he's trying to play the gun-loving jock who can out-macho Bush.) On the anti-intellectualism front, there's little that enrages me more than remembering Bush taking a cue from fellow Texans Beavis and Butt-head and sniggering, "Look, this is the man who's got great numbers. He talks about numbers," when Gore dared to discuss the bad math behind Bush's proposals in the first debate in 2000. Huh-huh, huh-huh, he talks about numbers! Nerd! Huh-huh! Let's get 'im! As for religiosity — I'm not a Christian. I don't appreciate the ongoing effort of the religious right to turn the US into one big Christian household. It's not that I'm against religion; those who regularly read my site know that I am not averse to casting the issues I'm grappling with in religious terms, quoting the Dhammapada and such. At the same time, I recognize that doing so as a government official would be a big fuck-you to my constituents who don't share my religious vocabulary. Bush either doesn't recognize that this is the effect of all his born-again talk — or else he does, and he doesn't care.

Now here's the thing. As mentioned above, someone recently challenged me to defend myself after I said I liked Kerry. The reason I had done so in the first place was that someone else in the room (this was a group of LSAT students sitting around before class) had opined that while lots of people hate Bush, no one likes Kerry. Which isn't true. I do hate Bush, but I also like Kerry. So I said so.

Sure, he's not perfect. As noted, the whole "man oh man do I ever love huntin' and motorcyclin'" persona alienates me right quick. The self-congratulatory bits like his painful "I was born in the West Wing" line at the convention, and his announcement at Thursday's debate that two random soldiers had told him "we need you," make me wince. And there have been a couple of occasions when I haven't been able to hear his answers to journalists' questions over the sound of his inner voice screaming, "DON'T ANSWER LIKE DUKAKIS! OPPOSITE OF DUKAKIS!"

But these are not the usual objections to Kerry. First we heard he wasn't likeable because he was aloof, didn't really connect with people. Me, I find extroverts kind of creepy in general, with the classic back-slapping cigar-smoking politician à la Bill Richardson or Arnold Schwarzenegger as an especially sleazy case, so if anything this makes me like Kerry more. Then we heard that he was effete, that he spoke and "looked French," that he'd asked for Swiss cheese instead of Cheez Whiz at a campaign stop. Again, I don't see what's so horrible about lacking proletarian tastes and mannerisms. I certainly tend to like cultured people more than the alternative. But that's not all, the Kerry-bashers say — he's also ambitious! This guy's been getting ready to run for president since he was in kindergarten! Of course, if he'd spent his life trying to become a billionaire or a star quarterback or something, none of these people would be likely to object. True, you can make a case that angling for political power is different, but I don't think Kerry's problem here is that he comes off as power-hungry. I suspect that a lot of this comes down to the fact that Christianity is built around a redemption narrative — a lot of people embrace the George W. Bush story of cleaning up his life at age 40 and starting to make a mark in the world in a manner more substantial than his previous method of drunkenly urinating on parked cars, but disdain Kerry for having at age 27 already become a national figure, with Sen. Claiborne Pell telling him on the congressional record that he hoped they would someday be colleagues. But as I've said, I don't come from this tradition. No prodigal sons for me. Give me the guy who wasn't a fuckup in the first place.

Above and beyond all this, though, Kerry gets tagged as "unlikeable" for the same reasons as many of the past few Democratic presidential candidates: they call him "stiff," "robotic," "pompous." Even after Thursday's debate, in which Kerry spoke clearly, forcefully and intelligently while Bush came off as a spluttering halfwit, gaping open-mouthed for five seconds at a time in the middle of responses before spitting out some canned sound bite, people trotted out the same charges against him. Rudolph Giuliani said that while Bush talked to the American people, Kerry "lectured" them; one of the first comments I heard about the debate was that while Kerry won on points, he wasn't able to "sound like a human being." What prompts this kind of talk? It seems that, at bottom, it all comes down to this: Kerry can think and speak in complete sentences. Often they have qualifying phrases and dependent clauses in them. Why, it's almost as if he composes each sentence in his head before he speaks!

But while a lot of people seem to hate him for this — real Americans just dive into each sentence with little idea where it might end up, I guess — I find it hard to fault Kerry for sounding... well, like a senator. It would be great if he could combine policy expertise with spellbinding oratory, but failing that, I will absolutely take intelligent if occasionally leaden discussion of the issues over jes' plain reg'lar fokes straight-talkin'. Especially when the supposed straight-talkin' is little more than endless whining. In high school I knew a guy about whom there was a widely circulated story; it seems he had challenged someone to a game of pool, lost miserably, and then launched into the following tantrum: "The baaaalls are warped! The taayyyble's warped! I don't like this cue! It smells bad in here! I've been practicing for years and I can kick your butt but now I don't feeeeel well!" This is what George W. Bush sounds like all the time.

But enough about style and personality. After all, that's what leads Bush supporters to say they like him because he's a "strong leader," which pisses me off. First off, that's not a virtue in and of itself. Jack from Lord of the Flies was a "strong leader" much in the George Bush mold. It wasn't a good thing. Secondly, I've found that those whose presidential preference is based around vague notions of "leadership" tend not to be thinking about the actual duties of the president in the American system of government. They think, as George Lakoff has astutely diagnosed, in metaphor. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to NPR and heard a guy at a Bush rally say he's voting for Bush because "he won't just give the terrorists a time-out — he'll smack 'em in the mouth." This is hardly an isolated incident: I can hardly count the number of voters I've heard opining about foreign policy by scaling up their stances on corporal punishment. The problem is, global geopolitics is not parenting! The world is not a suburban house and you're not voting for Dad. Nor is it a schoolyard, or an office, or any of the other parallels that people use to justify their votes. I heard a woman in 2000 say in all seriousness she was voting for Bush because "his mom's a tough old lady and if he gets out of line she'll set him straight." As if that's how life works. The president's about to sign a tax bill that'll cripple the economy for generations to come and then Granny comes in a side door and hits him with an umbrella and there's a laugh track or something.

So here are some very specific reasons I want John Kerry to be president:

I want to be able to look forward to the news that a Supreme Court justice is retiring, instead of dreading it. I want the next few appointments to make the Supreme Court look more like the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Four more years of Bush and it'll look more like a dinner party at Robert Bork's house, no matter how much Clarence Thomas likes porn.

When I hear that the president has issued an executive order concerning the environment, I want the next line of the story to be that caps on pollution have become stricter, not more lenient; that there are now fewer things you can dump into rivers, not more; that a patch of wilderness has just been protected, not opened up to developers.

I want Bush's tax shift overturned — or at least not made permanent, and while a Republican Congress might not reverse the damage Bush has done, there aren't enough votes to override a veto of any bill revoking the sunset clauses. This one is big, so I will go into it in a bit more depth.

The usual argument against taxes — Bush certainly makes it enough — is "it's my money!" But money isn't a thing. It's an idea. Go grab a dollar. You can't wear it, you can't eat it (I know someone who ate a dollar — it made her ill), you can't get much aesthetic value out of it... it is utterly useless unless you can find someone who's willing to give you something you want for it. Which on the face of it would seem like a rather dubious proposition — why would anyone give you something useful in return for something useless?

Because it's better than barter, which is what societies had to rely on before the advent of currency. If I knew how to grow corn, and you knew how to fish, and I wanted some of your fish, I had to hope you'd want some of my corn or I'd be out of luck — unless I could work out some mammoth deal wherein I give my corn to the basketweaver who gives a basket to the doctor who gives medicine to the fisherman who gives me the fish or something. Money allows these sorts of deals to happen without being explicitly arranged. As long as everyone's willing to take the risk of trading something useful — something you can eat, something you can read, something you can build things with — for intrinsically useless tokens, on the assumption that those tokens can later be traded for some other useful thing, the system runs smoothly. (Even today, millennia after the development of money, it's still a dodgy proposition. There aren't all that many stable currencies in the world.)

But here's the key point — money represents the notion that you have done something useful. It's not a thing — it's a scorecard indicating that you have done work: invented something, produced something, performed a vital service. The problem is that nowadays it is not a very good scorecard. You can make money not by inventing anything or producing anything or performing any service, but simply by inheriting it or dicking around with it. Take Enron. The problem with Enron was not just that it was crooked. It's that Enron's entire enterprise had nothing to do with creating or producing or improving anything — it was just a matter of futzing with capital. Buy low, corner the market, sell high. There are tapes circulating of Enron executives maliciously laughing at the extent to which they'd screwed over thirty million Californians by manufacturing an "energy crisis" — and the thing is, this wasn't just misconduct, it was Enron's core business.

This is why I was drawn to John Edwards in the Democratic primaries: he seized upon the fact that the fundamental injustice in America today is not the rich preying upon the poor, but wealth preying upon work. I don't have a problem with rich people, provided they've contributed enough to society to have earned their pick of the fruits of society's labor. If Tim Berners-Lee wants a cliffside mansion, I say give him three. But this is usually not the way of things; people who do tremendously important and difficult jobs like teaching make a pittance, and people who actively make life worse, like advertising executives (whose job is quite literally to create unhappiness and then float the notion that that unhappiness can be alleviated by buying certain products), make fortunes. Even so, Bush's tax schemes wouldn't make me quite so angry if not for the fact that they have been specifically designed to reward illegitimate income, like capital gains (getting work credits when all you've done is shuffle around some paperwork) and inheritance (getting work credits when all you've done is share the genes of the person who previously had those credits), while doing nothing about payroll taxes that target legitimate income like wages. The late Douglas Adams once wrote a book in which the people of the world were divided up into three groups: the A group, the scientists and artists and such; the C group, the people who did the actual work, factory workers and janitors and whatnot; and the B group, middlemen. In this book, the A and C groups were wiped out and only the B group survived. To some, this is satire. To Bush, it's a platform.

What's especially laughable is that Bush claims to be a great tax cutter while dramatically increasing spending. Why is this so preposterous? Because every debt the government racks up has to be covered eventually. A dollar spent in 2004 means a tax dollar has to come in at some point... or else some other solution must be devised, like inflating out of the problem (which has its own drawbacks, needless to say) or, say, invading other countries and seizing their resources... but who'd do something crazy like that?

Which brings us to foreign policy. I am not naive enough to think that a Kerry win is going to mean four years without innocent blood on American hands, nor even that if elected he'd start addressing the root causes of terrorism and work on making people less inclined to kill Americans rather than merely less capable. Still, when Bush on Thursday accused Kerry of having a "pre-September 10th [sic] mentality," I took that as a huge recommendation. Why? Because the events of 11 September 2001 were no reason for the US to flail out recklessly at the world. September 11th taught us that if we blow off monitoring terrorist activity, terrorists can currently succeed, once every several years, in killing almost as many people in a single day as die that day from smoking-related illness. It was a lesson that we had to be extremely vigilant in protecting against terrorist attack. It was not the worst day in American history (the casualties inflicted on 11 September 2001 would have classed it as a minor skirmish in the Civil War) and it was not an all-purpose excuse for murdering tens of thousands of civilians. So I would actually welcome a return to the pre-September 10th mentality — perhaps to the 31 December 1999 mentality that actually foiled the bombing of LAX and was focused on things like rounding up loose nukes instead of remaking countries with imaginary arsenals.

No, Kerry either won't or can't do anything about the issues I care most about: remaking the educational system from the ground up, fighting corporate power, reforming the electoral system... he's not even very likely to get me any closer to having health insurance. In 2000, I thought, "Enh, these candidates are indistinguishable on my pet issues, so we might as well have one as the other." I and a lot of other people on the left felt let down by eight years of a Democratic administration that was actually quite rightward-leaning: gutting welfare, going on overseas bombing runs, you name it. We were sort of like Mario Savio, who is one of my heroes, but whose fiery oratory was directed at UC president Clark Kerr, a "well-meaning liberal" whom Savio tore into for failing to stand up to the Board of Regents. Well, a couple of years later, student protesters at Berkeley no longer had to worry about a liberal university president who wasn't an effectual enough champion of their causes. They had Governor Ronald Reagan, whose response to their protests was, "If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with." Suddenly ol' Clark didn't look so bad.

And it's not like this is just a do-over of the 2000 election. When the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to Bush in 2000, I wasn't too worked up about it, figuring that it was only four years and that I'd probably like the Democrats' 2004 ticket more than I liked Gore/Lieberman. Sure enough, I do. And what's more, I can't help but think that Kerry is the major-party candidate who'll be most to my liking for the foreseeable future; should Kerry fail, I imagine we'll be looking at nothing but red-state conservatives on both tickets for quite a while, at least until Barack Obama is ready to go.

So that's why I'm voting, not just against Bush, but for Kerry.

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