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
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
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
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
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
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
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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