Friday, September 05, 2008

Looking for Walt Whitman's America in Saint Paul

Amidst days of writing and swimming off the coast of Belize, at the conclusion of a long trip through Central America, I tuned into the Republic convention, broadcast from Saint Paul, Minnesota, in my native United States.

How to describe what awaited me? In their nomination of Arizona Senator John McCain for the Republican presidential ballot, the party of Abraham Lincoln put on a stomach-churning display of vainglorious militarism, moral hypocrisy and hysterical speechifying that seemed designed to do nothing so much as deepen the divisions that already exist in a very polarized country.

Watching former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the billionaire son of a former Michigan governor who has never had to break a sweat doing a day’s work in his life, rant against “liberals” and “timid, liberal empty gestures,” was an experience rich in irony. Former Tennessee Senator and television mediocrity Fred Thompson told the audience that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was "the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for President." Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at least came across as a human being, but the Republicans’ much-heralded Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, by trying to paint herself as the darling of small-town America, appeared to equate being from a small town with being small-minded, a continuation of the proud ignorance that appears to be the Republican party’s standard fare these days. As someone who grew up in working-class Pennsylvania, Palin reminded me not of the values of hard work that I saw there, but rather of the worst nasty, gossipy tendencies and insularity that sometimes came along with them. Palin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress who played “Elaine” on the television show Seinfeld and possesses a grating, nasal whine of a voice, mocked Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago and went on to commit herself to overturning the Bill of Rights by saying that Obama, in dealing with suspected terrorists, is “worried that someone won’t read them their rights,” as if a lawless nation is something that Americans should be proud of.

John McCain, for his part, was content to allow his convention to denounce anything bipartisan, and seemingly anything modern, in an attempt to define patriotism solely in military terms and with a geometry that focuses on those to be excluded from the American family, not those included. The focus on McCain’s heroic service in Vietnam was particularly ironic as it was lauded by the very same people who lied and slandered Senator John Kerry, a three-time Purple Heart winner, when Kerry was running for the presidency in 2004. Coupled with the non-stop attacks on the press (“liberal,” “elite,” etc) at a convention nominating a candidate who has courted that very same press more enthusiastically than perhaps any other member of Congress, the effect was surreal and matched perhaps only by the seeming hoped-for amnesia of a party promising “change” that had been in charge of the presidency for the last eight years and both houses of Congress for much of that time, as well.

What a contrast, I thought, with Barack Obama’s declaration at the Democratic Convention in Denver that "patriotism has no party" and that "the men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America."

McCain’s claims in his speech last night that the fact that he and Obama are both Americans is the distinction that means most to him was a statement that flew in the face of the fact that his supporters spent three nights trashing Obama, Democrats and urban America as a whole. Indeed, the struggles of America’s working-class went almost unmentioned during the convention, after which it was announced the that unemployment rate in the United States - after eight years of Republican rule - had jumped to 6.1% , with 84,000 jobs lost in august and 605,000 jobs lost thus far this year.

The raging, angry, insular, overwhelmingly white Republican Party of John McCain does not reflect the America I know, the towns and cities that raised me, and the values that I found there. It says nothing to me of the country’s scientific or artistic prowess, its history as a beacon for immigrants or its famous encouraging of individual initiative.

The effect was particularly jarring as I watched the convention at the same time as reading Jerome Loving’s biography of Walt Whitman, a real American patriot and visionary who, had he been alive today, would no doubt have been equally derided and denounced by the frothing crowd in Saint Paul for his intellectual and secular humanistic bents (to say nothing of his homosexuality), despite his history of physical labour and his endless hours spent nursing wounded soldiers in the military of hospitals of Washington, DC during the Civil War.

As I watched the delegates in Minnestotra salute the stage in a quasi-facist raising of cowboy hats, I thought of Whitman’s expansive definition of our nation in his most famous poem, Song of Myself, and how it stood in contrast to the intolerance vision on display before me:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth...

After such a display as I have witnessed over the last couple of days, John McCain’s much-vaunted reputation and honor seem too be worth little more than a cardboard tombstone, perhaps made of one of the vitriol-spewing, sloganeering signs waved by the delegates at the convention in St. Paul.

If my country falls for the bitter, cynical display that I have watched over the last several nights from the Republican Party, the reputation of the United States will be well on its way to joining it.

Let us hope that some wisdom will prevail.


Mira said...

What an eloquent cri de coeur Michael. I am sickened at the thought that enough of the American electorate will be taken in by the resentment, the hatred, the hypocrisy and the small-mindedness on display at the Republican convention and in the choice of Sarah Palin for their vice-presidential candidate. It's been primed to be seduced by just the cynical ploys the Republicans displayed by years of reality television, Jerry Springer and like shows, and reactionary talk-radio. I really am very worried.

Babette said...

M-As we Quakers say¨"This Friend speaks my mind¨. Having gone into exile four years ago, I have been uplifted by Obama´s message and seduced a bit by the massive support that he has recieved. I had almost forgotten about our Bible thumping, book banning Taliban.... If you have not read any of the¨"Left Behind" series, I´d advise it.. these folks on the far right are extremely dangerous.. I lived among them. I saw them spit on children. They really scare me. Sarah Palin really scares me.......... Your remarks hit the nail on the head, as usual. Perfectly observed and perfectly said. Thanks for reminding me of our precious roots.

eve said...

Seriously well put. We are alive during an unbelievable time. Its like a bad joke, but not so removed. Please send your article to every paper in the USA. Thanks.

Belize may become overcrowded with ex-pats if things go wrong on Nov 4

Dilip D'Souza said...

Michael my friend, I just read this and am so glad I did. It was the dose of reality I needed after the hysteria of the last couple of weeks, especially since the world woke to Sarah Palin. I think arguably the lowest moment was when I heard Rush himself on the radio, with his "Ten Questions from Obsama to Palin", saying "When you found out your baby would be born with Down syndrome, did you consider killing it before or after the due date? You mean you had the baby? You really had the baby?"

Is this crassness what millions of Rush fans admire?