Sunday, October 28, 2012

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The Choice

On Election Day 2008, I was in a perfect position to watch history unfold. The polls opened a little more than a month into my first year at the University of Chicago, where Barack Obama had been a law lecturer, and in whose neighborhood the Democratic nominee for President still lived, a mere six or seven blocks from my dormitory. A year earlier, I'd been thrilled to cast my first vote, in the Missouri Democratic primary, for the young Illinois senator around whom was gathering the sense of a movement, that disparate political wind that hadn't blown across the country since Robert Kennedy's 88-day campaign in 1968. Now, when the real thing happened, I'd be about as close to the man as a 19-year old could hope to get.

But alas, I had a nosebleed.

In the winter of my senior year of high school, my left nostril developed the unhappy habit of gushing blood at random intervals. The nostril had to be cauterized in the spring, which worked for a while, but the spout reopened shortly after college began, Chicago's brisk autumn air doing my nose no favors. The procedure had to be redone, and in our byzantine health care system, the simplest solution proved to be to fly to St. Louis in the morning, have the offending vein blasted shut once more, and return to Chicago in time for dinner. It happened that the most convenient day proved to be November 4th—Election Day. I'd already mailed my absentee ballot, so there was no inconvenience to my voting, but while many of my new friends would spend their day knowing that the man likely to become the first black President waited a few blocks away, I would spend the day in two states—in two airplanes, two airports, two taxis, one doctor's office, trying to remember to breath through my mouth.

I was back in time for the final tally, and while many of my friends ran to the president-elect's house, where they reported watching his SUV convoy depart for the Grant Park rally (where many of my friends also headed), I celebrated from the dorm, deciding in my fragile rhinal state to stay indoors for a while.

In hindsight, my half-participation in the local excitement surrounding Obama's election feels apt. Though swept up in the thrill of Obama's rise, I also had no expectations that one man could wave a wand and magically transform America into a harmonious wonderland. Obama's promises to transcend politics appealed to me; at the same time, I wondered how the hell he hoped to do so. As he told it in his grand speeches, we would all do it; with our enthusiasm and desire for change behind him, Obama would bring change to Washington. Of course, this didn't really happen, because there isn't much we in American politics anymore. We do the voting, but we don't all go Washington, where insularity reigns.

This is in part the result of the professionalization of politics. By, this I don't mean that Senators have become "creatures of Washington"—I doubt such accusations were leveled at Daniel Webster or Henry Clay. I mean the dawn of the revolving door, the self-reinforcing movements between Congressional posts and K Street lobbying firms, all of it bound together by money.

But part of it is borne of a deeply American temperament. As Adam Kirsch recently wrote in The New Yorker: 

" the modern age, liberty meant, primarily, freedom from coercion and interference. People want to be free from arbitrary imprisonment, free to speak their minds, free to choose their professions and associations. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, freedom meant something much more positive: freedom to participate in government decisions, to make laws and declare war and judge criminals."

Kirsch circles around a fundamental tension in American politics: we're drawn to figures who speak the Greek and Roman language of participation, figures like RFK and Obama; we also cherish phrases like Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, for the people," even if it's at odds with the facts on the ground—and with the intent of the Founders, many of whom were suspicious of democracy. But on the other hand, most of us don't really want to participate in government. We're happy to delegate that role to lawmakers so that we can get on with our lives.

The result is a government increasingly divorced from the people. In the same issue of The New Yorker, George Packer profiles Jeff Connaughton, a political lifer who swung between public service and lobbying. In a bracing passage, Packer describes Connaughton's experience campaigning for Tom Daschle in 2004 in South Dakota:

"Near the Pine Ridge reservation, a Native American woman told Connaughton, 'You only care about us once every for years.' It burned a hole right through him, because she was right—the plight of women like her moved him every Presidential election cycle, and then he forgot about them."

Politics becomes a game played for its own end—the attaining and retention of power—making a mockery of the term "public service." As the economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in The New York Review of Books recently, "The game of politics has almost completely overshadowed the hard work of governing. ... [O]ne of the main reasons that [government] is gridlocked is that running the government is now viewed as nothing more than an extension of electoral politics, which in turn amounts to little more than a clash of competing interest groups that finance the politicians and try to keep their teams in power." Emotions and misinformation, in other words, have come to trump ideas and hard truths. Even those of us who care deeply about politics tend to simply further the horse-race narrative of politics with our back-and-forth bickering.

How to escape such a quandary? There's all the mechanical changes that might help, like eliminating primaries and limiting campaign spending. We can hope for more public figures who seek a middle way, eschewing fear-mongering for governing. But ultimately—and this is where my thinking irreducibly leads me—the burden of change at some point really does fall upon the people, and this is a daunting (and often dispiriting) reality to face. Government can do many things, but it cannot make us gentler, kinder, more concerned towards our communities, more vocal in our desire for enlightened government. And this leaves us at the point where any political philosophy starts: with the problem of human nature, with human beings' frustratingly large capacities for both selflessness and selfishness.

I'll vote this November, and anyone who reads this with any regularity can guess who my choice is. There is, in my view, only one candidate who speaks of a we with any sense of aspiration, only one candidate who believes that our better nature will prevail, who believes that our society can be both prosperous and equable. He can't change our society alone, but his presence has a far better influence on the American atmosphere than his absence. And so I'll go to the polls dutifully, with resignation, but also—because I believe that deep down, most Americans really don't want the bitter division of recent years, and because I don't believe that at this stage in our history, we have any right to despair—with a fragile, resilient hope.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

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Go Crazy, Folks!

I recently wrote a melancholy essay for The Paris Review's blog in which I discussed the ways that, for this St. Louis son, the 2012 baseball season has felt like a pale encore to last year. The magic that defined 2011 was gone, I wrote, and whatever happens in this postseason won't live up to the Cardinals' incredible run to the World Series title, in part because that title coincided with a remarkable string of happiness in my own life (senior year of college, youth and beauty, etc). In all sorts of ways, the fall of 2012 has felt like a diminished season.

A sentence from that essay: "Sport, like life, retains an inalienable ability to surprise."

On Friday night, the Cardinals showed me all the ways in which my essay failed to heed that observation. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Bernie Miklasz wrote, last Friday "felt chilled and charmed, just like the enchanted autumn of 2011." The Cardinals dug out from under a six-run deficit. The Nationals had them down to their final strike twice, and twice the Cardinals stretched the season out for at least another batter until rookie Pete Kozma hit a two-run single, lifting the Cardinals into the NLCS.

More than one friend texted me to joke that I'd have to revise my essay now, and I laughed and eagerly said that I'd be happy to do so. After publishing the piece, I worried that it had been too gloomy. What I wrote about my life was true, but it was only one kind of truth, one that excluded many possibilities for joy. If my life in St. Louis occasionally feels disappointing in light of last year's hopes for embarking on a literary life in a coastal city, it's also an incredible gift, every day a chance to experience the vulnerability of teaching, a chance to spend time with the teachers and friends and family I missed so often in college, a chance to enjoy some of the neighborliness that may truly be in greater supply in the Midwest.

The Cardinals' win refreshed everything for me, helped me to see all the ways in which this year, I'm exactly where I want to be. It was a joke at my expense that I badly needed. I went over to my old friend Andrew's house for the game, listening to the Nationals shell Wainwright in the first inning as I drove, resigned to the grim probability that Andrew and I and our friend Tim would probably be gathering to watch the end of the Cardinals' season, swept aside at the hand of a young and brash Washington team that was hungry for a victory in a way we in St. Louis, still glutted on last year's magic, weren't. The Nationals' third inning made defeat a near-certainty, as they added three runs that widened their lead to six runs, a chasm in October baseball. My essay was feeling prophetic.

And yet, though I really didn't believe we'd come back—the magic was gone, after all—something prompted me to respond to a despairing text from my dad with the words "Keep the faith." The Cardinals scored a run, and then another. Tim left to go to a wedding party, leaving Andrew and I to guard our hope cautiously as a corona of the old magic began to gather around the game, a delicate flame that threatened to blow out if we sought too much warmth from it. And then, stunningly, the Cardinals won the game with a four-run ninth inning, leaving us jumping and high fiving and yelling.

It's possible that Friday was a fluke, a final flare-up of last year's we-can-do-no-wrong mojo. A World Series title would be nice, and while I'm hopeful, I don't need a championship to certify what happened Friday night, the rare joy of being proven wrong, of watching my city's team flout probability yet again. I wasn't in Philadelphia, I wasn't with my old friend Matt, and the future was as big a question mark as ever. But I was with my old friend Andrew, and I was home, and the Cardinals had won. I called Matt, who happened to have scrounged standing room only tickets to the game, and we spoke briefly about how incredible the game had been. "I'm definitely thinking of you, man," I said, and Matt concurred, and then I told him to go celebrate, and that's what we did.