Sunday, November 27, 2005


thanks (mis)giving

Thanks to everybody who's asked how -- and where -- I've been. I've had so many for-pay assignments to get done, and so many rock shows, that I've neglected this narrative. Yes, we're still here on Grand Street. No, I haven't been looking at apartments. Stephen Mejias guessed that the holiday season is the best time to find real estate bargains, and he's probably right. But I can't imagine moving during Christmas. Once we're all done giving each other presents, I'll look into springing myself from our flat.

Our landlord still seems to have no idea that our lease has ended. He hasn't raised our rent, and as prices in this neighborhood continue their insane rise, we continue to feel like we're getting away with something. That said, he still hasn't fixed the leak in the walls. He did, however, help us drag our old sofa out to the curb.

Many people have also asked after our mold. I am sure the mold appreciates the concern, and I will be sure to relay news of your curiosity to the colony. At the moment, it's out of sight. Hilary stretched plastic over the crack in the wall, and tacked it into place. Beneath the barrier, I imagine it is happily growing. At some point, the entire wall is going to have to be torn out and replaced. I expect we will be long gone by then.

Because the capricious god that organizes my affairs enjoys metadiscourse, I also find myself working on a grand, sweeping article about real estate in Downtown Jersey City. I am doing this for an unpretentious but functional local publication. It's not meant to be polemical or anything, so it's not going to be a confrontational piece. I also don't want to anger any of my sources. But as I write this, I'm also going to need an outlet for my frustrations, and for whatever is left of my social-crusading wit. This space isn't dead yet.

Anyway, I am still here, still queer, and still getting used to it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


my civic failure

I hate the way the Internet has turned into a new version of talk radio with the number of annoying partisan channels approaching infinity, but at the risk of piling it on, I want to say something else about elections, and, more specifically, why they make me so sad.
As I have written many times, I don't like democracy, and I distrust decisions made by majority rule. But this is the system we insist on, and since we do, it's on us to work with it as best as we can.

As I see it, there are three reasons why intelligent people cast votes. Well, four, really, but I'm ignoring those who cast their ballots for friends and neighbors whom they believe will give them favors. Those voters exist – you might even know a few of them – but they're the subject of a separate discussion.

Reason #1: you vote for the candidate who you believe has best demonstrated leadership ability. This could be organizational capacity, a way with people, or some kind of inspirational presence. Jim Florio was nobody's idea of a charismatic or messianic figure, but when I voted for him, I did so because the things he'd said genuinely inspired me. When Jesse Jackson gave that speech about two Americas at the '96 convention – one that has since been ripped off without attribution by every two-bit hack in Washington – that fired me up and inspired me to re-engage with the Democratic party. These were emotional decisions, but they weren't ones made in an intellectual vacuum. The decision to follow a leader – any leader – is always an emotional one, and is always an implicit referendum on that leader's character.

Reason #2: you vote for the candidate who seems to have demonstrated applied intellect and a mastery of policy issues. This strikes me as an inferior reason to support a politician than the first, since no layman can ever approach comprehensive and detailed knowledge of anything other than his immediate preoccupations. But I think it is fair – and probably often right – to generalize from a candidate's public appearances. People often wondered why I was so enthusiastic about Albert Gore, and why I have always been willing to argue so passionately in favor of his candidacies. I did so because he struck me as so much better prepared and attentive to detail than his opponents that he earned my immediate respect. When Bob Dole was senate majority leader (yes, people, I am an admirer of Bob Dole), he took stands on hundreds of issues that were contrary to what I believed would be best for the country. But I always had faith that he'd studied the issue and reasoned his way to a thoughtful conclusion. I may have disagreed with him, but I never kidded myself that I knew better than Senator Dole did.

Reason #3: you vote for the candidate who best resembles you. This is, I believe, the reason that most votes are cast, including, I am sad to say, almost all of my own. In my more big-headed moments, I often compliment myself on the comprehensiveness of my self-education, and I fancy myself peculiarly suited for the ballot booth. But upon extended inspection, I see only the most marginal distinction between casting a ballot for a member of your ethnic group and casting one for a member of your policy or affinity group. Strip away everything you take for granted about political campaigns, and ask yourself: why am I really voting for Senator Jones? Is it actually because I believe Senator Jones is better for America (that abstract and indefinable concept), or is it because I believe that sophisticated and witty Senator Jones looks, acts, and thinks more like I do than Representative Hicks, his folksy challenger? I know very intelligent people who express contempt for "identity politics", and who then turn around and vote for a politician because that candidate's view of the environment or NAFTA or censorship of video games most closely resembles their own. Both acts do the same thing: they attempt to use the politician to extend the dominion of the voter, and to reward those who share her values and punish those who don’t.

Viewed this way, it is actually nobler for an immigrant Latino voter to choose representatives purely because they, too, are Latinos than it is for an educated and sophisticated voter to cast ballots based on individual policy preferences. The former act presupposes a community conscience and a wholesome belief in behaving in concert with neighbors. The latter simply instrumentalizes the candidate and turns him into an extension of the voter’s will. And whether you know it or not, when you vote for Senator Jones because you believe he is best positioned to discharge an agenda to which you swear fealty, you are secretly subordinating the politician to yourself. You have become the assessor, evaluating the candidate on his conformity to a slate of beliefs developed by you and those who think and act like you. Pressure groups actually send candidates policy checklists and administer percentile grades based on agreement with the “correct” positions; online surveys match voters with prospective officeholders based on preference quizzes. The assumption is that You the Voter have the roster in your head, and the candidate who best aligns himself with those on the answer key will win the right to receive the great gift of your vote.

To which I ask: who the hell are you? You are not a senator, or even a senator's aide; most likely, you are an aesthete of some sort with a heart that is at least two sizes too big for your own good, and at least four sizes too big for government. You are, of course, a democratic subject, and you have been taught that your opinion is just as good as the next man’s – or at least, you have learned to insist that it is, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. But because you’ve grown accustomed to fooling yourself into thinking that the role of the politician is to sign on to a policy slate developed by the advocacy group that best suits your taste and social stratum, you’ve absolved yourself of having to think at all. You can rest comfortably, knowing that there is a big enviable Truth burning out there on the plane of ideas – one you know by rote, and one which your local politician will fail to live up to by making any sort of compromise. And when he makes that compromise, he will not be a nuanced student of policy, or a studied, ambivalent thinker, or even a diplomat. He will be a coward, or a stooge, or corrupt, or an Idiot in Charge.

And this is the great failing and flaw of democracy, and the best reason I can think of to quit trying to ram it down the throats of other countries that may be on their way to developing something alternate: it creates contempt for leadership. It makes us disregard and often even despise the leadership qualities of its most prominent actors, it teaches us to insist on rigidity of thought over mercurial and adaptable vision, and in so doing, it drives natural leaders out of government and into the boardroom, or the music industry, or the crack dens. Now, this is the point where people think I’ve become a frontrunner or an establishmentarian in my old age, but actually, it’s just the opposite. Leadership is not the police, or the Big State. Leadership is the only force that stands half a chance against institutional authority – the wind that blows against the big sandcastles. Those with an interest in maintaining the status quo fear leadership most of all, and try to convince us that selecting and following an inspirational leader is tantamount to indoctrination. But it is altogether possible to maintain a critical perspective while responding emotionally and maintaining faith; in fact, it’s probably the only way to be a responsible and genuine civic actor.

I always hope to have the strength to vote for reason #1. Failing that, I will settle for reason #2. But when I am honest with myself, I can recognize that I almost always vote for the third reason: seeking out candidates who have “seen the light” on Important Issues (in other words, those who agree with me) or who live in my neighborhood and can thus be counted on to perform acts of heroism on behalf of my pals, or who somehow remind me of me. At base level, I voted for Jon Corzine because he lives in Hoboken. I’d argue that it’s a baby step toward recovery, since it suggests some rudimentary concern for community and a love for a particular place on the map. It’s instrumentalizing and cynical, and thus not a terribly noble reason. But I have to believe that it’s a better one than voting for Corzine because he agrees with me, or the version of me scripted by NJPIRG, or the NRA, or Air America, or the Democratic Party.

Monday, November 07, 2005


we have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show

Nothing good has ever come of a vote, but I vote anyway. It's a compulsion, like nail-biting. Tomorrow, I will push the little button next to Jon Corzine's name, and I will try to have some kind of emotion about it. I am not counting on inspiration or pride. I would settle for curiosity, or the mild excitement I associate with indeterminacy.

In New Jersey, these statewide contests always narrow before Election Day and feint toward drama. Then, the candidate that you always figured would win ends up winning. So much bluster, so much money spent, so much rhetoric, so many attack ads, and so little genuine consequence. In New Jersey, we often pretend that slander and dirty tricks during the course of an election are cute, but here was one was a campaign to test the patience of political enthusiasts on both sides. You might check poll data every day and use PoliticsNJ as your start page. If you weren't turned off when the candidates started using each other's ex-wives and girlfriends as campaign props, then the problem is you.

I have never been enthusiastic about Jon Corzine. In 2000, he spent $34 million dollars to deny Jim Florio the Senate seat he was born to fill. This time out, he's muscling aside Richard Codey. I understand that around here there is no worship as profound as the idolatry of the wallet, but I disliked the sense of entitlement with which he bulldozed both of his more experienced and more qualified rivals. I am pleased that Senator Corzine voted against the Iraq War, but I hardly consider that a politically courageous stand for a New Jersey legislator to take. No matter how many SUVs you see on Interstate 80,
this is not tank country.

His opponent, Doug Forrester, accuses Corzine of coziness with the Democratic political organizations that dominate Jersey government. He is not blowing the cover off of anything here. Forrester's entire justification for running is his well-advertised belief that he's the man best suited to clean up the state -- a claim that is undermined by the candidate himself every time he gets on television and opens his mouth. No matter how often the Forrester camp pays for TV footage of Rudy Giuliani testifying to his graft-busting powers, the idea of this colorless, uncharismatic businessman successfully disentangling the cables of corruption and influence is so patently ridiculous that it practically satirizes itself.

An enormous -- though by no means all-determining -- problem with New Jersey politics is that a statewide candidate must commit to two separate media buys in some of the most expensive television markets in the world. This effectively prohibits all but multimillionaires from running for office. Moreover, running a campaign in New Jersey is so extraordinarily expensive that even the nation's richest men can't go it alone here. That means that both national parties inevitably get involved in the fight. The next thing you know, you're listening to debates about left and right and who is George Bush's lapdog. There is so much static in the Jersey air that we can't even have our own arguments.

We get what we deserve whether we participate or not, so I vote anyway. Tomorrow, at this time, surrounded by the usual sycophants, Jon Corzine will be giving his victory speech. Or he'll be conceding, and Forrester, who cannot seriously believe he's poised to steal this thing, will be pinching himself. No matter what the Senator says in his campaign lit, a vote for Corzine is a vote for the status quo: for the party organizations, and whatever is left of the McGreevey camp, the HCDO, and the old Lesniak-Lynch team that put the dumbass philanderer in the governor's mansion. I'll be casting that vote. Then, it'll be back to the rest of my day.

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