Little Mr. America
BY HAL CROWTHER
New York-Next to a parking lot on East 56th Street, not 100 yards from the Fifth Avenue Christmas consumers trimmed in mink and leather and $15,000 wristwatches, there's an incredibly elaborate fortress of cardboard shipping boxes identified as the lair of "Homelessman." Every available surface of this unlikely residence is covered with social commentary in pencil and crayon. Homelessman's eloquent walls offer election analysis, pleas and warnings, political satire and statistics suc as the number of homeless Americans who could be fed and clothed all winter for the price of one diamond earring or one month's rent on a Park Avenue apartment. (When a woman I know applied to buy one, she was asked to supply three written references for her dog.)
"'Tis the season to be freezin'," says a sign decorated with reindeer and snowflakes. Next to it is H-man's personal Christmas list, including "self-cleaning underwear." In Mayor Giuliani's New York, where the War on Poverty means "Scrape these bums off our streets," it's remarkable that this cardboard blemish on the affluent East Side has lasted long enough to become so ornate. Among the sick, damaged and confused who slip through the "social safety net" America no longer tends or mends, it's remarkable to find an individual so conspicuously articulate and industrious. Every seam of every box has been double-sealed with duct tape to maximize his protection from the wind-chill factor, which on this cruel December morning was hovering around five degrees Fahrenheit. Built into the sleeping chamber of Homeless Hall is a tiny viewing window, a plastic-covered porthole with an invitation to "Look inside, but never tell anyone what you see."
I didn't look inside. I'd have had to get down on my knees almost and, though it was early the sidewalks were crowded with people in a hurry. A bitter wind discouraged me from trying to read Homelessman's oeuvre in its entirety. But what struck me is that everything I read there made sense: It conveyed the impression that a creative, thoughtful, independent human being was giving these issues his full attention. It was, in other words, rich in content-the exact opposite of everything we've listened to for the past 12 months while we tried to elect a new president of the United States.
Homelessman's commentary on our times is strikingly coherent because it proceeds from his particular, perilous situation, one that tends to discourage pretense and self-deception. The homeless have a great advantage over the rest of us when it comes to thinking clearly about politics-they have no electrical outlets for radios or television sets, and no one delivers newspapers to the park benches or cardboard boxes where they live.
We live in a nation of strange notions, of frayed neurons; a wealthy Democrat told me that Al Gore-who tried on his populist hat for a couple of photo-ops-was promoting class warfare in America. It's only far removed from the sound and the fury that we can hope to make sense of the presidential election of 2000, which generations of scholars will masticate before history attempts to digest it. This was not only a tale told by an idiot but a tale retold and revised and annotated and edited and cross-indexed by a swarming army of idiots, most of them empowered by the media to further obscure what only a Jefferson or a Homelessman could clarify.
Since the end of July, particularly since Nov. 7, I've tried to simulate Homelessman's advantage by placing myself in a virtual media vacuum. This election, I became convinced, represented the final stage in a tragic devolution of our political system-consequence without content, movement without meaning, spending without purpose or shame. I took great interest in the issues and outcome, no interest whatsoever in the candidates, the coverage or the debates. And no interest especially in the commentary. Here was a Greek chorus oblivious to the fact that nothing was transpiring on the stage behind them. It wasn't just TV's Novaks and O'Reillys, the ludicrous "Hardball" formats with their phony belligerence, or the overexposed and self-important Sam 'n' Cokies. Even the most respectable newspaper pundits were defeated. Forced to speak when only silence was relevant, they were dried-up old milk cows fastened to a relentless milking machine, producing something so thin and colorless the cat wouldn't drink it.
I turned them off months ago. This election marks a permanent change for me. A lifetime newspaper habit, a print dependency has been broken; I'm waiting to see what might replace it. Following the campaign and its chaotic aftermath in monthly and biweekly publications like The World Press Review, I relearned a critical lesson: The sense-saturating, stream-of-consciousness, 30-second update coverage that Americans consume and expect confers no enlightenment, no advantage compared with the days when we waited for our news to arrive by train or saddlebag. It produces mostly bewilderment and anxiety. From a sane distance-disconnected from the media machine and its web of electronic IVs-it's not hard to see that the presidential election is essentially a TV show, not exactly a rerun but one installment in a diminishing series of pseudo-civic melodramas that target an upscale demographic group, "informed voters." This elite minority imagines itself as alert and responsible, when in fact it only plays its scripted role in a hollow spectacle that enriches television stations and burlesques democracy.
"The world is full of abandoned meanings," Don DeLillo wrote in White Noise. Meanings are abandoned slowly, through extended cycles of hypocrisy and deception that go unchallenged. Presidential elections may have lost their last meanings decades ago, among empty talking heads and helium balloons of red, white and blue, ascending. Maybe this set of candidates seemed exceptionally pathetic because at last I'm older than they are and they no longer benefit from my natural respect for my elders. I saw two dwarves in mock combat, scrapping for the privilege of donning some giant's armor. Why were they so painfully tiny? It's as if they began in January as size 38 men in suits tailored 44 long, and kept shrinking until their hands and feet disappeared and the lapels came up over their ears.
These incredible shrinking candidates spent hundreds of millions on a campaign that said nothing, proved nothing and after 11 months of intense weightlessness failed even to produce a winner.Through it all the cretinous chorus aped commentary, weighing the Tin Man body language of the Democrat against the smirky mouth and shifty eyes of the Republican. ("He looks like a man who hits women," my mother told me.)
"Why would I vote for someone who pooches his lips out like a smarty school boy?" said Michigan voter Jeanne Kyselka, a Bush-hater. Never mind the fact that his party hasn't had a good idea, a generous impulse or an uncontaminated motive in 30 years, or that Republicans just tried to lynch the president of the United States over a peeping-Tom account of a legal sex act. This TV show, the Little Mr. America Pageant, is strictly scripted to pit the charm of Dwarf A against the charm of Dwarf B. God help anyone who interrupts with a relevant question.
And then came Florida, the unprecedented non-verdict and the bizarre endgame to the endless election. Unexpectedly, here was a real story, a high-court psychodrama and a potential constitutional crisis. The media, bored comatose from dwarf-tossing, were caught napping and scrambled for a plot line, which in their limited repertoire always means finding Someone to Blame.
I saw no one to blame, just a cast of poor players strutting and fretting, then petrified by a sudden change in a dogeared script. Here were two rich boys, prep-school aristocrats and hereditary politicians-a lazy one who accepts the legacy as his right and privilege, a driven one tortured all his life by the size of his responsibility. As the virgin nominee of a party of flesh-eating, power-starved partisans, George W. Bush had no breathing room for generosity. As the boy with his finger in the dike, Al Gore would have impressed me by holding out until April against the grim prospect of a Republican restoration.
Blame it all on Ralph Nader? Nader's the type of stiff-necked, humorless reformer who in the rougher days of American democracy was often found at the bottom of the harbor wired to a truck axle. He's wrong that there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Your choice is like the choice between cutting off your air supply or cutting off 70 percent of your air supply-no choice at all. Yet everything else Nader says is true, and who'll deny a man the right to tell the truth and run for office on it? Unfortunately it's not Green idealists and intellectuals, most of them middle-class, who will suffer under callous Republicans. It's people who live in trailer parks and cardboard jungles.
Maybe the only true villains were Justices Rehnquist and Scalia, and that embarrassment Clarence Thomas. Yet once again, with power held in the most delicate balance, with a presidency decided by something less convincing than the flip of a coin, there was no real threat of a coup or an insurrection.
Of course that impresses me, a man of property in spite of myself, in Homelessman's eyes a pillar of the smug bourgeoisie. It might impress me less if my bedroom had walls of cardboard. Stability is a limited virtue in a system stripped of meaning and out of touch with mercy.
2000 was the election year when things fell apart. We knew that primaries and conventions were expensive anachronisms; now we understand that the electoral college is obsolete as well, along with much of the nation's voting equipment. Why not go one logical step further and admit that the real anachronism is the popular election of the president?
In a nation hopelessly addicted to its cult of personality, the president's become our little blue-collar king, our Queen for a Day who performs the same vicarious function Britain assigns to its ridiculous royals. The psychotic orgy of hatred aimed at President Clinton, culminating in the Lewinsky travesty, proved that our voyeurism is out of control. High on the tin throne of Celebrity, the American president is the sacrificial scapegoat for a nation of cannibals that thwarts and abuses him, then loves him for his suffering. It's all pathological, all orchestrated by the media and entertainment industries, all pleasing to their corporate masters who know that minimal, inefficient government serves the rich. Why not take in this big suit, this presidency, until it fits someone comfortably?
For years the British have been wondering how we can afford Mr. America, how our national interests are served by the separation of executive and legislative functions that almost guarantees us gridlock and calcification. Our founders decreed a powerful, separate, popularly elected president because they feared the power of the individual states (and because they lived in an age of real kings). But I don't smell the danger of unchecked states' rights any more, not even in my own sweet South.
A parliamentary system would have so many rational advantages in America, you can be sure we'll never try one. But consider that in Britain no one, not even the Prime Minister, can spend more than $10,500 (7,500 British pounds) on his campaign. If we could rescue a fraction of the record $3 billion that vanished into thin air between January and November, would some of the money find its way back to Homeless Hall on 56th Street? If that sounds like class warfare, bring it on.
Hal Crowther recently published Cathedrals of Kudzu, a collection of his essays printed by LSU Press.