News and Features
We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush—the military—Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert.
Abolishing the Electoral College is one way the Florida fiasco could be addressed.
Chris Kraus reviews Cool for You, by Eileen Myles.
Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.
There's a growing movement to add livable hours to calls for a living wage.
Wait until next season. I've already started practicing my
chad-punching, and I suggest the same as therapy for all who feel ripped
off by the collusion between the US Supreme Court's right-wing
ideologues and George W. Bush's lawyers to prevent an accurate Florida
vote count. The electoral process will survive and Bush may even learn to
do the job, but the price of his victory is the court's denigration.
It took a non-ideological Republican appointee, a near-extinct breed
in the GOP, to puncture the outrageous hypocrisy of the Antonin
Scalia-led majority that defined a fair recount by the singular standard
that would leave Bush the winner.
In his dissent, John Paul Stevens wrote the indelible postscript to
this judicial farce: "Although we may never know with complete certainty
the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the
identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence
in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
The so-called court conservatives simply had no sense of shame or even
proportion. Think of the conflicts of interest we learned about only in
the last few days: Clarence Thomas's wife is helping the conservative
Heritage Foundation recruit workers for a Bush administration, and Scalia
has two sons associated with key law firms representing Bush--one a
partner of Theodore Olson, who argued Bush's case before the high court.
It's also common knowledge that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor indicated a desire to retire, but only if
Bush won and could replace them. In that event, Bush would likely appoint
Scalia as chief justice.
Common decency, let alone judicial integrity, should have left the
court's majority more hesitant in acting as agent for selecting the next
President. Instead of taking the high road and leaving the matter where
it belonged with the Florida Supreme Court--according to the federal high
court's own oft-avowed states' rights precepts--Scalia and company
insisted on halting the recount. Why? Because there wasn't time to do it
right. But whose fault was that? Bush's and the US Supreme Court's.
Had the statewide count of disputed ballots been allowed to fairly
conclude, it would have shored up our next President's legitimacy. If
Bush had won the electoral vote after a fair count in Florida, it would
have taken the sting out of his ascending to the presidency despite
losing the national popular vote.
The US Supreme Court's heavy-handed intrusion was as destructive of
confidence in our political system as it was unnecessary. As Justice
Stephen G. Breyer wrote in dissent, the majority ruling represented "a
self-inflicted wound--a wound that may harm not just the court but the
Never again will a President's appointment of a federal judge be
viewed by the public--and more important the Senate, which must confirm
it--as a neutral, nonpolitical act. Recall that even such hard-line
ideologues as Justices Thomas and Scalia were confirmed with votes from
Democratic senators who thought it important to give the President the
benefit of the doubt. Next time anyone of discernible ideological bias is
nominated, there will be unprecedented senatorial gridlock. For that
reason, the real test of the Bush presidency will be his appointments to
the federal courts.
It is the same test faced by his father: Will they be true moderates,
such as Justice David H. Souter, a man capable of complex legal thought,
or another Thomas, whose most sentient act is to look to Scalia, then
vote? What a sad comment that the man who replaced Thurgood Marshall as
the only African-American on the court should now, in helping to block
the recount, so brazenly mock Marshall's lifelong crusade to insure the
sanctity of the black vote.
In any event, the court has handed the nation George Bush as
President, and we can live with that and even entertain hopes that he
will rise to the occasion, despite an obvious lack of preparation. Deep
down, if one can presume such a thing, he seems a decent sort. If he just
keeps in mind that most of the voters rejected him, he might resist Tom
DeLay's ultra-rightists in the House and pursue a moderate legislative
course. In any case, now that Joseph Lieberman will retain his seat, the
Senate will be evenly divided, and centrists of both parties will be
calling the shots.
But what we cannot live with is an even more politicized judiciary
dominated by right-wing ideologues. The GOP's far right will want strong
proof that its aggressive campaigning for Bush is rewarded, and its prime
goal is complete control of the federal judiciary, which is why Senate
Republicans blocked scores of Bill Clinton's judicial appointments.
However, if Bush attempts to reward his rabidly conservative backers by
placing their favorites in high positions in the federal judiciary, he
will tear this country apart. And next time, his opponent's chads will be
punched so forcefully that even the Supreme Court won't be able to save
We know what they're afraid of. Cut through the Republican verbiage
that has clogged the airwaves and courts and you find one simple but
disturbing point: They fear an accurate vote count because it might prove
that Al Gore has the votes to be fairly elected President.
That's been their concern since election night, when they began their
drawn-out process of obstruction, and if they succeed in once again
killing the manual count through their US Supreme Court appeal, George
W. Bush's victory will stand as a low point in the annals of American
The indelible impression left on our history will be that Gore won
both the popular and electoral vote and that he and the voters were
cheated out of that victory by a US Supreme Court dominated by
political ideologues appointed by Republican Presidents. If the Justices
cared a whit about the sanctity of the vote, they would have let the
manual-counting process decreed Friday by the Florida Supreme Court
continue. If that had resulted in a Bush win, we should all have
gracefully acknowledged his victory.
Bush, who lost by more than 330,000 in the popular vote--what most of
us grew up thinking of as the real election--may now squeak by with an
electoral college win resulting from a ruling by the right-wing-led US
Supreme Court. During the campaign, Bush cited Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas as his judicial role models, and he has been amply
rewarded. Legal gobbledygook has replaced reason when the mere act of
fairly counting the votes of the citizens is halted to suit the political
agenda of the party that appointed the majority of the Justices.
In a close election, a manual count of all votes not counted by the
antiquated voting machines is a statutory mandate in many states,
including Florida and Texas, and should have been the common-sense demand
of both candidates in Florida. If that simple standard--accurately and
fairly counting all of the votes to ascertain the intent of each
voter--had been asserted in a bipartisan manner, there would have been no
reason for the subsequent confusion and the never-to-end questioning of
the legitimacy of our next President.
Instead, unprecedented rancor will mark the next years of our
politics, mocking all efforts at bipartisan cooperation. This will be
particularly true in battles over the judiciary, which, more than ever,
will come to be viewed widely as a partisan tool.
The Florida election will always be too close to call in a manner that
would leave partisans of both sides totally satisfied. Whoever loses will
feel ripped off, but the denigration of the Florida Supreme Court and of
Gore's legal challenges by top Bush Republican spokesperson James Baker
has gone too far. Twice now he has smeared the motives of Florida Supreme
Court justices for daring to come to conclusions not to Baker's liking.
Yet he reached a new low Friday in disparaging the right of a
presidential candidate--who has won the national popular vote and is only
three electoral votes from victory--to ask for a judicial review of the
obviously deeply flawed Florida election results.
Get real. Both Baker and Bush know they would do the same had the
results gone the other way. Yet they self-righteously abandoned civility
when the nation most needed it. There are no villains in this election,
only imperfect machines and people, but the Bush camp has vilified the
Gore camp for daring to seek a fair adjudication of such matters.
We are still a nation of laws, and it was unconscionable for Baker to
blast Gore for appealing to the Florida state high court at the very time
Bush's lawyers raced to the federal courts in an unseemly departure from
the GOP's commitment to states' rights. In Baker's view, the problem is
not that we have a razor-close election and flawed voting procedures, but
rather that Gore dares to assert his legal rights: "This is what happens
when, for the first time in modern history, a candidate resorts to
lawsuits to overturn the outcome of an election for President. It is very
sad. It is sad for Florida. It is sad for the nation, and it is sad for
Hogwash! What is sad is that tens of thousands of African-American and
Jewish voters in Florida were systematically denied their right to vote
by poorly drawn ballots, malfunctioning voting machines and unhelpful
voting officials. What is sad is that election officials in two counties
turned over flawed Republican absentee ballot applications for
corrections by Republican Party officials but did no such favors for
What would be most sad--indeed, alarming--is if a partisan US
Supreme Court proves to be an enemy of representative democracy.
All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.
Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."
* * *
Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.
Facebook Like Box