Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 1, 2008

On Edwards’ Exit: Not “Two Americas”, But 232… and Then Some

The graceful exit of John Edwards this week simplified and clarified this unique moment in our nation’s two hundred thirty two year history. Here is a smart man, who saw the writing on the wall and gave up the battle, hopefully without giving up on the war (in his case, the war on poverty and special interests).

Edwards tried his best to paint with nuanced colors and yet create a singular vision, an image of “two Americas”: the America of the haves and the other experienced by the have-nots. In doing so, he helped frame the Democratic Party’s discussions, getting everyone to think outside the box. But now John’s finally caught on to what everyone else figured out months ago: a white male, in this Democratic primary race, is automatically a “third party candidate”. This is a bad position to be in, in a country that has a hard time dealing with even two competing visions.

There are always multiple perspectives, and seldom one unimpeachable, universally-accepted view. Which is why I’ve always had a hard time with there being just two humongous political parties. Sure, it’s less confusing, maybe more efficient. But is it an accurate representation of our fractured society? For instance, a leading black intellectual, Cornell West, once wrote a book called Race Matters. The title is an interesting phrase, because it can be read in two ways:

1) as an adjective and a plural noun (Q: What kinds of matters? A: Race matters.)

2) as a noun and a verb (Q: Does race matter? A: Yes, race matters.)

Or does it? 

Okay. Here’s what I think: now, today, despite all our claims that it won’t matter or it shouldn’t matter, the bottom line is that race does matter. And to the rest of the world, which is more brown than white anyway, if the “face” that for them defines America more than any other ends up being brown, then yeah, race matters ALOT. But it’s not the ONLY variable that matters. Same goes for gender. Because we don’t live in a bubble, where every subculture agrees with every other and we’ve forgotten our former battles. We have to face the failures of our past and reconcile with them, in order to draw closer to our ideal image of America and move past those grudges.

Thus, the America that I live in has at least 232 different self-images, one for each battle scar, each year we’ve been experimenting with this beast called democracy. Every year, there are multiple winners and losers, and multiple viewpoints, not just two. In 1886, Geronimo of the Apache tribe surrendered, after 25-plus years of skirmishes. That same year, in Chicago, pro-union demonstrators and union-busting police died by the hundreds on May 3rd in Haymarket Square, as America struggled painfully toward adopting the 8-hour workday as one of the standards by which we judge fairness. And in 1886, all women, and probably eight out of ten black men, could not vote. Did we learn eventually, as a nation? Yeah. Mostly. But as recently as the year 2000, black, Jewish and various other minority votes were not properly counted, and even now women have many doors to power closed to them because of their gender.

And because we’re allowed, even encouraged, to learn from those mistakes and make corrections, we will vote for the person who to us represents progress, who will identify and hopefully fix what’s still broken or unfair. It’s one of the ways that the revolutionary spirit of 1776 lives on in our daily political discourse. We argue because we have to: it’s in our American DNA.

Where we get stuck is in our differing opinions about priority, not so much in agreeing that there are problems. Which problem should we solve first? What’s it gonna cost? Can I trust a particular person’s theory about the cause of the problem? And is the solution they propose actually going to work? And then what’s the second most important problem… and what’s that gonna cost to fix? Then it all starts again, and you can see where it all gets pretty sticky. Because I don’t live in your neighborhood, and you don’t live in mine.

In one of my graduate-level courses long ago, on African-American literature and film, we talked about how individuals from two vastly different communities can look at the same historic event, and then go on to tell two completely different stories about that event. Arguably, even though they both use English, they’re not even speaking the same language, because how they subjectively see the event is framed by their own past experience, and that affects how they will tell the story. Complete objectivity is nearly impossible, because everyone’s got blind spots and biases, and a history that either informs or distorts what they see as “the truth”.

The truth is usually a “both, and…” proposition, anyway. All we gotta do is pick a lane and get moving. Obama and Clinton aren’t really all that different in what they believe or what they will do as president. Actually, they’re not even hugely different from their Republican counterparts. There are no communists in these races. No Nazis. No religious extremists (despite their attempts to portray each other that way). Other than Romney, I find all of the candidates pretty trustworthy.

The real competing ideologies here all center around what a candidate thinks of The Golden Rule. If to one it means

“do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”,

then there’s a chance we can move forward together under his or her sound leadership. But if anyone’s golden rule starts sounding more like this:

“He who has the gold makes the rules”

then they’re going to lose this ticked-off American population, at least this year, and hopefully forevermore. Because we’ve learned a few things in 232 years. We’re tired of being burned. And we won’t be fooled again.


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