I watched the CNN/YouTube Democratic Party presidential candidates debate the other week, and then I followed some of the post-debate coverage of the event, and I even tried to read a Rex Murphy column about it in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Having invoked the Canadian national icon, O' Murphy of Newfoundland, complete with his winning authentic accent, I have to admit, as a big fat aside, that I've never been able to read a Rex Murphy column or listen to a Rex Murphy TV commentary all the way through–sometimes I sneak a peek at the ending to see if there's a punchline, but that usually doesn't work either. Still, Murphy is a wonderful writer and TV and radio commentator. His sentences are richly florid and his mind and eyebrows bristle with intelligence. The only small problem with him is that I can never figure out what he's trying to say, although I grant that whatever it is he's trying to say, he says it with a flourish and pugnacious charm. End of big fat aside. Anyway, I think he was carping about the unique format of the debate.
Most of the post-debate coverage was, like Murphy's column, also about the formalities of the debate. If you've been sequestered the entire summer in a digitally-deprived lakeside cottage, you may not know that the tekkie gimmick ballyhooed by CNN in its advance publicity for the event was the mildly brilliant idea of not having the debate questions asked by a panel of journalists or "experts," as is usually done, but having the questions posed by "ordinary people" through a trendy device. The device is a popular Internet website known as YouTube in which people post snippets of video, either cadged from elsewhere or produced by YouTube participants themselves. The snippets range from household mishaps (of the sort shown on America's Funniest Home Videos) to homebrew porn. By the way, if there is a YouTube, can YouPorn and PornoTube be far behind? Rest assured, they already exist.
In this instance, YouTubers were invited to make and post videos asking a question of the candidates in the presidential debate. Some 3,000 of them did so. As a result, the CNN host of the debate, Anderson Cooper, presented the YouTube video questions from "ordinary people," as well as tossing in a few follow-ups of his own, and the presidential candidates respectfully answered them, often remembering to call the questioners and Anderson by their first names.
In the post-debate coverage, this mild innovation was heralded, especially by the self-congratulatory CNN, as a major breathrough in the Thought of Western Civilization, and a Significant Advance in Genuine Democracy. What everybody, except a few carpers, agreed upon was that the YouTuber questions were no worse than the presidential debate questions posed by journalists and other political experts. In any case, the YouTube gimmick goosed up what is thought to be the traditionally tepid character of such debates. Pundits confidently predicted that Internet "interactivity" would henceforth be a feature of all such events. I suppose it will.
What was less emphasized was 1) the YouTube questions were videos and not "live" questions, and 2) the YouTube questions were "selected" (about 30 out of 3,000) by CNN editors. The only people who noticed this were Internet anarchos who argued that the questions should not be selected by editors but by YouTube voters or raters.
Of course, the whole business of reader/viewer response to website items (this website also contains such a device) has produced a major headache. Although hailed by anarcho utopians as "real democracy, at last," in fact what's regularly happened at various newsy websites and blogs, is that a self-selected clutch of people–people who desperately need to follow that famous bit of modern advice, namely, "Get a Life"–tend to innundate the site with their generally inane, wrongheaded, and often unpleasant opinions. The opinions range from opinionated to stark-raving-eccentric. The result? A lot of news-based websites have had to reinvent the wheel: they've discovered what old-fashioned newspapers knew long ago, to wit, that if you have a "Letters to the Editor" space, you need a Letters to the Editor editor to weed out the crazies and the dyspeptic. CNN anticipated this problem, "selected" the sane questions (with a couple of amusing ones thrown in for the children), the whole thing went off without a hitch, and everyone was presumably left with the feel-good glow that comes from the illusion of "participation."
Since, unlike a Rex Murphy column, this one has a point, let me point out that all of the above, while necessary to set the stage, is completely unimportant.
After I watched the debate, I remarked to various of my friends that I'd watched it. Surprisingly (to me), none of them had watched it, even though most of them are politically astute people. Now, it's possible that they had already watched previous presidential debates earlier in the season (I'd been out of TV range during that time) and didn't need to see anymore. But from the wary way in which they asked me, "How was it?" I intuited that they held the opinion that such events were merely occasions for rhetorical claptrap, opportunities for political spin, and had little to do with the fate of life on earth.
Well, maybe. But the thing that I noticed as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and various more obscure candidates went through their paces is that the awkward conversation/debate/multilogue was pretty intelligent.
Further, it was unusual, and even heartening, to find a television program in which a half dozen prominent Americans promised that if elected they would end the war in Iraq, restore civil liberties, provide healthcare coverage for the now 50 million uninsured Americans, stop demonizing same-sex couples that want to wed, and attempt to institute most of the rest of the liberal program (although Senator Clinton pointed out that the word "liberal" had been so poisoned that it could no longer be used in public and proposed the alternative of "progressive.")
What's more, it seemed to me that just about any of the candidates would make an acceptable U.S. President, excepting one elderly senator from Alaska who was correctly described by one post-debate commentator as "like your kooky uncle who turns up at Thanksgiving dinner, angry at everything." Although most of them, including Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and even very-long-shot Representative Dennis Kucinich (the most "progressive" of the candidates), would all be acceptable, it also seemed to me that Hillary Clinton was clearly the most competent and plausible of the contenders, notwithstanding a whole bunch of allegedly negative factors that might work against her in any presidential election except the next one. Finally, and most important, there's a fairly good chance that one of the Democratic candidates will be elected president of the U.S., although that possibility is still an agonizing year-and-a-half away.
And that's the point: first, there's a good chance that the George W. Bush era will end, and second, Bush's presidency will turn out to be a phase/period/era in American history and not a permanent condition. I've been surprised by how many people, mostly friends on the left, have regarded the Bush regime as simply the United States, then, now, and forever. This, despite the fact that the last two presidential elections that Bush won, or stole, were split pretty much 50-50 in terms of the vote. Rather than seeing a politically divided America, many people have despairingly viewed the present period as a fixed eternity dominated by Xtian religious fundamentalism, social conservatism of the most bigoted sort, capitalist kleptocracy, and Armageddon-style bellicosity.
All of those elements are present. But if we view the situation in the U.S. as not a permanent condition but simply as an historical period, then all of those elements become less stable. Yes, religious fundamentalism, but the "enthusiasm" for it may be waning and/or fragmenting. Yes, faith-based policies, and much bellicosity, but the spectacular incompetence of the Bush regime and the best-and-brightest of the neoconservatives, has soured a lot of the electorate. Iraq, the Katrina hurricane that hit New Orleans, healthcare, education and much else have all been visibly fumbled to the extent that moderate alternatives to those policies have become an option. About the only feature that shows no sign of abatement is unregulated American capitalism.
While I'm only grudgingly willing to abandon my normal, cautious melancholy about the state of affairs south of the Canadian border, the mistaken notion that the Bush regime is indeed America, or worse, that the alternative would be no improvement, compels me to cheerily point out that history is not merely a nightmare from which we're attempting to awaken. Rather, it's a set of remarkable contingencies, and those contingencies are affected by human agency. I think that those who think that the election of a Democratic president would make no difference at all are dangerously mistaken. Rather than reciting the whole litany of possible alternative policies, just one item: if Al Gore had been elected in 2000, there would not have been an Iraq war.
All of this may only be a Rex Murphyish way of saying that the future is not as predestined as Calvinist heaven. In sum, it just might be worth staying YouTuned to the electoral process now slowly, very slowly, unfolding.
Vancouver, August 3, 2007.