Benjamin Wachs: We have met the freaks, and they are us
It’s amazing how quickly a gubernatorial campaign can go from talk of tax breaks to a discussion about whether the candidate only hates gays when told to by a rabbi he barely knows.
Carl Paladino has been revealed as his campaign’s own best saboteur. But he’s hardly the only one.
The year 2010 will be forever remembered by most of us as the campaign year of the candidate who dresses like a Nazi; the candidate who’s not a witch but dated a satanist; the candidate whose best qualification for public office is her ownership of a professional wrestling franchise, where her duties included kicking referees in the groin; the family values candidate who once kidnapped someone and tried to make her worship “aqua Buddha”; and the candidate who claims that U.S. cities have been taken over by Sharia law.
Until the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” decides to run for Congress (and they will), this is probably the weirdest campaign season we’re going to see.
Still, the widespread conclusion that aspiring and current politicians are a bunch of freaks is wishful thinking. It is true that the toxic political atmosphere and degree of personal scrutiny by an amoral media culture will chase many of the best citizens away from office.
But it’s also true that for most of American history, politicians were protected by a veil of hypocrisy (the homage that vice pays to virtue) and secrecy (which you could have before Facebook) that kept most of their foibles out of the public eye.
Most of us, until just recently, were protected by that same veil. If politicians were the only ones being caught by cell phone cameras doing stupid things, this would be a very different world.
The revelation of human comedy and grotesqueness among politicians, in other words, should be seen not as a theater we’re watching but as a disaster we’re participating in. It’s not that they’re so different from us, it’s that there are more nazi-dressing, non-witch satanist-dating, aqua Buddha-related kidnapping, groin-kicking people out there than we’d like to think.
And they’re us. Every example of a politician doing something stupid that ends up on the evening news is met by 10 examples of an ordinary person doing something stupid that goes viral.
The difference, so far, is that “ordinary” people don’t live in the obscenely toxic environment of contemporary politics — but if we did, we would respond by becoming more toxic ourselves. (Anyone who has worked in politics at the state or national level has seen it turn people self-destructive.)
The difference, so far, is that most of us aren’t being watched as much — but if we were, most of us would have no idea how to stay “on message” either. It’s harder than it looks.
Our politicians are us. We’re all freaks, and we probably always have been.
But until recently, there was an informal social contract about these things. No one can be a “normal” citizen all the time, but if we were able to keep our individual humane weirdness under the radar and out of the public sphere, then most of the time society would look the other way. Most of our private lives were what sociologist Phillip Reiff called “remissive,” rather than “transgressive.” We all strove to be respectable in the public sphere, and had some space to breathe in the private.
It was a cruel system to those who were for some reason deemed outside of its protection and therefore genuinely persecuted — like gays and women with adventurous sex lives — but for most of us it was stifling but effective.
There is no private sphere anymore, and the 2010 election is the result.
The advantage of a world like this is that we’re all emancipated. We can “be ourselves” without fear or shame. The disadvantage is ... well ... look at Congress, which knows neither fear nor shame.
I’m fairly sure that, right before I vote, a new social monasticism will seem the right way to go.
Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media. Read his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.