Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can’t Go Back There

I can really identify with Atrios’ post about the HBO film “Recount.” In particular, this:
That whole saga was just really traumatic. It was my "holy shit everything is really screwed up" moment when I suddenly realized that all of our elites - politicians, supremos, and especially the media - did not deserve the modest naive faith that I had given them. I'm not saying that I lacked any cynicism about the various institutions before, but just watching the media piss on our Democracy over that time period was incredibly jarring.

I can’t watch it, either. It really is just too painful.

The 2000 election and Supreme Court decision that installed Bush in the White House was my wake up call. Prior to that I paid little attention to the daily drama of politics. I voted, and watched the news, and kept as reasonably informed about current events as any busy working person. The Clinton impeachment was horrifying to me, of course, and I felt it was wrong for a bunch of people to take out their political vendetta in this sleazy way. But I also felt like President Clinton’s tawdry affair had been stupid and reckless. Furthermore, I didn’t feel like it affected me one way or the other.

The 2000 election was different. The fact that we didn’t know the results of a presidential election for an entire month was deeply unsettling to me. Even worse, I wasn’t in the U.S. when a lot of this was going on. Watching it all in snippets on TV while in a foreign country was jarring.

At the risk of sounding elitist, I was in France. Yes, France. I had taken advantage of early voting and left the country for a holiday with my sister. We went in November because that’s when it’s cheaper. On election day we went to Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, famed watering hole for American expats. We took part in Harry’s famous straw poll (which to our dismay declared George W. Bush the winner) and were interviewed by French radio about the election. When someone told me in broken English that he despised Karen Hughes, I tried not to let on that I didn’t know who she was.

We declared our distaste for Bush Jr., drank more than a seemly amount of beer, and toddled our way back to the hotel in St-Germain-des-Prés, expecting to turn on CNN International and learn who our new president would be.

Instead we spent the rest of our trip uncertain about what we’d find when we got home. Every day the news from home got worse. I wondered if part of the story wasn’t getting lost in its transatlantic journey. I saw pictures of the famous Brooks Brothers riot and knew immediately it was a fake: all those pasty-faced white boys in their Oxford shirts is a riot? You gotta be kidding me, I thought. Katherine Harris was in charge of Florida’s elections and Bush-Cheney campaign co-chair? Is that even legal?

And I just didn’t understand why any of this was happening. What had gone wrong with our system? If this had happened in a third world country, I thought, we’d write it off to a broken, phony democracy. Surely this wasn’t happening in America. I had a sense that something had been going terribly wrong for a really long time, and I just hadn’t been paying attention.

When it all finally shook down, I was disappointed but relieved. At least it was over, I thought. I was used to dumb Republicans winning elections over far smarter Democrats, and the world hadn’t stopped turning. No really serious damage had been done, at least, nothing that couldn’t be undone.

And then 9/11 happened and Bush showed how much damage a truly horrible president could do.

The Bush presidency and the 2000 election that spawned it awakened a lot of us on the left. Like Atrios, I realized that the institutions I had taken for granted were corroding, and it hadn’t just happened over night. It had been going on for years, while I hadn’t been paying attention. It was a painful realization, and I’ve had to acknowledge my own complicity. While I was watching "L.A. Law" and "Thirtysomething" the nuts took over the asylum. All I can say now is, never again.

But do I want to spend three hours reliving the moment I realized much of what I thought was true about this country had rotted away? No, I don’t.