Belmont Club

Electoral Stardust

There’s spring fever and cabin fever.  And you’ve must have heard of ‘election fever’. The very word ‘election’ conjures up a plethora of disease sounding words. There’s ‘psephologists’ — persons who undertake “the study and scientific analysis of elections. Psephology uses historical precinct voting data, public opinion polls, campaign finance information and similar statistical data. The term was coined in the United Kingdom in 1952 by historian R. B. McCallum to describe the scientific analysis of past elections.”

So if you’re electorally sick, visit your nearest psephologist. Also there’s the ‘lunatic fringe’, redolent of insanity in contrast to ‘educated voters’ who are presumably engaged in the serene ‘deliberative democracy’ that Andrew Sullivan would understand. There’s the well and the unwell. Where do you fit?

Consider that even liberals can fall under the weather. John Cassidy at the New Yorker in fact has an Rx for residents of the Big Apple who are afflicted with so burning an ‘election fever’ that they just have to do something. They are political junkies — there’s a disease word again — and they need a fix. Cassidy writes:

Now that the debates are over and the candidates have disappeared for good into the swing states, New Yorkers are faced with a pressing problem: How are we to participate in this thing? We want to, we need to—urgently. Ever since the disastrous showdown in Denver on October 3rd, there’s been a certain low-level hysteria in the air, which has affected almost everybody. It’s the mental equivalent of an outburst of poison ivy that demands to be scratched. …

So what can be done to treat it? While the debates were on, they provided a ready remedy …  But now there are no more debates … What to do? Voting for Obama is one obvious step, but, really, if you’re not in a swing state, is it even worth it? Sure it is, but you know what I mean …

No, there’s nothing else for it. You’ll just have to take next week off work—tell your boss you’ve got vertigo and have to go and lie down—and transport yourself to Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, or New Hampshire. Those are the seven battleground states, and some of the biggest prizes aren’t very far away. Northern Virginia is just a five-hour drive from the Lincoln Tunnel; Cleveland is eight. Once you arrive, you can go online and look up the nearest “Get Out the Vote” drive: it shouldn’t be hard, they’re everywhere. Ohio might be your best bet. There’s early voting there, and, who knows, you might run into Bruce Springsteen or Bill Clinton, both of whom have been busy lending a hand—or even the President or the Vice-President, who will both be crisscrossing the state constantly from here on out.

Cassidy writes with humorously but makes the serious point that politics is existential. People care about it because it feeds into and defines their self-esteem. Besides engaging in the great issues is one way of escaping from their quotidian lives and into the realm of grand historical drama.

So who wants to keep sitting in front of that computer which the boss has not upgraded in years from Windows 98 — it’s still a CRT — and head for a swing state where “who knows, you might run into Bruce Springsteen or Bill Clinton” if not Barack Obama himself! The Hobbits at least could dream of meeting Smaug the Dragon. We moderns must content ourselves with Hillary.

The need to brush up against fame appears to be a widespread human need. For example the Democratic Underground has a thread called “Touched By Greatness” — which relates the stories of DU-niks who’ve had run-ins with celebrities. That only goes to prove that nothing titillates the vanguard of the proletariat more than aristocracy.

In fact, nothing attracts like the aura of fame. In 1993, playwright John Guare wrote a play, Six Degrees of Separation, which described how a status-obsessed couple were conned by a grifter claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son.

In a nutshell: Flan (what a name!) and Ouisa Kittredge are art dealers living in posh East Side and are entertaining a guest when this young black man drops by their apartment, victim of muggers. He claims to be not only the son of Sidney Poitier, but also friends with the couple’s children at Harvard. He is so well spoken, exotic, fascinating, flattering, that soon he has everyone in that apartment wrapped around his little finger. When you finally get to meet the children, you quickly understand the reason for that. Paul Poitier is a classy con-artist that makes people fall in love with him. For example, after explaining what his thesis is about (stolen by muggers), Flan Kittredge throws a passionate and outraged “I hope your robbers read every page of it!” It is impossible not to like him. After Paul does the rounds among the Kittredges’ friends, he becomes cocktail party anecdote. Ouisa is the one who eventually admits how much she cares for this boy and becomes incredibly guilty for not having helped him enough. The best metaphor in the movie is represented by the Kandinski painting, the chaos-control canvas, because while on the surface it seems that Oiusa has her life under control with lots of money, powerful friends and poshy luxurious lifestyle, in fact she has another side where there is little sense of meaning.

He was too meaningful a gift horse to look in the mouth. In case the premise seems too absurd remember that Guare’s screenplay was based on the actual life of David Hampton “an American con artist who gained infamy in the 1980s after milking a group of wealthy Manhattanites out of thousands of dollars by convincing them he was Sir Sidney Poitier’s son. His story became the inspiration for a play and later a movie, titled Six Degrees of Separation.”

He also persuaded at least a dozen people into letting him stay with them in their homes or to give him money, including Melanie Griffith; Gary Sinise; Calvin Klein; John Jay Iselin, the president of WNET; Osborn Elliott, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; and a Manhattan urologist. He told some of them that he was a acquaintance of their children, some that he had just missed his plane to Los Angeles and that all his luggage was on it, some that his belongings had been stolen.

Given the choice between meeting Prince Charming and saying good morning to baker next door for the nth time that year, ninety nine percent will go for Prince Charming. The germ of election fever lies in its ability to take us from our daily drudgery and into the world of the headline.  And that is why, come to think of it, why many hanker for a cause to lose themselves in: to touch the transcendent and just possibly to meet Bill Clinton.

But it might be well to remember Charles Bronson’s reproof to the two children in Magnificent Seven who were tempted to admire the life of the glamorous gunslinger over that of their peasant father.

You think I’m brave because I carry a gun? Well, your fathers are much braver, because they carry responsibility — for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a-a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee what will ever come of it… this is bravery. That’s why I never started anything like that. That’s why I never will.

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