Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wilco's Summerteeth (or "How I Didn't Learn To Stop Worrying And Love The Electoral Process")

As I write this this we are exactly a half hour away from Election Day 2012 here in the President’s adopted home city of Chicago. I wasn't planning on writing this tonight, indeed, there are many other things that I should be writing, but I can’t seem to think about anything else. I guess what this all comes down is an overly-long justification for a confession that I can’t decide if I’m proud or embarrassed of.

I’m listening to Summerteeth right now and it’s the right album for a number of reasons. I’ll save you my amazing Zaltzman-style pun-run (the electoral tension? “I Can’t Stand It!”) and say that Wilco’s drugged-out neo-Wilsonian masterpiece is fitting because it perfectly balances optimism and despair, the dark night of the soul and the bright shining hope and that’s about as good an analogy for my attitude towards recent politics as any.

So about that confession… yeah. For those who know me this is probably pretty hard to believe but now, as of 11:41 on Monday November 5, 2012, I, John Michael Tryneski am still an undecided voter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all uncertain of whom I think should (and, as of right now, will) win the election. Unless you inhabit an alternate reality where globalwarming doesn't exist, homosexuality is a communicable disease and the bestcure for poverty is giving rich people sickeningly large gobs of money, the modern Republican party and its android ambassador are little more than malevolently-effective machines for turning certain people’slegitimate hopes and fears into concentrated evil.

No, what has kept me from fully making up my mind this election cycle is that classic liberal Catholic’s paradox – how much of an idealist can I afford to be in this fallen world of ours? I say fallen, not referring to some histrionic shock at the fact that 98% of the flock use birth control, but rather to the inherent corruption and of our national politics. Given just how bought and sold both our elections are and how that necessarily has to impact the decisions of a president, how can I in good faith not vote for a Green Party alternative that not only embraces Obama’s best policy positions but dares articulate their logical extensions?

My history with Barack Hussein Obama is a long and complicated one. I started out skeptical of his ambitions in 2007 before becoming so overwhelmingly convinced that I spent much of the fall of my senior year of college giving my time to him. He lived in my old neighborhood, Hyde Park and taught at the U of C, which I practically grew up on. After eight years of Bush, he seemed not only like an answer to my liberal prayers, but one that actually had a shot of winning – and making history.

Since his election, I, like Barry, have been forced to confront a set of painfully disappointing realities, some pre-existing, some unique to this recession. I’ve come of political age along with our president and so many times I’ve felt his struggle to be mine and vice-versa. Obama’s faced implacable opposition, brutal economic headwinds and a set of agonizing-but-necessary compromises since taking office that have all-too-often reminded me of my own, even as I rooted him along. I feel like after four years, we’re still kinda tracking each other. I’m not exactly where I want to be, job-wise. I’ve suffered a few false steps and had to re-think my whole approach but, also am doing a whole hell of a lot better than I very easily could have. Just like Barack, I might not have met my 2009 predictions but I’m also now aware how massively those underestimated the gravity of the situation and have done damn well for myself despite it.

I’m not one of those people who doesn't realize that even though Barack has compromised on so many things, those were all, to a greater or lesser degree, necessary concessions. I don’t for a second discount rescuing the economy, fair pay, ending DADT, the beginnings of financial reform, green energy support and, above all, the fruition of seven decades of work to pass significant health care reform. Furthermore, I know that he’s had to do this in the face of rabid, insensate opposition from those who hold his race, education, background, diet and very being against him.

What torments me is that, even knowing all these things about him as a politician and even more about him as a person (as a true Sox fan, kickass basketball player, Jay-Z fan, he’s easily the most badass president since Abraham Lincoln and it’s hard to compete with ending slavery), I also have to hold him accountable for his faults. Even without the inevitable compromises involved in dealing with a McConnell Senate or the realities of today’s billion dollar presidency, I’d be hypocrite not to acknowledge that Obama has often acted in a manner totally in opposition to the man I voted for and a true progressive.

I won’t get into the wonky details because others are far better at it than I. Sufficed to say that some of Obama’s actions such as the escalation of the drug war, thecreation and legal defense of the drone war, crackdowns on whistle blowers and a failure to pursue meaningful structural reform to counteract the effects ofour modern Gilded Age have all given me incredible pause.

Most of these decisions were executive in nature (no blaming Congress) and any one of them fills me with sickness. Whether out of political calculation, the corrupting influence of power, a willingness to bend to institutional norms or a subtle shift in the man (I hope/pray/would like not to think it’s the latter) has done things that are neigh impossible for a true liberal such as myself to accept.

Living in Illinois, I know that my vote for president is all-but-symbolic and yet that symbolism still tugs at my heartstrings. Call me a deluded Romantic (no argument here) but I still believe in the power of an individual vote. Casting a ballot should never be the extent of one’s political activity but it IS the most basic. No one is worrying about my vote besides me, but it’s still impossible to escape this internal debate. Do I support the agonizingly flawed, yet pragmatic campaign of my old hero or vote my conscience, even though I know that, on some level, I’m taking the easy, “don’t blame me, I voted for a third party” way out that ignores reality for principle? Either alternative would force me to acknowledge some truth about modern existence that seems, at times, too disheartening to bear.

This is a music blog, so I’ll return to Summerteeth here, but I do so with a purpose. I’ve long argued that “politics” is less a separate category of human interaction than just a way of interpreting life (if, after all, politics is about how we want to shape human society, then almost no action is totally devoid political content). Wilco’s third album is basically Jeff Tweedy’s response to limited success. In 1999 he had a band that reached huge critical but very moderate popular success. The quotidian demands of marriage and fatherhood and bread-winning were crashing down on him, which he acknowledged as important, while still dreaming of transgressing. He sings about waking up feeling old, about retaining optimism despite despair, about fooling ourselves (or not?) about how much we can expect from life in terms of staying true to ourselves while also doing what we must to provide for those that we love. How could that not speak to me?

Like a great artist, Tweedy leaves us no easy answers and instead revels in the questions. Sadly, life almost never allows us to live as artistic ideals and instead forces us to choose between two options, neither without agonizing downsides.

As I write this I’m still undecided. My head (or is it my heart?) tells me that voting Green won’t hurt anybody and at least registers an voice for that ideal that I believe in but can't reasonably expect. My heart tells me that Obama is my guy – he’s trying his best despite being put in an unbelievably hard position and I shouldn't abdicate the guy on the ground just because things didn't go exactly out way. I know which way I’m leaning, but I don’t think I’ll know for certain what I’ll do until I pull that curtain closed tomorrow. But either way, it’ll (hopefully) all be over in 24 hours and I’ll still be right here where I was when it all started. Like Barack, I’m coming home. I’m coming home. I’m coming home, via Chicago.

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