Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub

This blog is, evidently, verging on becoming a David Foster Wallace tribute site. But, though that is hardly the intention, there is one last article that is clamouring to be discussed, because it is so beautifully à propos to current events. Besides, I have looked down upon contemporary prose for much of my life, and DFW (as he is commonly abbreviated) is the only writer of it whose approach and mentality I enthusiastically like. Ergo, he is a prime topic for a day devoted to contemporary[/premodern] literature.
In 2000, Rolling Stone magazine dispatched this journalist-who-is-not-a-journalist to cover John McCain's campaign against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. (DFW had an often funny, self-deprecating fixation on his lack of credentials, which is extraneous because he fulfilled the role of a journalist as journalists rarely do.) His observations, published in an article entitled "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub," are as relevant today as they were when they were written. [N.B.: I am summarizing it based on my memory and notes from Sept. 17th.]

Fittingly for Rolling Stone, the article is counter-culture. DFW rides along in the press bus that trails McCain's bus (nicknamed the Straight Talk Express), together with the Twelve Monkeys, fellow lesser journalists, and technical support. By "twelve monkeys" he means the humourless, impeccably dressed snobs who represent what has become known as the media élite. (In the case of this article, it is worthwhile to consult the footnotes during or before the article itself, because they gloss the jargon.) Even in those halcyon days, the Monkeys display the precise lack of critical thinking that characterizes their coverage of the Bush administration for the following four to seven years. It brings to mind Senator Joe Biden's pithy expression in the recent vice-presidential debate: "Past is prologue." The way of life on the press bus is not ideal either. The journalists are malnourished and grumpy and sleep-deprived, and going to the toilet is no pleasure if the door flies open whenever its occupant is knocked against the control button by the motion of the vehicle. Frankly, I read such elucidations on the trials of the itinerant hack with a commingled sense of eager curiosity and Schadenfreude.

In a very American touch of class rebellion, DFW often shoots the breeze with the tech support people, who plausibly possess a sharper insight into the political process. At one point their discussion fascinatingly turns to negative campaigning. The idea is that such campaigning is convenient for whichever candidate is chosen by the party establishment: an ugly tone in the election discourages voters from participating in the process, so that it is mostly only diehard party members who turn up at the ballot-boxes and accordingly vote for the party favourite. As for the candidate who is marginalized by the machinery at the outset, he is put in a difficult position, even though polls and anecdotal evidence prove that negative campaigning is greatly unpopular. If he does not respond decisively to negative ads, etc., he looks weak. (This, of course, is widely identified as a central reason why John Kerry lost the election in 2004. The "Swiftboat Veterans for 'Truth'" [extra set of quotation marks mine] campaign was low, but it apparently had to be dignified with an answer.) If he responds too aggressively, it is scored against him.

A helpful series of clarifications, aside from those on shady campaign financing practices, is presented at the beginning, after he poses the question, "Why should we vote?" It concerns John McCain's imprisonment during the Vietnam War. This tale has become so familiar, though more as a vague concept than as a detailed account, that it is easy to ignore or disparage. (It may be awful of me, but I don't believe the official version of events 100%, either.) But the story, as recounted sympathetically by Wallace, is horrifying. McCain is shot down and lands in a pond, severely injured. He is pulled out and beaten by an angry crowd and thrown into prison. There he is given the opportunity to be sent home immediately because his father is an important military figure, but he refuses the opportunity so that he doesn't jump ahead in the order of prisoners to be released. So he spends the next four or five years in a box under terrible conditions.

DFW employs this portion of biography as evidence that a handful of politicians do mean what they say, and when they speak of working on behalf of their country, they have actually done so. There are politicians, too, who are substance as well as style, or, as he might put it, not only "salesmen" but also statesmen. Unfortunately McCain, arguably, has stopped measuring up to either ideal. So it would have been particularly interesting to know how he would have reinterpreted his findings to fit the changed conditions eight years later.

Lastly, to return to the question, "Why vote?", the point of the article is that there is a point to exercising one's electoral rights, if only for this reason:
In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.
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"The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub," Rolling Stone (April 13th, 2000)

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