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Politics is not cool

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Baudelaire once wrote that for the merchant, even honesty is a financial speculation. By the same token, I think what disturbs us most when we hear politicians speak is the sense that they are constantly – reflexively – calculating how their words will affect their polling numbers and their chances for election or re-election. Even when they are sincere, their sincerity is a strategy. Usually, they are not sincere.

Following the British debate over the war has led me to change my opinion of Tony Blair. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Blair was widely perceived to be a creature of opinion polls. But Blair instinctively saw that the attacks represented an assault not just on the United States, but on civilization itself, and he supported the war in Iraq in the face of widespread dissent within his own party and amongst the British people.

It is not my intention to defend Blair’s position on the war here; I just want to register my surprise at seeing him stop fawning on public opinion – such fawning is the mark of a demagogue, not a democrat – and become a real leader.

That’s a rare thing, and it may yet cost Blair the leadership of his party. But it was good to see that it’s still possible for a politician try to persuade the public rather than pandering to it. For a particularly egregious example of such pandering, let’s turn to John Kerry’s recent appearance on MTV. I don’t mean this to be an attack on Kerry particularly, but I think his MTV performance is a particularly clear example of a disease that afflicts politicians of every party. The show was part of “Choose or Lose”, an initiative aiming to encourage people in the 18-30 age group to vote and be “a deciding factor in the 2004 presidential election.”

Some of Kerry’s comments were just standard campaign boilerplate, which no politician seems able to do without, but what was particularly painful to watch was a four-term U.S. senator trying to sound cool, addressing his audience as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted them to choose him as their president or their roommate.

There should be a word for lies that you tell even though you know there is absolutely no chance of anyone believing you. Such was Kerry’s claim to be “fascinated” by rap and hip-hop. In Kerry’s televised opinion, “there’s a lot of poetry in it. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of social energy in it. And I think you’d better listen to it pretty carefully, ’cause it’s important.”

We should note in passing the use of the terms “anger” and “social energy” as if the one implied the other. It is becoming increasingly popular to take the view that there’s something naturally progressive about being angry. This is, I think, a symptom of the narcissistic turn that progressive politics has taken, to the point where many would-be activists seem more concerned with the righteousness of their political sentiments than with tedious questions about whether or not their tactics might be counterproductive. (Does anyone doubt that the people who carried signs comparing Bush to Hitler at anti-war protests did more to help secure support for Bush than any of his own speeches?)

Many people – including some who still enjoy it – are concerned about the misogyny of much rap music, and about its celebration of violence and criminality. Kerry is prepared to admit that when rappers start talking about killing cops it “bothers” him, but he’s “still listening” because “it’s a reflection of the street.” Politicians rarely sound more foolish than when they are talking about how things are on “the street.”

In case you missed the show, I should add that Kerry is absolutely not in favor of the government censoring music, but he doesn’t think that it’s inappropriate “occasionally to talk about what you think is a standard or what you think is a value that is worth trying to live up to.” So, if you think the popularity of songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” might be something to worry about, well then it would be okay for you to talk about that. Occasionally.

But my purpose isn’t to criticize Kerry’s views, because it’s perfectly obvious these aren’t his views. They are just an empty gesture of goodwill to people who like hip hop music. There is something deeply condescending about such a gesture. It insults its audience because it suggests they can’t understand that a U.S. senator has better things to do than keep up with pop culture. It insults them because it suggests they can’t understand that politics is not, and should not be, cool.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. Last year, he was surprised to discover that Jennifer Lopez and J-Lo were the same person. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.