by Jim Rovira
Pages 66 and 67 of the October 2003 Atlantic Monthly feature a two page ad for the ACLU. It’s a black and white photograph of Kurt Vonnegut; the photograph is part of Danny Clinch’s “Scrapbook for America” series. Vonnegut’s standing either inside of or in front of a used bookstore that looks to me like The Strand on Broadway and 12th in New York City. The most noticeable detail about the ad, though, is sprawled in large capital letters in a dramatically oversized Courier Font across the top of the page:
I AM NOT AN AMERICAN
The letters — and not just these, all of them — look like thin windows stretched over a scene we can’t quite puzzle together, like we’re looking through them to something else. Underneath this headline, one undoubtedly selected for its shock value, the message continues in slightly smaller print, all in lowercase:
who thinks my government should secretly get a list of the books I read.
The text now reverts to all caps, keeping its previous size:
I AM AN AMERICAN
then moves on in much smaller print to a mission statement, an affirmation:
who knows the importance of being able to read & express any thought without fear.
I AM AN ACLU MEMBER
The text inexplicably gets even smaller from this point:
because they will fight to keep us all SAFE & FREE. Join me and sign up at www.aclu.org
The ad says quite a bit, actually, in just a few words. Most people would agree with most of it. But there’s only one message that really comes through loud and clear:
I AM NOT AN AMERICAN
That’s what strikes the eye — that’s the first impression. It’s not a statement of vision, of mission, or of commitment. It’s a negation. I am not. And it’s more than that. It’s saying to Atlantic Monthly readers, “I am not one of you.” This ad, sporting two American mass culture left wing icons–the ACLU and Kurt Vonnegut–is a microcosm for the left on the American political spectrum today.
The Left has consigned itself to the peanut gallery of American politics. It’s the two old guys sitting up in the balcony taking pot shots at Kermit and Miss Piggy. It’s critique, it’s negation, it’s shame. And it’s not one of us.
I’m not denying that there’s a desperate need for insightful societal critique. But the critics need to know they’re never the actors, just the audience. They’ll never be on the stage, just sitting in a chair. That’s because you can’t build a society on a critique, only on a vision, on a positively expressed desire backed by the will to fulfill it. So while the ACLU is continuing to say, “I AM NOT AN AMERICAN” (and even though they say more than that, those first words are all anyone ever hears), the rest of the country is saying, “And I am not one of you.”
Welcome to four more years of George W. Bush after a pathetically ineffectual negative campaign run by the next idiot the Democrats choose to sacrifice on a national stage.
A recent edition of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart serves as a case in point. It offered up two contrasting soundbites: one by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in support of Gov. Gray Davis’ attempt to save himself in the recall election, and one by President Bush.
The Rev. Jackson, in rare form, stood up in front of a tepid crowd of Davis supporters and said, “I know you’re frustrated. But a frustrated chicken shouldn’t vote for Colonel Sanders.”
In contrast, Bush was being asked by reporters if his falling numbers had anything to do with the inability of US weapons inspectors to find WMDs in Iraq. He said he made the best decisions possible based upon the intelligence he had, with a slight intimation in his tone of voice that implied he knew more than was being reported.
The Rev. Jackson’s comment, as you see, was a negation. We’re not Colonel Sanders. We’re not going to cook you. No word about what Gov. Davis would do if elected. By this point, of course, nothing credible could be said about that topic. President Bush’s soundbite was an affirmation: I’m the President, I’m the decision maker, and I know things you don’t. Examples could be multiplied. Jack Beatty’s Atlantic Montly article, “A Miserable Failure” gives us a litany of reasons not to vote for Bush but not a single reason to vote for any opponent. David Brooks seems to get it, but his is a minority voice.
So don’t blame Bush for a state of affairs in which the American people are confronted with marginally competent leadership or no leadership at all. The marginally competent will always win, since at least they’re doing something even if we don’t always agree with it Blame the peanut gallery for not getting off its butt, for not leaving the “not” out of its sentences starting with an “I am…”, for not offering an alternative vision, for offering instead only a negation. Yeah, they’re not George Bush. Unfortunately, they’re not anything.