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Aaron Lowinger: Politics, Fear, and Our Boy Rory

Buffalo poet and occasional AV contributor Aaron Lowinger weighs in on next week’s primary elections:

It’s election season in Western New York. The footpath from mailbox to recycle box is a well rehearsed daily routine. The Incumbents, with their glossy mailings and t-shirt beclad supporters, are working the streets with a lethargy synonymous with the entire process.

It’s hard to understand how important voting is. The big picture of our rampant systemic failure (RSF, which I qualify simply by pointing at the housing and schools in my neighborhood) becomes a simplified and debased death match: in one corner the Incumbents (BOO!!!), with their piles of big money labeled e pluribus status quo and their flashy red, white, and GREEN shorts with a name everyone recognizes; while in the other corner are the Challengers (YAY!!!). The Incumbent touts is record and promises more of the same. The Challenger plans to make changes he will never have the power to execute, points out that the Incumbent is a politician, which is apparently a dirty word, and advocates for himself as the true agent of change. His shorts aren’t flashy, and you’ve probably never heard his name, even if he’s your own councilman. But he’s selling something in short supply these days: faith in the democratic process these days in Gotham.

According to the ever folksy “Tea Party,” a politician is not something you ever want to be, let alone a career politician. Their influence has spread far and wide.
Even in a primary race between Democrats for New York State Assembly, to wit Sam Hoyt and Joe Golombek, both campaigns are trying to paint the opponent in red as the career politician. And you don’t use nasty words like that unless you’re looking for a fight.

As a candidate your first job is to convince people to actually go to the polls, and stirring some anger into the emotional pot is a solid strategy. Buffalo attorney/developer Carl Paladino has won broad “Tea Party” support, partly thanks to the immediacy of his slogan: “I’m mad as hell too Carl!” It doesn’t matter what they’re mad about, but for some reason it’s becoming politically expedient everywhere in the free world to appeal to the emotional side of politics only. After the big “change,” the great “hope” floated to us two years ago in an advertising campaign the likes of which had never been seen, let alone imagined, the right is firing back with vitriol, diatribe, slander, oh my!

The scariest thing about using anger, which of course is very intimately intertwined with fear, isn’t that it can win an election outright now, but that it very soon could. People vote because they want to participate in the larger machinations of our ghostly government and many vote because they feel deep down that their candidate of choice is good. You make a gut call on who you like, based on often cursory, even superstitious reasoning.

I know because I play the game too. I enjoy voting because, if nothing else, it as a practice of high absurdity. I often know little or nothing about the candidates, and I try to follow local news closely. In city elections, the candidates are either made or flambéed in the Democratic primaries. The Republican Party often doesn’t even bother running a candidate; it’d be akin to burning money. You can often vote for the same candidate under multiple party lines (Democrat, Working Families, Conservative, Liberal, etc.…), often conflating what you thought were pretty opposite ideological differences.

And then the actual voting is a hoot. There’s that glorious crank that pulls the curtain closed behind you, giving you your own little democratic cocoon in which to exercise the ritual. There is the satisfaction of pressing down on a plastic lever that reveals a red arrow indicating the candidate’s name. I always feel let down after a crank the handle back to open the curtain. I’m mad when it’s all over, as if there was some real magic transpiring in that booth, as if the moment should actually feel more momentous. For these reasons, voting feels like a comical event. But it’s the joke you have to tell at the wake to excuse the tragedy of the corpse in the middle of the room. The joke you have to tell “to keep from going insane.”

In 2008 I voted at 6am down at Lafayette High School. It was an exciting day. I remember an older black woman down in line (there was a line to vote at 6am!) and she was beaming and, although she didn’t say it, it seemed like she hadn’t slept. She couldn’t wait to get to vote! That night in Chicago was also a very touching scene; the country seemed more united than I ever remember it. I think it’s true that people want to be a part of something bigger than what they are, or what they can see. Most people I talk to, and I talk to my share, express a desire to improve their life in some way. I still hold on to that day, hold on to the innocence that pervaded my world in voting for Barack Obama and watching the country on TV greet him. It was as if we all suspended our deep cynicism toward politics and the leadership of our murderous society, hoping that we were collectively improving the lives of not just ourselves but really of everyone.

Does it feel weird to anyone else to recall the optimism of that day? Does anyone really now believe that Obama isn’t playing on the teeter-totter of public opinion, sticking to a center-right position (in the European schema, that is) that is focused purely on the further consolidation of his power? Hope. Change. Can these words mean anything now in political discourse? Will we really allow another campaigner to blow this kind of sunshine out our netherparts?

This is the really scary part within the present political marketing of anger/fear as the motivating emotion for political involvement. The alternative has been cheapened, bastardized. This is all we’ve got. Perhaps the so-called “economic downturn” is to blame for people’s pessimism, but I’m not buying it, at least not on these terms. It’s hard to blame Carl for exposing the anger market, after all, he’s a businessman and he knows a good market when he sees one. A good and decent American. The real beef, the elephant in the room, is our RSF, and running a campaign that calls this out would be akin to raising the white flag, and open one to criticism of being unpatriotic.

Enter my neighbor Rory, a Democratic challenger running for State Senate. He owns a printing business. Judging by the contents of my recycling, sounds like a good business to be in when launching a political career. I didn’t know he was my neighbor until he walked up my driveway and announced who he was, where he lived, and what he was up to. “You might have seen me driving around my golf cart?” I hadn’t, but I took him at his word. He told me he was running against Antoine Thompson, a well-funded but vulnerable candidate. A good businessman knows how to find his market. I also hadn’t realized at the time that I know Rory, in a very Buffalo kind of way. He’s married to the cousin of a niece of a good and old friend of mine. He seems like an honest person, someone committed to our city, and I suppose that’s all we need to have to go on. The political observer/willing absurdist in me can give him only this rather superficial endorsement.

Maybe some folks can do better in building their personal endorsements, but I can’t be the only one who makes up their mind in a similar fashion. While it’s trite to use a phrase like “political disillusionment,” there’s an obvious ill that nothing short of rewriting the Constitution AND revisiting the wisdom of market capitalism can cure. And voters aren’t the only ones feeling the blues. Political activism itself on both sides has become an empty rehearsal of with one part anger, one part fear, a dash of academic elitism, a helping of hate politics.

Community organizations working on the micro level seem to be the exception. In Buffalo we should be proud of the work done by PUSH, Buffalo ReUse, our neighborhood community centers (Old First Ward, Father Belle, Hispanics United, to name a few), and so many other people and agencies which keep the gum plugged into the holes of the failing dam. It’s hard to be an activist these days, everyone hates the war, but are we wrong to think the federal government doesn’t care who and what it exploits in the pursuit of its interests? Or that our elected folk and two-party system don’t give us a chance to care?

A Challenger to an Incumbent for state senate in this day has to have the charisma to convince people, all 30% of the registered voters or whatever it will amount to this year, that they have an answer within the force of their personality. Down on Baynes Street, our boy Rory is hawking hope for a change that no one can truthfully imagine.