A building is really just a hole. It can be a very fancy hole with 200 executive suites, high speed Internet, two restaurants and a fitness center, but it’s still just a hole. In this same way, politics is really just an argument. Forget all this hogwash about pubic policy, governance, and the social contract. Politics is a futile shouting match carried out in the most public way possible between two gangs of wealthy drunks. Do normal people want to argue? No. So they avoid politics- and they’re right. Politics is poverty. Politics is domination. Politics leads to war. Politics is a cesspool full of rabid badgers duking it out in an atmosphere comprised of equal parts helium, oxygen, and crack smoke. The average person’s enthusiasm for politics is right up there with rectal cancer, although both are preferable to public speaking. Yet politics rules every aspect of our lives. It’s the mechanism by which the reality we live in is defined.
If we do not participate in the political process, we must accept that the biggest, meanest badger will be running the show. He’ll be pissed off, tore up, and looking for payback. Do I really have to name any names? As hideous as it sounds, we all have to get involved. By ‘involved’, I don’t mean showing up at the high school gym once every four years so you can get the little sticker that says “I voted”- not that many people even go that far. After all, you can buy your own ‘United We Stand’ sticker for a couple of bucks, slap it on your car, and then you don’t have to vote- you’re united with whoever everybody else chooses. Although it can hardly be said you’re taking any kind of stand. Maybe it means standing around. “United We Stand Around” doesn’t have the same ring, does it? But that’s what we’re doing, and meanwhile the fox is in the whorehouse. So if you do vote, great. That’s a start. But voting is not enough, especially now that the odds of getting your vote counted are similar to house odds at roulette (37 to 1 straight bet, 8 to 1 corner bet but you have to vote 4 times, which is difficult in some Northern states). So what else can you do besides casting your ballot on the waters?
Many of my readers are activists, and they know what else. They’re the ones raising their hands right now, going “ooh, ooh”. An activist is somebody who works to promote a lost cause, such as world peace or free dental care for mice. “Get involved, man!” They cry. This isn’t particularly helpful, but thanks for sharing. I’m an activist too, and look what a difference I’ve made. Through my tireless efforts, the people I hate most have secured absolute power, destroyed the common weal, and pour my tax money directly into their pockets. It’s enough to make a fellow not participate, isn’t it? This creates a perfect system: people are so turned off by the status quo (Latin for ‘this sucks’) that they won’t even think about it. Which means the status quo is never going to change. But what if there were enough activists, for instance driving around on election night with school busses and shotguns, forcing people to vote? Then we’ll have a revolution, right? No. All that really means is we’ve switched badgers.
What we must do is transform our very notion of what America is. Otherwise, we’re just badgers, tearing ragged, greasy strips of flesh off each other while the world around us decays. But transform it into what? One idea I had is we could transform America into a large side order of blintzes; then at least everybody could eat. But this doesn’t strike to the core of the thing, nor even the pith or marrow. America must transform itself into a union of citizens that nurtures its land and people, inspires other nations, and stands united not merely by birthplace but by the common birthright of humanity.
To do this, we Americans must first transform our political argument into a personal conversation. Seems fairly obvious, once somebody mentions it. Unfortunately the entire notion is hooey, because to transform the nation we must first transform the way we operate as human beings, or more broadly (to include Republicans), bipedal terrestrial primates. We must let go of the ideas of wrong and right, yes and no, have and have not.
These polarities will never go away, but we give them so much of our energy there’s no room to create solutions. The right hand wins, then nails the left hand to a table in order to secure its victory. Who wins? Certainly not the guy on the other end of the arms. He can’t check his watch. Am I saying we should agree on everything? No, I am not. To return to the hand analogy, this would look very much like thumb twiddling. In any case it will never happen. If you think a nation of 300 million souls can ever agree on anything, try this experiment: get twenty complete strangers to order the same thing at your local Chinese restaurant. This exercise also works with Greek restaurants, or ten strangers if it’s Bavarian food. The result will be havoc. Not only that but they’ll automatically add a 15% gratuity to the check. Humans cannot agree on anything. That’s why politics even exists: politics is the art of getting large numbers of people to disagree about the same things. It’s a business. Whoever generates the most disagreement, wins. Yes? After all, if we agreed on things, if we developed mutually satisfactory outcomes, we couldn’t be miserable. And that’s what this is all about.
Humans like to be miserable. When we’re in the womb, we’re essentially perfect. I mean we look like skinned koalas, but we don’t have any troubles. Then we get born- big mistake- and the next thing you know we’re short, or fat, or female, or gay, or black, or Jewish, or bald, or unmusical, or prone to flatulence, or wrong, different, alone and despised; some of us are all of these things, or none of these things, which is even worse. Of course we like to be miserable: at least that way we’re happy. What politicians do is create beneficial outcomes through the manipulation and management of mass misery. Beneficial to whom? To themselves, of course. With the exception of one politician in the Oval Office (I won’t name any names), they’re not stupid. And even that one guy has a certain animal cunning, almost badger-like. Life may be miserable, but you’d have to be some kind of simp not to notice, by about the age of three, that rich, powerful people enjoy their misery a great deal more than everybody else. After all, would you rather be miserable while scrubbing underwear in the sweltering belly of an industrial laundry, or succumbing to the blandishments of a frisky intern in the custom cabin of a Bell 430 executive helicopter? Quick, choose one. I’ll see you at the helipad.
Do you see where this is going? I hope so, or I’m going to have to rewrite the whole thing. Politics is the business of mass disagreement; politicians practice mass misery management. If the masses agreed, the political class would be out of business in a flash, or possibly half a flash. If the masses weren’t miserable, there would be nothing for the politicians to do. And worse, the politicians would no longer be less miserable than other people, which is humanity’s number one metric for whether we have good lives or bad lives. Do you get it? In the name of sweet Mother Mary and her auntie May, can’t you see? That’s what’s going on! You put the extreme Left in charge, it turns into Stalinism. You put the extreme Right in charge, it turns into Fascism. What’s the difference? Who cares!
The people on one side will always do their very best to make sure the people on the other side have the suckiest possible lives. Then and only then have they won. The only difference- and if this is all you get I can die happy, or at least miserable, which is good enough- the only difference between the Left and the Right is that the Left wants to spread the misery around evenly, and the Right wants to concentrate it on somebody else. What happens to the vast majority of people, the ones I’m really speaking to here, who fall into the middle? What about them, all those folks who can’t stand politics and don’t want to get involved, who find the whole thing disgusting, who either tape their nostrils shut, close their eyes, and vote at random, or don’t bother to vote at all? Guess where all that misery the politicians are managing goes. Ah yes. Right in the middle.
To summarize: you’re one of four things. You can be apolitical, in which case you’re merely crouched shivering in the reeking mud flats of misery, waiting for the tide to come in and drown you; at least this requires no effort. You can be a dutiful citizen, meaning you vote and can remember who the governor of your state is, but nothing you do makes any difference. Finally you can be an activist, meaning you’re deeply committed to futile resistance against power, or you can be in power, in which case you spend all your time trying to keep the resistance futile. This doesn’t leave us in what you might call a great place. Luckily, there is an answer. There’s something else you can do, and it’s so simple the sheer possibility of the thing will make you break out in hives. Ready? Here it is.
Two parts. First, have a conversation with somebody. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Merely find a comfortable position to sit and then make noises with your mouth. If you wish, you can also enjoy a refreshing beverage. There’s one caveat to this part: it’s can’t just be any conversation at all. It must be a conversation about politics, during which you create an agreement between yourself and the other person in the conversation. (I should note that you’re supposed to converse with a human being. Trees, carpet scraps, and beef entrees don’t listen, I’ve tried.) Done that? Great. Now here’s the second part. Anybody can agree to anything, and nothing happens. I agree to everything, and I do nothing. You need some kind of call to action, you know, like in the hero’s journey? Like when Luke Skywalker decides to go to Alderaan? That was cool. What you need to do is to motivate the person you came to an agreement with to take an action. What action? Thanks for asking. They don’t have to go to Alderaan. All they have to do is exactly what you did: have that same conversation with somebody.
See, when one person invents a political possibility someone else can get behind, which is what this kind of a conversation is all about, and the purpose of the thing is simply to generate the conversation again with another, new person (new in the sense of uninitiated; they can be fairly old), it’s easy. And miserable people want things to be easy, unless they’re activists, in which case they want things to be difficult, so they know their struggle is valid. What’s the point? After all, it’s just talk. But what else is there? Politics is just talk. Even war is just talk, although that kind of talk is called orders, and some of the talk is more like the screaming of napalmed civilians. Sort of inarticulate talk. But you get where I’m going, right? I mean duh, right? What I’m saying is all we have is talk. Even what we do is talk, and I include Panzer charges and decapitating complete strangers in this definition.
Somebody had to talk to somebody in order to create the possibility of a tank. Then somebody else had to talk someone into enlisting in the military, tell them how to drive the tank, give them orders (go drive back and forth over that village) and afterwards tell the war crimes tribunal it was all the tank driver’s fault. It was all talk. There are only two things human beings will respond to besides talk: more misery and less misery, in the form of quantifiable stimulus. To demonstrate this, simply set one person on fire, and in another person, precipitate an orgasm. The first person will be more miserable and the second person will be less miserable, no talk required. Please note that doing both with the same person will not yield the desired results. If you don’t know any people, you can try the same experiment with a reasonably affable badger. So that’s the power of talk: other than direct stimulus, the only way to get anybody to respond to anything is talk. And what is response? Action. So what if that action is simply more talk? What else is there? Now forget about setting people on fire for a minute, and let’s return to the point for a brief, twinkling moment.
Think of it as a contest you can enter as many times as you want. You have a conversation with somebody about your political standpoint. During this conversation, you invest your standpoint in the other person in the conversation. (Remember, it’s a person you’re talking to, not a shopping bag or some speaker wire.) If you’re really having a conversation, not an argument, you will inspire that person. The two of you will find agreement. You don’t have to be right, you just have to create agreement. Being right is nailing the other person to the table. Being right is not one of the conditions. You just have to come to agreement. Your original proposition may evolve as a result, in which case both of you still agree, so it still worked: both of you got inspired. And none of that ‘agree to disagree’ crap. That’s thumb twiddling, right? What we’re looking for here is a firm, dry handshake. Step two: that other person has the same conversation with somebody else. If your political standpoint has evolved as a result of the initial conversation, you must now have another conversation with a new person (new to the conversation, remember? Talking to a new person in temporal terms is just silly because they don’t know any words, because they’re babies.) Wow, it’s like some kind of game, or a ponzi scheme.
You may recall I said I’d get to the point eventually. Here it is.
What happens if everybody has a political conversation with somebody else in which both persons come to an agreement? It never ends, does it. Vast, rippling waves of agreement wash around the world, back and forth, evolving, transforming.
People on one side of the world might be working with a different iteration of the agreement than people on the other side, but because the mode of transmission is personal, not imposed from a distance via communication technologies, you don’t have different agreements colliding with each other: instead you have conversations happening. Can you crazy cats dig it? Now, this agreement I’m talking about is just words. But what else have we got? You can’t share pain or pleasure, subjectively speaking. There are websites dedicated to sharing both at the same time, but that’s a goat of a different feather. You can cause them, but you can’t share them. You can only share the idea of them with words. If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had gotten hold of an atomic bomb (and there are people who think he was pretty close) he could have wiped out the city of Washington, DC., right? But instead, all he had was some words. And with those words, he had a conversation with America. So did Tiny Tim, but his words were somewhat less compelling, which ought to be some kind of a lesson to you. Dr. King, who was only eighteen inches tall, transformed the very fundaments of this nation with a conversation. Several conversations. You know what I mean.
So this conversation of yours is more powerful than an atomic bomb, you get that? Kablooie. You can change everything. But you don’t have to speak on a stage on the Washington Mall to a crowd of thousands. All you have to do is speak with one person, which you were probably going to do anyway, if only to buy eggs at the store. What are you waiting for? You want to become a force in politics, you want to get off the sidelines and start the eternal great march toward being less miserable, one and all, you don’t have to become president. Just have a conversation, which is more than the president can do, by the way. Some day, that conversation will have circled the entire world and it will come back to you and someone else will have it with you, and transform your thinking, and what do you know? You’ve gotten involved in politics, and you haven’t even had to argue.
That’s my conversation with you, by the way. If I’ve succeeded, pass the word.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org