Election Day

In honour of election day (aka, today… go vote!):

In the 1995 film The American President, Aaron Sorkin argues that ‘politics is perception,’ and he is absolutely correct. As with many things, politics is all about how people perceive the candidates. As in the case of President Shepherd in The American President, it’s also how people perceive you personally. Which, it turns out, is exactly why there are certain things politicians in the United States find difficult to discuss. The problem with perception isn’t ‘how do you think you’re perceived,’ rather it’s ‘how does our base perceive us.’ The problem in American politics is the insistence that some social issues should be discussed and while others should be ignored. The great thing about film is that a number of these ignored social issues have been discussed on the big screen.
Randy Shilts, a former San Francisco Chronicle writer, wrote a book entitled And The Band Played On, which was made into a film and released in 1993 (the same year Philadelphia was released, and Angels in America first premiered). And The Band Played On expounded on a particular problem in American politics: the ability to ignore that which was unpopular, in this case a conservative administration which refused to acknowledge even the possibilities of the dangers of AIDS. What And The Band Played On, and Philadelphia and Milk t teaches us is, in the case of perception, the American political climate has not changed much in the last 30+ years.
In America there is a history of political apathy, except when something upsets you, then you spend a significant amount of time whining about it… not doing something, whining… and you certainly only want to hear a politician say that which you agree with… facts are completely unimportant. That, combined with the idea that politics is perception, creates a specific political culture where ‘socialism’ is a dirty word, and anyone who supports social issues that Alabama doesn’t like is a ‘liberal socialist.’ The irony of this, of course, is that America is no where even close to anything resembling socialism, and there are still places in the United States where its actually illegal to be gay (Kansas, anyone?). There are social topics which are considered ‘third rails’ in American politics… because if you step on them, you die.
The problem is that the American political system doesn’t allow for dissenting voices… there are no oddball parties campaigning or requiring the two main candidates to respond to anything they’re uncomfortable discussing. Politics truly is perception… the problem isn’t necessarily that politicians are unwilling to discuss certain issues, the problem is that, for a significant portion of the American public, political culture hasn’t matured enough to allow for the discussion of such issues. It’s not that politics is uncomfortable talking about AIDS, or the rights of man to love, or universal healthcare, or international relations… rather, its that the vocal portions of the American public tends to be those who would argue that the world should still look like the first 20 minutes of And The Band Played on, or that the end of Philadelphia should have turned out differently, and Tony Kushner shouldn’t be writing anything at all.
American society is so wrapped up it its Puritanical roots that it often forgets that its no longer the 17th century, and people are no longer burned at the stake. Unfortunately, politicians believe that they must follow the whims of the people, and refuse to discuss that which could be “uncomfortable.” Randy Shilts and Andrew Beckett, I fear, would be disappointed that today looks very much like a world Hannah Pitt would approve of.
[if you’ve not seen/read Angels in America, And the Band Played On or Philadelphia you should. If, for nothing else, to be more informed of the history of things which aren’t allowed to be discussed in America.]
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