Posts Tagged ‘America

09
May
09

Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.

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01
Apr
09

Deservitude

Do me a favor, and take four minutes to watch this clip:

What you just watched, if you took the time to do so, is the 80th-highest ranked video on all of YouTube.com.  That’s YouTube, where 15 hours of footage is added every minute of every day (63 hours of footage were added to the site in the time it took you to watch that clip).  YouTube, a site that currently consumes more bandwidth than was consumed by the entire Internet less than ten years ago.  It’s a whole lotta videos, folks, and somehow, this one fluttered up towards the top of a giant pile of babies doing funny things and handheld camera phone footage from the forty-seventh row of a Jonas Brothers concert.

Why?  As YouTube clips go, it seems tremendously average.  All it consists of is a semi-well-known comedian doing some shtick on an episode of Conan.  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t scream “Charlie The Unicorn” to me.  It’s funny, but it’s probably not the funniest thing you’ve ever heard, and it’s not something that cries out, “share me!”  But what it does, and this I believe is why it’s rated so high, is it strikes a chord with a concept that is so inherent in our current collective mindset, and examines that concept in a new, unusual way.

I call that concept deservitude.  Louis CK, the comedian in the clip, calls it “everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”  You might call it taking the privileges of this world for granted.  It’s the idea that once we acquire something, anything less than that thing is inadequate.  It is the rarely examined down side of progress and innovation, and it’s relatable, because we see it in those around us, and we see it in ourselves.

But I don’t think that’s the entire reason this video became so popular.  This appearance on Conan took place on October 1, 2008, yet it was the fourth-most watched video for this past month of March.  Why did it take five months to catch on?  To answer that question, I say look at the stock market.  On the first of October, when Louis CK was on Conan, the Dow Jones was at 10,831.  Today, and for most of the month of March, it’s dropped more than 30%, and that’s why I think this video has become so popular.  The correlation is obscure, but I promise you it’s there.

On the surface, the video simply says that we’re all spoiled, and we don’t recognize it.  It’s an observation that could be made any time, by any comedian, and might be worthy of a chuckle or two before moving on to the next joke.  But we’re watching it now, amidst news of forclosed houses, AIG bonuses, economic stimulus packages, and rising unemployment.  Every time we turn on the TV, we feel like our country is going to hell in a handbasket, and Louis CK is slapping us in the face and saying, “Chill out, no it’s not!”

Now admittedly, we are in a recession, and it has certainly hit home for a lot of people.  But the average person hasn’t lost a job or a house (at least not yet), and they likely still feel like the walls are crumbling down all around them.  I know, I’m one of them.  But the reason we see those walls as falling down has a lot more to do with this idea of deservitude than we might like to admit.  Louis CK is just asking us all to put things in perspective, and acknowledge that we aren’t in hell just yet, in fact, we’re far from it.

Consider this: as I previously mentioned, the Dow Jones is today around 7,600.  The very first time that number was ever crossed was only twelve years ago.  Twelve years ago we were rejoicing at 7,600, and now, it’s a sign of the apocalypse.  I’m sure if I were a banker or a financial analyst or had some other fancy “plays with money” job I’d have a different opinion, but could the reason we think this is so awful at least have something to do with the fact that we just got too comfortable with things when they were going well?

Need proof?  Look at this.  Turns out, some American women would rather see themselves objectified than try to find a more affordable apartment or switch off the cable TV.  Can’t we live without the little luxuries we’ve become so accustomed to, or do we really need to go to such painstakingly desperate measures?

Remember life before the iPod?  I do, barely.  I remember going on field trips and everyone wishing the bus wasn’t so bumpy, because all that skipping on our Walkmans was interrupting Billie Joe Armstrong’s latest angsty rant.  Then the first kid at my high school showed up one day with an iPod, which was about the size of a cinder block, and it was the coolest thing we had ever seen.  The original iPod, introduced in 2001, held 1,000 songs, which when it was first introduced by Steve Jobs was estimated as the size of the average person’s entire music collection.  Today, my current iPod (which is far smaller than the original version) has 10,500 songs on it, and that takes up about a third of its capacity.

This is interesting for a couple reasons.  First, obviously, the growth in just eight years is tremendous.  But secondly, Apple has, along with increasing the capacity of its product, increased our capacity and our “need” for music.  Whereas in 2001 our entire music library was 1,000 songs, today it’s increased tenfold or more.  The current iPod on the market that holds 1,000 songs is the size of a AA battery, and is marketed as, essentially, the “workout iPod,” because nobody in their right mind would make that the only iPod they owned.  A thousand songs isn’t our entire library anymore, a thousand songs is the kind of number that delivers just enough variety for a three mile run on the treadmill.

All of that goes to say, maybe if we could remember the attitude we had when we first heard about the iPod, wide-eyed and amazed sitting around the lunch table or huddled in the break room, we wouldn’t be turning to porn just so we could maintain our 30,000 song lifestyles.

This isn’t an anti-progress statement, it’s a pro-gratitude statement.  Progress is great.  The fact that we can acheive such mind-boggling things through technology, innovation, and hard work is phenomenal, and it is a cornerstone of the American culture.  What we tend to be lacking, however, is genuine appreciation of that progress.  Rather than appreciating it, we tend to feel like we deserve it because we’ve become so used to growth and progress in our lifetime.  Don’t get me wrong, that is a good thing.  The problem is, when we reach a point in the story where that growth stops, or heaven forbid, declines, we end up taking it that much harder.

04
Dec
08

Plaxico Burress and the Culture of Celebrity

I committed a cardinal sin of manhood today.  I, in a bout of frustration and disappointment, turned off SportsCenter.  This, to the stereotype that has come to constitute “man” in America, is unacceptable.  The American man, if he watches no other program on television, still watches SportsCenter religiously.  I typically fall into this demographic, but as of recently, I’ve started to become put off by the way in which sports is presented in today’s culture.

A friend of mine used to be a sports reporter for a local sports radio station here in Denver.  He had a press pass to the locker room for every home Rockies game and Broncos game, and would spend his days at work hanging out with professional athletes and coaches talking sports, and getting paid.  This, to the stereotype I previously described, is the ideal career.  But when I pressed my friend to tell me more, he said something to me that has changed the way I view the sports media:

“Honestly, Andy, I got tired of it really fast,” he said to me. “Covering sports, when it’s all said and done, is really only about one thing: criticism.  These guys go out and lay everything they have on the line every day, they’ve been playing this game since they were little kids, they’re living out their wildest dream, and now I go in there and pick at all the things they do wrong?  That’s not something I want to do as a career, and that wears on you, physically and emotionally.”

I thought about this as I turned off the television today during hour 122 of the great Plaxico Burress watch.  This saga, in case you aren’t familiar with it, involves a scenario in which a star wide receiver from the New York Giants took an unregistered and thus illegal weapon into a nightclub and proceeded to accidentally shoot himself in the leg with it, ending his playing season in both the physical and legal sense.

This, admittedly, is news.  It also is news that pertains specifically to the sports world, which makes it the perfect fodder for the number one sports news program in the country.  So why was I upset enough by the perfectly logical covering of this news to turn it off?  Well, quite simply, I don’t care.  I couldn’t care less about Plaxico Burress’ legal troubles.  And when you put something on television that I don’t care about, chances are I’m not going to watch it.

Please don’t misunderstand my apathy.  This doesn’t mean I don’t care about Plaxico Burress all together, it just means that I don’t care about this particular aspect of his life.  To put it quite simply, Plaxico Burress provides a service for me, that service being that he catches a ball on television while I watch and am entertained.  My interest in his life both begins and ends there.  What he does outside of that is of little to no interest to me, because that is all I pay him to do (and yes, I pay Plaxico Burress.  I pay my cable bill, and part of that money goes to the various networks that broadcast the NFL.  Those networks pay the NFL for the rights to those games, and the NFL takes that money and pays its players, ergo, Plaxico Burress is, in a convoluted way, providing a paid service for me).  I wouldn’t want to hear about my dentist’s custody battle, I just want him to clean my teeth, tell me to floss more, and send me on my merry way.  Now, if I have a relationship with my dentist, something that extends beyond him putting a metal hook in my mouth and me paying him for it, then I might be interested in hearing about his legal and family troubles.  But I do not have a relationship with Plaxico Burress, so quite frankly, his life is his business, and I don’t care to hear about it.

And herein lies one of the greatest conundrums in American culture, that being the question of why we care about celebrities beyond the roles that they play in movies, or music, or sports.  I spent a great portion of one summer in college picking up and putting away stray magazines in a bookstore, and that summer, just from reading magazine covers I could tell you more than I’m comfortable to admit about what celebrities were dating, cheating, having babies, getting married, getting divorced, shaving their heads, or anything else.  Following the everyday lives of famous people is a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet the people who primarily pay for this news, who buy the magazines and read the gossip columns and watch Entertainment Tonight, have never met the people they seemingly admire (or despise).  It says a lot about me (and arguably, about the culture in which I live, but that’s passing the blame) that I know the name of Tom Cruise’s baby, but I don’t know the name of the guy who lives downstairs from me.

The somewhat fascinating part is that I didn’t actively seek out any information about Tom Cruise’s baby, I just gained it by participating in everyday American life, by standing in line at the supermarket or by reading the newspaper.  Logic and free market economics tell us that no product is going to exist if there isn’t a market for it, so the question that I have is about the existence of that market, and the people that allow it to flourish.  Grocery stores exist because people need food to survive, the post office exists because of the need people have to mail things.  Every industry fills a need, so what need does the gossip industry meet?  Why does ESPN think it’s a good idea to spend hours and hours talking about Plaxico Burress’ personal life?

There’s a number of possible answers, but none really satisfy me.  The first is that the average person needs an escape from their actual life, that they don’t see their own life as thrilling, but they see the life of Plaxico Burress, or Britney Spears, or whoever else as exciting, and thus they somehow attempt to live vicariously through those people by following their lives.  Another possibility is pure schadenfreude— that somehow people are better able to deal with the stress in their lives by watching the lives of those who are far more stressed than they are, i.e. gun-toting wide receivers with impending court dates.  It this twisted yet plausible scenario, people somehow take joy from watching other people (people they specifically do not know personally) fail.

Both of these may be explanations, but to me, they aren’t logical or sensible explanations.  If I have two apples, and someone gives me three apples, it makes sense that I now have five apples, which is more apples than I started with.  But if I am feeling stressed or depressed about my life, and I look at pictures of celebrities in unflattering swimwear, or watch three hours of Plaxico Burress walking to a courthouse, nothing about that equation should sensibly equal me feeling better about my life.  Nothing in my life has changed, other than the fact that I have less time left in my day.

This is why I say this question will baffle me the rest of my life.  There is simply no logical explanation for anyone to watch or discuss the personal life of someone they do not personally know, and yet there is no doubt in my mind that the trend will continue, and grow exponentially, as it has over the past few decades, with absolutely no sensible explanation.  As long as there are famous people, there will be non-famous people who care too much about them, and I will remain confused.

04
Nov
08

November 4, 2008

Realize something:

No matter what you believe, no matter who you voted for, or what you think about the future of America, know this: you have witnessed history.  The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the most significant and important presidential election in American history since the very first one.  Whether or not his presidency becomes one of the most significant in American history remains to be seen, and with the expectations placed in front of him he certainly has an uphill climb, but the mere fact that he was elected provides a crucial, definable moment in United States history, a moment that decades from now, history teachers will point to and inform their students that it was on this day in this year that a dramatic shift took place in the collective American mindset.  History lives in those moments, and you just lived through one.  It was on this day that the culture began to shift.

At about this point you’re probably starting to think that I’m overreacting.  I don’t believe I am.  People who know me and have read this blog know that I frown upon the fact that my generation is devaluing our language by overusing superlatives and lacking true sincerity in the things that we say.  That is not the case for me in writing that previous paragraph.  Electing a black president, whether or not you agree with him, is something this nation needed desperately.  Now, more than ever, we can unify as a nation, should we take advantage of that opportunity, and I certainly hope we will.

Please don’t misinterpret that last sentence.  I don’t mean that we unify under the beliefs of a Democrat or a Republican, or that we become unified under any political belief at all.  In fact, I would ask that you please, please, please, look at this day, this moment, this election through eyes that are not clouded by any political belief.  We all have political tenets that we hold to, and while they are important and help us define the people we are, it is all too easy to interpret history through the tunnel vision those beliefs create for us, whether our beliefs be Democratic, Republican, or otherwise.  What I would ask is that you take a step back.  Look at what this election has done for the people of this nation, not for the Republicans or the Democrats of this nation.  Barack Obama is a politician, yes, but tonight he became a symbol, and I believe it is possible he will be remembered more for that than any decision he makes in the next four or eight years.

Now, more than ever, we are all Americans, we are not white Americans or black Americans or Hispanic Americans or any other kind of American.  We are just Americans, and though it has already become cliché to say it, any one of us can become president.  Equality has reached a new level tonight, and I sincerely hope it continues down this path.  If we are to genuinely agree that all men are truly created equal, then we should applaud the election of Barack Obama no matter what we think politically, because it takes a crucial step towards making that statement all the more true.

As for the next four years?  Well, feel free to make your own speculations about what will happen to America with Obama at the helm.  If you staunchly disagree with all the decisions you assume he will make in the next four years, well, there’s always 2012 for you.  But I believe that what happened tonight couldn’t wait another four years.  I believe it needed to happen now.

And it’s nice to get some color in there anyway, don’t you think?

14
Oct
08

Facewhiners

Watch closely, because this weekend, something terrifically insignificant is going to happen.

If you’re currently breathing, I probably don’t have to tell you what Facebook is.  And if you’re in between the ages of twelve and thirty, I probably don’t have to tell you that recently, the management at Facebook made some changes to their site, and it pissed some folks off.  Royally.  A number of people are downright livid about the changes that have been made, and this weekend, they’re doing something about it.

According to this article, as well as the Facebook group “1,000,000 Against the New Facebook Layout,” a weekend-long boycott will be taking place from the 17th to the 20th of this month among those who most passionately despise this new layout.

If you’re not currently a member of Facebook, you’re probably wondering what could possibly cause such an uproar.  What is it that the Facebook people did?  Litter their site with racial slurs?  Replace everyone’s profile picture with this?

Hardly.  They moved some stuff around.  They reorganized.  It’s the equivalent of signing the site up for an episode of Trading Spaces.  It looks different, and maybe it’s not what you would’ve chosen, but once you get over the initial impact of the change, it’s still the same thing, and it’s completely tolerable.  It’s certainly not harsh enough to illicit the kind of response of the impassioned millions who joined the Facebook groups in protest of the change.  And there are dozens of those groups that have been formed with the express intention of protesting this minor modification.  The largest of those groups has nearly 2.8 million members.  That’s two-point-eight million.  For some perspective, 2.8 million people is nearly the population of the entire city of Chicago.

So this must mean that with all those people boycotting, Facebook is going to lose millions in ad revenue this weekend, right?  Is this the end of Facebook as we know it?

Again, hardly.  As of this posting, even though all of those 2.8 million members were invited to join the weekend boycott, only 2,513 of them have agreed to abstain the three days.  With Facebook membership at over 100 million worldwide, that’s two-thousandths of a percent (0.002%) of the entire Facebook community that’s participating in the holdout, hoping their defiance will inspire the bigwigs to finally hear their demands.  It’s like Newsies, but with less choreography, and far less people.

So if you’re one of those who longs for Facebook to return to its old ways, well… tough break.  You lose.  And honestly, what are you complaining about?  The miniscule amount of people participating in this supposedly headline-worthy boycott just goes to show that it’s not that big of a deal in the first place.  Now it takes three clicks instead of two to SuperPoke your cousin in Nebraska.  Tough shit.  We’re in the middle of perhaps the most important decade in American history, and what really gets our attention is an imaginary computer realm of fake versions of ourselves?

Do you know what people are talking about in these Facebook groups?  Each one has its own discussion board, and here’s a couple sample subject lines from those discussion boards:

“Why new Facebook is a copout”

“When will you leave Facebook, and where will you go?”

“This weird new facebook is ruining my life!!!”

Simply unbelievable.  You know what people aren’t talking about in these Facebook groups?  ANYTHING THAT ACTUALLY MATTERS. Also, isn’t it interesting that despite the fact that these people supposedly hate this new Facebook, they’re still using it to communicate their hatred? It’s like someone skywriting messages about how bad it is to waste airplane fuel.  If Facebook is so awful, then do what you did back in 2004:

Live without it.

But there’s no way that’s going to happen, and I’ll tell you why.  Those people probably couldn’t admit it, but what Facebook allows them is the ability to portray a version of themselves that is vastly more intriguing than the real thing.  Someone who isn’t willing to drop their Facebook or MySpace account at any moment’s notice is essentially saying that without the help of those sites, they don’t consider themselves very interesting.  Facebook allows us to define ourselves not by the person that we are, but rather by everything but— on Facebook, we define ourselves by photographs, by the friends we have and what they say to us, by our favorite music and movies, or by the number of fiery dinosaur flowers we have growing in our magic wizard garden.  In truth, who we are is the person left when all of that is stripped away, and if you’re afraid of stripping away all that fluff, perhaps what you’re really afraid of is what might be left when you do.

I’m not saying Facebook is completely useless for the average person.  I personally have a Facebook account, and while I’ve never joined anyone’s Oregon Trail bandwagon, or picked sides in the epic battle of Pirates vs. Ninjas, I’m still an active member of the community, if you can call it a community.  But the reason I have a Facebook account has nothing to do with the person that I am.  For me, Facebook is a number of things conveniently assembled in one place— a social calendar, an address book, a photo album, a birthday reminder, and an easy way to keep in touch with friends all across the world.  But the point is that you can have all these things outside of Facebook, Facebook just puts them in one location, and that’s why I’m a member.  Should I wake up tomorrow morning to find Facebook and other social network sites obliterated from the face of the earth, the only things I would no longer have access to are that façade Facebook creates for me, and the ability to be a member of the unwilling paparazzi within my own social circle, and those are two things I can most certainly live without.

In all reality, your opinion of Facebook is likely similar to mine, and you’d have no problem leaving it, either.  The people I’m talking about, those who say they can’t live without this alternate reality, are a significant minority.  In thirty years, we’re not going to be a nation of people sitting on couches, living life through Facebook profiles.  There might be a few people like that, and there certainly will be more of them in five years than there were five years ago, but it’s no threat to our culture or livelihood.  Heck, today there’s only 2,513 of them, and they’re easy enough to ignore.  Just ask the people in charge of Facebook.

07
Oct
08

answers.

Since my last post suggested that it’s difficult to wade through the fluff of politicians and the media to get real information, I’ve decided to link to some information that really will help you understand what’s going on in the world today.  If you’d really like to understand our current financial situation, the mortgage crisis, and the bailout plan, there is, as far as I’m concerned, only one place to go.  The radio show This American Life has produced two incredibly informative shows specifically designed to explain (in words the average person can actually understand) what’s going on with all this financial stuff.

So go here and download two episodes: “The Giant Pool of Money,” aired back in May, explains the mortgage crisis, and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy,” last week’s episode, goes further in depth about the financial crisis, how we got where we are, and answers most questions you may have about the economy and the bailout plan.  They’re about an hour each, but if you’re interested in really, really understanding what’s going on, then it’s completely worth your time.  Do it.

05
Oct
08

Don’t Vote.

Yeah, I said it.  Don’t vote.  Come November 4th, stay home.  Take that half-hour or so, and play some video games, read a book, or watch VH1.  But whatever you do, don’t vote.

I’m not being sarcastic.  Not entirely, anyway.  Perhaps you’ve seen this video.  That’s not what I mean.  In fact, it’s part of what I have an issue with.  The message is great, but it’s incomplete.  Voting isn’t just taking action, it’s taking responsibility.  The last thing I want is for somebody to vote just because Jennifer Aniston told them to, and not have any idea as to what it is they’re voting for.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for participation, I’m just hoping it’s informed participation.  Consider this conversation I had with a co-worker the day after the first presidential debate:

ME: Hey man, what’s up?  Did you watch the debate last night?

JOE CO-WORKER*: No.

ME: Why not?  Were you working?

JOE CO-WORKER: No, I had last night off.

ME: So why didn’t you watch it?

JOE CO-WORKER: Um… because I have cable, I guess.  I was watching Comedy Central.

*not his real name

Come November, Joe may vote.  Do I have a problem with that?  Not entirely, I suppose.  Joe’s not alone, only 17% of all Americans watched that first debate.  I’m not about to judge what Joe thinks or knows based on him not watching one debate.  I’m saying in general, we are a completely uniformed populous, and I use the term ‘we’ deliberately.  The fact that Joe is uninformed, or the fact that I am uninformed, whether or not either of us is making a direct attempt to stay involved, is not entirely our fault, and that’s my problem.

Through the course of the last handful of months, I can feel something inside me growing more and more disenfranchised with the whole political campaign process.  I watched the debate, but I don’t think I came out of it knowing much more than I did going in, (which wasn’t all that much to begin with) and if you ask me, I suspect that was exactly what both candidates wanted to happen.  Politics has become so much about image that candidates refuse to talk point-blank about the issues for fear of not looking good.  Let me rephrase that: the candidates don’t say what they think because they’re afraid that if they do, people won’t vote for them.

Isn’t that what the election is about, what the candidates think?  Granted, the fact that they don’t speak with 100% candor isn’t entirely their fault.  It’s at least partially their fault, and it’s probably mostly their fault, but it’s not entirely their fault.  Think about things in the news that have garnered the most attention over the past ten months or so: American flag pins, pant suits, the phrase “lipstick on a pig”, the cover of “The New Yorker”, crying, the word “maverick”, the fact that Senator Obama is black, the fact that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are not men, and this.

Now whether it’s the media’s fault for reporting that or the American people’s fault for paying attention to it isn’t the point.  The point is that for anyone looking for legitimate information, that’s the kind of forest they have to forge through to get it.

So let’s say you do watch the debates like I did, with every intention of seeing live, unedited responses from the candidates on the actual issues that matter.  You still don’t get that.  What you get is two grown-ass men dodging questions like a six-year-old in trouble.  Take this actual* exchange from the first presidential debate:

*not really

MODERATOR: Senator Obama, in March, the senior senator from Kentucky brought a package of Oreos onto the Senate floor and left them there while the senate was in recess, coming back fifteen minutes later to find three of his Oreos missing.  The record shows that during the recess there were only two senators who remained in the building, yourself and senator McCain.  The American public would like to know: did you eat those cookies?

OBAMA: You know Jim, before I get to that, let me point out that under John McCain’s tax plan, only the wealthiest 10% of Americans would retain the financial means to afford cookies.  My tax cuts would allow the middle class the financial reprieve necessary to purchase all the cookies they could ever want.

MODERATOR: Senator Obama, may I redirect you to the original question: did you eat those cookies?

OBAMA: Senator McCain’s record with respect to cookies is suspect at best.  During 2002, Senator McCain voted twenty-six times to deny the American people the right to cookies.  Twenty-six!  If voted president, I promise to veto any bill that comes across my desk that limits Americans’ access to cookies.

MODERATOR: Senator Obama.  Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, DID YOU EAT THOSE COOKIES?!?!

OBAMA: (looking downward) …yes.

It’s childish, really, and it happens on both sides.  They’re content to let the American people categorize them by the stereotypes of their political parties, rather than tell us themselves.  One of the things I want from a president is somebody who’s going to get stuff done, not somebody who’s going to dodge questions and hide from the truth.  I want the candidates to look straight into the camera and say, “Hey America, this is what I think, take it or leave it.”  If either candidate would be willing to do that, my respect would grow for them tenfold, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not.

The Vice Presidential situation isn’t that much better.  I will admit they did a better job answering questions during their debate, but prior to that debate, they were grossly underexposed for being someone who could potentially be one too-large-bite of sandwich away from the presidency.  Sarah Palin would only talk to Katie Couric, and Joe Biden was nowhere to be found.  I saw more of Tina Fey’s version of Sarah Palin than I did of Palin herself.  Before the vice presidential debate, I actually sat down to try and make a list of all the things I knew 100% to be true about the two VP candidates from watching the news, and it wasn’t pretty.

SARAH PALIN:

a) is Governor of Alaska

b) is a ‘hockey mom’

c) opposes abortion and has a pregnant teenage daughter

d) chooses weird names for her kids

e) is a lady

JOE BIDEN:

a) is a Senator from Connecticut*

b) said that thing about FDR going on TV after the stock market crashed

c) is older than Obama

*Actually Delaware, but you might not have known that, either.

Depressing, isn’t it?  Now, maybe I hadn’t actively sought out information as best I could, but this is the single most important thing happening in our country right now (or maybe second-most, and there’s 700 billion reasons why that might be the case), and you would think that by being a part of the country, I’d at least gain some sort of knowledge by osmosis or something.

The problem here is that running mates have become nothing more than accessories.  VP candidates are picked with the express purpose of either counteracting the presidential candidate’s weakness, or appealing to a hard-to-reach demographic.  They’re not partners, they’re handbags.  It’s the idea of “maybe if I add this person to the picture, it’d soften my image a bit where such-and-such is concerned, and draw attention away from this ugly feature.”  This is a total cop-out.  Pick somebody you trust, somebody who you genuinely think will help you should you become president.  Pick the person you’d call first if your spouse came to you and said they wanted a divorce, not somebody who merely represents what you’re not.

But that doesn’t happen.  And because that doesn’t happen, presidential candidates hide their running mates from the public eye, afraid that they’ll say something harmful because they didn’t really know the person in the first place.  If you trust someone to take over your job, you should trust them to speak candidly, as well.  But they don’t, and that’s why my two lists were so short.

In conclusion, it’s probably safe to say that despite the title of this post, the solution is not to abstain from voting.  That’s probably more of a cop-out than anything else.  I think what it all comes down to is that it’s just going to take more effort than should be necessary to actually get to the candidates’ views, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.  I know I’m going to have to deal with it, because there’s no way I’m walking into a voting booth on November 4th without being absolutely certain what it is I’m voting for.  Maybe that means reading more, maybe that means taking a deeper look at the candidates’ websites, or maybe it means getting my news from somebody other than Jon Stewart.

Let’s hope it’s not that last one.