Page Two: Spin and Cinema
An understanding of the U.S. Constitution by way of Robert Thom
What sound do I make? A dying fall?
'I was a movie star once.'
Clear one's throat? A sign?
Drink fast, Kid!
'Jennifer says you're a genius.'
'Yes, I am.' Did I say that?
'I was married to a genius once.'
'His name was Orson Welles.'
Drain the glass.
'He was a director.'
And someone else's line comes back:
'In the event of a divorce, who would get custody of the anecdotes?'
– Robert Thom, "FOUR: MARCH 18, 1977: Dinner at Eight and Money (Part One) and Suicides in Passing," Sins of Cinema
The maze that I am stuck in, where I can't even see the light of any entrance or exit, is where I have been stuck for the longest time. The maze reflects this problem:
The government of the United States of America, a country of roughly 300 million people, is a democratic constitutional republic. It is not a democracy, but it is democratic. The people elect the country's leaders. A republic is a government of laws, not men. In a democratic constitutional republic, the will of the people is important, but the government is structured by the Constitution in a way intended not to allow majority rule except when it is assured that the rights of minorities are protected. A republic and a democracy are identical in every aspect except one. In a republic, sovereignty lies in each individual person. In a democracy, the sovereignty is in the group. The Constitution can trump the whim and the will of the people.
The U.S. Constitution is misread almost as much as it is read. Its core is not guaranteeing the power of the people or reinforcing the dominance of a set of ideas. Instead, it is the acceptance and approval of constant political bickering. The constitutional blueprint is in service of compromises reached through passionately partisan disagreements and debates. Even though compromise is often necessary and sometimes even the best possible solution, this fact does not argue that all compromises are inherently positive.
On the other hand, "compromise" is not a dirty word, though it seems to have become one in the views of too many citizens. Uncompromising, single-issue vetting of all who hold political office is a cancer to this constitutional republic. Myopic citizens who are fanatically focused on single issues (like animal rights, guns, abortion, education, immigration, gay marriage), no matter which side they are on, are among the most steadfast opponents of our constitutional form of government, whether they believe that or not.
The government trumpets no ideology except the notion that too much power centered in one group over too long a period of time is not good for the country. It is designed to move slowly as well as to drift back and forth on issues. Major changes are difficult to accomplish, and changing political direction is relatively easy.
The idea behind a republic is that every individual is theoretically empowered, so that each and every person's opinion should have weight. On many levels this is practical and is working, but on many others it is not. In a country of 300 million, individual liberty is going to be hindered, without intention, simply by the numbers. All too often logistic problems caused by having so many empowered people are labeled as intentional government intrusions.
The drafters were well aware that there was not just one, holy, lit-by-God right way. The Constitution knows that governmental confusion, voter dissatisfaction, political controversy, and citizen discontent are basically permanent conditions. It does not encourage those things, but it does take them into account. At its best, when our constitutional republic is functioning at peak efficiency, much of the population still feels underrepresented and generally alienated. When every citizen has the expectation of full representation, his or her actual impact is lessened.
"Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
– John Adams, second president of the United States
"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine."
– Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States
A government of laws, and not men, is one of those ideas that is very acceptable and popular when expressed, but when actually encountered, its allure is severely dampened. Any action, campaign, or ideological positioning done outside of or in opposition to opinions of U.S. legal systems violates the contract of the citizens of this country with the Constitution. This is because inherently those kinds of maneuvers privilege the values of individuals over the rule of law. Currently, many argue that the government has failed, so it is time for citizens to take matters into their own hands. Others are pushing to clean up the Constitution because they are certain that several amendments shouldn't have been passed. Now, if both these activities happened within existing procedural frameworks, that would be one thing. Inherent in a lot of these types of arguments is the idea that things have become so seriously screwed up, extraordinary measures need to be taken. Since government is not science (there being no quantifiable standards for the former), activists urging action are prioritizing their sense of things, values, and opinions over the workings of the government.
An argument can be made that the Declaration of Independence condones just such activities. But clearly, any such actions are in opposition to and destructive of the Constitution.
Large numbers of people, from those who are politically active to more disinterested citizens, have taken to believing and declaring that the government is hopelessly broken. Too often, when people – including radicals of all extremes – talk of taking the government back or another American revolution, they are insisting that there needs to be change because they feel disenfranchised. But at their base, they are privileging their beliefs and perceptions over everyone else's.
Consider how conservatives had long been up in arms over their belief that mainstream media presents a liberal bias. The advent of Fox News has made it clear that the problem was the "liberal" part, because those people turned out to be fans of bias – especially when it is in sync with their own. It turned out that the last thing those complaining wanted was improved news reporting that tried harder to be fair and represent a wider range of voices. Despite their rhetoric, they actually wanted exactly the opposite: news that reinforced their beliefs. The motto "Fair and Balanced" is ironic, Fox News being anything but that – and the viewers know it.
Consistent among the many groups that are so disgruntled with our government that they want to change it is that they all pay lip service to the U.S. Constitution. Regularly, ideologues of all persuasions argue that we need a return to constitutional values. Except they don't mean that, as the Constitution has more or less taken us to where we are. Instead of purporting that the government, being broken, has drifted away from its constitutional anchor, what most of these people are really saying is that the government needs to be fixed to more closely represent their views. The style of confused, inconsistent, and hesitant governance mandated by the Constitution is the problem.
This is not to argue that everything is going well. When it comes to the election process, there are very serious issues, ranging from outright fraud to electronic voting machines that leave no traceable trail. The move to demand that voters have IDs has a lot more to do with disenfranchising Democrats than with illegal immigrants. Certainly, the 2000 fiasco in Florida clearly evidenced the many flaws in the system.
Still, given the size of the country and of the population; that there are still core racial, sexual, religious, and economic inequities (differences); and the vast spiderweb of entrenched special-interest and political groups, the problem may well be systemic rather than mendacious. Which does not mean we should accommodate problems but instead deal with them individually – rather than believe there is a magic-bullet cure.
"And James Light: Father to Son: 'The only pleasure you ever
gave me was when you travelled down my penis and into your
Sodden and hairy ape descending upon my children of the ladybug.
"As they were lowering my father's casket into his grave,
my god-mother said to my mother: 'Well, at least you
know where he's sleeping now.'"
– Robert Thom, "SIX: MARCH 20 AND 21, 1977: Buried Treasure (Before Embarking on The Story of Harold)," Sins of Cinema
The question has to be this: What can or would be done differently? Only if you really believe the electoral process, in every way, is being deliberately corrupted by evil people can you even propose massive, constructive change. Even then, any kind of attempted national reform would probably be only partially successful. If the problems with the electoral system are many and come from many different sources for many different reasons – from intentional to stupid, from corrupt to hapless – then how can it be changed? If the system were changed, maybe the exact same old problems wouldn't reappear, but wouldn't they be replaced by as many, or more, different problems? Sure, some people have pie-in-the-sky visions, accompanied by their complete self-assurance that, because they are good and righteous forces facing evil, they will be able to institute a new, fair, functioning system.
Why do they think the government will work any differently if they are running it? All too often, when there is some kind of revolutionary change, the new guard, after overthrowing the old corrupt powers, leans toward a period of transition. And all too often, it ends up being not a period but a totalitarian style of government.
One can be very dissatisfied with every political, social, legal, and economic aspect of this country. But what kind of government do you really want: the rule of law or the rule of man? Stepping outside the process because of an overpowering gut feeling that something is catastrophically wrong is going from the Constitution and the rule of law to the rule of some people.
Claiming that our government has been knocked off course argues that, given the number of people, the geographic area, the intense partisan politics, states' rights, and so on, it still should have been possible to have a beautiful, smooth-running electoral system. Party to this belief is the notion that things used to work better and be fairer but in the last few decades have gone to hell. Again, observations like that have far more to do with personal fantasy than any kind of accurate history. Women didn't get the vote until the 1920s; minorities were prevented from voting in any number of ways until the 1970s. Powerful city and state political machines existed through most of the last century.
In fact, the current mass discontent probably has less to do with the failures of government and more with successful moves toward universal enfranchisement. The greater the number of people who feel – and, for the most part, are – empowered means there is a greater number of voices demanding to be heard and opinions demanding consideration by the system.
As always, a disclaimer here: This column attempts a broad, long-range view. Given the complete devastating failure of the Bush administration in almost every possible area – from international policy, the economy, protecting the Constitution, jobs, the environment, the dollar, and the unity of the American people, among many others – the current governmental situation is somewhat uniquely screwed up. The extent of the Bush administration failures argues against some of the assumptions expressed here. But in less than a year, there will be a new administration.
Now when I say the above, hardcore radicals of all ideological persuasions have been known to go near apoplectic at the notion that the government is not always hopeless, corrupt, and compromised. So, go apoplectic.
"When I asked Roddy McDowall what he thought of her performance
in Wild in the Streets, a movie I wrote, re-edited and
re-wrote and, yes, saved, in the cutting room (and which
escorted Richard Nixon into The White House
and more below
he said: 'Watching her is like watching an open boil,'
Not entirely without interest, one assumes."
– Robert Thom, "SIXTEEN: APRIL 12, 1977: My Deep and Abiding Hatred for Shelly Winters (My First Night on the 37th Floor at 15 West 72nd Street)," Sins of Cinema
The quotes are all from Sins of Cinema, a book-length poem by Thom, who was the scriptwriter for Bloody Mama; Crazy Mama; Death Race 2000; Angel, Angel, Down We Go; and Wild in the Streets.