“The sun is setting in the sky.
Teletubbies say good-bye."

~ Andrew Davenport

The Rope

In defense of Ralph Nader


I want to assure my friend Mary Myers that I intend to vote for John Kerry in November, no matter what. Except for twice a week, right after he makes one of his moronic pronouncements calculated to show us that he is even more right wing, more paranoid, more militant, more pro-Israeli Apartheid Wall, more First Amendment-gutting, more monopoly-coddling than Bush himself. Then, for about twenty minutes, until I remember how infinitely worse Bush and his flies actually are, I find myself in the Nader camp, a tiny enclave of gentle, morally offended souls besieged by the legions and lackeys of Mordor, a vast two-party coalition of Machiavellian Republicans and Democrats arguing in a univocal tongue from which the truth can not be told. For twenty minutes I know I will never vote for Kerry. And then I remember that I must. It's the game plan to bury Bush. We have to lock away our principled sensibilities, no matter how precious. Close our eyes, vote, go home, throw up.

Nope, I'm voting for Kerry, for the same reasons I would raise my hand to stop a bullet if someone were trying to shoot me, or grab the steering wheel from somebody trying to veer into oncoming traffic. Such reflex motions can be counted on, even from the doomed. But inside those enchanted twenty-minute lapses, suffused with the light of mystical clarity and grief for my lost and murderous race, my thinking goes something like this:


Worried, in his essay of 12 July, 2004, about the anti-war left going over to Nader, William Rivers Pitt makes the often heard argument that we live in an age so corrupted that to vote on principle simply plays into the hands of the politically savvy neocons who rule us. American elections, he says, are no longer about morals or ethics or principles, but power only. Win first, he urges us, then be good.

The option to choose the good, to ramify this argument, vanishes once one passes through the gates to the underworld. Descending into the catacombs of moral relativity where there are no ends but only means, where everything is mixed and nothing is purely itself, where nobility and clarity are replaced by the nostalgia for past glories, and streets of gold have branched into a confusion of guttered allies that might or might not lead one back to rectitude, we will find virtue neither in our institutions nor in ourselves. While we are not yet thoroughly depraved, seeking at any given moment for "better" circumstances, our compasses now make inexplicable turns as though true North were mounted on a moving interstate cargo truck like one of Saddam's germ factories. Our levels and plumb bobs are all a bit askew, so that the architecture of our lives needs constant revision to prevent our fairest of justice systems from creeping into monstrosity and our skyscrapers from unexpected collapse. We are no longer serious about peace of mind, but hope for a little less fear by hiring more police with bigger guns. We trade the poetic goal of a Great Society for a measurable dip in the crime rate and a little less anthrax in the mail. We strive to eradicate negatives rather than to create positives. Get rid of crack houses, gangs, drunk drivers, inside traders, Marilyn Manson T-shirts, tons of firearms, terrorists. Vote for the least psychotic among the buffoons who present themselves as candidates for office, or the toadies of the least rapacious special interests.

I must have given away my copy of The Princess Bride, a clever bagatelle by William Goldman that everybody read in 1973, because I can't find it in my library. There is a scene in there, an image, that comes to mind when I think about the point of Pitt's essay. I'll have to pull it from my recollection, revealing my flawed memory and lack of scholarship. Tell me if I'm getting it wrong:

The hero, Westley, and the true love of his life, Princess Buttercup, are lost in the Fire Swamp, pursued by giant rats and beset by perils on every side. Westley's devotion to Buttercup is total and unquestioning, so when Buttercup falls into the bottomless quicksand and disappears out of sight, Westley acts without any hesitation whatsoever, quickly tying his rope to a rock, and then, holding the other end, diving in after her. His rescue plan is to hold his arms to his sides, so that he sinks faster than she does, hopefully allowing him to reach and find her in the opaque, grainy slime that sucks them downward before he runs out of rope. He fails. The rope goes taut, he strains into the depths with his hands, but no Buttercup. Only one thing to do. He lets go of the rope.

This occurs at the end of a chapter, with the idea that you have to put the book away until the next day to find out what happens. I can't remember how he finally saves her. The reader is given 24 hours to ponder whether Westley's act of pure faith and devotion was not also kind of stupid. Without a connection to the rope, anything you might do down there would be pretty futile. One is reminded of Yeats' "the center cannot hold..." , Heart of Darkness, and other tales about fools who wander so far into perdition that they can't get back.

We are reminded, also, of the great villains of history, for whom the path to a better world led straight into the flames. None of them, not one, knew that he was a villain. Not Hitler, who bounced children on his knee and liberated Poland and cleansed the ghettos, not Truman, who saved so many lives by firebombing Tokyo and nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Milosovich, who purified Greater Serbia, not Saddam Hussein, who ruled with a wise but stern hand, holding off the Kurdish rebellion and bringing the province of Kuwait back into the motherland, not Vlad the Impaler who defended the Christian faith against the Ottoman Turks, not Ariel Sharon, who shielded the Chosen People from enemies on every side, not George Dubyuh Bush, who was sent by God Almighty Himself to democratize Islam and bring the blessings of cheap oil home to his freedom-loving people. They all thought they were good guys, tasked with nasty jobs in a complex world, mandated to bring their societies through times of hardship into the promise of peace and plenty. They all let go of the rope at some point, losing touch with common decency, confidently embarking on rapacious lunacies toward ends which, in their imaginations, made it all worthwhile. None of them knew that they were themselves the reason why the world sucked.

Kerry's only virtue is that he's not Bush. I am frankly appalled at myself that more than half the time that is enough for me. This spineless, militaristic creep, who has voted for 100% of Bush's obscene initiatives, who has zero vision for solving the mid east crisis and every intention of making it worse, who talks to his constituency like they were the same batch of childlike, flagsucking, slogan-eating morons Bush plays to, who represents and promotes corporate interests only slightly less predatory than Cheney's hunting pals, has the freaking temerity to ask for my support..

Is this some Skull & Bones flimflam to make us think we have choices here? And what is my choice? Is it Nader, a wall-eyed crank who at least speaks what I believe and wishes for the world to be something closer to how I would like to see it? And I am getting ready to vote for Fascism Lite because it seems like a step back from outright evil instead of what I actually want? Good old fashioned paranoid warmongering military-industrial fascism instead of racist skin-crawling colonial Straussian totalitarian Armageddon-and-hellfire nut case fascism. Is there a way back to America from either of those two horrible places? Twice a week I feel the end of the rope in my hand and I say "No!" No, some awful day in the not-distant future when we're hiding in the ruins of our burnt-out Circle Ks from murderous bands of vengeful Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Afghans, Palestinians and Fulani tribesmen, will the remembrance that we once were free to choose Nader be bearable? That we were ourselves exactly what we despised in Kerry, petty cowards who deferred to consensus and went along with the crowd?

As individuals and as a culture, If we are not willing for the rule of decency to be always and everywhere obligatory, then we have abandoned the rule of decency. We go into free fall, and the facts from which we take our global position become the facts of free fall. Evil is not a place or a hypnotic gas given off by cloven hoofed tricksters, it is a direction. Lesser evils point us in the same direction as greater evils, away from intelligence into dumbness, brute appetency, loss of the state of grace for which the Greeks and Medievals had at least a vocabulary option.

It is not good to let go of the rope and simply seek the expediencies that lead to power. We trot out the idea that any unholy alliances we make in order to wrest the steering wheel from the devil are okay because we then plan to drive the bus back to Happyville. The values the rope represents disappear from sight and recede from memory the minute we release them. They become quaint, like the Geneva Accords, naive, like postmodernist truth, peacetime luxuries, like the Bill of Rights. To relinquish goodness for power might put us in the driver's seat, but the road map also disappears and our destination can no longer be specified. Please, just drop me off at the next corner.

Our culture has been on this trajectory for a long time. Kerry can't save us. Kennedy couldn't save us. We were bought and paid for before most of us were born. The mistakes we are afraid we might make have already been made. Nader won't win, and both remaining candidates are guaranteed to take us into the bloody future, blindfolded, guns-a-blazin'. The Bus of State is twenty feet beyond the edge of the cliff in our own fucked up roadrunner cartoon. Nader isn't about giving us the opportunity to salvage our corrupt society. He is giving us the opportunity to be counted, to vote our conscience and salvage our souls.


So, after twenty seditious minutes I normally snap out of it. I know I am not the only one whose mind passes in and out of these temporary mutinies, these bubbles of sociopathic madness. The G.O.P. is busy all across the country signing petitions to get Ralph Nader on their states' ballots, just to gobble up hard core pacifists like us. Kerry will have a lot to say in the final weeks of the campaign. God knows how many of us will wander into voting booths grinding our teeth over some recent abomination fresh out of the mouth of our lantern jawed golden boy. He's going to lose a lot of votes if he can't keep his ideas to himself.

Some combination of earplugs and cheap whiskey might be required to deliver my vote to that uninspiring weenie. But that is still my intention, by no means firm. The greater dream is for us all to come together and upend the Bush machine, and then, using Westley's secret trick that I can't remember, quickly find the end of the rope again far down in the quicksand, and turn on our new President with such ferocity that he is compelled to find his backbone and reverse our course and restore the national dignity. Call me a cockeyed optimist.