The “Touch of Evil” Election Day

I thought I was sitting out Election Day when I slipped into a theater at 4:30 yesterday afternoon to watch the classic Touch of Evil, and then tried my best not to look at a web browser for the rest of the night. Turns out the film was absolutely relevant.

The Mexican-American border, the largest open border in the world, “1400 miles long and not a machine gun on it,” the hero brags. That that hero, Mexican Special Agent Michael Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston himself has made the film a bit of a joke over the years, but that’s actually not the hardest piece of miscasting it asks you to swallow. (Bronx accents in Texas, anyone?) As films go, it’s classic Welles. You appreciate it for its conception more than you’re actually moved by it. The script works so hard to make narrative constructs happen that you’re jarred out of the reality within the film. Instead of wondering what the hell is going to happen next, you marvel at the cinematic and pulp novel razzle-dazzle the story-teller is going to use to get you there.

The rad thing about Touch of Evil is that the bad guys are Americans. The hero is Mexican. It took the “white person having an ethical crisis by the hard choices he must face while across the border” template, which is still thriving, and turned it on its head, and this was 56 years ago.

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Ebola: The menace from deepest Africa!

Which brings me to yesterday’s election, the top story of which, let’s face it, was racial paranoia. A lot of celebratory scotch and beer got swilled last night by Republican-affiliated ad people toasting the success of their message: Democrats want to leave the Mexican border unprotected; they’re soft on ISIS; they don’t do enough to stop ebola; and all kinds of stupid combinations of these three.

Time is still on the side of the Left, we’re just going to have to put up with a whole lot more stupidity for two more years. I could already sense this back in September during the People’s Climate March here in New York. The massive crowd felt like the American Left was finally moving past Obama, who himself represented the psychic antidote to Bush. Finally we were groping for a consensus about what the highest priority in our political future ought to be. And now that the dumbest guy from a country club full of oilmen in Oklahoma has the most powerful environmental position in government, except for the president, we have a perfect foil, and a perfect foil is what American politics are all about.

Other takeaways from Election Day:

1. As political beings we (Americans) are still hard-wired to resist elite authority from afar. The Alpha Ideological American is the Puritan who hated the crown and the official church, because he had his own, personal relationship with God, and that God put pretenders to divine authority on earth just to test his faith. And nothing makes him stand up and shout Hallelujah!” like a sign that says “Don’t tread on me.” Why God would be such a jerk, we are not allowed to ask, but this inheritance we carry makes us selectively reframe the stories we tell as “us, God’s chosen people” versus “them, elites whose earthly success is a sham.” And it’s rarely enough to say that the elites you’re mobilizing against are mistaken, or just plain greedy; it must be that they’re on the brink of perverting democracy itself.

2. Raising the stakes by making the villain nastier is the oldest narrative shortcut in the book (It’s also one of the most common screenplay notes.), but we have to do better! The breathlessness of the Democratic fundraising emails in the past few months such as this one from none other than Barbra Streisand just didn’t cut it, and actually turned us off:  “Dear Charles, Have you seen Congress lately? It’s a mess. And it’s only going to get worse if people like Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers continue to treat corporations better than people.” Nice alliteration, but it turns out people need to be for something too.

3. Citizens United is the new enemy. No wonder many liberals sat this election out. What are we supposed to do, get into a spending war against billionaires who have no legal limit?

4. The most brilliant Republican move of the last decade was the term “Obamacare.” Now we think of the president every time we think of our health insurance companies, who really are doing the devil’s work. Genius.

5. The American Right’s knee-jerk racism – Ebola quarantines? Come on! Like a hurricane before 2012 election, you can’t think up coincidences like that! – is sometimes just too much. They already have the Constitutional deck – which was very progressive in 1787, I might add – stacked in their favor, and the ease with which they achieve consensus when race is introduced creates historic anomalies like yesterday’s election.

6. We should never be satisfied with social media success. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a must-read op-ed earlier this year, social media “can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious,'” but those bonds are not as resilient as the real person-to-person movement-building of the pre-social media dark ages.

I’m a white male over 40 and I voted yesterday, because that’s what people like me do: boring stuff like get married, go to church (Well, it’s been a while in my case…), go to non-profit cinemas, and vote. I refuse to be an aging leftist, or an aging cinephile, who thinks young people can do nothing right. And yet I confess to some despair – not for the U.S. Senate this year, or for 2016. All that junk will come out in the wash, and the Democratic Party is only just barely worth fighting for. I despair because every political achievement last century happened because individuals joined groups, whether unions or the Civil Rights movement, co-operatives or antiwar groups. We’ve lost the habit of going out and joining unless we’re constantly soothed by the blanket of social media groupthink, and there may not be enough “like” buttons to click to compete with the crazy Evangelicals who are on an errand from the oil industry and think they’re on a mission from God.

What do you think?

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