In Search Of... Cosmic Absurdity

by Gary Gordon

      "If you can't respect the man, at least respect the office."
      This was a guiding principal preached during the 60s as presidents Lyndon Johnson, then Richard Nixon, became worthy of our disrespect. It was even used by some to defend various policies-- Johnson's Vietnam War and his arm-twisting style of deal-making, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and his corruption of law enforcement agencies.
     And you are gonna hear it again for the next four years, mark my words.
     "Yes, they are scoundrels and worse," the argument went, "but the institution, and preserving the institution, is important."
     In a proper frame of mind, this should produce at least a giggle, if not a grin; sometimes outright hysteria derived from that special flash of insight into the Cosmically Absurd.
     What, after all, was there to respect, when so much has been disrespected?
     "Tell me what you think of this election," Lori asked at the Farmer's Market.
     "It sort of challenges the notion that every vote counts," I answered with a grin, hoping to convey a sense of the Cosmically Absurd.
     "So are all elections in Florida corrupt?" Josh asked-several people have asked me that as I used to be an elected municipal official there.
     "The elections I didn't win were definitely corrupt," I answered, with a grin.
     Then I told the group gathered at the market (our Algonquin West table) about one of the talking heads they've seen on Jim Lehrer and CNN, a University of Florida Law Professor, who is now an "expert on ethics and elections": he barely won his first election to the House after which thousands of his opponent's mailers criticizing his have-it-both-ways positions were found buried behind crates at a Post Office, placed there, as the story goes, by one of his campaign workers. Elected as an environmentalist, he rewrote the state's Growth Management Act so that it wouldn't manage growth (and instead handed even more power over to the big developers) after he moved into a new subdivision built by one of the town's environmental rapists; he rewrote the state's Wetlands Protection Act so it would fail to protect wetlands, he scouted women for Gary Hart (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's a fun fact) and he left office under a hail of scandal-something about state funds.
     Now he's on national TV quoting the Democratic Party line about fairness and you just have to giggle, or grin, or get hysterical.
     Growing up as I did in the 60s, I was well-schooled in absurdity by MAD Magazine, dress codes, conflated tales about the evils of everything from integration to masturbation to how the Devil was personally behind the Supreme Court-I heard the warnings that rock n roll would subvert the nation and happily, those warnings were correct; I was reminded of this as I attended Paul Simon's recent concert at the Wiltern, as the battle over votes is waged in Florida, as I watch Cokie Roberts impatiently criticize the failure of this election to be over (as if it's keeping her from an appointment), as I meander over to the Sunday Farmer's Market on Main Street, as the Beatles return to the charts and VH-1 with reminders (for some of us) of 1964-1970, and as the Fox Movie Channel runs a special about Robert Altman, then shows the original movie, M*A*S*H.
     Bedrock institutions began to shake, rattle and roll before I was born, when Elvis's swiveling hips were censored, when "race music" was censored, when Nat King Cole's pioneering TV show debuted (although it was canceled), when Frank insisted Sammy got to enter thru the front door, when beatniks began to gather, when marijuana was outlawed making even casual smokers outlaws-all of this making fairy-tale notions of justice, tolerance, and freedom of choice seem, well, absurd.
     But the off-the-Richter-Scale cultural earthquake during my lifetime was when I was in 6th grade and John Kennedy was shot, and three months later, the Beatles went on Ed Sullivan. The hyperbole on VH-1's Revolution, How The Beatles Changed The World, rings true. They were four upstarts, challenging values, standards, traditions-they were witty, they smiled, and they turned the country upside down. Anyone who was not already challenging the establishment got their cue from the Beatles and the celebration that greeted them.
     In essence and by deed, they urged us on: form a band, wear boots, grow your hair, be a smart-ass (smart being a key to that phrase): be witty, charming, and subversive; things the establishment rarely likes and always seeks to destroy or co-opt.
     "Are you a mod or a rocker?" a reporter asks Ringo in A Hard Day's Night.
     "A mocker," Ringo replies.
     We didn't know what a hard day's night was, but we wanted one; several, if we could get them.
     So over the next few years we formed bands, wore boots, grew our hair, fought dress codes, sang "I wanna hold your hand," "I can't get no satisfaction", "everybody must get stoned", and chanted "Hey Hey LBJ, how many men did you kill today?"
     Hyperbole being what it is, Salmon Rushdie, Eric Idle and Keith Richards credited the Beatles with ending Communism-"It was rock n roll and blue jeans," said Keith-and creating the global village.
     By the time I was in 11th grade our Literature teacher was bringing in mimeographed copies of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon lyrics and asking us to analyze them, "the way we did with Chaucer and the other poetry"-something that would have been unheard of a few years before, and in some schools was grounds for dismissal.
     "Silence like a cancer grows," sang Simon & Garfunkel, and many of us took that to mean too much silence about poverty, injustice, and the wrongness of the war.
     As I listened to Simon sing "I Am A Rock" at the Wiltern, I tried to remember what I'd written about it-probably some nonsense about the rhyme scheme. I remembered instead that during that time, as many of us argued about Vietnam and worried about the Draft, we also listened to Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant", a modern Canterbury tale.
     Distrust of authority and institutions was so widespread that Nixon in '68 found it necessary to run on a Law 'N Order ticket-not a ticket to jail corporate criminals guilty of discrimination, sexual harassment, red-lining, bribery, price-fixing, insider-trading, or the dumping of toxic chemicals, but a ticket instead to end "the era of permissiveness" (a phrase no doubt created by one of his speechwriters-Safire? Buchanan?).
     Then Altman came along and with a single movie-M*A*S*H-- revolutionized movie making as he reinforced and enhanced that green light that said: be a smart-ass; don't get sucked into the machine. (Remember, in the movie, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John drove Frank Burns nuts until he was booted out, Section 8.)
     I don't know exactly where or when or why it became fashionable to celebrate the machine, to worship Big Brother, to enlist in the establishment, to restrain from questioning authority. I don't know if it was during the 2nd Oil Crisis in '79 when the oil companies scared the shit out of everyone, or if it was Nov. 1980, when Reagan was elected, or if it was when the word and concept of Yuppie emerged, or when the mass media became less mass and chose to emphasize Wall Street over Main Street-you can discuss that over lunch and then appoint a group chair to report when we reconvene.
     What I do know is that it seems as if somewhere along the way the irreverent attitudes we used to celebrate, from MAD to Feiffer to Monty Python to Firesign Theatre to National Lampoon, from Dylan & Tom Lehrer to Zappa and Spinal Tap and more; attitudes that helped us gain perspective, that created joy, are now less evident, and expression of them is more constrained, boxed into a Jay Leno monologue. It's as if Lennon-McCartney chose to be speechwriters for Stevenson or Eisenhower instead of breaking the fourth wall; it's as if Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John chose to lead quiet lives of desperation in middle management instead of playing golf on the helicopter landing pad or doping Ho John so he'd flunk the Army physical.
     But let's consider the terrain and be specific:
     The paradigm, lest you be fooled by Sam & Cokie et al, is broader than Democrats and Republicans.
     49% of the electorate did not vote. That alone should produce a giggle.
     Wait, it gets sillier.
     For month after month during the campaign, we, the voters, have to guess the true intent of the candidates; now one of the candidates (and Cokie Roberts) is upset when they have to wait more than a week to learn the intent of the voters.
     People are demanding exceptions in law be made for ballots cast by some serving in the military, but don't want to take the time to make sure the votes of people who actually voted in Palm Beach and elsewhere in Florida are counted correctly.
     Ballots rejected by machines then counted by hand are called "recounts" instead of "counts".
     One candidate (Roy Bean?) actually declares "the Court's ruling is cloaked in legalese."
     And possibly the most important lesson: every vote does not count. Not in Florida. Not anywhere else. It's been another myth, and now it has been exposed.
     The trail of myths is extensive: #1, everyone supported the American Revolution; #2, we didn't commit genocide against the Indians; #3, slaveowners took great care of their slaves and the slaves liked it; #4, Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy-okay, I skipped several. Write your own list. End it with: Every vote counts.
     When and where did our institutions begin to fail us? Hmmm…
     After World War II we had the opportunity to oppose the reinstatement of French Colonialism in Vietnam and support, instead, Ho Chi Minh and the other nationalists. In the 50s we had the opportunity to support the popularly elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. At the end of that decade we had the opportunity to support the overthrow of the mobbed-up dictator Batista in Cuba.
     What'd we do? Fought against self-determination and nationalist movements and lied to the American people about it:
     "There are no U-2 spyplanes flying over the USSR."
     "The North Vietnamese launched an unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin."
     "We have not invaded Cambodia."
     "We did not trade arms for hostages."
     "I was out of the loop."
     (I mean, these lies knock the hell out of a lie about a blowjob, and not only disgraced the president and the Oval Office, but got a helluvalot of people killed.)
     At each and every turn our institutions failed us. The President, the Congress, the CIA, the FBI-and when the universities responded to demonstrations and began allowing some free speech, the attack on public education intensified, so now our universities are factories, available to the highest bidder, not institutions of higher learning.
     When Watergate became a national scandal the cry went out upon Ford's ascension "the system works". Well, only if you define Everything as the system. Because the fact is Nixon's wrongdoing drew little attention until a security guard named Frank Wills found a piece of tape on a door bolt and discovered the burglary. I mean, you gotta giggle at that one.
     When this dispute ends and either Bush or Gore becomes president, the cry will go out again: "the system works!" If not for Nader the Florida ballot would not have been close and the flaws would not have been revealed (not that that was his intent). Some system.
     To pretend the system works is to participate in the cancer of silence.
     So the appropriate response is to giggle, grin, or get hysterical.
     It's not a question of caring about injustice; we all care about that… If we didn't, we wouldn't live in California. It's a question of attitude. That's what's got me.
     I'm not mad at Bush or Gore for being who they are: they obviously can't help it. I'm not mad at everyone involved in the petty politics, name-calling, deceptions, attacks, obfuscations and spin.
     I'm upset at our collective response.
     So I'm calling on everyone to return to the days of yesteryear, when you sat in the back of the church or synagogue or classroom and whispered and laughed and generally cut-up.
     Wake up, America, and appreciate the absurd. Roar outloud with laughter when someone mentions Al Gore or Dubya. Really, do they deserve any less? Split a gut when someone mentions democracy. Do the Democrat and Republican parties, who gave us these paragons of parsimony, deserve any less? If we can't laugh now, then what does it take? Really, do it for the children. Laugh it up!
     For in all Cosmic Truth, in a universe where the vote was revered, professional Golf sportscasters would be covering the hand recounts, in hushed, reverent tones:
     "He's picking up the next ballot. Again, this is for the presidency, and every vote counts. He's examining the chad. It looks as if this one is… they're looking closely… it's hanging by two corners. It is hanging by two corners! He's showing it to the others on his examination team. They're nodding in agreement. It's a vote for…"
     Perhaps it's time to rejoin the Fab Four, Robert Altman, et al.
     Are you a Democrat or a Republican?
     Or are you a mocker?