Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

No, really. Stop me. I keep drifting into politics in my posts, despite my best efforts. It’s as if this year’s Presidential election has created some kind of low spot in the universe, and I keep rolling downslope, no matter what direction I start out in.

Every day I sit down with the spark of an idea that I’d like to pursue, something that I hope will rise above politics, and I begin to type, and things look fine for a paragraph or two, and then gravity takes over and up pops Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich — there. Just like that, dammit.

I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is just the crushing mediocrity of it all. We keep picking and gnawing at the political bone hoping that there might be some flavor left in it, only to be disappointed by the next speech, the next debate, the next meaningless sound-bite. We just can’t let go, because for all our chewing, we’re still so hungry.

I remember when apartheid ended in South Africa. We saw news footage of people lined up at the polls two days before the elections, so desperately eager to participate, so terribly aware of the enormous stakes involved. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, Chile, so many places, by the time democracy returned after the decades of repression, the issues were so grave, the problems so fundamental, that no one could ignore the importance of the choices that voters were being called upon to make.

But here? We choose among leaders who resemble eggs frying over-easy on a griddle: the brown bits along the edges are different, and sometimes there’s some leftover bacon embedded in the soft spots, but by and large it’s hard to say that one gummy round yolk is any different from another.

Dennis Kucinich of Ohio lost his primary yesterday. Kucinich was still an egg, frying with the rest, but maybe a duck’s egg among the chicken, and we’re going to miss him. Olympia Snowe of Maine was distinguished by her moderation and courtesy in an era of irresponsible rhetoric; Barney Frank showed us that radio talk show hosts are not the final arbiters of the political process they believe themselves to be. Who will replace these folks? Almost certainly someone less interesting.

Sometimes I even hearken back to good/bad old days of Jesse Helms and his ilk: detestable, but meaty. Newt Gingrich talks the big talk, but the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of what he says vary from year to year and audience to audience. Like Rick Santorum, he speaks in absolutes, but they are flexible absolutes that can change at any moment. Bill Clinton succeeded in Washington as a Democrat by becoming more Republican than the Republicans. Barack Obama’s White House has become even more secretive and opaque than that of his Republican predecessor.

American politics has become an end in and of itself, a reality show complete with fake jungles and the occasion scorpion or de-fanged rattlesnake imported for effect. It’s not that the real issues aren’t there: hunger is on the rise; health care is moving beyond the reach of an ever larger proportion of the population; our bridges, roads and sewers are disintegrating beneath our feet; we pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per year to provide our kids with the latest smartphone technology, but we balk at investing pennies to improve their schools. The problem is that we no longer expect our elected leaders to deal with those issues. Rick Santorum is running a very successful primary campaign on the basis of the wrong people having too much of the wrong kinds of sex. Newt Gingrich is spinning attractive fantasies about colonies on the moon and two-dollar gasoline. Ron Paul is attracting voters on the basis of not being Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. Mitt Romney is struggling, like Pinocchio, to become a real boy, not just a expertly-painted imitation. More discussion has been devoted to the respective hairstyles of Mitt Romney and Callista Gingrich in Republican primaries than on the role Big Pharma is playing in our spiraling health care costs.

Maybe movements like Occupy and the Tea Party can indeed save us: not by taking control and imposing their vague politics of discontent on the system, but by pissing off the rest of us, just a little; enough to make us get up and ask questions, look at the people we’ve elected, and what they’ve done, and maybe ramp up our expectations a little. When we find ourselves embarrassed to explain our support for the mainstream, maybe the mainstream is failing us: or perhaps we’re failing it.

Let’s face it: Sarah Palin made us liberals and intellectuals get up off our asses and do some arm-waving, something Al Gore had been unable to do during eight years in the White House. We’re talking about birth control today not because of the efforts of some crusading champion of women’s health, but because of a douchebag like Rush Limbaugh. Ron Paul says a lot of crazy things, but he says them out loud, with conviction, and we’re forced to explain to ourselves and to each other why we believe that what he’s saying is crazy. Does it take a healthy dose of tear gas in lower Manhattan to make us weep for the injustices of hunger and disease in our country? Fine: bring it on.

We have to stop talking about “sacred cows” and “third rails” and start addressing our problems more honestly. Income disparity, gay marriage, women’s health: the lunatic fringe has taken control of the issues not because they have any viable answers, but because they’re not afraid to ask the questions, while the rest of us wriggle and twitch and try to huddle as close to what we perceive as the “center” as we can. I don’t mean we should all start pontificating about things we don’t really understand, and I certainly don’t approve of the nastiness of Limbaugh and his kind, but I think we should make the effort to educate ourselves, to speak up, to listen, and not to shy away from the ideas and issues that really matter.

I’m not going to go out and set any cars on fire, or start stockpiling molotov cocktails, but I think, for my next “Morning in America”, I wouldn’t mind trying my eggs scrambled.

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