Last week, I was joking with some friends that I had thought of a good solution to the partisan divides that have gridlocked our country’s government: benevolent dictatorship.
The theory was this: As a nation, we’ve stretched democracy about as far as it can go. In fact, it can be argued that we’re currently busy making a pretty good case for the limits of democracy to solve the complex problems of our age. Crippled by concern for special interests and power-mad political parties, our lawmakers legislate primarily to stay in office, not for the common good.
But a benevolent dictator, someone with the common good’s interests at heart who operates with a guarantee that he or she wouldn’t be swiftly voted out of office every time the electorate gets agitated, would be able to actually address real problems fearlessly and without compromise.
The more I joked, the better it sounded. Of course, the slippery slope is that you open yourself up to plain-old dictatorship without the benevolent part. How’s North Korea look to you?
OK, so a dictatorship is not practical. But creating a democratic politics that is not based on maintaining a system of career political operatives that runs on special interest cash has got to be attractive. Isn’t that what’s really behind the anger and the frustration of the American electorate, about which we’ve read plenty during the last two years.
Clearly something is broken and it needs to be fixed. A place to start might be campaign ads. According to a new study by Wesleyan University’s Wesleyan Media Project, despite growing awareness of political attack ads and a purported public weariness with the format, the percentage of ads by federal Senate and House candidates that attack the other candidate are up across the board by approximately 20 percent over the last 10 years. The study found 50 percent of all Democratic ads and 56 percent of all Republican ads run in the last year to be focused on attacking the other candidate.
The negative ads are famously financed by special interest cash — by groups interested in both parties. And now, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, the donors can remain anonymous. But what can be done about them? They are certainly protected free speech. And their use has grown clearly because their use works.
The only answer is to find a way to make it possible to campaign without the need to spend tens of millions of dollars. With the price of campaigning so high, there’s no way even an idealistic legislative hopeful could compete in the new political marketplace where millionaires spend fortunes to get a senate seat (Linda McMahon of Connecticut) or governorship (Rick Scott of Florida).
In some ways we’ve allowed millionaires to function in a way that’s not far from benevolent dictatorship. Politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have won a great deal of popularity and respect by appearing to act independent of party and special interest. Of course, Bloomberg can afford it. He’s a self-made millionaire and would be just as powerful and influential if he lost his public job tomorrow. In other words, he’s got nothing to lose.
It seems like our politics has come to be dominated by the wealthiest Americans — the only ones who can afford to run an expensive campaign — and party loyalists who have to put party above constituency to retain their seats. It’s not a pretty picture.
In fact it gets you wondering about crazy things – like the benefits of a benevolent dictator.
Pete Mazzaccaro

Rally to Restore Sanity: A face in the crowd
by Wesley Ratko
Jon Stewart had a dream. And last Saturday, an estimated 215,000 people flooded the National Mall in Washington D.C. to help make that dream come true. I’m happy that I could be counted among them, but there were a few traffic-related obstacles to surmount before that could happen.
First, a little background: I spent the summer after college working in the newsroom at World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, doing whatever was expected of an intern just out of college (I did a lot of faxing). While the people at World News were gracious, capable professionals, I’ve come to see TV news (not just the networks, but also the cable stations) with contempt.
As Stewart said in his address to the crowd: “We live in hard times, not End Times.” All-too-often, the networks present the story in such a way as to have you believe otherwise.
I appreciate Stewart for his wit but also for his insight – not just about our dysfunctional political process, but also for the media outlets partially responsible for that dysfunction.
His insight is unique and, I thought, worth a trip to D.C. After a quick stop at a friend’s place in Baltimore, we were on schedule to be there in time for the noon start.
At 11 a.m., we arrived at the Greenbelt Metro Station in Greenbelt, Md., nine miles outside of D.C.
The 200-space lot was filled to capacity, but cars continued streaming in from the I-95 off-ramp. My friend dropped me off and went in search of an open parking space. I stood at the end of a seemingly infinite line of costumed, sign-bearing, rally-going enthusiasts who were all happy to be there in the fresh air on what was turning out to be a beautiful fall day.
“I’ve never been so happy to see a line so long,” said a woman a few steps behind me. There was definitely a bonhomie in the air, a feeling that we’d all come together for some common purpose, and reveling in the fact that there were so many like-minded individuals, who’d come from so many different places, to do the same.
The cars in the lot were a testament to that distance traveled. With license plates from Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio lined up in a row beside me, it was clear this was much more than local traffic.
Throughout, I was in regular contact with my friend who, 45 minutes after dropping me off, continued sitting in her car, waiting for the line she was in to move. I shuffled forward another few feet.
“I’ll bet there wasn’t a line for Glen Beck,” someone said. At that point, the station and platform became visible, albeit still two football fields away.
In the distance, an eight-car train rolled into the station, accompanied by cheering. Our line shuffled forward a little more. The rally was set to begin in 15 minutes.
Another costumed rally-goer walked past me, looking for the end of a line that, amazingly, seemed to keep growing. She was dressed as a witch, with a sign around her neck that read: “I’m not like you – I AM a witch,” one of many references to Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell.
O’Donnell’s image – be it in witch costume or on multiple representations of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland – was a common site on the Mall.
A few minutes after the rally was beginning in DC, the line turned a corner and put me in view of the train station platform. Those with tickets or passes were already moving toward the stairs to board the train. The rest of us were waiting to use either the six working automated ticket machines or purchase our fare from two transit employees armed only with a table, a stack of rail day passes, and a giant box of cash (seriously). Finally, at 12:45, my friend and I boarded the train bound for Washington, cheering as it left the station.
Getting out of the Metro was almost as hard as getting on. Throngs of people moved up and down the only stairway out of the station at National Archives. We wondered why, with more than an hour still to go, people were already leaving the rally. After fighting our way to the surface, we saw that they were just a drop in the bucket – there were still plenty of attendees.
Two hundred thousand people is a lot of people, but that number doesn’t adequately convey the feeling of standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd that stretches off as far as one can see.
People – some in costume, others not – carried all manner of signs (some homemade, some printed) with funny quips.
“Having a sign makes me right!” declared one.
“If Obama’s a Muslim, can we have Friday’s off?” said another.
A printed sheet of text that read “Real patriots can handle a difference of opinion” was pinned to the backs of several people standing in the crowd.
The younger members of the crowd climbed anything available to get a better view of the stage – trees, traffic signals, port-o-potties – nothing appeared to be off-limits.
We were able to find some space on the Mall to stand and try to listen to the events as they played out, but the distance and noise around us made that difficult. Before we knew it, the events on stage were over as promised, promptly at 3 p.m.
People began a slow, orderly retreat from the Mall back toward the Metro, or their cars, or one of the hundreds of tour buses chartered for the day. We saw no fighting, no shouting. Trash was stacked neatly into and around overflowing bins.
I was moved by Stewart’s speech – when I watched it on the Internet the next day. For me, the rally had little to do with the show presented up on stage, and I would imagine the same could be said of others who were present on Saturday.
For me, it was a chance to see that people – 215,000 of them – could peaceably assemble in front of the U.S. Capitol building and stand with one another to express a simple desire that our national debates be conducted civilly – not with name-calling or demonizing, but with respect for the candidates and the electorate charged with deciding who best represents our interests.
“What exactly was this?” Steward asked the Rally to Restore Sanity crowd. Different things to different people, surely, but universally it was a testament to the fact that we, as a nation, have not all gone insane.

Further notes on Franzen’s “Freedom,” Kindles and Madame Bovary
I thoroughly enjoyed “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen’s long essay – oops, novel – the lone genuine literary work on the current New York Times Hardback Fiction Best Seller List. My little mental slip – calling the novel an essay – will probably seem understandable to those who have read “Freedom” already.
Though the story is populated by more than a dozen interesting characters, the bulk of the book is taken up by long speeches and interior monologues about social and political problems. All of these arguments are brilliant, nuanced, and readable, but they strain the reader’s capacity to enjoy the storytelling.
Though the book is emotionally moving – intensely so at times — and sad, half its contents devolve to intellectual issues radiating from its core concern: the notion of freedom. Like Bubba’s speech about shrimp in “Forrest Gump,” (“You got your fried shrimp, you gotcher fricasseed shrimp … “ etc.), you got your real freedom, you got your destructive freedom, your illusory freedom, your ironic freedom, sad freedom, empty freedom, and so on down the line.
But as a novel, as a story, the book requires much patience while the characters expound at length on the rapaciousness of big business and how commercial greed infects religion, the military, popular music, transportation, and virtually all aspects of modern American life. Indeed, the raping in this book begins literally when one of the main characters, Patty, is raped by a rich young man while she was still a high school girl. Her upwardly mobile parents, cowed by the rich kid’s politically connected family, reduce the rape to being “Patty’s problem.”
A further difficulty in reading this book as a novel arises from the fact that all four of the main characters (a married couple, Walter and Patty Berglund, their best friend Richard, and the Berglund’s son, Joey) argue, expound, think and debate, in the same articulate, highly nuanced, insightful manner, and at length, making them sound at times like a univoice, rather than four separate people.
The voice is Franzen’s, of course, and he is one of the most intelligent, perceptive, and socially aware writers in the world today. Nearly every paragraph contains two or three sharp observations worth quoting. If he were French he would be regarded as a national treasure. Here in America, however, he is viewed by the uncommitted middle class as smart, but a crank – the man who turned down Oprah. Oprah!
In a recent YouTube interview, when asked about the roots of this novel, Franzen said it began with him asking himself, What are the aspects of American life that worry me the most? What upsets me, disturbs me?
He is a dedicated environmentalist and a social critic who is concerned with the quality of contemporary life in the United States. Out of his concerns and criticisms, this novel developed most of its plot elements, political concerns, and social speechifying.
But, just so it doesn’t seem that “Freedom” is merely a passionate social tract disguised as a novel, it must be said that Franzen writes fiction well enough to have created some vivid and original characters. He’s also embroiled them in complicated, sad messes that, surprisingly, are of their own making.
Despite the crushing forcefulness of society at large, the four main characters are all held personally responsible for the lives they’ve made. The sadness of the book arises from the constriction of future choice that follows small (bad) decisions each makes.
These minor mistakes, little exceptions to the rules, come back to haunt. When each of them later makes the Big Leap, takes that big chance on Happiness, either bad luck or bad timing throw their “best-laid schemes” awry.
“Freedom” deserves to be part of the national dialogue, but its green and liberal politics (greed and stupidity are causing our planet’s destruction) will thrill only the green and liberal. The otherwise disposed will most likely ignore its messages.
If the politics were removed, however, the story nonetheless stands as a classic tale of two male friends drawn to the same woman, who is, of course, drawn to both of them. That core of the novel is beautifully told.
Kindling Bovary
I finished reading “Freedom” on Friday night, spurred to read a lengthy final section by the desire to try the Kindle loaned me by a fellow member of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival.
As I mentioned last week, Franzen’s tale of a dull-but-kindly husband and his yearning, adulterous wife, reminded me of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” I wanted to reread that story and also wanted to see what it was like to read a book on a Kindle electronic reader.
Downloading “Madame Bovary” took about 90 seconds and cost 99 cents. Pretty impressive. I learned how to read from the Kindle in about another minute and that aspect of its simplicity impressed me too. After that, I closed the cover, and let the Kindle sit, fairly glowing, on the mantle while I buried my nose in “Freedom” and finished it around 1 a.m. Saturday morning.
On Saturday night, I got in bed, propped myself in reading position, and pushed in sequence three little Kindle buttons that opened the world of “Madame Bovary” to me once again.
My reactions next week.

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