Campaigning beyond the ’Meta’

Williams students are known for not being aware of the outside world, so I set out to beat the stereotype and stay current on the presidential race. It hasn’t worked.

After absorbing months of the mainstream media’s take on the campaign, I’m humiliated by how much I don’t know about it. For instance, I don’t know specifically how any of the candidates plan on dealing with Iraq – or Afghanistan. I don’t know their plans to combat global warming. I don’t know whose economic agenda is the best, or who can get our nation out of debt. And I’m still not sure how any of these candidates plans on making us safer from another terrorist attack.

Call me ignorant, but I’d bet snack bar points that your answers aren’t much better than mine.

It’s not that I’m uninformed – it’s just that I know a lot of things that don’t matter. I know that Hillary Clinton’s tears supposedly propelled her to victory in New Hampshire, and that she is a ruthlessly ambitious politician (as opposed to. . .?). I know Barack Obama plays pick-up hoops, and that his middle name is “Hussein” – which rhymes with cocaine, a drug he did as a kid. And I know that John McCain is so old he envies Dick Cheney’s appearance, and doesn’t hate Mexicans as much as Rush Limbaugh does.

Somehow the media coverage of this election has made choosing our president a more superficial process than choosing an American Idol. At least with Idol, you know if a person can sing; in this election, you’re lucky to know if a candidate can read.

Of course, we all know that media is about the money; our demand for headline-grabbing politics has created the supply, and no one wants to read dry policy reports. But somehow, we’ve allowed the candidates to stop talking about issues and start talking about talking about issues. Meta: great for fiction, bad for an election.

Unfortunately for everyone, self-referential pseudo-coverage translates into concrete votes, which translate into even more concrete policies. You just have to keep your fingers crossed that we don’t get another W.

The Clinton and Obama campaigns, completely at a loss for policy differences, have relied on empty Meta-squabbles. The weasels in the Clinton campaign, for example, brought up Obama’s cocaine by pointing voters to an article that questioned whether voters cared about it.

Note the Meta-sleaziness about this maneuver: Clinton herself didn’t question whether Obama’s cocaine use was a problem; neither did her campaign nor, in fact, the article. All anyone did was wonder whether it could be a problem for voters – which, of course, made it a problem.

Debates provide no relief. In fact, they’re the worst. After each content-free political masturbation session, a bunch of sniveling pundits sit around and tell us what we are supposed to think about what just happened. Of course, they made up their minds before the debate even started, but they still look into the camera and say, “Shoot, I thought Hillary seemed disingenuous tonight, and that’s really going to hurt her with voters.” We, the voters, probably didn’t notice how fake Hillary was (especially since the majority of us that didn’t watch the snoozer debate), but when we turn on the news or check online for a short wrap-up we hear that Hillary’s fakeness hurt her. Our perception that her chances have decreased, then, itself decreases her chances. With our sound-bite style of media, the pundits’ theories about what we will think have become, in effect, what we think.

In this media Meta-world, Obama is the perfect candidate. He doesn’t actually say how he’s going to do anything; he just says, “Yes, we can.”

But even Obama has taken a Meta-beating recently. Last week’s Economist cautioned that Obama is so popular that his election “would raise expectations to undue heights.” Usually, saying a politician is a front-runner makes people rush to be part of a winning team; but Obama, The Economist warns, is too good for his own good. Obama’s failure to slip up has been his big slip-up.

Then again, what else do we expect? When we rely on personality, the cool guy can’t possibly lose – until the media decides he’s too cool.

I guess after eight years of real suffering and misery under Bush, it’s easier not to deal in actual reality. Besides, politicians completely flip on policy all the time – just Youtube “Dick Cheney, 1994, Iraq” or “Bush, nation-building, 2000.”

So maybe it’s actually better not to know. Maybe Williams students know what they’re doing by not paying attention.

And yes, smart-asses, I’m a hypocrite. This op-ed is a particularly flagrant example of Meta-coverage – being, after all, about Meta-coverage. But I’m taking a stand right now against this nonsense. I’m going to be straightforward and honest: I’m voting for Obama. I hear he has a nice jump shot.

Matt Roach ’08 is an English and history major from Middletown, Del.

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