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Panic Politics

If ever a town earned the right to perpetual panic, New Orleans is it. The people of New Orleans face the economic and environmental consequences of the BP oil spill before they’ve fully recovered from Katrina. I’ve been spending a good amount of time in New Orleans lately, and panic is the last thing on the minds of New Orleanians.

On Frenchmen Street, a two-block circus of music and bars not far from the Quarter, a young street poet bangs away at his spontaneous verse on an old Royal typewriter and recites them for tips. He came to New Orleans from D.C. to work as an ambulance driver. A city hiring freeze left him a lot of time to write. But he’s not panicked. He was, I promise, happy, if in a bluesy kind of way.

I don’t meet many happy people in politics these days. I’m not sure I meet any. In the political arena, panic is everywhere. On the Right, there’s panic about zombie communism. Maybe we should shorten the name of this ultimate straw-bogeyman to zommunism. Anyway, On the Left, there’s panic about undead fascism. Those not panicked about being sold out are panicked about being accused of being sellouts.

One of Austin’s greater slacker rituals used to be the annual North Austin/South Austin tug-o-war called the “Tug of Honor.” A big rope was strung across the Colorado River, and hundreds of beer-drinking partisans lined up on their side of the river, grabbed the rope and tugged. At some point, one side or the other tumbled into the river. Now, we are much too panicked for that sort of revelry. But there’s another point here.

If you’ve ever been on the losing side in a tug-o-war, you know that moment of panic when your team is overpowered, its mutual footing lost. There’s a kind of oh-my-god panic. Somehow, in our current political circumstance, all sides seem to be having such a moment at the same time. The laws of physics hint that that shouldn’t be possible.

I’m not talking about earnest engagement and advocacy, about the moral courage to advance the causes one believes in. Not all political disagreement falls into the panic mode. Still, and don’t panic at this, I think political ideology is usually, if not always, thin and two-dimensional. Our ideological wars beat with dry if frenzied hearts. The point is, some of our humanity is lost when it’s Certainty versus Certainty on the political playing field. We all loose the resources we use to cope with hope and heartache in our everyday lives.

I can almost never remember today the thing that made me panic day before yesterday. That’s not exactly right. It’s better to say I can almost never work myself into a panic today over the thing that panicked me day before yesterday.

Some symptoms of panic:  a fear that all is lost when something is lost; an absolute, religious faith in one’s own judgment; the taking of political setbacks personally; repeated lashing out at those who disagree with us; the certainty that the world (or democracy, or America, or something) will not survive if one’s view does not prevail immediately.

Now, I believe democracy is at risk these days. I think America is fast becoming a kind of purple plutocracy. Corporations are persons, legal entities with no accountability. Corporations are the new humans, above the people and beyond the checks and balances. In this there is great danger. (By the way, if corporations are persons, isn’t it fair to describe Big Insurance as psychopathic? Wikipedia says, “Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy combined with strongly amoral conduct, masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal.” I rest my case.)

But reason to panic doesn’t mean we should panic. Cable news lives to keep us on the edge of panic. What was once NightLine is now Once-A-Minute Line. Everything is urgent, from the Hollywood fall-from-grace (nothing is less urgent than Mel Gibson), to a traffic pileup. America was panicked into war over Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. I rest another case.

I’m with the street poets of New Orleans, and there’s no such thing as a poem written in panic. Or a good law, either.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith