As usual, high-school over-achiever Tracy Flick (Reed Witherspoon, with her hand up) is the first with the right answer, but having the right answers isn’t the same as being right, a lesson neither of the main characters learns in Election, the 1999 movie, written and directed by Alexander Payne, about how supposedly good people give themselves permission to behave badly.
“America is a didactic country whose people always offer their personal experiences as a helpful lesson to the rest, hoping to hearten them and to do them good---an intensive sort of personal public relations project. There are times when I see this as idealism. There are other times when it looks to me like pure delirium.”---from Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.
“This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.”---from “The Betrayed Kingdom” by Richard Brautigan.
I don’t get the point of Ashley Madison.
Isn’t half the fun of an affair that’s it’s an unplanned giant mess that ends in heartbreak, recrimination, the hiring of lawyers, the possibility of violence and bloodshed, and general humiliation for everyone involved?
Well, as it’s ending for Ashley Madison’s lovelorn clients exposed by the hack.
And as it did for those two state legislators up in Michigan.
I was saying the other day that one of the things I like about Twitter is how it sometimes surprises me with news and information I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Not every surprise is a nice one and there are things I would have been happier not knowing about and information I’d rather not have.
The story of those two state legislators is a case in point.
As usual, it’s not the sex that’s dirty. It’s the hypocrisy.
One of them boasts on her campaign website she's for "Strong Families!" You know, like people who don't cheat on their spouses are for weak families. Her thank you letter to her constituents ends with “With Firm Reliance on Divine Providence.”
The other one, the fake gay guy who likes to be tucked in for his nap, is quoting the bible on his Facebook page to explain it all away. He wants us to know he’s still a good Christian, God is still his pal, and we shouldn’t blame either Christianity or God for this.
Both feature lovely Sears Portrait Department quality photographs of them with their spouses and children. Together they sponsored a bundled set of bills designed to get around the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, legislation that would “would prohibit clerks, judges and other government officials from performing weddings. The legislation would require all marriage certificates to be signed by a religious leader.”
Neither one plans to resign from offices they won promising to force their right wing Christian values on everybody in Michigan.
Of course they’re Republicans. Of course they’re “Christians.” Of course they’re pro-life and pro-family which means anti-sex.
Of course, of course, of course.
And it is of course.
Right Wing Christians give themselves permission to sin.
Some of the worst behaved people are those who know they are going to heaven, and cheating on their spouses is among the least of their sins and crimes.
And it’s all ok because they are good. Being good means they don’t---can’t---do anything bad.
People are no good. One of the no good things about us is how good we think we are. We're always telling ourselves we're good.
Among the worst behaved among us are the ones who can tell you just what makes them so good and how they know they're going to heaven and YOU aren't.
Conservative rhetoric is all a matter of conservatives finding ways to tell themselves how good they are, how "we" are going to heaven and “those others” aren’t.
But I'm not just talking about Right Wingers. It’s an American affliction. We love to boast. About anything and everything. One of our best tricks is bragging about how modest we are. Another favorite trick is to put the bragging and boasting in the form of advice. “Let me tell you how you can be as wonderful as I am. That way you can get to heaven too.” Heaven, of course, can take many forms. There are plenty of liberals who apparently believe there's a liberal heaven and they can tell you exactly how they know they're going there and YOU aren't. They LIKE to tell you.
Generally, it's a pretty easy path to liberal heaven. You just have to vote for the right candidates and adopt the right attitudes.
There’s a difference, though, between sanctimonious liberal hypocrites and conservative self-elected members of the elect like these state legislators. But before I continue climbing up on my high horse about them and their ilk, three names.
Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton.
Just something to keep us from getting too full of ourselves.
The disgusting thing about the Right Wing hypocrites is their determination to police the bedrooms of people whose love lives are more respectful of self and partner, more faithful, more family supportive and supported, and generally healthier and happier than their own.
It’s not simply the hypocrisy. It’s the envy, malice, and spite. It’s their determination to make life a misery.
It’s happiness they hate. Their own as much as everyone else’s.
And it goes beyond attempts to deny people fun and happiness in bed. Look at how they set out to punish the poor. The worst thing poor people do in their eyes is use aid money to bring a little joy and comfort to their lives. The poor are supposed to be abject, miserable, and ashamed. That’s a religious tenet with many conservatives. But life for everybody is not meant to be enjoyed, merely suffered through on the way to heaven.
It comes very close to believing that being born human is a sin.
Things are predictably tawdry up in Michigan. Both lovers have “apologized” in ways that make clear they’re only sorry they got caught. Their families have been dragged into it. She has done what male politicians caught cheating do and made her husband stand next to her and look supportive while she confessed to TV cameras to how she had humiliated him. It’s already becoming more than a sex scandal as they both may have used state money to cover up their affair, a possible crime that the legislature has to investigate, meaning a headache for their colleagues and fellow Republicans and a bill charged to taxpayers who were promised they would save money if they voted Republican.
And now it turns out that the staffer who exposed their affair and the details of sex games they played in the office, claiming he was too morally offended to keep quiet, is a client of…Ashley Madison.
Now I’m the hypocrite. I said I wished I didn’t know about any of this. But I want to know. I want to know more. I just don’t want to know it from Twitter. Or Facebook. Or anywhere online. Or from newspapers or TV news.
They’d all just give me the facts. The facts are boring and tawdry and don’t tell me anything. They don’t tell the story. I want the story. The whole, true story.
I want to know what was going on in these people's heads.
For that, you need fiction.
Usually when I talk about why we need fiction, I’m looking for a short story or a novel to help make my case. This time, though, I’m thinking we need a movie.
And I have an idea who I’d like to write it and direct it.
In Election and Citizen Ruth, Payne showed that he can tell the stories of people who, knowing themselves to be on the side of righteousness, that is, people who know they are going to one form of heaven or another, give themselves permission to engage in all sorts of bad behavior. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Citizen Ruth and I should watch it again soon---it’s streaming on Netflix. So is Election but I don’t feel a need to re-watch that one because I’ve never been able to forget it since I saw it when it first came out. It was one of the most cringe-inducing movie-going experiences of my life, because I identified too closely with Matthew Broderick’s character, Jim McAllister, the nice guy high school civics teacher who humiliates and then destroys himself through vanity and self-deception.
I think when they think of the movie, most people focus on the student, Tracy Flick, and not without good reason. Tracy is a vividly drawn monster of ego and ambition brilliantly brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. At the time Election came out, national political reporters and pundits amused themselves comparing Tracy to Hillary Clinton, who was then caught up in her own election, running for the United States Senate. This was unfair and mean and dirty-minded, to boot, because no one except the most dirty-minded ever really thought Hillary got ahead by seducing her mentors. It was sexist, too, in that it was based on the assumption that the only real-life versions of Tracy Flick are female. But on top of everything else, the comparison missed an important point.
Tracy isn’t the main character.
She’s not even the movie’s villain.
She’s far from admirable, of course. But she is smart and hard-working and she has reason to believe deserves to be elected class president. She has good ideas she knows how to implement. She is competent and accomplished. She is, by her lights and by the lights of most adults, an ideal student.
It is the case that because she’s smart, accomplished, has good ideas she knows she can make work, and she normally follows the rules, she’s given herself permission to break rules that get in her way. Break is the wrong word. Ignore is too. She doesn’t see them. But that doesn’t make her the movie’s villainess. That makes her very much like Broderick’s character.
McAllister knows himself to be a good guy, a good husband, and a good teacher. And knowing all this about himself, being proud of it, and constantly congratulating himself on it, which means telling himself he’s going to nice liberal guy heaven, he sets out to do things he knows are wrong---or that he would have called wrong before he was tempted to do them---and wrecks his marriage, wrecks his career, and nearly ruins the lives of other students besides Tracy, and in the end he doesn’t learn anything from it. He’s still congratulating himself on what a good guy he is and telling us---as the narrator of his own downfall---how he knows he’s still going to heaven.