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June/July '04 Articles:
America's Political Pulse
Editorial: Organic Inconsistencies
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
Activism Unleashed
Debbie Doesn't Do Dallas
The White Escalator
(music reviews)

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"Vietnam never bombed us," said my neighbor.

It was a spring morning–still cool for a Central Florida springtime. My neighbor was in her front yard, and I'd gone over to talk to her about her oak tree. I wanted to prune a branch off the big tree, one that overhung my yard. As often happens these days, the chat quickly turned to politics.

"I heard someone on TV compare Iraq to Vietnam," she said. "That made me so mad. I marched [against the war in Vietnam], rode the buses to Washington. This is different."

I was surprised. I'd taken my neighbor for a liberal. Saddam Hussein, of course, had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9-11. "But he supported it. You know he did," she said. She followed with a series of comments about how nice it was to "have a President that prays," about Kerry changing his mind on the war in Iraq, and so on.

Later that morning, an elected official from a small town nearby rolled down the window of his van to call me over. I said it was a nice day. He said he'd seen the President's speech the night before. He was indignant over what he saw as the presidential tendency to play fast and loose with the truth.

"Do they expect anyone to swallow this crap?" he wondered.

I thought about my neighbor and assured him that some people do indeed "swallow this crap." There is growing discontent with the Bush administration's policies, and anti-Bush/pro-Kerry activism is increasing daily with the encouragement of MoveOn and other organizations. Even the mainstream media seems to be veering slightly to the left of the open-ended patriotism that followed the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks.

Still, many Americans continue to buy Bush's justification for the invasion of Iraq, along with the administration's manipulation of economic indicators, its positions on social services and education, and its take on Medicare.

With the presidential campaign moving into full swing, there is already a good deal of "crap" out there. Both Democrats and Republicans will count on American voters to digest much of it in the coming months. Between now and November, American voters will be fed a steady diet of truths, half-truths, and flat-out falsehoods before we go to the polls to elect–or re-elect–a president.

That Saturday morning conversation made me wonder: Are the campaigns having an effect yet, and are people buying any of the political messages now being sold?

I decided I would do an informal poll–ask some friends and total strangers in Central Florida for their opinions about the coming election, and take the pulse of the voters–or at least the voters in my little corner of the world.

It's the war, stupid.

When Clinton ran against the first President Bush, he was said to constantly remind himself, "It's the economy, stupid."

In 2004, Americans are probably more divided politically than at any time since the Vietnam era. Each of us has our list of important issues: the economy, the environment, social programs, Medicare, rights to privacy, gay marriage, and so on. However, the war and national security are probably a defining issue on almost every list of hot topics.

Bush and Kerry would each do well to write on the back of their right hand, "It's the war, stupid."

Steve Chmielewski is one of a dying breed. The 30-something, counterculture entrepreneur opened a record store years ago in a college town midway between EPCOT and "the world's most famous beach." He continues to operate it, selling CD's from a downtown storefront shop that is very different from the many cookie-cutter mall music stores.

"I was against Bush the whole way," Chmielewski said. When the U.S. started invading other countries, he organized candlelight vigils against the war.

"This is one of the most important times we've ever been in," he said. "Kerry has to win this election." The U.S. was never the most hated country in the world before, he pointed out. "Most other countries loved us." He would like to see the damage undone, and America return to its role as a benign leader, not a cruel invader.

Chmielewski thinks Kerry could do that, and voted for him in the primary. "I didn't see anyone better out there. And I think he's learning every day, getting better at what he does as he goes along."

As to Kerry's involvement in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, from which he launched his political career, a lot of younger people will think that's a good thing. To have served and been awarded ribbons, then come back to work as an activist against the war deserves a commendation.

"Maybe voters over 55" will find Kerry's antiwar activities off-putting, Chmielewski conceded.

That would include voters like 74-year-old Jan Mowday. "Look what (Kerry) did in Vietnam," she said. "They spit on our soldiers."

"I'm an old lady," Mowday said. "I delivered newspapers during World War II." Now, the former telecommunications employee is retired and spends her time preaching the Gospel wherever she can find listeners, even from a street corner a few blocks from Chmielewski's shop.

"I have one degree," Mowday said. "It's a B.A.: Born Again. I'm registered, and I do vote. I will vote for someone who's not for homosexual marriage."

"If Bush doesn't come back in, you'll see a New World Order," she believes, with Democrats like Kerry ushering in world government, and perhaps the apocalypse.

As our troops defend America in the War on Terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet, John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror... Kerry even voted against body armor for our troops on the front line of the War on Terror. John Kerry's record on national security: Troubling.–Bush Campaign Ad

The claim is based on Kerry's votes against overall Pentagon money bills in 1990, 1995 and 1996. However, these were not votes against specific weapons, as suggested, and Kerry voted for Pentagon authorization bills in 16 of the 19 years he's been in the Senate. "So even by the Bush campaign's twisted logic, Kerry should–on balance–be called a supporter of the 'vital' weapons, more so than an opponent."–From

"One day can change everything," said Rusty Hamil. "I still think [the election] is anyone's game."

Hamil manages an architectural antiques business. He registered to vote as an independent. "I tend to vote more Democrat, but I won't rule out anyone if I think they're the right candidate," he said.

Hamil feels that the politics of fear will motivate many voters. "All it takes is to scare people enough, and you get things like the Patriot Act," he said. "Bush took advantage of our fear to get that passed," just as he took advantage of fear to go to Iraq.

Which candidate one chooses, Hamil thinks, "could boil down to whether you're for or against the war."

Shortly before our interview, Democrats began talking about a Kerry-John McCain ticket. "Personally, I kind of like McCain–for a Republican," he said. "It would be interesting to have a unity ticket." Such a dual-party ticket would galvanize voters around Kerry, even some Republican voters who question the Bush administration's economic and foreign policy. "I think it would sway a lot of Republicans to vote for Kerry, and seal the doom of Bush," he said.

To defeat the incumbent, the Kerry team will have to work hard, he thinks. "Bush has spent $126 million so far [in advertising] out of $204 million he's raised," Hamil said. "That kind of money buys a lot of TV time."

Hamil is concerned the Democrats aren't working hard enough to distinguish themselves as being different from the Republicans. "Even when Bush is way down in the polls–when the Democrats should be hammering away at him–Kerry doesn't seem to be fighting very hard," Hamil said.

That could leave the Democratic ticket open to attack from Ralph Nader. "I think he will have an effect on the election," said Hamil. "I agree with him on many things, and I think he's a smart guy. Nader could help us a lot by exposing the flaws in the system."

"America seems less and less like a democracy every day," he continued, and he feels Nader is the only candidate very willing to address that. "But he's doing more harm than good by running. He's part of the reason we're in this mess."

Being from Florida, Hamil is rightfully concerned about the actual balloting process. "They're playing games with the voter roles in Florida again," he said, wondering if ballot-box shenanigans might affect the outcome of the election. "They got away with it four years ago, so why not try it now? They're even slicker now," he said.

Worse still, he predicts, is the potential abuse and misuse of touch screen voting. "I know they're trying to put that in place," in some locations without paper ballots for backup, he said. He also worries about whether volunteers who work the polls will be adequately prepared to deal with the technology, especially if it goes on the fritz.

"At my polling place, everyone who works there is over 70," with few of them computer savvy, he said. "And then there are hackers –a hacker could do anything he wanted."

Hamil himself is one of a growing number of Americans whose votes are unlikely to be influenced by television advertising. Most of his information comes from the Internet, with Web sites and e-mail from MoveOn, True Majority, and others that provide regular updates from the liberal/progressive point of view.

"I stopped watching TV news," he said. "Sometimes I'll turn it on, just to see what kind of shit they're trying to get us to believe. But I put a lot more faith in print media–in writers that are credible.

Still, events over the next several months could cause an enormous change in the president's approval rating. "Every day, something new could develop that could throw things for either side," he said. For example, another terrorist attack might sway voters strongly one way or the other. "A severe enough attack–if it was the Sunday before that Tuesday, it might postpone the election."

"And I keep expecting Osama bin Laden to come out," he said. "They probably have him stashed somewhere, waiting for the right moment to say they caught him."

Instead of fighting corporate corruption, George Bush gave no-bid contracts to Halliburton–a company caught overcharging for fuel and food for our soldiers in Iraq. –Media Fund Ad

Halliburton, which Vice President Cheney once headed, is being investigated by the Pentagon for a variety of allegations involving overcharging the government for services rendered in the Iraq war. However, the "no-bid contract" was actually an extension of an earlier contract won under open bidding. Also, the Bush administration has fought corporate corruption, convicting or indicting executives of Enron and many other companies and hundreds of individuals, including Martha Stewart. In the wake of corporate scandal, Bush also signed legislation imposing stringent new accounting rules. –From

Four years ago, bonafide liberals were scarce in much of America. These days, it seems to be hard to find someone who likes President Bush. With so many people questioning his handling of Iraq and even his motives for taking us there, not to mention the criticism suffered by Bush initiatives and policies from No Child Left Behind to global warming, one might wonder why any rational American would vote for Bush. However, there are a few thoughtful conservatives out there.

"The guys who danced around with Berg's head are going to be running the energy supply of planet earth if we run away at this point," said Terence H. Brown, a military historian, lawyer, and an officer in the U.S. armed forces reserves who currently lives in Central Florida.

Middle Eastern extremist factions, he thinks, "are meaner and tougher than anyone in the eastern hemisphere... and they are multitalented." While trying to seize control of the world's oil, he added, "they are going to do whatever it takes to eliminate any obstacles to the [global] establishment of Sharia," the Islamic regulations of worship, ritual, jurisprudence and politics. And at some point, he thinks, "They will get nukes."

"Even weapons inspector Kay said that Saddam had to be dealt with," Brown said. "Who besides Iraq had the best chance of getting nukes to the Jihadis?"

Like many other people–including both liberals and conservatives–Brown thinks it is highly important for democracy to reach the Mideast and North Africa because democracy creates peace. "Name a war between two democracies," he suggests. There have been almost none. But every other form of government fights its own kind and each other.

"Republicans, at least the boldest ones, have consistently advanced democracy since 1952," he said. "While a few times they have sided with authoritarians against totalitarians, the regimes defended evolve towards democracies," although he admits that evolution may have been in part because Democrats insisted that they progress in that direction.

But why, one might wonder, would the Bush administration be better able to deal with the threat from the Middle East? Its members, according to Brown "are movers and shakers" who are aggressively trying to spread democracy to the region.

Kerry, on the other hand, "is the only guy I know who has changed his mind on three wars: Vietnam, Kuwait, [and] Iraq," Brown said. As to the difference between Kerry's service record and Bush's, he added, "everyone downplays the personal physical risks [he] took in defending America. Lots of fighter pilots die... in training. Two of Bush's contemporaries got killed."

Almost daily, however, news from Iraq gets worse. As reports of Americans torturing prisoners hits the news, for example, the president's approval rating plummets. "I have to say that the whole West Virginia National Guard, Mapplethorpe-type humiliation party embarrassed every American who wears a uniform," Brown said.

The incidents also put a lot of Americans in danger; more people on both sides will likely die as a result of the abuses. But in the prisoner abuse scandals, Brown holds the officers at fault.

"As an officer, you know some of your [subordinates] come from the places and culture that produced [events like] the sodomizing hazing at football camp and the girls' football team hazing–hitting the new girls in the head, shoving feces in their hair... As an officer, you are supposed to work with the senior NCOs to make sure that stuff doesn't happen."

If the CIA or other agency issued instructions that led to the abuses, he said, "That is where an officer should step in and say, 'Sorry, soldiers may die if we do not get the info from these prisoners, but we are not going to torture them.'"

Brown agrees with Hamil that mass electronic media, and network television news in particular, is a poor source of information and that voters who rely on TV news coverage are likely to be less than well-informed.

He does, however, feel that the media in general shows more diversity than in the past. Despite the predominate ownership of the networks and even major newspapers by large corporations, it is possible to get both sides of the issues, largely because of the growing influence of the Internet.

Pointing out that large cities like New York once had dozens of daily newspapers, Brown said, "The multitude of web sites has replaced the multitude of newspapers. Plus, there's talk radio, cable news, and National Public Radio," which has expanded enormously since the 1970s.

"But I have found most newspapers hostile to my beliefs," he said. "I have no problem hearing the other side, so long as my side has a fair hearing. NPR provides such coverage and I am quick to point that out to my fellow Republicans who confuse the bias of Florida Public Radio and local [public television] news with NPR."

For many Democrats and independents, John Kerry's greatest asset is this: He's not George W. Bush.

The Bush administration, no doubt, hopes that there are enough thoughtful conservatives like Brown, uninformed ones like my neighbor, and even off-the-edge ones like Mowday to carry the election in November.

However, the Republicans have their work cut out for them. According to The New York Times ("Bush Lays Out Goals for Iraq," May 25, 2004), the number of Americans supporting the President has dropped to all-time lows. After several weeks peppered with news of rebel insurgencies, the beheading of an American, and the raid on Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi leader and onetime American friend, only 30 percent responding to a CBS News survey approved of the way Bush is handling Iraq. The same poll showed the president's overall approval rating at only 41 percent, with 52 percent disapproving of the job he is doing.

The growing discontent has fueled a spiraling number of activist initiatives, including those from MoveOn and True Majority, who use the Internet to promote everything from petitions to censure Rumsfeld to voter registration drives and grassroots fund raising activities. Meanwhile, they consistently promote an anti-Bush agenda.

So far, the Republican strategy toward such activism has been to either ignore it or write off the activists as being "outside the mainstream" of America. That strategy will probably change. Hundreds of thousands of members respond to each e-mail from Eli Pariser (campaigns director for MoveOn) or Ben Cohen (of both True Majority and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream fame). It will be hard to ignore the growing mountain of faxes and e-mail, not to mention TV ads purchased with dollars raised from creative fund raisers.

Later that same Saturday, I bumped into another acquaintance, also an elected official, at a festival not too far from home. He asked what I was up to, and I told him I had just come from the local "branch" of a bake sale that had been organized after MoveOn encouraged its members to participate in "the world's largest bake sale" to raise funds to campaign against Bush. I had gone by to offer a little moral support.

He slapped me on the back and said, "I knew you were a good guy."

Strange. I had taken him for a conservative. He's a former chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. He lives in a lovely historic home that, I think, his grandfather built. You can't get much more mainstream than that. But he planned to stop by himself, and maybe buy some muffins.

The local bake sale went pretty well, according to its organizer, Pat Ennis. "I thought the idea was so neat," she said. When she heard about it, there wasn't a bake sale organized nearby, "And I thought, 'I have to start one.'" She planned the day as part sale and part fun, encouraging people to bring boom boxes and "just hang out."

The local sale raised a little more than $250. It's not a lot, but it adds up, Ennis said.

"George W. is getting funding from big donors," she said. "Kerry doesn't have the big corporations and lobbyists. But he's got us, and we're having a bake sale."

Morris Sullivan is a free-lance journalist living in DeLand, Florida. When he's not accosting strangers on the street to ask them dumb questions or sitting on his ass at a computer getting fatter, he prepares for the collapse of civilization by growing tomatoes and peppers in his backyard.

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