Televised presidential debates are filled with all kinds of linguistic oddities: toothless insults, regrettable gaffes, non sequiturs galore. As a younger viewer, what resonated with me most were worn out metaphors, the direct comparison between two things—a referent and a policy or whatever—that never seemed to jive. Nowhere was this more vivid than the run up to the 2000 election when Al Gore famously insisted that he was going to place social security in an “iron-clad lock box,” and Bush countered that Gore’s calculation to secure the program’s funding amounted to little more than “fuzzy math.” Worse, Bush chuckled like a drunken gremlin every time he said it.
Though seemingly benign, these metaphors took on a life of their own within my group of friends. For weeks following that broadcast, everyone I knew—smartass 17-year-olds who couldn’t even vote in the upcoming election—used these terms as pejoratives to denounce just about anything that came up in casual conversation. Worse, the less sense we made, the more emboldened we became.
“Hey, you try that new cold cut combo from Subway?”
“How about you put your appetite in an iron-clad lock box, dickhead!”
“Hey, you check out the new drill sheets at marching band practice yesterday?”
“Yeah, those formations look like a bunch of fuzzy math.”
That sort of shit.
We had accidentally appropriated some of the most dominant language of the national political conversation leading up to the 2000 election, and we had turned it into something else, something really stupid. We attached and reattached the words in myriad ways, knowing that such work meant nothing because the signifiers themselves were worthless—empty referents that never fully illuminated the political ideas they were designed to explain. So the jokes continued.
During the weeks leading up to the election, my first sense of national politics changed from an old man’s sport to something greater, a source of personal amusement. The gaffes, the hazy bullshit, the dying metaphors, the cult of personality—it all seemed like a joke that everyone else was in on. We later learned the painful lesson that this was not the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore destroyed the idea that we were simply ridiculing a universally recognizable theater of the absurd. Instead we learned that folks actually understood this language of lock boxes and fuzzy math as sincere, instructional even. Other hard lessons followed: language mattered; caring about things mattered, which meant that sincerity mattered; how we talked about the things we cared about mattered; creating spaces for people to tell the truth mattered, and finding and nurturing those spaces was difficult.
Of course, we had no way of knowing any of this at the time. All we wanted to do was make fun of stuff that seemed so obviously unworthy of sincere engagement. Before we would learn any of this, though—before we would come out the other end as different people with different sensibilities—we would first have to dwell in a space where our thinking was wrong. We would first have to watch as everything around us became a straight-up horror show.
In need of a long-term project to take up as much class time as possible, my high school civics teacher asked us to go to a political event and write about our experiences. We received no real instruction beyond that. How fortunate, then, that Al Gore had recently announced a campaign event in Flint, a brief rally in the parking lot across the street from the Local. I could complete the assignment and expel minimal effort.
The day came and I parked my van in a nearby alley before walking to the event site. The stage was modestly decorated with red, white, and blue streamers, and there were signs announcing the opening entertainment: the Goo Goo Dolls.
Close to the entrance, I saw a couple of white dudes with pro-life signs—the really gnarly ones with images of barely discernible fetuses and scripture from Revelations. Because this was a rally for a major presidential candidate, there were a lot of people, and many of them were not happy about the signs. The discomfort began with whispers from people around me, but then I heard full-on shouting from 20 feet back.
“Hey! You! You! Hey!” It was a woman’s voice trying to get the dudes’ attention. They didn’t look, so she persisted.
“You! Hey! You motherfucker! I’m talking to you, you motherfucking prick!”
She had their attention now. Another woman standing behind me joined in.
“Hey, you motherfucker! Let me ask you a question! Can you actually give birth? Are you able to give birth, motherfucker?!”
The dude ringleader looked at her blankly. It was like in Ghostbusters when Gozer the Gozerian asks Ray if he’s a god, and he’s like, obviously no, I’m not a god. Why would you even ask such a thing? That’s what this was like; the dude was like, obviously, I can’t have kids.
The women looked at him and responded in unison: “Then FUCK YOU!”
Clearly not their first rodeo.
We got inside and waited by the front of the stage. Johnny Reznick came out and gave an underwhelming speech about the political situation in America. He mentioned jobs and then said something about opportunity. He clenched his fists as he spoke to crowd between songs, and after playing a short set of hits he urged us to “keep the faith” and then disappeared into the hospitality tent. It wasn’t clear if the faith that Reznick referenced was the same brand that was practiced by the men outside the event, but no one really seemed to care.
Gore took the stage 90 minutes later and he was visibly ill. He delivered a boilerplate stump speech about taxes and social programs and again used the term “lock box” to talk about his interest in preserving social security. The crowd roared, and I clapped along and laughed out loud like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons. I used the laugh to signal a rift between what was going on and what I thought it meant. Everyone else cheered. When the event was over, more songs from the Goo Goo Dolls played over the PA system and we all left.
My understanding of the event, like the language I used in school, was ironic. I assumed that what had happened was a kind of theater, that everyone was there to better understand the world behind the show, behind the script, behind the production. I assumed that when Gore said “lock box,” he was really speaking in code; when he said “welfare reform,” he was really talking about something else. What surprised me most, then, was that Gore appeared to believe what he was saying as though it weren’t all just a game. To the crowd the words read as sincere, too. I overheard people say how impressed they were that Gore “spoke the truth,” and that he could “change the country.”
What excited me most about the event was that I could use swear words in my civics essay (because they were direct quotes from the women in line, so it was OK) and that I could use it as yet another opportunity to say stupid shit about lock boxes with my friends. The language was still meaningless, we thought, even if other people didn’t seem to get the joke.
The next week I was working at the Flint Local when a Green Party worker gave me a flyer for an event at a nearby auditorium. Ralph Nader was coming to speak, and he would be introduced by Michael Moore and Phil Donahue. It was free and open to the public, and I got extra credit for going to another political event, so I checked it out.
Unlike the Gore rally, there were no protestors, no metal detectors. The crowd was noticeably different. To my left was an aging crust punk—a guy in a black leather jacket and an anarchy backpatch. He was wearing a latex skull mask, and he had torn off mouth area so that he could wear it for longer periods of time without his skin becoming irritated from the moisture of his breath. To my right was a woman who worked as an accountant. Her husband wore a suit.
Michael Moore and Phil Donahue told personal stories about the effects of deindustrialization, about Flint, and about what needs to happen as we move forward. Nader continued the conversation to address what was wrong with the direction of the country and what he was planning to do to fix it. People were enthusiastic. Before leaving, he made it a point to address two issues that he said major party candidates would never discuss: single-payer healthcare and prison reform. He asked everyone in the crowd to do what they could to bring these items to the forefront. He specifically requested that the crowd ask politicians about these topics knowing that these people would skirt the issues or pivot to address something else. They would deliberately obfuscate and then refocus on safer terrain. He talked about duty, and then he left.
The idea of duty is what caught me off guard. Though indirectly, Nader’s speech crystalized the idea that irony can have a caustic effect on political discourse. In order to do the work he asked of the crowd, everyone would have to have the same understanding of the political metaphors that were circulating around. These weren’t neutral, meaningless words that we could mangle for fun; they were weapons designed to deceive people into voting against their interests. They were tools to preserve the power of a cultural and economic elite. Nader left us with a silver lining, too: just as it can be used to divert attention, language can be used to cut through the smokescreen, to clarify, to hold people accountable.
The day after the Nader event, a guy came into our civics class who was running for a US House seat, apparently at the invitation of one of my classmates. (I was spaced out most of the time, so his arrival may not have been as sudden as I recall.) A local reporter walked in with a notepad, then a professional photographer, then some kind of political handler, and then the guy. He looked like a typical politician: tall, white, short hair, unnaturally white teeth. He wore a basic suit and sounded like Troy McClure. He introduced himself as Mike Rogers and then proceeded to give us his stump speech. He shared a series of disconnected ideas, the kinds of things you’d see printed on posters in the framed art isle at the grocery store, stuff like freedom isn’t free and hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. That sort of shit. It was like listening to my friends talk about fuzzy math and lock boxes: he just used a bunch of loosely-connected buzzwords to make it seem like he had a handle on what was going on.
He wrapped up with a few minutes left in the class period, so I said fuck it and decided to test Nader’s theory. I raised my hand and asked why he didn’t work to do away with jail time for non-violent offenders. I didn’t even know what I was asking, really. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Rogers seemed visibly caught off guard and pivoted to a completely fucking made-up story about a girl “about our age” who was taking a Greyhound bus to see her grandmother. All of a sudden, he said, she met a guy who got her hooked on crack and then sold her into a network of sex slavery.
Rogers looked at me with laser precision. “Technically, he’s a nonviolent offender, right? So you’re saying he shouldn’t go to jail?”
I didn’t know if he actually wanted to argue or if these were rhetorical questions. I was just doing what Nader wanted me to do. I was 17 and knew next to nothing about what jail was like or who ended up there. My classmates listened to Rogers’ story and they nodded in agreement. The logic seemed simple, and so did the lesson: if you do terrible shit like get girls hooked on crack and then enslave them, that is A) a non-violent offense and B) still worthy of incarceration. The implications of Rogers’ thinking also seemed simple: everyone in jail is there because they committed an offense as egregious as the man in the story, so why bother questioning it? To do so would put you on the side of people who hook children on drugs and enslave them. To do so would be terrible, unAmerican. To do so would sound like fuzzy math, or fuzzy logic, or fuzzy whatever-the-hell.
Rogers lectured us on violence having already accepted $21,400 in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. He went on to serve as US Rep to the 8th congressional district in 2006, eventually serving as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. During his tenure, he oversaw an expansion of governmental surveillance, appropriating an undisclosed amount of taxpayer dollars to NSA efforts via the Intelligence Authorization Act before retiring in 2015. The exact amount is classified, but files leaked by Edward Snowden suggest it to be close to $50 billion dollars. Ironic, then, that an ambiguous understanding of violence ended up serving him so well.
A week after his visit, photos of my class appeared in Newsweek Magazine. We never consented to any of it—the talk, the photos being taken, their use in a national magazine. But we were told that “it was an honor” to be associated with such a “powerful figure.” Power. Honor. Fuzzy Math. Lock Box. Cold Cut Combo. Cavefe.
In truth, I didn’t give a fuck about the photo, and I certainly didn’t give a fuck about Rogers. He seemed like a True Believer, someone who had played the game for so long that there was no longer separation between the mask and the face underneath. The only lesson I learned from the whole thing was that Nader’s prediction had come true and that Rogers’ story masked a reality far more complicated than girls on busses. If there had been any ambiguity about which side made sense and which side was complete bullshit, it had now vanished.
The assignment deadline came and I turned in an essay that talked about the difference between the two rallies. I didn’t say much about Rogers, about how he seemed like a complete ass stain. I didn’t explain the difference as some symbolic ideological chasm. The difference between the two rallies, I wrote, was the difference between someone telling the truth and someone who convinced you of a kind of truth in order to further his own goals. For me, the difference was between those who would use language for good, and those who would make it into some self-serving bullshit.
We couldn’t know it at the time, but perhaps we weren’t on the right side by appropriating political metaphors and making them into something equally stupid. Perhaps we shouldn’t have participated in that weird symbolic economy by giving attention to the language that would later help to elect George W. Bush. Or, perhaps our time could have been better spent taking direct action, or sincerely engaging a debate against opponents who simply traded in buzzwords, invaded high school civics classrooms, and then got to decide how much money went to the NSA. Maybe we should have done something else. But we didn’t.
If there is a lesson in any of this, it’s that the 2000 election revealed that the people who are least likely to win a general election have the greatest ability to tell the truth and the smallest platform to do it. Those with greater chances of victory resort to a strange game of pretend where words and phrases become situated within a larger cultural imagination, a kind of dreamspace that encourages people to attend rallies, clap wildly, and find political inspiration in the music of the Goo Goo Dolls.
After Bush won the first time, I became skeptical of this process. It seemed like a trick. It seemed that what major party candidates were saying wasn’t true and that their campaign rhetoric, instead, was just a constellation of empty symbols. It seemed that nothing was as it appeared. It seemed that speechwriters used their power to shape political discourse and alter public attitudes, all to keep their masters in power. It seemed that all of this work was done to benefit the people who were currently in office and perhaps the organizations whose interests they represented. As a young person, these ideas seemed fantastic, far-fetched, even conspiratorial. We are 17 years past that election, and I’ve seen little to convince me otherwise.
The sun was setting as the Gore rally wrapped up. Parents got back into their cars and the protestors had gone home. The busses were gone and the workers began to disassemble the stage rigging. I walked back down Second Street toward the alley where I’d parked, and I walked through Beans & Leaves Café to get around the barricades. I bought a soda from the clerk and walked toward the rear exit when the bathroom door opened and Johnny Reznick came out. He had just changed is clothes.
I said I thought it was cool that they played this event. I was lying, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. We made small talk for a while and walked out back. When we got to the corner, about to part ways, I suddenly remembered that they were headed out on tour with Sheryl Crow.
“So, you guys are going out with Sheryl Crow pretty soon. That’s cool,” I lied again.
“Yeah, we’ll see. We’re all pretty tired, but that’s how it goes, you know? Rock and roll. Tour life. Way of the road. Lots to do.”
Fuzzy math. Lock box. Cold cut combo.
“Where are you headed to next?” I asked.
He paused in such a way as to suggest that what he was about to say had real weight, like we were both in a movie and that he was about to reveal the final lesson in some heart-wrenching drama. The pregnant pause was his way of expressing a need for the moment to read as some kind of metaphor.
“You know, honestly, I don’t even know,” he said. Then he walked down First Street into the sun. The bus door opened and he turned around to wave before taking off to the next show.