Tennis on the Titanic
By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications, December 16, 2000; and The Progressive as “Disputed Elections, Concealed Facts,” February 2001
As the prize of the presidency lurched wildly back and forth in the last days of the year, with the entire nation hypnotized by the spectacle, I had a vision. I saw the Titanic churning through the waters of the North Atlantic toward an iceberg looming in the distance, while passengers and crew were totally concentrated on a tennis game taking place on deck.
It is not just a phenomenon of this particular election. In our election-obsessed culture, everything else going on in the world – war, hunger, official brutality, sickness, the violence of everyday life for huge numbers of people – is swept out of the way, while the media insist we watch every twist and turn of what candidates say and do. Thus, the superficial crowds out the meaningful, and this is very useful for those who do not want citizens to look beneath the surface of the system.
In the shadows, and hidden by the dueling of the candidates (if you can call it a duel when the opponents thrust and lunge with plastic swords) are real issues of race and class, war and peace, which the public is not supposed to think about, as the media experts pontificate endlessly about who is winning, and throw numbers in our faces like handfuls of sand.
For instance, as the Gore-Bush contest rose to a frenzy, the media kept referring — to the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. The education that the public received about this was typical of what passes for history in our schools, our newspapers, our television sets. That is, they learned how the Founding Fathers, in writing the Constitution, gave the state legislators the power to choose Electors, who would then choose the President.
We were told how rival sets of electors were chosen in three states, and how Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, had 250,000 more popular votes than the Republican , Rutherford Hayes, and needed only one more electoral vote to win the Presidency. But when a special commission, with a bare Republican majority, was set up by Congress to decide the dispute, it gave all three states to Hayes and thus made him President.
This was very interesting and informative about the mechanics of presidential elections and the peculiar circumstances of that one . But it told us nothing about how that “Compromise of 1877”, worked out between Republicans and Democrats in private meetings, doomed blacks in the South to semi-slavery. It told us nothing about how the armies that once fought the Confederacy would be withdrawn from the South and sent West to drive Indians from their ancestral lands. It told us nothing about how Democrats and Republicans, while fencing with one another in election campaigns, would now join in subjecting working people all over the country to ruthless corporate power, how the United States army would be used to smash the great railroad strikes of 1877.
These were the facts of race and class and Western expansion concealed behind the disputed election of 1877. The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is an unannounced war between those parties and large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party.
The ferocity of the contest for the presidency in the current election conceals the agreement between both parties on fundamentals. Their heated disagreement is about who will preside over maintaining the status quo. Whoever wins, there may be skirmishes between the major parties, but no monumental battles, despite the inflated rhetoric of the campaign. The evidence for this statement lies in eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, whose major legislative accomplishments were part of the Republican agenda.
Both Gore and Bush have been in agreement on the continued corporate control of the economy. Neither has had a plan for free national health care, for extensive low-cost housing, for dramatic changes in environmental controls, for a minimum income for all Americans, for a truly progressive income tax to diminish the huge gap between rich and poor. Both have supported the death penalty and the growth of prisons. Both believe in a large military establishment, in land mines and nuclear weapons and the cruel use of sanctions against the people of Cuba and Iraq. Both supported the wars against Panama, Iraq, and Yugoslavia.
Perhaps when the furor dies down over who really won the election , when the tennis match is over and we get over the disappointment that our guy (is he really our guy?) didn’t win, we will finally break the hypnotic spell of the game and look around. We may then think about whether the ship is going down and if there are enough lifeboats, and what should we do about all that.
This is not the Titanic. With us, there is still time to change.
Published by ZCommunications, December 16, 2000; and The Progressive as “Disputed Elections, Concealed Facts,” February 2001.