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Apathy to the Rescue 

How to make the undecideds break for Kerry? Threaten to turn off Survivor and Friends reruns.

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
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Scowly-faced, bowl-cut Robert Haaland takes a keen drag on his cigarette as he lopes across Ashbury Street Thursday evening. As one of 22 hyperactive candidates competing to represent San Francisco's fifth supervisor's district, his weary body language carries the weight of a political season gone sadly overwrought.

Across the bay, busloads of leafleteers make weekly trips from Oakland to Reno in hopes of swaying presidential election voters there.

Nationwide, an estimated 10,000 idealistic volunteer lawyers -- that's right, those three words in one sentence -- plan to man phone banks on Nov. 2, fielding calls about alleged polling irregularities. Our billionaires, conservative and liberal, shovel fortunes into opposing sides of the presidential campaign. Television news is bereft of starlets or sex scandals, preoccupied, as it is, with portentous events.

America -- the sleeping mass of apathetic, overweight, flannel-wearing protoplasm that traditionally confounds more politically concerned parts of the world -- has during the past eight months transformed into something resembling a gesticulating member of the Italian Parliament.

And I want my apathetic country back.

I want to turn on the television and hear about Madonna's baby, a jism-soaked Gap dress, or love, Modesto style. I want to sit at the South Park picnic tables during lunchtime and overhear tech executives fret about their sailboats, like I used to.

I don't want to hear their trite laments about war, deficits, and unemployment I'm deluged with nowadays.

I cherish the fecklessness and apathy that are the signs of a successful civil society, and that not long ago defined ours, back when Bill Clinton was president, the federal budget was in surplus, and the world was a relatively peaceful place.

Apathy gets a bad name in San Francisco, what with our 400 neighborhood interest groups, gaggles of hair-trigger war protesters, and office warrens full of idealistic nonprofit organizations. But social scientists, led by Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington, have for 50 years considered this lack of interest in things political the hallmark of a healthy society.

Cold War-era political scientists and I aren't the only ones sharing this view.

The most esteemed citizens in America -- the ones you see on television appearing with important politicians, the ones interviewed by journalists, the people who next month get to decide the fate of the world -- likewise seem steeped in the apathy-is-good creed. These are the "undecideds," the people stunningly unable to form a strong opinion about either George Bush or John Kerry, even though the rest of the country is riveted by the daily schedules of both men. There's only one possible explanation: These people, like me, see virtue in an apathetic life.

However, if the undecideds want to continue enjoying their apathetic dream world, they're going to have to pull their heads out of their collective ass. Apathy is only a reasonable option when things are going relatively well, and things are going very, very badly in America right now.

George W. Bush has seriously threatened the United States' capacity for frivolousness. Our country seems doomed to fighting wars without end and is at much greater risk of terror thanks to the war in Iraq. We're suffering a collapse of our civil liberties; gaping economic disparity accompanies economy-crippling deficits.

With all these things going on, it would seem difficult not to pay attention to politics, but if polls identifying around 6 percent of the electorate as undecided are any guide, it's not impossible.

If the Bush revolution continues, it soon will be.

So if you've got a cousin in Des Moines who's still straddling the fence, call her up and explain why her ability to watch cartoons, daytime talk shows, and reality TV is threatened, and why she needs to cast a vote for John Kerry Nov. 2. If your old college buddy in Gainesville, Fla., is mesmerized by the Republican Party's flip-flop ads, phone him and tell him to read a newspaper, if only for a day.

Unless the George W. Bush revolution is stanched Nov. 2, you can tell them, they will say goodbye to Survivor, The Osbournes, Demi and Ashton, Michael and Liz, Jennifer and Marc, Britney and her outfits, the Grammys, camera cell phones, Friends reruns, thongs, professional wrestling, and Dr. Phil -- forever.


It will probably have hit the papers by the time this column comes out that the American Anthropological Association decided Friday to move its annual meeting, scheduled for Nov. 17-21 at the San Francisco Hilton, to the Atlanta Hilton, to honor the Unite Here Local 2 hotel workers' union picket line. The S.F. Hilton is one of 14 hotels that have locked out Local 2's 4,000 members.

Behind the association's decision lies a tale that illustrates the heavy human toll of living in a fretful America, as opposed to an apathetic one. Thousands of anthropologists are going to absorb the cost of expensive plane tickets thanks to the efforts of two young university students who are possibly less apathetic than their older peers.

Academic anthropologists are a genteel, largely liberal-minded lot who typically spend their early years living with peasants in Borneo or Oaxaca, before going on to careers that allow them to travel to fancy hotels in expensive cities such as San Francisco, sometimes at public university expense. Once at the hotels, they present papers on the plight of peasants.

This lifestyle offers many benefits, but feeling comfortable when people know you've crossed a union picket line to present a paper on the underclass isn't one of them. Nonetheless, it appeared the anthropologists' S.F. Hilton meeting might go forward, despite union pressure to cancel, until Oct. 13. That's when Gillian Newell and Salvador Aquino, anthropology students at the University of Arizona in Tucson, wrote an e-mail to the association president saying they could not "move forward with a conference where many of us plan to present on unequal power relations, similar types of exploitation, and oppression."

Within hours the e-mail had been forwarded to many of the 5,000 anthropologists expected to attend the annual meeting, and not long after that the anthropological world was in a blizzard of electronic correspondence about the profession's commitment to "subaltern groups," which, I'm told, means disenfranchised people in anthropologists' language.

"We would feel it would be quite hypocritical to hold a meeting in which we were discussing power relationships in society at the same time we were supporting the same kind of people that are often at the center of our scholarship," Pauline Strong, president of the Society of Cultural Anthropology, explained to me.

Yet canceling the S.F. meeting wasn't a simple proposition. The association had negotiated a contract with the Hilton for this year's meeting back in 1996. Breaking it would cost $1.2 million, the association said in an e-mail to its members, sent after Newell and Aquino's e-mail had raised a fuss.

According to the response e-mail, association officials begged Local 2 for "permission" to cross picket lines, in exchange for gestures in support of the workers, who had conducted a walkout recently in protest of employer efforts to hike the amount they pay for health insurance. The association suggested allowing locked-out workers to leaflet next to the conference registration booth, inviting a union representative to speak at the association's business meeting, or allowing the union to pass a donation plate during convention cocktails.

The anthropologists even offered to hold an academic session on "the anthropology of unions" on the sidewalk across the street from the hotel, which would "offer the union some supportive press coverage." The association would also obtain a parade permit so anthropologists themselves could demonstrate on Union Square in support of the union. Anything but eat $1.2 million.

Fat chance, was Local 2's response.

"If they want us to say it's OK, well, it's not OK," says union spokeswoman Valerie Lapin. "I'm not going to say it's OK with me to cross a picket line when over 4,000 workers have been thrown out on the streets."

The union, cruelly, wanted to force the anthropologists to confront their putative ideals.

Ghita Levin, the association's public affairs director, didn't let me talk with the group's president, or its executive director. But in several conversations with her it became clear the association's bureaucratic leadership was very irritated with last week's turn of events. Still, the group's fretful idealists had to be assuaged.

The association requested that the 5,000 meeting attendees participate in an Internet poll, asking whether they wanted to a) cancel the meeting, b) move it to San Jose, or c) hold it at the S.F. Hilton, picket line be damned.

The same day, the association's board of directors held a conference call agonizing over what to do.

As for the poll? "I don't think they ever counted it," said Levin. "It's the board's decision to make."

The board's eventual deal with the Hilton, which absolves the association of liability from its S.F. contract in exchange for holding the event at the chain's Atlanta hotel, was as elegant as it was simple. The move won't cost the association anything, which should ease the minds of the association leaders, whose primary concern was avoiding a $1.2 million bill.

The rest of the left-minded anthropologists, however, are faced with eating the cost of their San Francisco plane tickets, because universities don't usually reimburse academics for travel expenses to cities conferences aren't in. Young academics, who consider the meeting a once-a-year job fair, will have a hard time being able to afford a second plane ticket. As a result, they'll have an even more difficult time in an impossible academic job market.

So the hallways and meeting rooms of the Atlanta Hilton will become a cultural anthropological study in academic class structure, in which well-paid tenured professors, or postgrads with money, will be the only anthropologists listening to presentations on how the world's underclasses are getting by.

Newell, who may have started the whole ruckus, told me she's traveling to San Francisco anyway. She said she might stay in a youth hostel, perhaps in the manner of an anthropologist on a trip to Borneo.

"I'm going to kind of go to the union workers and talk to them myself, to find out what's going on from a street perspective, rather than on the Internet from Tucson," she said. "Rather than visiting the conference, I'm visiting the strike."

Fun perhaps, but not exactly nibbling canapés at the Hilton. If the undecideds don't briefly awake from their slumber next week, we'll all enter November like underprivileged anthropologists, wasting away in Realityville.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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