Apathy to the Rescue

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

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, Friendsreruns, 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.

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