For every slimy politician who promises lower taxes, increased spending, and strength without sacrifice, there are thousands of bumbling, mouth-breathing cretins who drag their clubbed feet to the polls every election expecting miracles. For every scandal, tale of corruption, or broken promise, there are endless streams of gullible slackjaws who not only live the big lie, but cannot conceive of the alternative. Politics, then, far from the oft-told tale of haves and have nots, or even the leaders and the led, is the ultimate mirror for a species in deep crisis; a comedy of errors and deliberate falsehoods so buried in the DNA of the human experience that the only real scandal is our continued flirtation with shock and annoyance. If it is thus, it is how it must be, and “the people”, that flattered, overrated, over-hyped mass of fools and fakers, stand no better than those seen as controlling their very fates. Perhaps no worse, too, but with every exit poll and evening spent scanning the increasingly depressing returns, I tighten my grip on the unimpeachable truth that if life ceases to be worth living, blame not the king, but the king-maker. The absolute hold of incumbency is a testament to this fact, as few things stiffen the cocks of the electorate more than lies upon lies, though with a different suit and a touch of experience. America has the opportunity to release the chains of mediocrity and ruin, of course, but such a move remains impossible without driving hundreds of millions of our fellow travelers into the sea. Improbable, perhaps, but no less alluring.
Politics as an ugly, vile, mean-spirited bloodsport is axiomatic, of course, but few films get into the very marrow of the insanity better than Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated Street Fight, a documentary that chronicles the nasty Newark, New Jersey mayoral election of 2002. Still, this is not simply a straightforward portrait of winners and losers, but an insight as to what makes a winner and a loser, and how it is more apparent with each passing year that the voters would elect a fetus-gulping torso if it promised a tax cut. Such issues are not mentioned in this race (this is heavily Democratic Newark, perhaps one of the few big cities in the nation where two black men compete for the top post), but the barb is meant to illuminate the core truth of this film – incumbent Sharpe James, a sassy, old school politician who was nearly swallowed up by corruption in the 1990s, wins the race against the baby-faced Cory Booker because he is deemed more authentically black. Booker, 32, grew up in the suburbs, played football for Stanford, graduated from Yale law school, and earned status as a Rhodes Scholar, which makes him immediately “suspect”, despite being well to the left of just about any mainstream Democrat on the scene today. In Newark, you’d have to be. His credentials, then, are unassailable, but the rub remains: he’s light-skinned and educated, two traits that, at this late date, continue to haunt black Americans in all walks of life. If this weren’t accurate, why then did the James campaign use race as a tool throughout the election cycle? Why affiliate Booker with the Klan, or far-right forces of the Republican party? Even worse, why tar his campaign with anti-Semitic slurs and appeal to anti-intellectualism? And of course, the proof is in the pudding – Booker lost.
The dynamics of the race that are more familiar – fund raisers, intimidation tactics, cronyism – still startle, especially when we watch police officers tear down Booker signs while leaving the Mayor’s material untouched. There are burglaries, phone taps, demotions for city employees who dare express support for the challenger, and the usual street brawls that teem with the sounds of the city: shouts, loud music, car horns, and blaring speakers. It’s the fun part of democracy, but also the most deluded, as no one can really trust election results in a day and age when ballots are cast without a paper trail. And local elections like the one depicted in this film are even more prone to corruption, as if the days of Boss Tweed had never really come to an end. But the minute we feel it is the system itself that is rigged, thus exempting the voters from criticism, we hear about a woman who is basing her vote on who sent her a more attractive Mother’s Day card. I’d scream with exasperation, but I’ve already put myself through the gauntlet accepting the fact that in 2000, Bush won the hearts of those who would rather have a beer with him than Al Gore. Or what about the $64,000 question from 1996: who would you rather have babysit your children, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton? This is American politics at its core, people, and any slight sliver of optimism is immediately devoured by the juggernaut of cynical despair.
We also see that Mayor James is a hypocrite, as he blasts the Booker campaign for having an aide who is later busted in a prostitution ring at a strip club, all the while having visited the same club himself. Again, same old story. And given that Jesse Jackson backs the James candidacy, we can assume that self-promoting charlatans run in packs. Booker raises quite a bit of money, but he’s an outsider all the way, primarily for his “carpetbagger” identity. True, James is Newark born and raised and has been behind numerous improvement projects, but his city is run like a private fiefdom, with all stragglers cut off at the knees. That he survived and thrived after nearly everyone in his administration was caught with bags of cash in the floorboards is shocking, yes, but far less of a head-scratcher than D.C.’s favorite son Marion Barry getting re-elected after his crack bust. There’s no doubt that all Americans ignore hard facts, real issues, and disastrous character flaws when they vote, but only in the black community would a darker hue trump competence and honesty. The legacy of racism (and favoritism for lighter-skinned blacks historically) complicates the issue to be sure, but dancing around this bizarre turn in the black community would do us all a great disservice. As a Booker campaign aide says at one point: the Civil Rights struggle was all about opportunity and education, and here, forty years later, a man who has used each to his benefit is labeled “white” and a “race traitor.” This might hold if the man in question were someone like Clarence Thomas, who now spends his time trying to erase the very laws that gave him his current position in life, but this is a Democrat – the charges of treachery do not apply.
In the end, Booker is not able to fight back the forces of prejudice and incumbency, and is forced back to his private law practice. One year after the 2002 election, though, we learn that he is going to challenge James yet again. That election is scheduled next month, and one wonders if the very same tactics and attitudes will prevail. If democracy in America is any guide, there remains little doubt. And while it is true that white America prefers the “Passive, Happy Negro” to the fiery rhetoric of the outspoken and the fearless, it is no less appalling that black America casts aside intellect and talent for what they believe to be “authenticity.” Both sides operate under a racist cloud, and no solution appears on the horizon. The “street fight” in Newark exposed racial issues that few want to admit exist in this age of so-called enlightenment, but the fault lines continue to rumble, threatening to create an America even more unrecognizable than the present. At the time of the election, 1/3 of the people of Newark lived in poverty, the graduation rate hovered around 40%, and the murder rate was twice that of the Bronx. New blood might not have reversed the tide, but it speaks volumes that he wasn’t given the opportunity to try. But again, in the face of a sagging economy, rising oil prices, and a hopeless war in Iraq, those patches of Red (also white down to the bone) re-elected the worst president in the history of the Republic. So toast the flames, my brothers, for whether it’s Newark or Omaha, the shit smells decidedly the same.