by: Chris Anderson / Indiana University
Squirrel hunting once was a lovely way for a man to pass an autumn afternoon. Solitude discovered in a lonely glen. Falling leaves gently cradled by golden sunlight. The stillness of a warm breeze broken only by the report of a gun, echoed and reechoed through the valley. On such a day a man could get lost, gloriously lost, in nature’s autumnal embrace, the travails of daily life forgotten for a few enchanted hours. It was on such a day long ago that a man, his thirst quenched by more than one draught of ale, his senses overpowered by the beauty of his surroundings, fell into a deep sleep … and slumbered peacefully for twenty-odd years.
Upon awakening, that man, Rip Van Winkle, had become America’s first undecided voter.
Yes, the legend of Rip Van Winkle — a tale told to generations of American children over the past two hundred years — is a story about the making of the latest American archetype: the undecided voter. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to read the legend in the unsettled autumn of ’04, as I struggle to comprehend the mystifying breed of American who hasn’t yet decided between John Kerry and George Bush.
When Rip Van Winkle roused himself from slumber and walked back into town, he discovered that a revolution had taken place without his notice. The townspeople had been royal subjects when he entered the woods with his squirrel gun, but they now were in the midst of an election, and he found himself engulfed by an unfamiliar, roiling crowd. In author Washington Irving’s description of the town, “the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.”
As Paul Starr notes in his recent book, The Creation of Media, poor Rip had stumbled into a second revolution — a revolution in communication — that accompanied the political revolution of 1776. Printing presses unleashed a flood of pamphlets, handbills, sermons, sheet music, books, and, most importantly, newspapers into American society, helping to circulate information, to democratize knowledge, to produce a new type of American, a democratic citizen. The democratization of knowledge was essential to the project of making citizens who were capable of participating in a democracy and governing themselves.
But the tale of Rip Van Winkle reminds us just how difficult it can be to stay afloat in the flood of information that pours forth in a democratic society — even in the current produced by the first of the republic’s “new media.” Plunged unwittingly into the 18th-century media revolution, Citizen Rip listened in amazement as “a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens — election — members of Congress — liberty — Bunker’s Hill — heroes of ’76 — and other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” And then the crowd’s attention turned to Rip, the disheveled newcomer in their midst. “They crowded around him, eying him from head to foot, with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired ‘on which side he voted?’ Rip stared in vacant stupidity.”
With that, Washington Irving introduced the first -– and quintessential — undecided voter. A man who had fallen off the path of history. A man uncontaminated by the media of his day. A man for whom all political discourse was gibberish. Of course, he had an excuse. He’d been in a drunken coma for twenty years.
It’s a sign of my own shortcomings, I suppose, but in this particular autumn, when the choices are stark and the tone disputatious, I’ve had very uncharitable thoughts about undecided voters. If these people haven’t been asleep in the woods for twenty years, why must the media offer them to us as paragons of civic virtue?
Why are they given security clearance, allowed to attend a presidential debate and to question the candidates? Why must I watch as they, gathered together by reporters, view the debates on television so that we, ignored by those same reporters, have the privilege of witnessing their excruciating indecision? And why must I listen as they struggle mightily, under the reporter’s reassuring gaze, to explain why they — after watching three debates, hundreds of news reports, thousands of commercials, and HAVING LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS! -– are still seeking some elusive piece of the puzzle before discharging their solemn duty as citizens. I’ve had a nervous breakdown just trying to decide between American Idol contestants, but these people are hopeless. They don’t need a public forum; they need medical care.
There are times when I feel like Rip Van Winkle. In place of Irving’s “lean and bilious-looking” fellows, we have our plump and -– come to think of it — bilious-looking pundits. Their pockets may not be full of handbills, but their blogs are loaded with hyperlinks. Their jargon, if not Babylonish, is still bewildering. The flood of information may be greater than in Rip Van Winkle’s day, but the effect is still the same: the consequential tangled in the trivial, the truth entwined with lies, and the torrent never ceases. I’ve made my own decision, but I’m certainly not wise. I have my beliefs — essentially moral sentiments about social equality or the use of military force or whether a man of presidential bearing ought to snigger like Beavis and Butthead during debates (“heh…heh…heh”) — but I can’t begin to explain how one might set about fixing the health care system or Social Security. I could live a thousand years, and I’d get no closer to understanding these issues by watching television. More often than I’d like to admit, I stare at the screen, like Citizen Rip, in vacant stupidity.
And there are times when I wish that I were as fortunate as Rip Van Winkle. Not even my friends at PETA could stop me from shooting at squirrels if I had the faintest hope of falling asleep and missing this benighted political season. The fantasy of being lost, well and truly lost — cut off from all communication, fallen off the path of history — is more powerful in our hyper-networked age than it was in the days of Dafoe, or Golding, or Gilligan. But that’s a topic for another day. Today looks like the perfect autumn afternoon for a ramble in the woods. And I’ll get to it in a minute. But a guy on CNN just said something about the Bill O’Reilly sex scandal. Could this be another of Karl Rove’s devious schemes to distract voters? I wonder what Fox News has to say…. Now where did I leave the remote control?
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