While standing in Union Square in New York City the other day, a Velvet Underground lyric from “Run, Run, Run” popped into my head: “Gonna take a walk down to Union Square/You never know who you’re gonna find there.”
Over there stood a group of folk musicians, over here was a guy with a sign proclaiming — believe it or not —“Islam is evil” surrounded by a group of fellow street-corner philosophers fishing out juicy, antisocial quotations from the Koran. And everywhere — everywhere — were the Obama supporters, selling t-shirts displaying slogans like “Baby Seals for Obama.” There was even a small bust of John McCain with a post-it note in his mouth that read, “my friends.” According to one count, McCain uttered the phrase “my friends” 24 times during the last presidential debate.
In just a few weeks, Americans will elect a new president to replace George W. Bush, whose approval rating has been mired in the high 20s for the past two years. As little as four years ago, pundits were pronouncing the Republican Party invincible, writing the Democratic Party into the history books. According to polls, though, John McCain is set to replace George McGovern as the candidate who rode his party’s platform into the sunset.The presidential race is now tight in states like North Dakota and Indiana. It’s only a matter of time before Fargo becomes the new, hip place for trendy IT guys looking to get out of the big city.
It’s easy to characterize both of the candidates as empty suits. Everyone is waiting for a political messiah to appear that will tell them everything they want to hear in such a convincing way that they’ll actually believe him. But our candidates are Barack Obama and John McCain, and I have personally found the presidential debates to be dull. McCain trots out the same tired rhetoric about tax cuts and how Obama wants to shoot hoops with Ahmadinejad. Obama name drops Main Street and promises health coverage for all.
Interestingly, though, it has been less of McCain’s politics that automatically turn me off than his itchy demeanor. When he referred to Obama as “that one” during the most recent debate and then resumed prefacing all his statements with “my friends” I wanted to throw my dinner at the TV set and exclaim, “but John, we’re not friends.” At that moment of yelling at the television, I was as American as anyone else, even Joe Sixpack who can see Vladimir Putin’s dacha from his hockey rink in Alaska. Ooh, I was being sarcastic there. This place is rubbing off on me.
“Next to the Guy … On the Horse”
New York is a city that is easy to fall in love with, and once you are in love with New York, you can never really let it go. According to some investigative work, slivers of my family have been here since it was Nieuw Amsterdam. And yet, sometimes I really hate New Yorkers.
As I sat under a statue of George Washington in Union Square, I watched the young woman next to me call her friend on her mobile phone and tell him to meet her, “here, next to the guy … on the horse.”
She was genuinely perplexed. I mean, who could that guy with the prominent nose and the pony tail and the 18th century military uniform be? He looked so familiar, I mean, hadn’t I seen him on a quarter at some point in time? I know, I know … Abraham Lincoln.
My inner John Cleese boiled, and I felt like smacking the young woman with our Frommer’s New York City with Kids guidebook for failing to recognize our first president, yelling out words like “twit,” “dolt,” and others less savory.
At a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey — the home of Frank Sinatra, across the Hudson river — several nights earlier, I had tried to talk European politics with the blond Hungarian bartender.
“What do you think of Ferenc Gyurcsány?” I asked. “Who?” she replied. One of our Tartu friends is half-Hungarian and half-Estonian, so I know how to say the guy’s name correctly. “Ferenc Gyurcsány,” I stammered. “Who’s that?” she said, as if he might be another Hungarian bartender somewhere in Hoboken. “He’s the prime minister of your country!” I said. She gave me a puzzled look, as if I was discussing stamp collection or cricket.
Many of my friends are apolitical. I try to explain to them that politics is the sport that I enjoy, just as they fret about other pastimes like baseball. “Oh no,” they might counter. “But baseball is really important.” Even my wife, who tells those that wish to hear in Estonia that she supports the Rohelised, has little to say when I wake her with the interesting news that Keskerakond has pulled ahead in the latest polls. I don’t think she’s particularly happy with the ruling government but … what can you do?
Like the American media, the Estonian media currently teems with end of days-like stories about the economic crisis. Few people I know believe that much can be done to avert the worst parts of the storm. I am surrounded by fatalists and, in some ways, I have become a fatalist zombie myself. It’s like … whatever, man.
“Trust No One … Deceive Everyone”
There is, though, a working class, populist sentiment in New York. Everywhere I go — in coffee shops, on tour buses, on trains — I hear people talking about how they too could have run Lehman Brothers into the ground for $45 million — the sum its former CEO Richard Fuld reportedly earned in 2007.
People worry about the future of the economy, but the silver lining, as one acquaintance put it, is that there will be fewer [expletives] in lower Manhattan. People around me have gloated about investment bankers losing their second homes in the Hamptons at least as frequently as John McCain refers to those around him as his “friends.”
There was a time, circa 2000 AD, when the Hamptons were the place to be. Jerry Seinfeld would be there, jet skiing with Puff Daddy; the Backstreet Boys would be singing their latest hit; and if you were lucky you might spy someone really important, like Paul McCartney.
Today, the mood on the New York street is foul. When I hear the guy at the bagel shop go off about the $700 billion bailout, I can imagine that, if nudged just a little bit more, he could gladly take part in some tarring and feathering. The core issue is less about the specifics of the crisis than about basic trust in institutions.
Directly following the September 11 attacks, few people openly questioned the government’s response. The response to Hurricane Katrina, however, greatly reduced people’s faith in the state to do its job. Up until last month, though, the financial sector was still deemed somewhat trustworthy. Now that trust is gone. Who can one trust in such circumstances? Is it just like the giant advertisement for Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film, Body of Lies, proclaims above 34th street? “Trust no one; deceive everyone?”
New Yorkers are not alone. In Estonia, citizens must grapple with the choice of sticking with Andrus Ansip or trading him for Edgar Savisaar?!?! Talk about erosion of public trust. Which Estonian politician will guide the country out of its current predicament? Which American politician can show us the way? Should we even bother to listen to them let alone trust them? Or should they be as relevant to us as some guy on a horse?
Come November 4, I will be voting. I’ll even stay up late to watch the election results come in. But when I wake up on November 5, I confess, I will have no great expectations. Some people around me think that things are so bad, they can only get better. I hope they are right.