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TENNIS ON THE TITANIC


Howard Zinn

As

the prize of the presidency lurched wildly back and forth in the last days of

the year, with the entire nation hypnotized by the spectacle, I had a vision. I

saw the Titanic churning through the waters of the North Atlantic toward an

iceberg looming in the distance, while passengers and crew were totally

concentrated on a tennis game taking place on deck.

It

is not just a phenomenon of this particular election. In our election-obsessed

culture, everything else going on in the world – war, hunger, official

brutality, sickness, the violence of everyday life for huge numbers of people -

is swept out of the way, while the media insist we watch every twist and turn of

what candidates say and do. Thus, the superficial crowds out the meaningful, and

this is very useful for those who do not want citizens to look beneath the

surface of the system.

In

the shadows, and hidden by the dueling of the candidates (if you can call it a

duel when the opponents thrust and lunge with plastic swords) are real issues of

race and class, war and peace, which the public is not supposed to think about,

as the media experts pontificate endlessly about who is winning, and throw

numbers in our faces like handfuls of sand.

For

instance, as the Gore-Bush contest rose to a frenzy, the media kept referring –

to the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. The education that the public received

about this was typical of what passes for history in our schools, our

newspapers, our television sets. That is, they learned how the Founding Fathers,

in writing the Constitution, gave the state legislators the power to choose

Electors, who would then choose the President.

We

were told how rival sets of electors were chosen in three states, and how Samuel

Tilden, the Democrat, had 250,000 more popular votes than the Republican ,

Rutherford Hayes, and needed only one more electoral vote to win the Presidency.

But when a special commission, with a bare Republican majority, was set up by

Congress to decide the dispute, it gave all three states to Hayes and thus made

him President.

This

was very interesting and informative about the mechanics of presidential

elections and the peculiar circumstances of that one . But it told us nothing

about how that "Compromise of 1877", worked out between Republicans

and Democrats in private meetings, doomed blacks in the South to semi-slavery.

It told us nothing about how the armies that once fought the Confederacy would

be withdrawn from the South and sent West to drive Indians from their ancestral

lands. It told us nothing about how Democrats and Republicans, while fencing

with one another in election campaigns, would now join in subjecting working

people all over the country to ruthless corporate power, how the United States

army would be used to smash the great railroad strikes of 1877.

These

were the facts of race and class and Western expansion concealed behind the

disputed election of 1877. The pretense in disputed elections is that the great

conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is an

unannounced war between those parties and large numbers of Americans who are

represented by neither party.

The

ferocity of the contest for the presidency in the current election conceals the

agreement between both parties on fundamentals. Their heated disagreement is

about who will preside over maintaining the status quo. Whoever wins, there may

be skirmishes between the major parties, but no monumental battles, despite the

inflated rhetoric of the campaign. The evidence for this statement lies in eight

years of the Clinton-Gore administration, whose major legislative

accomplishments were part of the Republican agenda.

Both

Gore and Bush have been in agreement on the continued corporate control of the

economy. Neither has had a plan for free national health care, for extensive

low-cost housing, for dramatic changes in environmental controls, for a minimum

income for all Americans, for a truly progressive income tax to diminish the

huge gap between rich and poor. Both have supported the death penalty and the

growth of prisons. Both believe in a large military establishment, in land mines

and nuclear weapons and the cruel use of sanctions against the people of Cuba

and Iraq. Both supported the wars against Panama, Iraq, and Yugoslavia.

Perhaps

when the furore dies down over who really won the election , when the tennis

match is over and we get over the disappointment that our guy (is he really our

guy?) didn’t win, we will finally break the hypnotic spell of the game and look

around. We may then think about whether the ship is going down and if there are

enough lifeboats, and what should we do about all that.

This

is not the Titanic. With us, there is still time to change.

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