Junk Food

I doubt that I will ever actually read Double Down, the new chronicle of the 2012 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

The book, released last week, has accrued enormous press coverage in recent days, swiftly becoming the “official” account of the proverbial horse race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, thanks to a peanut gallery of firsthand accountants who dish on the personalities involved in a presidential election that, if not our country’s most exciting, was nonetheless (as the joke goes) certainly the most recent.

Political junkie that I am, I have naturally skimmed the excerpts from the tome published in the New York Times and TIME and the various analyses that have followed about the meaning of the 2012 race in the context of U.S. history and, of course, the eventual campaign of 2016.

But that is as far as I wish to go.

I do not require every last detail about what Obama and Romney were doing and thinking at every moment of their contest for the Oval Office.

I did not need to know—as I now do—that Romney’s vice presidential vetting committee codenamed their operation “Goldfish” and referred to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as “Pufferfish” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as “Pescado.”

Nor, frankly, do I much care about the minutiae of the Obama administration’s “poll testing” about whether to replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton.  For Pete’s sake, any self-respecting incumbent is going to explore every available avenue for success, and Obama is no different.  There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this so-called scoop, and none of these disclosures means much in the broad sweep of history.

Yet I marinate in this piffle all the same, and will probably continue so long as it keeps popping up on my news feed.

I don’t want to, but I do.  I just can’t help myself.  I’m a junkie, and this is my junk food.

Mind you, political junk food should not be confused with political guilty pleasures.  There is a distinction between the two that, while narrow, is worth pointing out.

A guilty pleasure is something that is dismissed in polite society as vulgar and trivial, but might nonetheless contain some redeeming value.  Take, for instance, my occasional pastime of eating an entire jar of peanut butter with a spoon at 2 o’clock in the morning:  No, it’s not something I could get away with in public, but hey, think of all the protein!

Per contra, junk food is, well, junk.  It’s pure sugar and fat, it does nothing for you in the long run, you consume it in a moment of weakness and feel disgusted with yourself a few minutes later.  Rather than peanut butter, picture killing a whole jar of Nutella.  (You know who you are.)

So how might we differentiate these two concepts in the worlds of government and politics?

I am extremely tempted to argue that the entire experience of following a political campaign constitutes a guilty pleasure, with most of its constituent parts nothing but pure junk—sparkly distractions yielding heat but no light.  The boring legislative sausage-making that (sometimes) occurs between elections—that’s the part that matters.

Halperin and Heilemann have defended Double Down against the inevitable charges of gossip-mongering by asserting that all of its goodies were subject to rigorous cross-checking, and that any assertions that could not be verified, no matter how titillating, remained on the cutting room floor.  In short, they have committed journalism, not tabloid hackery.

Here’s a thought:  They have actually committed both simultaneously, and there’s your problem.  In today’s environment, where personality not only trumps substance but is considered substantive itself, any stray piece of dirt about a political figure, no matter how inconsequential, is considered axiomatically newsworthy, provided that it is obtained in a journalistically valid manner.

My plea to the peddlers of this troubling tendency:  Knock it off.

Don’t elevate the status of disposable schoolyard chatter into the realm of respectability.  Don’t conflate valuable information with pure muck.  Learn to discriminate between the two, for many of your readers cannot, but they jolly well should.

By no means do I advocate an end to all frivolity in political reporting, just as I wouldn’t dream of purging the supermarket shelves of all candy and chocolate.  Such trifles will always have a place in our society—namely, to provide a mental release from the weight of the serious business of life.

All I ask is that we recognize our depraved desserts for what they are, and not pretend they are wholesome and nutritious.

We can allow ourselves the occasional indulgence, but let’s not make every day Halloween.

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Jeepers Creepers

If Halloween didn’t exist, we wouldn’t even think of inventing it.

On any other day of the year, would any responsible parent allow his or her child to go door-to-door, ringing doorbells and demanding candy from total strangers?

On any other day, would those same parents licence that child to consume all that candy after collecting it?

On any other day, would American moms and dads tacitly encourage their kids to hoard eggs and toilet paper and commit low-level vandalism across the neighborhood, or to enter a dark space and be scared out of their wits by fearsome, bloody ghouls leaping out at them?

I dare say they would not.  I certainly hope as much.

Yet on the final evening of October each year, these practices and others become very nearly mandatory in all American homes.  Modern Halloween traditions are as hardwired into our culture as those of any other annual observance.

Rarely do we stop to appreciate how very weird and wonderful this is.

As far as our national holidays go, Halloween is probably the most politically incorrect.

More than ever, today’s culture promulgates child safety above all else.  Halloween promulgates danger.

Today’s culture promotes nutrition and warns against the evils of junk food in spawning childhood (and adult) obesity.  Halloween promotes the idea that he who accumulates the most candy wins.

Today’s culture says, “Be who you really are.”  Halloween says, “Dress up as someone else.”

On a good day, the culture values science and reason.  Halloween values witchcraft.

In the political realm, Halloween would seem to have something to offend everyone.  Liberals must surely take umbrage at the glorification of sugary treats and putting the young in emotionally fraught environments.  Conservatives, meanwhile, doubtless view the practice of dolling out candy to other people’s children as the creeping hand of socialism at work.  How very frightful, indeed.

Halloween possesses a real edge, however tempered and commercialized, that other popular festivities lack.  It is an edge that probably would not withstand the scrutiny of the average school board, say, were it to be proposed as a wholly new concept today.  For goodness’ sake:  Innocent children subjecting themselves to the idiosyncrasies of their grown-up neighbors?  No, that’s far too risky.

As practiced, Halloween is an occasion to get a lot of our basest and most unscrupulous impulses out of our system.  To engage in the sort of tomfoolery we otherwise avoid.  It is our national guilty pleasure, and that is what makes it so essential.

We need our guilty pleasures, because they help to keep us in line the rest of the time.

It’s the tacit agreement we make with our children and ourselves:  Eat your vegetables the rest of the week, and tonight you can gorge on all the Butterfingers and Milky Ways you want.  Be a model citizen tomorrow, but tonight, may all hell break loose.  Go ahead.  We insist.

We should insist.  Children need the opportunity to let loose and break the rules every once in a while.  If we never give them that chance, the urge to do so will bubble beneath the surface until finally exploding into the open, likely at the wrong moment and in a decidedly unattractive way.

And so Halloween presents as a moderating influence on society, rather than a corrupting one.  Who knew?

Naturally, this theory contains holes large enough to fly a broomstick through.  For one, not all children (or adults) can be depended upon to eat their vegetables between November 1 and October 30.  As well, a great deal of young folks can hardly be bothered to wait for one pre-arranged moment to misbehave.

In this way and others, the real problem with Halloween is not that it encourages uncommonly bad behavior, but rather that it encourages behavior that is completely typical.  That it reflects Americans not on their worst days, but on their average days.

The ideal, then, is to ensure a tension persists.  To live such that Halloween remains the exception to the rule, both in theory and in practice.  To make certain its traditions of mischief and sugar highs remain an affront to the enlightened world, not its standard operating procedure.

Like Austin, Texas, let us keep Halloween weird.