Magazine | November 29, 2010, Issue

Unbalanced

In baseball you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, but in political commentary you need a metaphor. As intellectually destitute as it was, the midterm campaign now blessedly drawn to a close did not come up short in this department. It promises to be trampled by metaphors. It will end up at the bottom of a pile of flailing metaphors all yelling “Lemme at it!” Future historians looking for a catchy book title will find such an embarrassment of metaphorical riches in it that they will evolve on the spot and form a brand-new genus of mankind: happy intellectuals.

The metaphor that comes immediately to mind for Decision 2010 is “the barbarians are at the gates,” a flawless description of the many candidates and their supporters who have spent the past year bragging about how dumb and low-class they are. Then there are the “storm” entries — “the calm before” and “the eye of” — and even a metaphorical pun: “The house of ill dispute.” But I found one that really does say something about Decision 2010 in particular and our perishing republic in general. My metaphor of choice is “riding the Segway.”

The Segway motorized scooter was named after an editorial term, properly spelled “segue,” meaning a smooth transition from one topic or paragraph to another. The Segway scooter was designed with the same goal: As the reader is eased around the potholes of the mind, so shall the rider be eased around real ones and set on a smooth path.

Segway has a great deal in common with the U.S. Constitution. Their software glitches are legendary. One caused the scooter to spontaneously reverse and dump the rider. The original turning mechanism, called “lean steer,” was a long flat handle that sounds like what the Titanic helmsman thought he had hold of instead of a wheel, so that he thought he was turning right when he was really turning left. The whole vehicle was a mass of gyroscopic sensors, signals, and distracting flashing signs that, like constitutional amendments, kept issuing empty promises of “balance enabled.” No sooner did they fix one thing than something else went wrong, but they kept fiddling with it until, in September 2006, of the 23,500 Segways sold over the preceding four and a half years, all 23,500 were recalled.

The mayhem that was Decision 2010 resembled an episode on Operation Repo when the team tried to repossess several Segways from a sightseeing outfit, and the repo guys, who can drive anything, could not control the lurching scooters and kept getting thrown off them like faux cowboys trying to ride an enraged brahma bull. When Tea Partiers rode forth on their Segways to repossess their country, the lurches were philosophical. To present themselves as an informed citizenry, they went along with the who, what, where, and when of the journalistic lede, but they balked at why. Denizens of respectability and repression underneath their rage, they recoiled from the threatening cerebral practice of thinking things through. A little insight is a dangerous thing; it might reveal something you do not want to know or admit, so they rejected it out of hand as passivity: thought instead of action, that dreaded intellectual approach to ideas that signals the elitists are at the gates. To avoid it, they disabled their Y gyroscopes and held forth loudly and volubly about what’s bothering them without saying what’s bothering them.

#page#Ask them about the unbridgeable conflict between “Everybody’s equal” and “Everybody’s special” and it never occurs to them that you might be even more conservative than they are; all they know is that you are challenging them. Ask them whether they think the word “bi-racial” now beginning to be applied to Obama is the first step in a future racial caste system and you will never get an answer because as soon as they find out that “caste” is something like “elite” they will hop on their Segways and start repossessing their country again.

This is nothing new. Before there was a Tea Party, American politics underwent regular crashes from the glitches in Tea Party–style thinking. A decade ago, former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala triggered a Ride of the Segways of Wagnerian proportions when she said we hadn’t sent “the best and the brightest” to Vietnam. She was giving the phrase the sardonic twist given it by David Halberstam in his book of that title charging that it was the exalted Kennedy-administration patriciate that got us into the Vietnam mess in the first place. But literal-minded people never notice sardonic twists, especially ones in book titles. The Tea Party element of that day howled, “Where’s the outrage!” and accused Shalala of calling the U.S. military a home for losers.

The GOP is now in the grip of an eerie ménage à trois consisting of Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell. Think of the Three Fates on Segways and you’ve got it. Mama Sarah has turned her children into our new gross national product and installed so many glitches in the English language that “orange” now rhymes with everything. Sharron Angle’s mania for privatizing something, anything, has the governor of Virginia trying to sell the state liquor stores, and Christine O’Donnell, the right-handmaiden of the starry sisterhood, comes with a halo-shaped monitor that flashes a continuous message of “balance disabled.” Brace yourselves for constitutional lurches and spills if Republicans ride their Segways to the end of the line.

I’ll say one thing for Decision 2010: At least it livened up the Internet. Before, links were long symbol-cluttered guidelines in tasteful blue, but now Google puts punchy references in simple black and white lists:

Searches related to Rick Sanchez idiot.

Rick Sanchez moron

Anderson Cooper idiot

Wolf Blitzer idiot

Lou Dobbs idiot

Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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