Thursday, October 28, 2004

Donnie Darko, Michael Badnarik, and Democratic Party Shenanigans

It's been so long since I've made a proper blog entry that wasn't just a link to something else. And to be honest, I should be grading right now, or else my students in tomorrow's sections could revolt.

But I wanted to mention that not only did I randomly happen to bump into Jake Gyllenhaal, who was here at UW to campaign for John Kerry (surprise, surprise), that I helped to organize and of course see a Michael Badnarik visit.

The first was a random thing. I was out putting Badnarik flyers up, and there was a large group (20-30) of students all encircled around someone with camera crews and the whole bit in front of the Memorial Union. He looked familiar – at first, I thought he was one of my students. But then I realized that none of my students would have camera crews follow them and autograph-seeking fans, and then I realized who he was.

That I got to talk with him at all was sheer luck. I snapped two photos of him, and managed to get an autograph out of him for Diane Court. What was truly ironic was that I didn't have anything really handy for him to sign... except for the Badnarik flyers. So folding one in half, I handed it to him, asking him to make it out to Laura. I doubt he even noticed what was printed on the other side. He asked me if I was going to vote, urging that I join the waiting Democrat van. (That van, decked out with Kerry, Feingold, and Tammy Baldwin signs, has been busing students to the city clerk's office, where you can vote early.) I told him that I had class in 20 minutes, and he was dismayed by this excuse. I explained then that I was the TA, and it would be bad form for me not to be there. He accepted this. (To clarify – it wasn't clear that he was actually going over with the Democrats and would-be voters. It might've been worth it if he was.)

I probably should have told him that I'd go, but I'd be voting for Badnarik, and show him the sign. I wonder how he would've reacted – like a Republican who hears that someone is supporting Nader, I wonder? Or with dismay that I wasn't supporting Kerry outright? But he was an awfully nice guy, and I didn't want to engage in a confrontation. The whole thing sort of reminded me of the time when my friend Sam Dangremond, the then-editor of the Primary Source, met Al Gore at a Tufts speaking engagement, and offered the ex-VP a Source to sign, which he did. Only after he signed it did he realize it was a conservative publication, got this flushed, annoyed look on his face, and rolled it up tightly before returning it to Sam.

Would that poor Michael Badnarik, an actual candidate, get half the attention of Jake Gyllenhaal. True, Jake was sort of the advance guard for Kerry, who will be speaking here tomorrow with none other than Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen at his side. (Speaking of which, the man won't be here until tomorrow, but they already have huge segments of Washington Ave, one of the chief arteries out of the isthmus, blocked off. Nothing too good for His Imperial Majesty).

I should also mention, as an aside, that the Democrats here in Madison are really pushing the envelope of the law. Diane Court and her friend Amanda arrived on campus in time to hang out with Badnarik, assorted Libs, and myself, only to be accosted by the same Democrat activists that Jake was hanging out with earlier. They tried to get both Diane and Amanda to get into the van with them to vote. You'd think that Amanda informing them that she resides and votes in another state, and that Diane lives in another county, would be enough to tell them to move on to other prey. You'd be wrong. They insisted that it would be alright if the two of them voted here today, and strongly implied that they could get them both registered here in Madison.

Amanda's boyfriend actually works for the Kerry campaign here in Madison. We met up with him after the Badnarik talk, and he arranged for the two of them to get better tickets for Kerry's talk tomorrow. (I was offered, but declined because I'll probably still be grading.) He mentioned that he had already voted, just this morning. Not a big deal, until you consider that her boyfriend actually lives in Texas. It's appallingly easy to register to vote in Wisconsin, and if it's same-day registration, all you need is a drivers' license or utility bill with your name on it to register. I suspect her boyfriend and many other party activists are becoming temporary Wisconsin voters.

Keep in mind, this was all stuff out in the open. I have to wonder what happens and what is said behind closed doors, of either party.

Anyway, Badnarik. His talk wasn't until 3:00PM, so he hanged out with me, Diane, Amanda, and several other assorted Libertarians in the Ratheskeller. After meeting him again in person (I first met him when I was still living in Austin back in 2000), I was reminded brutally of his greatest strength and his greatest weaknesses. Badnarik is passionate and consistent (in a way) about his ideals, and why he's running for President. But what could be persuasive in some audiences won't be in others. While we were hanging out, an unearthily young 40 year old theatre grad student, who had the mistaken notion that somehow Libertarians were kind of like socialists sat at our table and chatted with Michael.

It's refreshing that Michael doesn't equivocate the way politicians do, but Jesus, there's also the fine art of diplomacy. He came close to insulting our poor deluded theatre socialist, at one point saying that Donald Trump was smarter than he was because Trump had so much more money than he did. Michael also really likes talking about guns, and about how whenever someone attempts to degrade his liberty, he will respond with his 44. The theatre guy finally left, appalled, though he stayed a lot longer than I thought he would – maybe close to an hour? Michael's way of breaking issues down was a bit disconcerting to me, largely because so much of his rhetoric confirms the worst stereotypes people have about Libertarians. It didn't help matters that Diane and Amanda are both dyed-in-the-wool liberals who voted for Nader in 2000, though they are breaking for Kerry this time around. It was all they could do, they both told me, to bite their tongues.

(Before that exchange, he also told me that he used to belong to a philosophy reading club, which basically became for all purposes an Ayn Rand club. Rand, he said, taught him to think in terms of essentials, and that everything could be traced back to philosophical routes. So far so good. But he also compared himself to a brain surgeon, saying that what he does, by “lighting the fire of liberty one heart at a time” is analogous to a brain surgeon's cutting away damaged tissue. You have to be careful, he said, because if you do it wrong you can do a lot of damage. I was both impressed, and aghast, that he considers himself a philosopher.)

The talk that he actually gave in the reserved room was a lot better, at least at the beginning. As far as stump speeches go, it was easily on par with the best that Bush or Kerry muster, going into substantial reasoning instead of remaining mired in typical political spin and hyperbole. Not that there was none of that: he said, for example that the Patriot Act was the most anti-Constitutional law passed since the 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts (really? worse than the Japanese internment camps?), and violated the Godwin proviso during Q&A. (The actual argument, I believe, was that just as Hitler passed laws allowing him to put people into ovens, our government frequently passes any number of laws allowing them to do whatever they want).

I regret that I didn't actually take notes. Indeed, I felt weird being at a talk where I wasn't trying to get everything down. But there wasn't a whole lot that I could've missed. One student, who apparently knew something about Badnarik, asked him about why he refused to get a drivers' license, and Badnarik gave a surprisingly good answer by my lights, though it didn't pass muster with Diane's BS detector. I still think that although a libertarian society will ultimately not have drivers' licenses, in 2004, in this universe, it's such a trivial problem. Bigger fish to fry abound, and he has to make such an issue of this, to the exclusion of far more weighty struggles.

I asked him about the divided government argument, why one should vote, say, Democrat for President and Republican for Congress. He gave me an answer I didn't find terribly satisfactory – something about driving halfway over a canyon, and that by doing so, you'd still fall in. I had hoped to push him on his Constitutional prowess, pointing out that many Founders imagined that there would be factions and disputes, and that the best way to secure liberty from their stratagems would be to divided their power and influence so that they effectively cancel each other out. (I'm not convinced that this argument is worthy a Kerry vote – perhaps if the candidate were Joe Lieberman or a properly medicated Zell Miller or a Democrat who actually cared about civil liberties, it'd be different – but it's a respectable reason to vote major party for a libertarian.) But instead, I get a weird analogy about driving off a cliff.

I don't mean to obscure the good points he made, but the negative parts sort of stick out. The last thing we need, as libertarians, is someone who makes us sound crazy. I worry Badnarik does just that, far better than any of libertarianism's detractors. Still, all in all, I'm going to vote for him, and even put a sign up for him in my apartment, because absent some major moral problem, the candidate who gets my vote is almost always whichever candidate shares the most positions with me. Of course that's almost always the Libertarian, though I made an exception in 2002 for a Republican, Mitt Romney, the now-Governor of Massachusetts. The divided government argument made sense then, and Carla Howell, God bless her, was proving to be sort of embarrassing as a Libertarian.

Diane Court observed that Badnarik's talk revealed him to be very, very angry. So I had thought that perhaps Badnarik is the Libertarian Howard Dean. A pity that we didn't nominate Gary Nolan...


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