New York City has the jitters


New York City will not cop a disputed result this time because whatever the reason, it will be attributed to fraud. Prior to 2000 Americans assumed the legitimacy of its democratic processes. Incendiary elections outcomes were only supposed to happen in developing countries. Even China has opened its polling to international observers, as promoted by the US, while some states will only permit monitoring at selected sites.

As the campaign moves into overdrive, anti-Bush paraphernalia frantically competes for attention with commercial advertising on the streets of Manhattan and spruikers are permanent fixtures in the squares. And as soon as a group gathers to listen so does a conspicuous police presence.

This is not just your regular presidential race. This is an unprecedented response to a political leadership. Quite simply, from those who hate Bush and Cheney – the presidency that created the climate for civil unrest. Families have stopped speaking, friendships have been broken, outspoken employees have been sacked from press and NGO positions. The Patriot Act is being used as a divining rod, unearthing threats to national security. Criticism of foreign policy is an un-American activity.

Meanwhile, all over Manhattan a spontaneous cultural festival rages rivaling the mainstream for quality, star participation and sell out audiences. The theme and fury is consistent – another dishonest war. As Daniel Ellsberg admitted post Vietnam, America wasn’t on the wrong side in a war of independence “ it was the wrong side.

Clearly, the voting behaviour of past presidential elections is inadequate in predicting this one. It does not factor in the new voters who have been mobilized by an unparalleled net campaign of email, blog, film, journals and books (has any other President in his first term had so much written about him), theatre, musicians and DJ’s, artists and designers, stars, comedians and Michael Moore. Foreign nationals from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are voting in a mock on-line election at the rate of ten per second. The results will be published just prior to November 2 hoping to make Americans aware of how the rest of the world feels about its foreign policy. Who knows if it will yield results “ that’s the nature of the net.

Busloads of supporters are being sent into the swing states registering and targeting young and first time voters; promoting the message in their own language. One small New York group alone claims they will get 10,000 new anti- Bush voters from the crucial state of Ohio to the polls.

And the message is plain ‘Vote or Die’.

Last week, late and flustered, I arrived at the advertised address to hear Stephen Sewell’s speech to the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The building belonged to some sort of religious institution. Bursting noisily into the main auditorium where hundreds of women and a sprinkling of men sat spellbound, I was greeted from the pulpit. ‘Welcome, sister’. Heads turned as the speaker pointed to an empty chair in the middle of the hall.

Maybe Stephen was second billing I thought as the lecturer emphasised the importance of ‘finding IT’. The audience radiated knowingness. Who were all these people who knew how to find IT? And what was IT that several hundred women and a sprinkling of men wanted to find? My neighbour turned to me, smiled acceptingly and patted my arm as if sensing my dilemma. I wanted to leave immediately before she bonded any further.

Rising to my feet, I looked toward the speaker respectfully trying to communicate that I was in the wrong place. ‘Do you have a question, sister?’ My bag dropped and its contents disappeared under the seats causing a major disruption. Do I have a fucking question? I certainly do. Who are all you aliens, I thought, as I tried to gather my stuff. My phone started calling in its precocious manner: Hello, are you there. Ahem! Ahem! Hello, are you there. Ahem. Ahem. The disembodied electronic voice was coming from under the seat in front of me. Louder, it repeated the question. The audience was agog, all eyes were on me.

Outside in the vestibule dozens of books and pamphlets displayed titles like Messages from the Other Side and The Voice of an Angel.

Reassured that Stephen Sewell, Australia’s multi-award winning playwright, would not be making an appearance in this forum I returned my unanswered call. It was Stephen. ‘Where are you? It’s on the second floor.’

The second floor hall was timber paneled with stained glass windows depicting scenes of biblical kindness. Yet another pulpit, but this time an instantly recognisable audience. Old lefties. Intellectual, thoughtful, jaded. They warmed to Stephen like a long lost comrade. But why the disguise? Why do humanists who gather to hear a call to activism to defeat cynicism and despair gather in a model church?

Maybe it was the only available space, or maybe because in America freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the constitution, overrides the Patriot Act at least till November.

In this issue, we have reproduced Stephen Sewell’s speech at the New York Society of Ethical Culture on 17 October 2004 here

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.