I blame television.
For the past 50 or so years, research shows, Americans have participated less and less in civic culture, whether through formal groups or informal gatherings. Instead, we all complain we're too busy and just retreat to the isolating pseudo-comfort of the boob tube. At this point even our political life has been reduced to a choice between Brand X and Brand W, so to speak. Politics, itself these days just another televised production, has become something shameful to be associated with, so we do it in the privacy of our living rooms with the blinds drawnjust like when we voyeuristically partake of the guilty pleasures of reality TV.
Last Thursday, though, something rare happened over at Family Wash in East Nashville. Some folks, baited by beer and live jazz, participated in American civic lifetogether. That's right, at 8 p.m. a few dozen youngish Nashvillians set aside their well-tested cynicism, and instead gathered around to watch the season's first presidential debate. It was Bush vs. Kerry, round one, except with a twist: at the Wash, the back-and-forth was accompanied by a jazz combo that tailored its music to the rhetorical ebbs and flows (or flubs) of the debate.
I got to the East Nashville washateria a few minutes past kickoff, two friends in tow, and the place seemed full. Luckily, someone had saved a prime seat for us right next to a Kerry enthusiast and not too far from some leather-wearing foreigners, which seemed to be a couple on the plus-side of 50 from one of those English-speaking countries like Scotland or New Zealand. The place was set up like the Wash always is, only this time, in front of the stage area was a 20-inch television, complete with rabbit ears.
Except for the group up front, everyone was actually paying attention to the jerks on the tube. People strained necks to see John Kerry and angled heads to see George Bush. They swilled beer or sipped wine while Kerry succinctly answered questions and Bush floundered fact-free, awash in mantra-like repetition of his talking points. Or were they stammering points? Either way, we learned how hard it is to be presidentapparently Bush calls people on the phone, hugs widows and makes important decisionswhile being pleasantly surprised by candidate Kerry's impressive performance.
As you might guess, the crowd at Family Wash, at least on debate night, leaned left. So as the night wore on and the bar's draught beer supply ran outapparently liberals can really put it awayspontaneous applause erupted for Kerry, and laughter rolled forth when the pursed-lipped prez stammered keepers like, "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us." In the face of Bush's C-student performance, the collective sense of relief was palpable. Democrats, for once, were actually proud of their candidate. For 90 minutes, at least, most everyone in the room was on board with the well-articulated agenda of a downright presidential presidential candidate.
Maybe it was the music. The combo, comprised of Joe McMahan, Kyle Kegerrecs and Hans Holzen, played relaxed, occasionally folksy tunes when Kerry spoke. When the grouch-in-chief took the mike, The Godfather theme filled the room. Occasionally, the guys would dally with a Speak-and-Spell for artsy comic effect, but to be honest, the crowd was often too into the debate to notice. Politics and music, beer and bonhomie.
It's exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville would have wanted. A thriving civic lifealbeit a postmodern mixed-media onethat energized a communal political life. Maybe TV, if treated as part of a larger, more interactive spectacle, can transcend its current use as a mind control device. Watched subversively amid good company and fine booze, then, television may be salvageable, and American political life may be redeemable. Or at the least it might become cool to care.
That's sort of what Family Wash owner Jamie Rubin would like to see. The product of a hippie sort of school co-founded by his mother, he says he's never been particularly involved in politics. But the idea for this event grew from folks sitting around talking about the state of the world, and now he hopes the TV and jazz combo can transcend debates and become a fresh way of engaging popular culture. (Think The Bachelorette with live jazz.) He says the Wash will do the same gigcomplete with avant-garde combo the Mass Debatersfor each of the next two debates. For his part, Rubin is just amazed that what starts as an idea can snowball into a cultural community.
Is this the new "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"? Nashville's own Fight Club?
Who knows. But in a nation full of lonely people who just want to find life out there, good beer, decent politics and live jazz might yet a civic culture make.