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Michael Eric Dyson: Politic Ditto

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It appears that this election year the actions of our President and the current world situation have energized everyone, even the usually apathetic, to become involved in the political equation. Whether you disagree or agree with our Presidents decisions in the last four years, our country is collectively galvanized to express their political voice, especially young urban minorities, a group traditionally and virtually absent from political discourse. This new energy can be partly attributed to strong feelings toward our current administration, but credit can also be given to individuals like Russell Simmons and Sean Combs who have made strong efforts to educate and motivate the youth of our country to vote. Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network travels from state to state encouraging all young people to register to vote while underscoring to them how influential and important they are to the political system and direction of our country.

With the first two Presidential debates behind us, Allhiphop.com talked with author, thinker, social commentator, and University of Pennsylvania Professor of Humanities, and African-American and Religious studies, Michael Eric Dyson, to get his thoughts on the political climate and the Presidential Debates. Dyson is a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s The Tavis Smiley Show and he is the author of Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur and Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye.

AllHipHop.com: Generally Republicans are thought to be less civic minded and more in favor of the affluent, where as Democrats are thought to be for the people. Do you think these perceptions are relevant?

Dyson: Absolutely. Not to besmirch the civic character of Republicans, I wouldn’t dare suggest that they are less incline to be concerned about the fabric of the larger society. However, at their best, progressive and left leaning, and liberal Democrats are mightily concerned about the unraveling of that fabric. The Republicans, through their President and the Congress, have attempted to redistribute wealth upward by providing tax cuts for people making over 200,000 dollars a year. The people who stand to benefit from the economic policies of the Republican party are overwhelming wealthy, highly educated, protected by lobbies, and driven by corporate concerns. On the other hand, Democrats, when they’re not dressing up in Republican clothing, are part of a legacy that addresses the necessity for the downward redistribution of wealth. So broadly speaking, civic and public policies are progressively promoted by those in the Democratic Party at their best. The centrist wing of the Democratic Party has surrendered too much territory to the Right in regards to these social issues, but by in large I think we have a better chance with the Democrats than with the Republicans.

AllHipHop.com: Some say that a wave of new, sometimes uninformed, voters is dangerous, would you agree?

Dyson: Uninformed voters are always dangerous, new or old. We certainly need more people voting, but we need that new voting group to be profoundly and deeply informed about the issues and not influenced by how somebody looks, how charismatic they appear, or whether they look like the underdog. One of the ingenious strategies of the conservative movement is the fact that they’ve successfully portrayed George Bush, a man of enormous wealth, social status, and privilege, as an everyday guy. The truth is George Bush ain’t the cowboy from Texas, but rather the privileged kid from Maine. Having said that, it is important for voters not to be pushed along by unseemly passion, but rather to root their analysis of what candidate to choose in critical, objective scrutiny of the issues. We’ve been disadvantage by an isolationist President out to prove that America won’t take it, and we’ll beat you down if you don’t do we want you to do or if you feel you’re a threat to our security. Voters need to be informed of the difference between that approach and an approach that says we are not going to be unilateral and just decide willy nilly what we want to do.

AllHipHop.com: Do you think that the age of 18 is a good voting age?

Dyson: Sure, at the age of 18 you can go to war, you can defend the nation, you can die for the heroic pursuit of ideas, so of course if makes sense that young people should be able to vote at 18. They need to be informed, but there are people 28, 38, and 48 who are ill-informed. Unfortunately many young people are alienated from the political process because it doesn’t tend to represent their interest. It’s not that young people don’t have any political stakes, it’s just that it is not always obvious. That’s a problem that is the fault of political professionals and others who don’t take the time and explain to young people why it is that they should vote and why it is that their vote matters. I think that if we expect young people to exercise that democratic maturity of voting, demands that we educate young people about what’s at stake and secondly generate their interest. We’ve done a poor job making voting appealing to young people, and not in a kind of sexy, market driven way, but in I a way that says if you are concerned about cash for your family and the education of your young people, than you’ve got to become involved in politics and you’ve got to see your future connected to those that are elected.

AllHipHop.com: Does it speak to any fallacies in our system that a contending third voice never arises in our elections?

Dyson: Oh sure, the hegemony of a two party system where viable voices are all but excluded is directly attributable to the paradox of our system. On the surface it looks like you’ve got real choices, but often you aren’t presented with real alternatives. Third parties have not been very successful in this country because of the sheer dominance of corporate and political interest in both parties that have disallowed and prevented authentic third voices from emerging. We’ve seen the consequences of the exclusion and inclusion of these third party voices, and I don’t think that Ralph Nader represents a sufficiently organized apparatus to realize his goals. It’s not that Nader’s vision is wrong, his ideals are strong and I feel ultimately right, but I don’t think he has the political apparatus to allow his vision to be realized. In that case, his appearance on many ballots may end up as it did last time around, only helping George Bush into office.

AllHipHop.com: Do the Democrats take the Black vote for granted?

Dyson: Absolutely. The Democratic Party has not only exploited the Black vote, but has tended to ignore the concerns of Blacks on vital fronts, yet we have been among the most deeply devoted members of the Democratic family and that is a problem. Yes, the Democrats have treated us like political step-children, unfortunately the answer is not to then run off to Right wing or Conservative groups who have done even less to promote the interest of African-Americans and other progressive peoples.

AllHipHop.com: Bush’s camp wanted to use this first debate to expose Kerry as incapable of leading our country during this volatile time, do you think they accomplished that?

Dyson: No, the only line that Mr. Bush had was that Mr. Kerry is a flip-flopper, he changes his mind and that he can’t lead the troops if he thinks the war is bad. I think Kerry did a brilliant job rhetorically of dismantling Mr. Bush’s argument. I also think he did a good job of explaining that his position is not flip-flop, but rather is a principle inherent to ideas that may have to change the way they manifest but that are nonetheless consistent. For instance, when Kerry said to Bush, “Yeah I made a mistake as to my understanding of the Iraqi situation, but you made a greater mistake by leading us to war there,” he is acknowledging his mistake, a quality we look for in leaders. All of us are human, and all of make mistakes, so the arrogant refusal to acknowledge one’s mistakes plays into a question of character for me and Mr. Bush’s political character is deeply flawed in that sense. There is no way that anybody, even within the Republican Party, who watched that debate can feel that Mr. Bush showed that Mr. Kerry was incapable of leading the country.

AllHipHop.com: At times it looked as if President Bush was frustrated.

Dyson: Yeah, not only did Mr. Bush not prove that Mr. Kerry could not lead the country but Mr. Kerry often flustered Mr. Bush. Bush had that mischievous and frustrated look on his face because not only was he rhetorically mastered, but he was politically out pointed and basically verbally pimp slapped. Kerry finally showed his kahunas and finally showed that he could fight back.

AllHipHop.com: With blizzard size spin being put on every aspect of this election, what media outlets are good sources for objective analysis or each candidate?

Dyson: You have to read beyond the major Newspapers, even though you still have to read those as well. Check out The Nation magazine out of New York, In These Times out of Chicago, and many other progressive websites. Listen to the BBC, check out C-Span, listen to NPR, listen to The Tavis Smiley Show for progressive commentary. You can go to the Guardian.com and also check out the international perspective, listen to Al-Jazeera and get their perspective about what’s going on in the Middle Eastern world as opposed to American papers. So there are many outlets that media savvy young people can take advantage of.

AllHipHop.com: As young people plow through the mountain of information provided by magazines, newspapers, news stations and talking heads, what information would you have fresh on young people’s minds?

Dyson: Young people need to know that security is critical, but the President should not be allowed to dissuade us from holding fast to our commitment to civic democracy, political freedom and civil liberty. The Patriot Act has been a slaughter of the precious principles of democracy and we have to resist this erosion of our civil liberties. They claim that they have our back, but they didn’t tell us that they have a knife in it. On the other hand, young people need to not only think about their political security, but they need to think about their economic, social, spiritual, and racial concerns. Young people need to see that there is a real battle of vision going on concerning the future of this nation. This may be a little hard for young people, but they should ask themselves if they are better now than they were four years ago.

AllHipHop.com: Any last thoughts?

Dyson: If Mr. Bush was a woman or person of color, his altogether inept and underwhelming performance might conjure stereotypes of linguistic in-facility and just plain old incompetence. I think Kerry handled himself intelligently, precisely, and concisely and was able to articulate view points that needed to be heard by the broader American public. One can only hope that his impressive performance will translate into people seeing a true distinction between the two men, the ideology’s that fuel them, and the paths they intend to take.

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