SPORTING: Political Bodies

Professional wrestlers from the upper midwest owe their oratorical stylings to a vitriolic tradition exemplified by the region's cultural progenitor, Martin Luther. Few theologians in a heated era of religious contention could rant with Luther's forthright tough talk and outright contempt for papal institutions.The Lutherans who settled and were later raised in Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and Wisconsin cast admiring eyes and genetically-trained ears on wrestlers who renounced prevailing orthodoxy in the twisted echo of Luther's raillery -- a guilty pleasure rooted in righteous fervor. Young men growing up in the upper midwest are blood-tied to the blunt messengers, be they Viking ancestors, lumberjacks or their Luther-like idols of the ring.To this day, the interview with the disputatious bad guy is the sine qua non of the pro wrestling telecast. The bad guy offers a direct and succinct statement of his policy goals and objectives. At the end of his speech, the audience, hanging on every word and scowl, knows precisely what the bad guy wants to do and how he intends to do it. If only contemporary political discourse were so direct and, yes, civil.It is a commonplace that televised shoutdowns between ideologues have reduced public policy discussion to a politics-of-entertainment that generates more heat than light and descends a cut below professional wrestling as low-brow thrill and intellectual content.The wrestling promotors know that if the entertainers shout over one another, the audience can't hear what either has to say -- and what the performers have to say is of the utmost importance toward establishing motive and character. Of course, the big businesses that operate television networks aren't interested in establishing the conditions for true political discussion, else the public might entertain choices and ideas, learn the candidates' motives and assess character, or, worst of all, be insufficiently entertained so as to challenge the prevailing order.Last month, the voters in Minnesota shocked the political establishment. They called on a professional wrestler to fix politics. They want their political dialogue to be at least as civil as professional wrestling. They want their politicians to be that honest, that direct, that polite. They want their politicians to not be politicians. Similar messages coat the winds throughout America.Once, the populist liberal traditions of Minnesota produced heroes -- Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone. Now, heroism in politics is discredited by homely jabber and its pale shadow in wrestling showmanship.During a debate on Minnesota's gubernatorial campaign trail, Democrat Skip Humphrey and Republican Norm Coleman began shouting at one another. The Reform Party candidate, former pro wrestler Jesse (The Body) Ventura, pointed at his opponents."Look at them bickering," said Ventura. "This is what my campaign is a rejection of."So, the election of Jesse (The Body) Ventura as Governor of Minnesota sent a variety of messages. Most resoundingly, it put The Body back into the body politic. Turnout in Minnesota hit 62 percent, about twice the national average.The implicit denunciation of the political class may be troubling to some, but the real message is mixed. The election of Ventura at once reaffirmed the young voters' suspiscion that electoral politics is a joke while showing them that their votes really matter and they can make a difference.Some may view the election of a pro wrestler to high office as the ultimate stroke of electoral cynicism, but the most harrowing mark of electoral cynicism is low turnout. What can be more cynical than a political system that putters along the same old way, raising the same false choices in cycle after cycle, even though everyone knows the political class has lost touch with the electorate? The election of Ventura is a beacon of hope against the dark of cynicism.Ventura ran very well among young voters from start to finish. Young people, who are least likely to vote, turned out in droves for Ventura. The young voters in Minnesota received a key object lesson as to their importance and contribution to the political process. Most political professionals took it as "a wake-up call."As Minnesota's attorney general, Humphrey won a $6.1 billion settlement against tobacco companies. As the mayor of St. Paul, Coleman was one of the Minnesota GOP's rising stars. Ventura was the ultimate outsider, an outsider in an outsider's party who couldn't even elicit support from the Reform Party's founder, Ross Perot.Minnesotans love Ventura's confessions of ignorance, they love his dollhouse confrontations with Evil Special Interest Man. They love the image, the rage against political machinery, the hard raillery, the ideal of a man who says what he's going to do, then does it.Can he? Probably not. Ventura's fanatical anti-tax positions probably won't fly in Minnesota. He has come out in favor of legalizing drugs and prostitution, advocating the creation of a red light district on the order of Amsterdam. Minnesotans close their bars at 1 a.m. And, yes, Minnesotans tend to be liberal, but they are coat-and-tie liberals who are quite conservative on moral and personal matters.Additionally, Ventura will have to deal with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. For the first time, Ventura will be directly challenged by political hardballers, real players. In other words, no major legislation will pass -- unless one of the established parties can win Ventura to its side. And how disillusioning would that be?


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