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on the Meaning of Recount
by Marjorie Perloff
November 3. I am on a lecture tour
that has brought me, for the first time in my life, to Miami. I've been
invited to speak at the University of Miami by Patrick McCarthy, a well
known Joyce scholar, and since I arrive late at night, I take a taxi right
to the Omni Hotel in Coral Gables, a very pretty neighborhood with upscale
boutiques and restaurants. The man behind the desk speaks almost no English;
neither does the waitress in the restaurant the next morning. But the coffee
is wonderful and the atmosphere quite vibrant; I feel as if I'm in a wealthy
version of Cuba. Then Pat picks me up to take me to the Sackner Archive
in Miami Beach, and of course that's a whole other world. The Sackner archive
is an oasis in the suburban streets near the beach, for in the Sackners'
unprepossessing (from the outside) ranch house are some of the great treasures
of the avant-garde: Italian and Russian Futurist artist books and works
on paper, the first edition of Tom Phillips's A Humument, the Frank
O'Hara/Larry Rivers Stones, and so on.
On the drive to Miami Beach, Pat and I discuss the upcoming election. I tell him I've already cast an absentee ballot-for Ralph Nader. In California, where I live, this is not much of a risk, since Gore is slated to win by a landslide. But Pat confesses he's going to vote for Nader too. He is a dedicated Leftist who has fought in many political and civil rights causes and takes seriously Nader's identification of Bore and Gush as Republocrats. We agree that the Democratic Party seems to have gone off track during the prosperous but callow Clinton years. But at lunch the Sackners are worried that Bush will actually win and do real harm to the country and so they plan, reluctantly, to vote for Gore.
November 4. I fly to New Orleans where I am met by Adelaide Russo, who has invited me to Louisiana State in Baton Rouge as Chancellor's Professor. Adelaide, known to these pages for an incisive piece she wrote on Andrei Codrescu's poetry, is a specialist on modern and postmodern French poetry and visual arts. During a wonderful weekend visiting historic sites, dining at Lafitte's Landing in Donaldsonville and attending a big poetry/fiction reading organized by students in the Codrescu workshop at LSU, she too confesses she is voting for Nader. Her family is from Stamford, CT., Senator Joe Lieberman's home town, and she tells me that in Stamford, he's not highly regarded because he abandoned his first wife for Hadassah in a particularly callous way-- a telling detail given Lieberman's endless sanctimonious talk about the need for "higher" values and better morals.
November 6. Adelaide and I have dinner at the home of Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal. Over Cuba Libres, we talk about the current political situation in Eastern Europe-a situation delicate and dangerous that Andrei has been witnessing at first hand. Fascists/Communists (often the same people) are just waiting to take over; in Czeckoslovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, or Romania, we know, political decisions matter. By comparison, the Gore vs. Bush contest seems relatively unimportant. Indeed, no one I meet in Baton Rouge seems especially interested in the election.
November 7. After speaking to Adelaide's seminar on the avant-garde, she and I have an early dinner at her club, the City Club, where there is an Election Night Buffet. There are lots of men at the bar drinking bourbon-these, no doubt, are primarily Bush supporters. We're at a little table drinking Sazeracs. At about 6.30 PM, CNN announces that Gore has won Michigan and Florida. It's all over, Adelaide says. Most of the men at the bar go home, and we go home too since I am due to leave early the next morning and must pack. Gore, we agree, is the next president and I am relieved that it's not Bush. But back at the Faculty Club I turn on the TV and now a form of chaos, rarely seen on the tube, begins. First Florida is put back in the "undecided" column. Then, at 2:16 EST the Fox News Channel announces that Bush has won Florida, and hence the White House. The other networks concur. Gore is on his way to the State House of his home state, which he lost to Bush, to give his concession speech. The world is waiting eagerly! What will he say? Poor Gore! But-he never delivers the concession speech; at least not that night. Evidently, when he calls Bush to tell him he's not conceding, Bush says, "Well, Mr. Vice President, you need to do what you have to do." And the rest is history.
November 8th -December 13. For over a month, we are now treated to the surreal spectacle of thrust and counter-thrust as the Democrats work to reverse the Florida election. Gore, after all, has won the popular vote, or at least we think he has since Gore's 300,000 lead represents barely a percentage point. In Florida, after the second machine recount, Bush is ahead by a mere 327 votes, with the absentee ballots, that will put him ahead by 930 votes, not yet counted. Now mania kicks in masquerading as rational thought. The "reasonable" solution, we are told by the Gore machine, is to have manual recounts so that, as the mantra of Senator Lieberman would have it, Let every vote count! But-and this is the big but that bedevils the whole recount process--how do you do that? Where do you find those needed 327 votes and who gets to count them?
Alan Dershowitz and Joe Lieberman, who claim to have intellectual credentials, might have done well to remember some basic principles of Einsteinian physics and later theories of chaos and non-linearity . Katherine Hayles, who has written so well on science/art relationships, puts it this way in a discussion of John Cage's use of chance operations:
Before [causal] chains intersect, there is no necessary reason why they have to come together. Their evolutions progress independently of each other. After the conjunction occurs, however, reversing time would mean coordinating actions that were previously independent. For what does it mean to say that time runs backward? The idea makes sense only if events which happened a certain way occur a second time in reverse order. . . . Because branching points are theoretically possible at every instant, the probability that any given worldline will be recreated becomes infinitesimal very quickly. . . . Time moves only forward . . . because an infinite information barrier separates the past from the future.
And Hayles goes on to give excellent examples of the irreversibility of time. A throw of the I Ching sticks, for example, will produce, by chance, specific numerical rules to be followed step by step. But, as in knot theory, once the work produced by these rules is in place, you can't undo it. Unlike a classical form like a Petrarchan sonnet (14 lines rhyming abbaabba with a variable sestet), which can be revised by substituting, say, a new quatrain for one of the original ones, a Cagean mesostic work like Roaratorio brings together so many intersecting lines into the finished "product" that reversibility is no longer possible. The "finished" work is what it is; one cannot, as Derrida has shown over and over again, retrieve a lost origin.
Artists have been making this point since early in the century. Marcel Duchamp's term infrathin, for example, refers to the impossibility of repetition, no two instances of any given phenomenon being identical. Gertrude Stein, for whom repetition is the central formal and semantic principle, repeatedly makes the same point. "But isn't the same at least the same?" asks Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations (#51), knowing that it can't be, that repetition always contains difference, however slight.
Now consider the post-election process in Florida. Every time the Gore team found one opening in their search for votes, another one closed down. First came the furor over the infamous butterfly ballot. The Los Angeles Times reports (17 December) that at the Lakes of Delray retirement community in Delray Beach, Fla., an enclave of 1,408 townhouses, residents were outraged that Palm Beach County records showed 47 votes for Reform party Candidate Pat Buchanan. "It's something that couldn't have happened," said Arthur Robb, community president. "You see, the average age here is 75. The community is 95% Jewish. It's almost entirely Democratic."
But how do you prove that it couldn't have happened? According to the courts, the Palm Beach Co. ballot was perfectly legal and, moreover, had been devised by a Democrat, Teresa de la Torre, who ironically wanted to make it easy for non-English speakers to decipher. Moreover, it's just possible that 47 people even in Delray Beach, might have voted for Buchanan. Private nurses, perhaps, who despise their whiny employers, or pharmacists, or the gardeners on the property-or even, ever so secretly, the residents of Lakes of Delray themselves! That, after all, is why the secret ballot is so essential to democracy: so that we don't peg people by their religion, race, gender, or class and assume that they voted for X or Y.
More important, the original Palm Beach vote could not be recast, no matter how well-meaning the counters. Some ballots were missing, were stuck together, still others had been bent, and the three presiding judges (2 Democrats, 1 Republican) often couldn't agree on what signified the "intention of the voter." How, for that matter, can you get inside the mind of an anonymous, ageless, faceless, genderless, and race-less voter who hasn't punched out a hole next to any of the candidates' names?
The time line, as it turned out, couldn't be reversed. On November 16, the all-Democratic Florida Supreme Court voted 7-0 to allow the hand count to continue in Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties. It looked, for a moment, like speedy victory for the Democrats. Broward proceeded, producing those unforgettable images of the three judges (2 Democrats, the third, the perplexed Zero Mostel figure of Judge Robert Rosenberg, the Republican representative), holding up ballots to the light in search of hanging chads, pregnant and dimpled chads, or, most questionably, overall voting patterns. More than 500 new votes, authentic or otherwise, were tallied. Palm Beach County had stricter rules and their officials were more generous than Broward's in giving their election workers a holiday on Thanksgiving, a decision that Alan Dershowitz, not known for his household commitments, excoriated as "unethical." "When there are votes to be counted," he said grandly, "you don't eat turkey." In any case, Palm Beach didn't meet Katherine Harris's deadline-a deadline she mean-spiritedly refused to extend for even two hours.
Then again, the deadline had been imposed by the liberal and generous Florida Supreme Court. And it was Miami-Dade Co. that best exemplifies the impossibility of fool-proof repetition, the irreversibility of time in a complex process. When the Florida Supreme Court decided to let the recount continue, they didn't say anything about it's having to continue; they merely said, the recount might continue. And there was Miami-Dade, that brash giant of Florida counties, announcing against anyone's better judgement, that, like Bartleby, it preferred not to.
How could that be??? Were the election officials intimidated by "the mob," as Lieberman, for one, claimed? They said they weren't. Then what? It never seems to have occurred to the Gore camp that, despite a few select precincts that are heavily Democratic, Miami-Dade is largely Cuban territory, as I came to see when I visited. The refusal to keep on counting may be interpreted in many different ways: intimidation (the Lieberman hypothesis), lack of time (the stated reason), or just plain confusion. But perhaps it was, after all, the revenge of the Cubans. Did the Gore people really think that Janet Reno's night raid to "rescue" young Elian Gonzalez had been forgotten? Among the crowd of protesters seen on television, there was the "fisherman" (who wasn't a fisherman at all) who had "saved" Elian from the waters of the Atlantic. He said he had come to pay homage to George W. Bush!
Once Miami-Dade stopped counting, in any case, the Democrats became obsessed with making the count go forward. First in the Tallahassee Circuit Court of N. Sanders Sauls, where, after long days of evidence, the case was dismissed, then in the Florida Supreme Court, which suddenly and unaccountably turned the tables and by a vote of 4 to 3 ordered the recount of undervotes to continue, this time in the entire state, awarding the disputed partial votes in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade to Gore. So jublilant were the Democrats that they completely ignored the court's reversal of its own earlier rules and deadlines. Not surprisingly the Supreme Court, having already given a covert warning to the Florida Supreme Court and vacating its earlier ruling, struck.
In the interval between the Florida Supreme Court's decision of Dec. 8 calling for the statewide recount of all undervotes and the Supreme Court's stay of that recount on Dec. 9, TV stations revealed some fascinating figures that were then quickly squelched in response to court orders that accompanied the Supreme Court stay. On the afternoon of the 9th, MSNBC and Fox got hold of some significant numbers and announced that with 40% of the precincts in Miami-Dade recounted, the results were as follows: 92 for Bush, 46 for Gore, 173 "disputed," and 2500 No Votes. Did the Democrats really want that county to keep on recounting? If so, what would have happened to the 160 Miami-Dade votes Gore had been "awarded" by the Florida Supreme Court just the day before?
On Dec. 12, when the Supreme Court ruled with a narrow 5-4 margin to stop the recount, the response from all bien-pensant liberals was immediate and predictable. The court was hopelessly politicized (but Justices Breyer and Ginsburg were not politicized?), hopelessly ideological. The five Justices in question (or even the seven who found Constitutional problems in the Florida decision) overstepped their bounds. The Equal Protection Law they cited didn't apply. And in the UK, where the Left still seems to think the U.S. is somehow its colony, the Guardian was calling the Supreme Court decision "infamous" and "poisonous." In a leader (14 Dec.), Hugo Young declared: "The election has been a calamity without precedent. Its result is unacceptable, will not be accepted by large numbers of Americans. What they see before them is the brute fact of several thousand uncounted votes that would have made a difference" (my italics).
And there's the rub. For there is and never could be such a brute fact, and perhaps the Supreme Court, however clumsy and legally questionable its ruling, understood this better than did the Guardian. Each recounting of a particular set of votes would produce different results. Each set of votes counted for Gore would be followed by another reported "injustice" favoring Bush, whether those missing absentee ballots from "our boys overseas who are risking their lives for us," or lawsuits from Republican voters in the Panhandle, who are on Central Time (as I was in Baton Rouge on that fateful night), who were deceived by the media and claim they therefore failed to vote at all. What "remedy" could one offer them?
Most important, the Guardian has no way of knowing what the "difference" actually would have been. They merely assume that as in Broward, so in Miami-Dade. "Thou shalt count, for only then shalt thou know the Truth," has become a kind of 11th Commandment. But as Postmodernists, we should undestand that once a process-in this case the actual election, together with the immediate machine recount-- has been initiated and moved toward completion, its results cannot be undone. The knot cannot be untied; origins cannot be recovered. There is no prime cause to which we can safely and happily return. Did more people intend to vote for Gore than for Bush? Judging by the exit polls (but these too are not foolproof) and other voter studies, yes they did. But did more people actually vote for Gore? We'll never know. The polls, after all, always have a three- point margin of error-- a margin appreciably greater than the margin between the votes for the two candidates.
Now that it's all over, identity politics is playing the blame game. It's the fault of outmoded voting machines that eat up chads, and these machines are more common in low-income neighborhoods. But if this is the case, you might as well recount the whole country; in affluent Pacific Palisades where I live, for that matter, we have the very same outdated machines and punch ballots. Well, then, it's the fault of racial prejudice that turned blacks away from the polls or harrassed them; never mind that 16% of the Florida vote came from black voters, who constitute only 13% of the Florida population. It's the fault of the butterfly ballot that "punished" Jewish Holocaust survivors whom it "confused." As myself a refugee from Nazi Austria, I find this last especially obnoxious and insulting. Those little old ladies from Palm Beach, after all, are whizzes at operating ATM machines, using their Mileage Plus accounts, and calculating bridge scores. To give victim status to the Florida Jews and blacks who ostensibly didn't get their votes counted is, in the last analysis, nothing but a form of racial profiling.
In all this, there has been almost no mention of one nagging little detail: Ralph Nader won 97,000 votes in Florida. Al Gore needed only 930--less than 1% --of those votes, to win. No recount in the world can change this basic fact, and those who "just want to let every vote count" had better start analyzing how and why this phenomenon occurred. For the mantra, "Let every vote be counted," we might substitute the admonition "Don't recount. Rethink." Meanwhile, like the petty legal actions that drag on in Chancery Court in Dickens's Bleak House, the recount goes on, now paid for and organized by newspapers and citizens' groups. Both at home and abroad, there are urgent matters that demand our attention, but in that strange, surreal, hyper-microcosm of the U.S. called Florida, with its racial and ethnic divisions (even its time zones are divided), the count goes on.
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