Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 308): "YOU HAVEN'T DONE NOTHIN'" (1974) Stevie Wonder

It’s Election Day in America. A midterm election, which generally doesn’t generate much interest in the general populace. Here in CT, the various political organizations are trying to shame voters by sending them “report cards” on their voting record in the state. It’s rather obnoxious and, if one were swayed by such things, such mailings would make me more likely to stay at home. I don’t respond well to Big Brother or Sister telling me what’s what.

Today’s song by Stevie Wonder seems appropriate for the day, since the cry that usually gets people into the polls is some form of “you haven’t done nothing.” Which means a vote is often a vote against whoever’s been in office, doing nothing. The phrase also can apply, though, to deadbeat non-voters who, in complaining about our politicians and our political system, can be met with the riposte “you haven’t done nothing”—if you can’t even be bothered to help vote someone out or in.

Here in CT the big focus is on the gubernatorial race—“perhaps the closest in the country”—between Dan Malloy, the Democrat in office (and the first Democrat in that office since 1986), and Tom Foley, who Malloy beat four years ago by just 0.5 percent. Yeah, it’s a close one.

I think those who will try to vote Malloy out will use some variation of today’s song’s title as their rallying cry.

When Wonder released the song, on LP in July of 1974 and as a single that topped the pop and R&B charts in August, President Richard Nixon was in the midst of resigning from office rather than being ousted by any margin of votes. In fact, Wonder released the song the day before Nixon announced he would resign. Great timing! The cry about doing nothing didn’t seem all that applicable, though. Nixon had ended the war in Vietnam, and he’d signed some things into law—like the Federal Election Campaign Act which protected elections from the kind of “corporations are people too” logic and no limits to campaign finance that are now rampant. We were in a very Republican country then, and it was certainly fashionable, to anyone vaguely to say nothing of virulently left, to blame the “do nothing for the underclass” outlook of the sitting pretty Repubs. Nothing much has changed in that regard. It’s simply worse, because the end of the Republican mandate—which I guess can be seen by Malloy getting elected at all—has left the GOP very, very hamstrung, highstrung and extreme in their efforts to take back the country. Eight years of W. wasn’t damage enough. Well, damage to regular folks. It was quite a feast for those who got used to levels of abuse of the system that ol’ Tricky Dicky could only fantasize about.

Anyway, Wonder’s Fulfillingness’s First Finale LP, containing today’s song, was released in a midterm year too. It just happened to be, as fate would have it, the year of the end of Nixon’s administration. The outcome of today’s races won’t oust Obama but it could leave him even more shackled to the will of party politics than his second term has been already. Washington has shown itself unworkable with a degree of vigor that is remarkable. Remarkable even if you remember the days of Nixon—a president undergoing a legitimate investigation of his administration’s practices and facing impeachment proceedings. Even then, dysfunction didn’t seem to be as rife, or as rank.

What Wonder’s song gets at, wonderfully, is the bitter “we’ve had it with this shit” feel of the times: We’re sick and tired of hearing your song / Tellin’ how you’re gonna change right from wrong / ’Cause if you really want to hear our views / You haven’t done nothin’

Two things about that: sometimes a politician should follow the Hippocratic (rather than Hypocritic) Oath: “first, do no harm.” I’d rather an elected official do nothing than do wrong and harmful things, or things that only benefit a favored few. I’d rather he or she not undertake to “fix” things with rather questionable means, or sign away things that can’t be gotten back. So I don’t know that the cry of this song is what gets me into the voting booth. It’s more an effort to hold back the harmful rather than reward vision and leadership. I’m not big on believing in vision and leadership, but then I was around when “vision and leadership” got its head blown off in Dallas, Texas. And when vision and leadership has mostly had to court bedfellows you’d rather see tarred and feathered, well, it leaves a bad taste. So I’m more about voting as trying—albeit lamely—to keep a finger in the dyke, or is that shut the barn after the horse is gone?

Anyway, Wonder also—with the help of the Jackson Five (yes, they were still extant then)—gets a nice little groove going with that “doo, doo, wop.” This is the Seventies, after all, and doing nothing is kinda the order of the day. “Much concerned but not involved / With decisions that are made by you.” That really sums it up well. To be political then was not to put much faith in the electoral process. I mean, Nixon—NIXON—had a huge landslide victory in 1972. The Democratic party was a shambles—talk about those who “haven’t done nothing,” other than lose their grip on the reins of the war they started and antagonize the party’s entire Southern white electorate with civil rights policies—and so “politics by other means” was all the rage. But of course that’s just a recipe for letting power-mad bureaucrats run rampant. Or sleaziod bankers and investors. Or a revisionist Supreme Court.

Well, so it goes. As Woody Allen used to say, “Yes, I believe in democracy—and I also think the American system can work too.” It does, after a fashion. Or did. These days, it seems, the most rabid reactionaries among us are the ones who are most willing to go into politics. I was amused (to counter Stevie’s “we’re amazed but not amused / By all the things you say you’ll do”—though that line should land at Tom Foley’s door, I think) to read a quotation from, of all people, Barry Goldwater who said, when he backed Ford against Reagan in 1976, that the people who want Reagan to oust the sitting president are the people who voted for Goldwater in 1964, and “they are some of the most vicious people I have ever known.”

We would not care to wake up to the nightmare / That’s becoming real life / But when mislead who knows a person’s mind / Can turn as cold as ice.

Wonder sings all this in that hepped-up voice he uses that really gets your hackles up and makes you pay attention. The song has a sound—with the clavinet and the horns—that reminds of Superstition, another of my favorites from Wonder. It is a pissed-off song, Seventies style. As, you know, superstition and electoral politics aren't such poles (or polls?) apart. “Doo, doo, wop, stand up be counted, say doo, doo, wop.” Yeah, let's make a difference, America! But can we ever say that any electorate in the history of U.S. politics would jump on this bandwagon:

We want the truth and nothing else.         

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