Dispatches | October 04, 2008

Here at The Missouri Review, we strive to publish captivating poems, stories, and essays. We hope our readers enjoy them, find them enlightening, provocative, and moving. Often when we publish something, we hope the reader finds it somehow relatable. 

As the 2008 presidential election draws near, though, I’ve found myself rethinking the term, “relatable.” It seems all the major players in the election are pouring it on thick to come across as relatable to the American public, and by that they all seem to mean little more than “I’m not an elitist.” And in the wake of this scramble for “relatability” (a term being used by pundits with increasing regularity despite its questionable status as a word), other words have taken on new meanings.

Case in point, I didn’t get the memo that sounding “professorial” is a bad thing. Some people, myself included, still admire professors, and perhaps even hope to someday become professors. I like to think the professorial tone is relatable to me. It’s a pitch I’m swinging at, anyway.

And, evidently, missing. Evidence of this is found by taking a quick look at drafts of my old seminar papers, riddled with marginal comments like “too colloquial?” and “tone not professional!” Then there are the e-mails from students in my composition course, in which I am frequently addressed as “dude.” If I come across as relatable to those students, does that mean my tone isn’t professorial after all? Dude!

As the election draws nearer,  the candidates are still presenting versions of themselves to us in the hope that we’ll find them relatable. The question is, how much do we already know about ourselves? If we’ve decided to vote for someone because we see a reflection of ourselves, shouldn’t we at least be able to recognize that reflection?

So, in the spirit of the master essayist Montaigne, who strove always to know himself, I decided to finally figure out who I am before casting a vote this November. Therefore, like Montaigne, who chose himself for his subject, I chose for my subject “myself while playing the computer game Civilization IV.”

Civilization IV requires players to build and lead a nation. It’s like a Machiavellian flight simulator program.  I should point out that I always score abysmally at it. Friends of mine who score highly  report that succeeding at the game requires a lot of the same things required for succeeding at work, or maybe even at life — an awareness of a world beyond oneself, a focused effort toward constructing and maintaining relationships, and a willingness accept ideas developed and presented by others. But for the most part when I play, I forego those principles entirely in favor of a two-fold strategy which involves immediately squatting on a tract of land vast enough to support me for the entire game, then being the first to build the Great Wall. After that, all I really do is hang out by myself and quietly stockpile weapons.

This will be little of shock to my TMR coworkers, who probably wonder if I’m running a similar play in real life. That’s OK by me. Keeps them on their toes. 

In the game, I also have a policy of ignoring foreign diplomats. I like to stay out of other peoples’ business — meaning I’m utterly indifferent to their hardships, their triumphs, their treaties, and their nations in general, unless they happen to possess natural resources I need. However, in those rare instances, I always give the other nations an opportunity to voluntarily share the national resources with me before I roll up with tanks. Always.

As I mentioned, my scores are not good at this game, despite the countless weeks I’ve dedicated to it. I play using my instincts, and draw on all the political expertise I’ve garnered during my extensive liberal arts education. I make decisions that feel natural to me and probably reflect my personality. When the rankings screen appears at the end of the game, my name appears at the bottom of the list, near Emperor Nero and other assorted dregs of history.

What’s so strange is that the political issues I claim to support in real life differ substantially from the ones I invariably support when given the opportunity in the “simulator.” All my blabbing about checks and balances and the importance of responsible foreign policy seems a bit hollow now that I know I’m a closet tyrant — a home despot.

Maybe the lesson from this exercise is that placing too much emphasis on candidate’s relatability is kind of dangerous. As readers of literature, most of us can confess there’s something very relatable about the characters of Richard III or Dr. Faustus, but few of us would want the proverbial button under either of their fingers. Or under mine, for that matter.

As for me, I only hope I don’t end up giving my vote to a candidate primarily because I can relate to him — whether he’s professorial or not.