What does nihilism mean to you? Is it the complete lack of belief in anything? And for that reason, is it a terrible evil that goes against human nature? Or is it something else entirely?
For Elisha Shapiro, it’s the answer to all of California’s problems. Shapiro, 52, is running as a write-in candidate for governor under the Nihilist Party. And contrary to popular knowledge, he does believe in at least one thing very strongly: secession. As in, secession from the union.
“I’d like California to be able to say, ‘Listen, we don’t like the way the rest of the country is going,’ ” he says. “It’s not going the same way we are. California is different. Maybe we don’t have to turn into a red state. I don’t want religious fanatics to tell us how to live our lives. So I express the desire not to participate.”
Um, is he serious?
Well, it’s hard to say. After all, the odds of any write-in candidate — let alone one who thinks California should form its own sovereign nation — winning a statewide election are somewhere between less-than-zero and soccer’s chances of becoming our national sport. Shapiro isn’t crazy enough to think he’s actually got a shot at the governor’s mansion. But listening to his arguments for secession, it does, in a strange way, make sense. After all, California is, for the sake of argument, the most progressive state in the country. Sure, we voted against gay marriage and for Proposition 187, and there are pockets of conservatism here and there, but for the most part, we’re as blue as you can get. Heck, we’re so liberal Republicans running for federal office don’t even bother campaigning out here. It’s not like any of them would actually miss us. So why not break off? We’d get to keep all our tax money in-state, and when we vote for stuff like, say, medical marijuana, it’d actually mean something.
Plus, if Shapiro got his way, Jon Stewart and Angela Davis would be our Supreme Court Justices. How cool would that be?
Alas, this all may be a pipe dream. But it’s not going to stop Shapiro from giving it a go. This isn’t the first time he has tried to pull off something like this, either. In 1994, he ran for Los Angeles County Sheriff. Six years earlier, he even took a stab at the White House. For Shapiro, politics are a form of performance art, and every election is an opportunity for him to create a new piece. It’s a chance to not only turn the game of government on its head, but to question the way every accepted notion within our democratic system operates.
“When people say they believe in something, they think there are things that are always true, that are universal and constant. Nothing is universal and constant — everything changes,” Shapiro explains. “A nihilist can think outside the normal way of thinking. Nobody came up with secession as a solution to California’s problems. Nihilism allows me to go there.”
Originally from Buffalo, NY, Shapiro first began identifying himself as a nihilist after he came to California for college. He went to the University of California, Berkeley, one year before transferring to the experimental University Without Walls program, which allowed its students to make up their own curriculum. He eventually received his master’s degree in writing from USC and earned teaching credentials from Cal State Los Angeles. Sometime after graduation, he began to research nihilism and came to the conclusion that it fit perfectly with things he had felt his entire life. “I thought about the definition and said, ‘Hey, that’s what I am!’ ” he remembers.
In 1984, Shapiro held his first nihilism-influenced public spectacle. When the Olympics came to Los Angeles that year, Shapiro decided to hold an alternative version. The Nihilist Olympics featured such hotly contested athletic events as the Johanna Went Projectile Vomiting Marathon, the Lazlo Toth Art Defacing Competition and the Decathlon of Housework.
The publicity surrounding that act of subversion led Shapiro into politics. He didn’t bother starting out with local government. He leapt straight into the 1988 presidential election, challenging George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis, promising — among many other things — to change the national bird to the Ford Thunderbird and to pass a constitutional amendment making sodomy mandatory in Georgia. Unfortunately, a technicality caused whatever votes he may have received to be disregarded.
A few years later, Shapiro “thought it’d be funny” to run for sheriff, because, he reasoned, “Nihilism is about disorder, and the sheriff is about order.” Needless to say, he never ended up with a badge.
Shapiro put his political career on hold for the next decade-plus, until forced out of retirement by the drastically changing tides in recent years. Secession is the main part of his platform, but it’s certainly not the only one. According to his campaign brochure, if elected governor, Shapiro would raise the speed limit to 180 miles per hour, “support scientists who actually experiment and find out stuff,” ensure that “oil company and church tax revenues will provide free college educations for all Californians,” “bring our soldiers back from Iraq so they can defend California from the hegemonic United States military” and make marriage legal “for gays only.” He also promises “abortions for everyone” and that there would be “no Christian Taliban in Washington telling us how bad we are.”
Obviously, you can almost hear Shapiro’s tongue hitting his cheek when you read through his pamphlet. Beneath all the satirical language, the general idea is worthy of some real attention.
“It’s certainly fun, but it’s fun with a point,” Shapiro says. “What I would really like is for people who feel disenfranchised by the way the government is moving to express themselves by voting for the secession thing. The more people articulate that, as funny as it is, it would send a message. Those backward-thinking people can only go so far before they break apart the country.”
So, how does “Governor Shapiro” sound? Hey, it could happen. How much stranger could it be than having a movie star bodybuilder running the state, anyway?