Jewish Journal


September 22, 2007

A nihilist for governor


Note: This post was prompted by that story about Simi Valley billing a church for policing a protest against the congregation

When I interned at the Ventura County Star, I sat across from one Zeke Barlow. (Yes, in large part he can be blamed for what I have become.) Zeke wrote great stuff before I met him and has had even better since. But one of my favorite Zeke’s was “A Candidate for Governor With a Sense of Humor? Believe it.”

Unfortunately, the Star’s archives leave much to be desired, and I can’t even find a cache for this story online, so I’m going to paste the entire June 29, 2006, piece below. Happy weekend reading.

Elisha Shapiro is a candidate for governor you just can’t believe in. Why should you? He doesn’t. He doesn’t believe in anything. He’s a nihilist.

In a chaotic world, Shapiro thinks believing in anything - God, religion, Democrats, clubs, love, any notion of right or wrong - does more harm than good. So he’s not about to ask people to start believing in something, much less him.

But he thinks - not believes - that as the National Nihilist Party write-in candidate, he could make a better California governor than those other two guys.

“I’m not trying to make people better off, and I’m not trying to proselytize,” Shapiro said after a Tuesday campaign stop in Ventura. “I don’t think it’s going to make a bit of difference if people think like me or not.”

Shapiro, 52, just wants people to know there is another choice, that it’s OK to think differently, to not buy what the media are selling, and that everything in this world is always changing.

He also wants California to secede from the United States. No point in those folks in the middle of the country dictating what we here on the left coast need to do about abortion, gay marriage or how our taxes are spent, he said.

On Tuesday, when Shapiro handed out his campaign material to potential voters as he gnawed on a toothpick that poked out from two days of gray stubble, he offered his constituents a caveat: “It’s a little unusual.”

His platform includes, but is not limited to: legalized marijuana so as to provide the world a quality product; friendly relations with Cuba and Venezuela to ensure good cigars and quality vacation destinations; marriage for gays only and no public kissing between straight couples; and support for scientists who actually discover things.

But while his stance may seem unusual, Shapiro himself seems somewhat normal.

Growing up in Southern California, the man named after a Biblical character always felt a bit different from other children. He was the artsy kid who didn’t fit into school cliques, much less his parents’ Jewish temple.

“I always felt like an outsider,” he said. “I’m not much of a joiner.”

Every time he explored one group or theory, he found that where an ideal might be right in one situation, it would be wrong in another. The only absolute was change.

After attending an experimental college in Berkeley where he studied philosophy and political science, he had a eureka moment when he first heard of nihilism, which Webster’s dictionary defines as “the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge or truth.”

And so a nihilist performing artist was born.

He started putting on obscure performances like the Nihilist Olympics in downtown Los Angeles, where anyone could compete in the U-turn driving competition. He snapped moody black-and-white photos of his favorite things: guns, genitals and TV. And he started his political life when he ran for president in 1988. He lost.

Actually, he wasn’t even officially a candidate because he didn’t jump through the hurdles of paperwork in all 50 states.

When he ran for Los Angeles County Sheriff in 1994, he registered as an official write-in candidate. He lost again. But he did receive 241 votes, which, he said, was more than any other write-in candidate.

He didn’t get involved in Gray Davis’ recall election because “it was a zoo.” Then, the nihilist would have had to compete with a porn star, an aging childhood actor and a Hollywood macho man. This time around, the political arena was wide open. So Shapiro, who teaches remedial writing at Santa Monica College when he’s not making a spectacle, jumped in with his latest performance-art piece.

“Behind all the humor is a serious message,” he said.

As much as anything, he’s running against what he sees as a growing push by the right wing to control everything. While he doesn’t believe in anything, he especially doesn’t believe in President Bush.

His campaign through the state is a modest one, and he wants to keep it that way.

His goal is to spend less than $1,000 because any more than that and he has to file all sorts of cumbersome paperwork. One thousand is also the number of votes he’s gunning for - just enough to justify his coffeehouse talks in San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco.

And as much as he wants to get people to think a little, he wants them to laugh a lot. Nobody views his campaign as a bigger joke than the jokester himself.

His stumping in Ventura -which was really an opportunity for him and his live-in-girlfriend to browse Main Street’s thrift shops - took place in front of the offbeat punk store, Wild Planet, where bongs, Buddhas and bumper stickers adorned the front window.

“The people who frequent this place might have some sympathy to my solution,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro also ran into an old acquaintance who remembered him from junior high. Shapiro was a character then, and he hasn’t changed much, said Irv Hansen.

Shapiro continued, giving a piece of his mind to anyone who would take it.

“Have some literature,” he said. “I know it’s scary. You might like it.”

So next fall, when you’re thinking about all those presidential candidates who claim they stand for something, think about Elisha Shapiro. He’ll admit that he stands for nothing.

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