Barack and Power

December 17, 2008

Part 1: Throwing the Baby out with the Tea

Many of the articles for this week seek to find in what ways our own policies reflect or reject the legacy of Europe. In some ways we act as the younger brother who strives to prove that he is bigger, better, etc. American human rights have always displayed a bizarre sort of amnesia, a selective morality that lingers from the era of slavery. What we do, in our own homes is private, and the domestic labor and parts of the Third World (particularly Latin America) that we think we own or possess (America’s backyard) are immune to our overtures of peace, democracy and freedom. Halper’s book warns us that the major tool of the Bush administration; the “Big Idea,” is responsible for this amnesia. We should be skeptical of these claims, because they “create false realities (and)… lead to truncated thinking.” 

American exeptionalism is the founding principle of our country. Whatever we are, we are not Britain and we are not George III. “The plate at right, from 1776, depicts American liberty as Hebe, the goddess of youth, who treads on chains, a key and a scepter- symbolic objects of the old world.” Why don’t we have cool political art anymore? The class discussion about federalism vs. renegade states brought the image to my mind of the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake. The message of this snake, from the 1780’s, is that the 13 colonies must stick together in order to survive. Perhaps more enduring images could be marshaled during our campaign?

Part 2: A New Historic Race for a New and Inspired Generation filled with Transformative but not Radical Ideology

Barack Obama’s campaign positions him as the “movement for change.” “The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders,” Obama said. “It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it is not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future.” It is not clear however, whether Obama in fact stands for the past or for the future. His website is full of references to American history, from Patton to Pearl Harbor. His “Change” coalition, therefore, hopes to jog American memory about the beneficial and nostalgic moments of their past in order to imagine a similarly rosy future. 

My first question in researching Barack was to find out at what point he decided to become a politician. I knew from reading his autobiography at my Grandpa’s house over break that he had had a rough childhood, being abandoned by his father and struggling in school. Then he moved to New York for a sort of Zen-like inner cleansing and re-dedication to work. He then entered Harvard Law School where he met his wife Michelle Robinson. The autobiography had a weird phrase here, like so on and so forth, therefore it made sense for Barack, when it came time for him to choose a wife, would choose a high- powered black woman. This is a quote from a friend of his, who knew him at the time. For, after all, they are running for the post of the American President, a poster- family- something which Bush has done with aplomb, in scenes from the Crawford Ranch, his daughters attending designer shows and parties with David Lauren and the strangely silent and robotic Laura, the Chanel- wearing Stepford wife. In a bizarre sense, they are a microcosm of the American family. Lately, Mr. Bush has reflected on his drinking days. As a biracial man, Barack chose to become black in a way that only he could. His voice is always deeper than I expect, he can be sharply mean but is also vulnerable in an odd way. 

Barack has a BA from Columbia in political science and international relations. His thesis was on Soviet nuclear disarmament. It was in Chicago, then, that he decided that he could make a bigger impact of people’s lives as a politician than as a community organizer. At Harvard, he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, in a cut- throat competition. He later joined a historic black church in Chicago in order to be a more effective leader. His journey from sensitive young man to shrewd (or scripted) politician is very interesting. Why does campaigning cost so much money? Are all the ads, press conferences, speeches, holding babies, etc. really worth it in terms of voter loyalty or allegiance? In recent news, Barack Obama has denied taking special interest money but is spending it anyway. He is part of a network of black entrepreneurs, from his basketball playing days, all of whom now make sizable donations to his campaign. 

Previously, the reforms in the primary process that limited campaign spending and allowed each candidate to receive funds from the government. Is it still necessary to receive celebrity endorsements, and private donations? Or is it something like a glorified popularity contest, with groups weighing in with their opinions…. The air of scandal and propriety. Are further primary reforms necessary? 

Part 3: “Entirely Unmerited Authority.”

My major question in this campaign, however, is foreign policy. I carefully scrutinize every word that Hillary, Barack and (until lately) John Edwards make about the war on Iraq or the global economy. Since I like to read the New York Times, there was an article recently about the end of the US era as superpower to the world. “Those yearning faces beyond our shores” may not, in fact, be so yearning anymore. This, for me, is very exciting because I have always felt our position on this end of the world to be precarious as the increasing pace of globalization alters and links our allies and enemies together in ever differing ways. The same article emphasized the US’s need to develop a diplomatic corps capable of functioning in the new multi-polar world. 

The Menand article, however, hit a sensitive issue spot on. It is true, based on whatever I know of people’s political habits, that a large majority of voters never consider the nuanced issues involved in the selection of their president or other elected officials. Whether they are too busy, lazy, unintelligent or self- absorbed, most voters go to the polling place with ” opinions that are essentially meaningless… derived from no underlying set of principles.” This might explain the power of Bush’s “success.” If “49% of the population believes that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution,” then why can’t he and who is going to stop him? This is problematic because Barack Obama’s campaign promises a politics that “no longer settles for the lowest common denominator.” How are they going to do that? He also will “finish the fight on Al- Qaeda.” But how? I am annoyed that he supports Israel, but then again, so does everybody. If voters care about the issues over parties, but take only a minimum of time to research and consider those issues, does it really matter what a candidate stands for at all? A candidate’s ideology must be broadly palatable to the electorate yet different enough to distinguish him from the others.  “For among the means of power which now prevail is the power to manage and to manipulate the consent of men. That we do not know the limits of such power, and that we hope it does have limits, does not remove the fact that much power today is successfully employed without the sanction of the reason or the conscience of the obedient.” Mills does an excellent job of tracing the murkiness of real politics behind it’s smooth facade. Between what we desire and what we think we know lies an army of little clouds, each ready to rain on our parade or to shower us with silver. “Some men are indeed much freer than others.” This truth about the nature of power flies in the face of our American Dream. The presidential hopeful, therefore, is in the strange place of belonging to that elite while having to cultivate the background and the conscience of someone who is (has) not. Our democracy is “more a fairy tale than a useful approximation.” I would like to return to Mill’s suggestions for a true democratic society in crafting our imaginary candidate. 

Something that really annoys me about this country is everyone’s “meaningless opinion;” pundits expounding forth on issues like foreign policy, terrorism, free trade. They are encouraged by waves of books and tv specials that purport if you read it or watch it, you too can be an expert. Think tanks and public policy institutions and also even many university seminars fail to educate the American public. “Those who attended left with their prejudices intact. The event was less a seminar than a pep rally with croissants.” So then, my candidate’s views on education and the media will be very important as well. Perhaps I can explore this in my next paper. 

So my lingering question is why does politics, and human nature in general, have to swing back and forth between prejudices, between blundering and recovering, between the old generation and the new? Is there some way that we could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and not “become our mothers” or are we hooked to the cycle because it is our desire to find balance and that somehow in going back and forth we are advancing a little? I think I’ve asked this question before. To Be Continued… 

Majority Rules

December 17, 2008

This paper will continue explorations of the ways in which the American voting public is assumed and created by the narratives of power extended by those seeking office. This section begins with a memory. A few years ago, everyone was talking about a young senator from Illinois who delivered a scathing speech against the Iraq war. He had a strange name, where was he from? His father was African, his mother a housewife from Texas. He was a shining star, the future hope of the Democratic Party. He is an African- American from Hawaii. Barack is being created by the kind of power that he speaks against. He is a conservative’s liberal, a man’s man, a white’s black man, etc. Someone who can be trusted to win the hearts of the people while covering up how is he represented and at the same time he is an actor who represents his own ideology of change. 

Lately, there has been an article on the NYTimes that echoes something Patrick said but that I thought was not real. I am always on the lookout for subtle violence, inflections of speech, curt silences, rigid postures, that the idea of someone taking out a gun and shooting someone  outright seems unreal, like a cartoon. Berlant says this very well when she says; “if whites must be racialized in the new national order, racial identity must be turned into a national family value.” The ‘hushed worry’ is being whispered like parents protecting their child, Barack as America’s new golden child. By being who he is, by naively stepping into the ring, by bravely, brashly declaring himself the poster-child of change, he has also gained a new cadre of protectors. They will lead him to victory while exchanging what value he means to himself with the values that will keep America balanced in its inequality. He is used to this, after all, he did go to Harvard. 

Chelsea Clinton is now being primed for her political career. It still seems wrong somehow, that in our quest for change, our search for healing from the vacancies of the Bush administration, that we are turning towards youth and inexperience. There should be some way to learn from our elders, in order to avoid making some of the same stupid mistakes. Despite Hilary’s flaws, she knows and has been shaped by some of the forces against which Barack will have to test his naivete. Could he learn from her, appoint her as an advisor? Why all this struggle to be the figure-head? There are many people in government who are wise and not so wise. Between the worldviews of each person involved is the shifting center of power. The outward forms and policies can hold it up but what is government really but our desire for justice created in a business-like form? The question is if that form always has to corrupt that desire, or if we might reach a new understanding of form? What would a truly representative body politic look like? They could represent themselves without interest groups if and only if people were willing to have plural identities that are not so rigidly defined. How would this happen? 

Hillary gets angry about Barack’s tactics of sending mass mailings. “This is not the ‘New Politics’ that he uses in his speeches… Makes him appear to have a plan when he does not.” She seems so angry. “Undermining core Democratic principles… (of universal healthcare) realizing Harry Truman’s dream.” “Tactics that are right out of Karl Rove’s playbook… gives aid and comfort to the special interests… Shame on you Barack Obama.”  During the Texas debate, Obama frequantly uses words like “defining moment,” and “historic change.” He uses shock tactics and manipulative lyrics to sway the dreams of the American people. Hillary is a bold, sometimes emotional and pragmatic speaker. But at least she is less manipulative than Barack. I am not cool with him anymore. What separates his rhetoric from that of GW Bush? “Washington has become a place where ideas go to die… taking back our government.” He speaks but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In the most recent Ohio debate, Barack again comes off like a ponderous and long- winded jerk. So smug, I don’t trust him at all. I’m glad that Hillary is finally getting to speak for herself, she seems to be rising to the level of his rhetoric. 

Even when lobbed a huge smiley ball by the interviewer in the Ohio debate- “how do you feel about going up against McCain” because you obviously will… Barack doesn’t even pick up on it. I suppose this could be to his credit, but he keeps the debate on the differences between himself and Hillary. “There is nothing rational in politics.” Race is “still always on the table.” “I get impatient with politics as a game, as a sport. If you want to change it, you have to not become a part of it.” Barack is “not going to play those games.” Michelle Obama is a fascinating political person. In interviews, she barely conceals her hostility to all forms of political manoevering. “Balancing act of women and family.” Oh my god, all the (middle-class) mothers “they don’t get to see their ballet recitals…” The most interesting part of this interview was when O’Brien asked Michelle whether or not she resented giving up her career to support her husband. Michelle sort of wavered before saying uncomfortably, “I don’t really have time to think about that, I’m kinda busy.” Great stuff. “But her pride visibly chafes at being asked to subsume her personality, to make herself seem duller and less independent than she is… like someone who has spent her entire life gainging purchase now being asked to sell something and finding it slightly beneath her.” Maybe she should run for president. That would be interesting. 

Sexism towards Hillary… “Her cackle, her cleavage.” Unflattering photographs, facial wrinkles, criticisms of her outfits or hairstyles. “Instead of experience, we want hope.” This eagerness to find fault with her betrays the political machine wich hopes to replace George Bush with another broadly popular, easy-going and lyrical speaker. It is not so much sexism as an attempt to destroy her strong- leader image. Because a woman has a body and men don’t in common parlance, she is vulnerable to these attacks only so much as voters don’t recognize them for the shallow attacks that they are. Hillary thinks she can fight the Republicans, “It will happen.” The Realistic vs. Romantic worldviews article paints a vote for Hillary as one for “hard- eyed realism.”

  On the other hand, Obama supporters are mostly idealists, says this article. “What you want is to fall in love.” Barack is going to “root out terrorists in Pakistan and get serious about Musharraf.” He has only ideals whereas Hilary has real, practical ideas. “Hillary believes, to the core of her political being, that what changes peoples lives are government programs… Her command of detail about these is prodigous.” Not to say that she is perfect, or a great candidate even. But I appreciate her level-headed mellowness as contrasted to Barack. I just wish that the choices were more complicated, that a vote didn’t have to so neatly sum up your identity like that… 

I hope McCain doesn’t win. That would be awful but I still feel distant, a bit of anomie. Why? Because I want to run away to another country? To forget my roots and the pain of my past? I have researched the American political system more in these past months than ever before in my life, I feel like an informed voter but still when it comes down to checking the ballot, I find that I don’t care. To me, America and I are like estranged family members. The shock of seeing your home-land become the aggressor and bomb Iraq nightly in a fuzzy green picture on the evening news… is still with me and will not leave for awhile, the endless list of the dead, the flags waving, the little boy in the hallway saying “fuck Saddam, let’s nuke ‘em.” When one breaches that trust, that child-like faith in the goodness of the people around onesself, all bets are off. So, here perhaps lies the clue to my link with Arabic and with the Middle East. Having become estranged from my own country, I am packing my backpack to join the other side, the victims. Who says this makes sense, or that I could change course now, even if I wanted to? I am still blinded my anger and deep hurt. Go to hell, America, you have been exiling ‘brown’ people there for centuries. I don’t want to join your civil service, nor do I want to teach you Arabic. I am leaving and maybe someday, you will realize what you have lost, one dot, one voter, one little girl.