You're living in a world of make-believe, with flowers and bells and leprechauns and magic frogs with funny little hats. -- Homer Simpson, Ph.D., M.D., Psy.D., D.O., D.S.W., Ed.D., D.C.M., D.Min., J.D., D.C.H., from his seminal work, Meditations on the Transmigrational Nature of Perambulating Observances (sometimes referred to more informally as, Don't Bullshit a Bullshitter.)
And pat as you please, this morning Britons (and assorted exiles and expats) picked up their Guardians to find this splashed under banner headlines on the front page:
Today a magic spell will be performed. A man who 12 weeks ago was a mere political candidate will be transformed with the incantation of a few words, before a vast crowd and a television audience in the hundreds of millions if not billions, into the head of state, even the embodiment, of the most powerful nation on earth.
This was written by an honest-to-god adult person, the ever-savvy, hardnosed international journalist Jonathan Freedman. Would it be a stretch to say that it is precisely this kind of thinking -- the awed and tingly verklemptitude toward those who have clawed and gnawed their way into the bowels of power -- that has led us into so many murderous disasters and criminal actions down through the many, many years?
What would happen if we simply treated all of these greasy pole climbers as ordinary human beings -- "poor, bare, forked animals" like the rest of us -- instead of turning them into fantasy figures imbued with embodiment and magic and goodness? The only extraordinary thing about them -- their craving for dominion over others -- is the very thing that should most repulse us, and make us wary, not draw us to them with awe, loyalty and affection. In all else, they share our common imperfections. Why then not judge them by what they actually do -- not by what they embody, not by how wiggly it makes us feel to surrender our minds and wills and judgments to a fantasy -- and hold them accountable for their actions in the real world?
Or to put it more in the academic language of Professors Simpson and Silber: since we're all bullshitters, why do we buy their bullshit?
That said, I am not unmindful of the symbolic significance of Obama's ascension, especially for African-Americans. (Of course, there is another kind of symbolism at work here: the fact that a black man was finally allowed to be president only after the country has essentially been burned down, looted and left in ruins.) On this topic, I have little to add to what I said when he won the Democratic nomination:
The symbolic significance of Obama Barack's nomination victory is not insubstantial. In a land where, not so long ago, having the slightest drop of "Negro blood" in your genetic inheritance was enough to bar you -- legally and formally -- from many jobs, educational opportunities, places of residence, medical care, full participation in society, etc. (and where these obstacles still persist, in practice if not in law, for many people), it is striking to see a man whose father was not only black but also a "full-blooded African" (cue the psychosexual "Mandingo" anxieties of generations of trembly white folk) on the doorstep of the White House. At the very least -- until the novelty wears off (and novelty wears off very, very quickly in America)-- if Obama wins the presidency, there will be some aesthetic relief in seeing a different kind of face on the tee-vee mouthing various pieties, refusing to take any options off the table, etc., in place of the long procession of pasty white males of Northern European descent.
As for the substantial significance of Obama's nomination win, there is none. The only thing that really matters is what the human being named Barack Obama will do with power (if he gets it), and not his skin color. Or to put it another way: What difference did Colin Powell's status as a non-white person in the highest cabinet office make when the question of aggressive war was on the line? None. He was later replaced not only by another non-white person, but by a non-white female, Condi Rice. What difference did Rice's ethnicity and gender make to her collusion with the Bush faction's brutal policies of aggressive war, torture, rendition, state terror, etc.? None.
The salient point of this truly degrading campaign has always been: what will the winner do in office?
Now we will find out -- although by his appoinments and his pronouncements, Obama has already given us a pretty good idea of what he will do: more of the same, with minor mitigations around the edges, and better PR. For example, what was one of his last acts before assuming the presidency? Heaping effusive praise on one of the primary enablers of the massive war crime in Iraq, which has led to the slaughter of more than one million innocent people, the dispossession of four million people, and a lifetime of anguish, suffering and sorrow for many millions more. Here's what he said about Colin Powell, at a gala dinner to honor the old war criminal:
“It’s easy to slip into superlatives when you talk about Colin Powell,” Mr. Obama said, going on to speak of Mr. Powell’s “quiet, remarkably consistent loyalty to a set of principles: truth, loyalty and determination.”
This, for a man who knowingly and deliberately peddled warmongering lies before the entire world in "proving" the WMD case against Iraq at the UN. His "principles," his "loyalty to truth." If Obama begins his presidency with this kind of egregious bullshit, honoring an accomplice to mass murder (who, incidentally, began his long career as a fixer by trying to help cover up the mass murder at My Lai), then God only knows what fresh hell awaits in the years to come.
"But c'mon, give the guy a chance! He's just getting started!"
That is certainly a common refrain. And as it happens, we've also addressed that point here as well, in a follow-up to the nomination piece noted above. I'd like to quote a good bit of that follow-up, because I think it bears repeating on this auspicious occasion. From "Like Trees Walking": Obama and the Vision Thing [see original for links]:
Last week, I wrote a piece on Barack Obama's victory in the race for the Democratic nomination: "Degrees of Significance." This has elicited a comment from a long-time reader whose views I respect; I'd like to respond at some length, because I think he brings up an important issue. ...Here is the comment:
Chris...if you write off Obama before he's even achieved the presidency, you might as well pack it in. Because then it's all just pissing in the wind, isn't it? There's no hope of change, there's no hope of America becoming better, there's no hope of anything changing and we're all on the slippery slope to extinction. After struggling in the mire of corruption for so long you've lost (understandably) perspective. Take a short break, go somewhere nice and quiet, don't read newspapers, the internet or watch TV. Then have another look.
I'm not "writing Obama off" -- whatever that means. I'm just looking at what he is actually saying, his actual positions, and what he has actually done -- and not done -- in the U.S. Senate. In the previous post, I noted a long list of actions -- both substantive and symbolic -- that Obama could have already taken from his position of national power, then I concluded: "But he did not do so; he is not doing so now; and there is no reason to believe that he will do so in the future, despite the eloquent lip service he occasionally pays to one or two of these points."
Of course, I can't predict the future. Anything is possible, and perhaps Obama will astound us all with a new American revolution that will restore the Republic and dismantle the vast military empire America has built over many decades. Perhaps he will declare an end to the "War on Terror" -- the use of massive, nation-breaking military force, state terror, torture, rendition, secret prisons, concentration camps, and Constitution-stripping tyranny -- to deal with isolated groups of extremists that pose no existential threat to the United States. Perhaps he will establish a "Truth Commission" to investigate and prosecute the many high crimes of the Bush Administration. Perhaps he will change his position on Iraq, and call for a genuine withdrawal of all American forces there. Perhaps he will change his bellicose position on Iran, which he enunciated so forcefully to AIPAC recently. Perhaps he will forthrightly condemn the American-backed "regime change" invasion of Somalia, which has created the worst humanitarian disaster in the world (outside of Asia's recent natural disasters). Perhaps instead of stoking fears about the non-existent "Social Security crisis" -- and attending to the many Wall Street bankers and elitist lobbyists on his team -- he will call for the repeal of the draconian Bankruptcy Bill, he will shift billions of dollars from the Pentagon to the rebuilding of New Orleans and the restoration of the thousands upon thousands of refugees to their homes. Perhaps he will do all these things, and more -- even though he has not given the slightest indication whatsoever that this is what he would do in office.
Rather, in many cases, the opposite is true. He says he will do "everything, and I mean everything" to stop Iran from getting a single nuclear bomb like the thousands in the American arsenal and the hundreds in Israel's arsenal. He will take "no options" off the table in this feverish quest, including, one can only assume, the Hillary-like "obliteration" of Iran and its 70 million people. He has pledged to enlarge the American military machine, already gorged to monstrous, unmanageable size by blood and corruption. This in turn will guarantee the continued militarization of the American economy and our foreign policy, geared toward the continual fomenting of "war and rumors of war" to justify the all-devouring machine. He pledges to continue the "War on Terror," but to do it "better, smarter," and perhaps even expanding it into Pakistan. He pledges to leave behind an unspecified number of American troops in Iraq "and the region" -- forces that will continue to launch attacks in that broken land, sowing more hatred, more blowback for America.
These are simply facts, drawn from Obama's own speeches and position papers. What sort of "perspective" should we take toward these facts? Should we squint real hard and pretend they're not there?
....The commenter also gives voice to a sentiment that seems to be widely held out there: namely, that if we harsh the buzz about Obama, then "there's no hope of change, there's no hope of America becoming better, there's no hope of anything changing and we're all on the slippery slope to extinction."
I confess that I don't quite understand this. There is always hope of America becoming better, there is always hope for positive change. But that hope does not reside -- and has never resided -- in a single politician, or party, or faction. It resides in every individual citizen: in what they think and believe, in what they will accept and countenance, in what they will not stand for, in what they will work for. Hope resides in the amount of knowledge and truth and insight that we can all produce and disseminate and act upon. And hope depends on our ability -- and our willingness -- to confront reality as it is, to deal with our leaders and would-be leaders as they are, not as we wish them to be. For how can you change anything if you cannot see it clearly?
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This story was published on January 20, 2009.