“The State of the Union is strong!” bellowed Bill Clinton in his Last Hurrah before the joint session of the US congress some eight years ago. It is customary at these photo-op-cum-dog-and-pony-show spectacles to engage in inflated rhetoric. Hence George Bush’s proud announcement that “we showed the world the power and resilience of American self-government.” Did we ever! Take that, world! Otherwise Bush has dutifully followed suit, trying to fit the bill that Reagan and then Clinton established as the norm: there were the usual heroic guests, like the Virginia Tech student who stemmed the bleeding of his own femoral artery during the shooting at the Blacksburg campus last Spring. There were the usual partisan rhetorical flourishes, a sort of pageantry where one half of the chamber applauds vociferously and the other sits on its hands. Of course, if any of them had any integrity, they wouldn’t show up at all.
But that’s not what the game is about. It is apparently about Americans trying to act civil with their partners in crime amidst the wreckage they have made of the world, basking in the smooth leather-and-dark-wood motif among the venerable symbols of Democracy in Action. That’s probably why when upstart Congressman Dennis Kucinich vowed to introduce over 50 Articles of Impeachment against the President today, of all days, senior members of his own party took him aside and explained that this just isn’t how things are done. It is a ludicrous spectacle, this desperate reach for decorum once we have drenched the world in napalm, white phosphorous, agent orange and depleted uranium. Makes putting lipstick on a pig seem an exercise in refinement.
I once had a history textbook in high school called The American Pageant. It makes me smile thinking how dead on the publishers were to have chosen such a title. The whole pageant is so starkly drawn, and at the same time so richly layered, that it strains one’s creative capacity to explain it. People look at it from different angles, from inside and out, trying to judge from the light it refracts just what is going on. It is garish, like a Moliere play, and complex, like a well-aged cheese — and just as ripe.
And as Bush slips onto the ash heap of history, the pageant remains. War crimes forgotten, Americans swarm to self-heal like that cool liquid metal suit in Terminator II, rushing headlong toward the next new thing that will make it all better. Europeans’ attempts to grasp it are no less fumbling than Americans’ own attempt to make sense of it, though their prism differs. Talking to each is like changing the lens on a microscope, or on that huge contraption the eye doctor uses to see which magnification is best: better…or worse? Better…or worse? As he cycles through a range of different lenses. It is fascinating how American politics looks to people from inside and out, and always interesting to toggle between the two.
In response to a recent article I wrote about Clinton and Obama and the lack of any meaningful debate, an Italian friend reacted with confusion: “Don’t they both represent the party’s policy? The way I am perceiving it from Italy, is that this is a huge show and as such it is perfectly normal that no actual debate is taking place between the candidates.” Bingo. A domestic observer responded by drawing the analogy with professional wrestling: it looks like a titanic struggle, but it’s all fake. The difference is that the WWF has finally admitted it and moved on.
Better . . . or worse? Many Americans desperately want to believe that their choice is a real one, and that the differences between the candidates are stark enough to care about. In a discussion with a college friend who hotly disputed my somewhat irreverent notion that Clinton and Obama were “twin cheeks on the same fat corporate ass,” I conceded that there may indeed be differences if one wanted to find them. It’s a matter of scale, I said, which is where I came up with the magnification analogy. Better . . . or worse?
The standard line is that, since Bush is a lame duck, his State of the Union, perhaps the least watched pageant in history outside the political elites and c-span junkies, is completely meaningless. But here again, the focus fades in and out depending on your magnification. An Endangered Species called Liberal Democrats (in the US sense, not in the European sense — this might be like Social Democrats or hard core Labourites) is still wrestling with the idea that if they just do x or y, then their fortunes will increase. The rains will come back, the valley will bloom, and they will thunder across the land in the herds they once commanded.
In a sort of Battered Spouse Syndrome, liberals in particular feel that the party that has beaten them into submission will somehow still love them if only this or that and things might turn around if only. That’s why it’s so important to zoom in, to change the lens as it were, and find the right magnification to see what it is they are looking for. The truth in theory is that, in this two-party duopoly, other candidates might vie to broach subjects beyond the accepted discussion, outside the field of vision of the microscope’s lens. Better . . . or worse? But in fact, anyone who pursues crazy ideas, like single payer health care, or cutting the war budget — if in fact anyone dares to do so — these candidates are culled quickly, like noxious weeds, so that the focus can remain in the field of vision.
And so the remaining candidates, and eventually the parties themselves, are imbued with qualities and differences they lack in a different magnification. So newness takes the place of substantive change. And there is some point to it, in a limited sort of way. Spring cleaning always makes the place feel a bit brighter, even if the sherrif is right around the corner with the eviction notice. And the greater assumption is that Americans, tired of the war and the wreckage of the last eight years, will opt for regime change. But here again, zooming out shows that Bush is not quite as lame a duck as one might think.
Obama may be preferable precisely because he is less known, a fresher face, so to speak. There is a wishful thinking, as if it’s all some Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (Marry the man today/and change his ways tomorrow) that electeds will somehow govern from a place other than the one they campaign from. This has arguably happened exactly twice in US history, with relevance to our current predicament: FDR & LBJ. Both were overcome by enormous crises that forced their hand, and LBJ had Kennedys killer(s) to thank besides. It’s nice for someone to line up with historical forces instead of just ripping off their agenda from real radicals, but they tend to operate irrespective of party or ideology. It was Eisenhower who gave the Little Rock Nine the ride to school, for christ’s sake, not to mention giving us Earl Warren. And Tricky Dick signed the biggest child welfare bill in history.
On some level, Americans are aware of how awful their government has been, and are anxious to use even their broken system to correct its course. Of course you can find differences if you want to. It’s really a matter of scale, like looking with the naked eye vs. a low-power microscope. Better…or worse..? Obama can’t and won’t change the equation, but Americans hope he will. Choosing conservative Senator Joe Lieberman as his mentor, not to mention raising funds for him to beat the more liberal Ned Lamont in his own district, his idiotic praise for Reagan, waffling on NAFTA, single payer health care and the war…not the best tea leaves to be reading from. And in a recent letter to the UN ambassador, he fully backed a continuation of American obstructionist efforts to blunt international condemnation of Israel’s Gaza blockade. He’s a bomber, a triangulator and an exceptionalist, just like Hillary — and everyone else, for that matter. The neocons’ and the neoliberals’ agenda dovetails on virtually every level with different labels (Full Spectrum Dominance instead of Progressive Internationalism). The edges will be smoothed out–no more “abstinence only” crap to hinder international aid, for example, but the framework will be intact–corporations writing their own laws, no real change in US aggression in the Middle East, etc.
And domestically, Clinton’s agenda will continue: more black men in jail, growing wealth disparity — on the course it was on well before Bush, absent a huge and unprecedented change. This will come not because Americans elect Obama (or be forestalled if they elect McCain, for that matter) but because the collapse will be so complete that it will necessitate unintended and unwanted change by the elites. Believe me, I’m not hoping for this collapse — we have a lot to lose, personally. But it is the only small comfort as the economy circles the drain: I can’t get a loan? Big fucking deal — neither can anyone else! Bush’s veiled concession to this panic, “at kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future,” shows how out-of-the-loop he is, like his father before him. True to form, Democrats joined forces with him to craft a stimulus package that ignores the people who will be most affected by the coming storm. And so we come full circle.
The one quality almost no candidate in US politics can shake is also one no foreigners seem to miss, and represents the sharpest distinction in focus between home and abroad. Virtually every candidate for office worships, in one way or another, at the shrine of American Exceptionalism. For those who propose change, the greatest country on earth can certainly show compassion, generosity, blah blah blah. For those who stay the course, well — enough said there: we own the world. Almost no one will slip the trance of Americans’ belief in their own greatness long enough simply to suggest that we might try to be good at the things we have done so poorly for so long: democracy itself, taking care of our people, being good neighbors, or any of the other metrics of a healthy society.
It is a psychological hold which, if not broken, simply cannot yield change. It is impossible to simultaneously believe in ones own greatness while zooming in on ones own flaws, or zooming out to see how those flaws affect the rest of the world. In an earlier piece, I suggested that there is nothing wrong with hope…but false hope is a war crime. As the lights go black on this State of the Union, I still cling to hope that change will come — I believe that — just not in the form we’re expecting. Stay tuned.