As we all know by now, both the House and the Senate have passed a $106 billion bill to fund the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and, while they were at it, the IMF and Mexico’s war on drugs.
But since you already know that, let’s talk about what we don’t know, or at least what we claim we didn’t. For example, that Obama is pro-war. Because progressives everywhere have their hands over their mouth in shock. We talk of betrayal and defection. Joshua Frank summed up the progressive problem pithily: “These are Obama’s wars now.” The only real problem with this statement is that they have always been Obama’s wars: His opposition to the Iraq war, despite the flowers trailing from it and the flowers we wove onto those, was merely tactical; in his support for the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan he didn’t even bother with flowers — it was so much ‘bring it on.’ As for the broader picture, Obama’s so-called noble rhetoric is of the ‘kinder, gentler imperialism’ strain; nowhere does he fundamentally question the right of the United States to rule the world economy, practice abject self-interestedness, and maintain a global military presence. His “peace” rhetoric is tinkering rhetoric, oiled with calls for diplomacy and schlocky hope-hope-hurrah expressly employed to make us feel good about doing what we have always done.
And the Democratic Party fares even worse. As Lance Selfa reminds us in The Democrats: A Critical History, Democratic presidents and majorities provoked or presided over every war of the 21st century, dropped The Bomb, pushed us to the brink of nuclear holocaust, expanded the defense budget, reinvented intervention, and routinely updated hyper-capitalism to suit the times, all while receiving fast cash and faster demands from the architects of oligarchy. Even their great and ‘progressive’ offerings of the ‘30s and ‘60s were careful concessions to an increasingly militant opposition — confection concessions, candy to stop the revolution. (If you give a mouse a cookie, you’ll probably ask him for some milk. Oh, and he will probably vote for you anyway.) In other words, the Democrats are not just the Hypo-crats, as we in our bravest moments dare to call them. Their abdications are not accidents but necessities performed in the hallowed name of something both parties are happy to agree on: American empire. Their peace postures and bully-pulpit bravado are affectations in the elaborate act of decoy democracy, where The Enemy does its dirty deeds and Our Friends make sure it’s done dirt chic, in the way our consciences prefer it.
But you have heard all this before. And that is why I want to talk about something else — why I won’t bore you further with howling at the liberal moon but will, rather, treat the Democrats’ ‘shocking’ abdication as a metaphor for what is wrong with our political system. You see, I had to give you the same old intro in order to ask the right question: Why are we so surprised?
Because we all are, or pretend we are. Progressive denizens and policy wonks, people who get up at 5am to watch C-Span and pore over the latest bills, are going on television and trotting out the same oh-me-oh-my’s that they trotted out for the Wall Street bailouts, telecom immunity, ‘market-reform’ healthcare and the preservation of the state secrets doctrine. And if you have had the grave misfortune of owning a television in the last fifty years, you have also had the grave misfortune of hearing all this a thousand times per decade. It is as if progressives all got together in the 1950s with an unbelievably bad screenwriter and signed their lives over to movie rights, memorized the script: “Now remember, everybody. Anytime something goes terribly wrong and you are part of it, I will pan in on you. That’s where you wring your hands and say, cloyingly, ‘How could this happen? Here, in the United States of America!”
Of course, the script has been updated for modern viewers. You know the drill. If you are going to criticize Obama, remember to use the word disappointed. If you can, pair it with a comprehensive pronoun-phrase. As in: “All of us here in the progressive movement are shocked and terribly disappointed that Obama . . .” Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Be shocked. Almost personally wounded. Demonstrate a willful amnesia about United States political history, and, more importantly, all of last election season.
But wait! You are about to lose your movement (for this is what you call your rag-tag, internet-fundraising, grassroots-is-the-new-Tammany e-mail list)! Get people’s attention back with homage to the ‘party of the people’ and their great ‘contributions to social justice.’ Pick a Republican, any Republican, and ridicule their backwater view of the world. Forget to mention that they are voting against the war in bigger numbers than Democrats. Say the word neo-con and pause for people to shiver. Pause again for people to congratulate themselves on not being neo-cons (those scheming backwater hicks!).
Now lower the boom. We (the progressives) are not going to get what we want this year. We don’t have the ______. (You will need to improvise on this one; it used to be votes, but you can’t use that anymore. Just don’t say backbone.) Reassure people that they are still the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, what-have-you. And they are powerful. After all, they elected the first Black president, the peace president, the community organizer, the …! (Stop before you faint on national television.)
Regain your composure and give your darling listeners the Greatest Compliment of All. Tell them that they are realistic. Oh, but they are savvy! They know what is possible. Say the phrase “from the inside out” and talk about “pushing the Democratic party to the left.” Perform a mini-monologue on the virtue of incremental gains. Now you have most everybody drooling the same scripted drool. And for those pesky skeptics, a dash of manipulation. Remind them of the Dark Ages of Bush: how bad it was, what an utter departure it surely was from the benevolent policies of yester-empire, how fluke-ish and shockingly-sad-making it all was. Ask them if they want that to happen again. Stare into the camera. Well, do you? Do you?!? Good. Then don’t desert. Don’t leave your party now. And for heaven’s sake, don’t push too hard or you will ruin everything we have ever worked for!!
All that remains now is a brief comparison myth and a rallying cliché. The myth is up to you, but some popular ones include comparing the Obama Epoch to the civil rights era (say it worked and succeeded in whatever way suits your current purpose); FDR (who in the rosy glow of retrospect is a radical); Lincoln (who counsels Obama nightly about Total Altruism and Opposing Injustice as a Crime Against Humanity); or JFK (who’s too good-looking not to bring up!); all culminating in a gushing discussion on Michelle Obama’s wardrobe (which is just lovely and somehow represents a Great Stride Forward in some inexpressible way) and a shining statement about us being so glad to have a president who can speak in full sentences (apparently this is something to gush about). Do not mention Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Eugene Debs, the Wobblies, or Emma Goldman, except to express a vague disdain (the most powerful argument) that makes their supporters look naïve or monstrous. We can’t have The People knowing how history actually works.
You have probably gotten too sentimental, so now is the time to restore your credibility while galvanizing the troops. The promised cliché. Say: “Now we all know Obama isn’t perfect (pause for people to feel a warm rush of self-satisfaction at having realized this), but no one is!” Argue that politicians are not like people and shouldn’t have to be. They can be immoral, ruthless, absurd, cold-blooded, insecure. It is naïve to expect otherwise. It is the people’s job to be moral! And that is why — drum-roll please — “We have to hold Obama’s feet to the fire, to make sure he does the right thing.”
Deliver this metaphor like you are the first person to have ever thought of it. If it helps, put a silent ‘Hey!’ in front of it in your mind, as in ‘Hey! Wow! I just thought of this, guys. We should, like, not rest and stuff and like, hold Obama’s feet to the fire. He-ey! Yeah, that’s it!’ Say it like the stoned guy at the college party who wants everyone to know how profound it is to have, like, a hand. Whoa. Under no circumstances should you stray from the accepted metaphor. It is the Party’s darling, concocted in basement PR laboratories on Capitol Hill, tested on college idealists who are too young and dazzled to know better, rolled out officially at the national convention.
You are done! Done feeding history into the maw of media and myth! Smile frigidly as they thank you and pan out: “That was so-and-so so-and-so of MoveOn.org…”
That is the disturbing aspect of a cultural script. It is the poltergeist haunting a democracy that thinks it has mastered free speech. It asks: How did everyone, every free-to-think person, end up saying the exact same falsehoods? Which leads us back, of course, to the question that gets at the meaning of democracy failure: Why does everyone have such vested interests in acting surprised?
The short answer is this: we are invested in acting surprised because politics is not about truth, but prestige. If that seems a naïve criticism, I am only taking the Parties and high school civics class at their words, and their words have been employed in the colossal effort to establish that politics is a truth project, or at very least an ethics project, in which people get together to battle over what is true and what is right — a project in which somebody can prevail (because, we are promised, they were true or right). The Democrats particularly love to disseminate this notion of politics, especially if they can cast themselves in the underdog role of unveiling that truth and fighting for that right. The entire Bush era is supposed to be a testament to the Democrat’s unflagging love of truth and justice. They stopped at nothing, the story goes, to unveil the misdeeds of the dastardly neo-cons and to get America its reputation back.
Of course, those eight years were loaded with hand wringing and histrionic surprise (here, in America!). Nobody pointed out the obvious: that this surprise and indignation could only exist in an America that had slavishly created a myth of original innocence (America does not torture!) that it could return to, a history of ‘good wars’ fought for the ‘right reasons’ and Camelots interrupted by tragedy. And nobody took that reasoning further and found, at the bottom of it, a two-party system that depends for its very survival on manufacturing domestic polarities — good and bad, truth and falsehood, enemy and friend—so that one party could dutifully assume the former and the other the latter while getting the real business of empire done together.
The Bush years were not years of great oppositional truth seeking, least of all on the part of the Democrats. The Bush years represented the public briefly confronting the culmination of an otherwise unquestioned logic that was we were distracted from by gestures of outrage. The Democrats responded the way they were supposed to: with shock at the excesses of empire merely. They were rewarded for this shock with the Democrats’ ready-made self-remuneration: a feeling of singular intelligence, a deep sense of welling conscience that was better — and this was the important part — than the idiocy of Republicans and the ruthlessness of Republican politics. It did exactly what it was supposed to do. It assured both politicians and people that they were free from the impurities that tainted the Other Party. And, since that is the psychological reason the vast majority of people get involved in politics, it served a convenient purpose: it gave people a sense of prestige and respectability that made it infinitely easier for the Democrats to do terrible things without being criticized for them. Indeed, it had become almost impossible to criticize at all. By equating people’s sense of truth and right with a ‘better’ party, and then pairing that again with a sense of intelligence and prestige, the Democrats (and the grateful Republicans) made it so that people could not criticize American empire without impugning their intelligence and prestige. Bingo. In a subtle-simple sleight of hand, democracy became reputation and truth became allegiance.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the media, where liberal bloggers and late-night talk show host had made their fortunes and reputations as dogged detractors of the Bush regime. But when it came to the exact same regime under a new head, the bloggers and comedians cowered. The same organizations who used to send you emails about Evil Bush’s Evil Wars are now writing very different alerts: ‘Help Obama!’ they say. ‘Help Obama end the war in Iraq, push through the public healthcare option.’ No matter that Obama is committed to the war in Iraq and enthusiastically supports market healthcare ‘reform.’ It is as if, somehow, we weren’t looking at the same deaths, the same logic, the same poverty or the same injustice. Or, at least, it is increasingly evident that this was not the issue. If it were, we would be chanting the same chants and writing with the same acid pens. But for the vast majority of politicians and people, it is obvious that justice, so called, is neither the point nor the goal. The goal is myth and a sense of prestige. The goal is to curb the excesses that make us confront our deepest hypocrisies: that our sense of justice is demarcated by our desire for comfort, that we invented a ‘truth project’ to keep us safe from truth, that we mythologize the past to safeguard national solipsism, that political truth is a function of political loyalty and that prestige is more important than ethics.
We are invested in surprise because it allows us to continue believing that what we want is political truth, which we want, in turn, for the sake of political justice. The reality, however, is evidenced by the war funding bill: anti-war Democrats beating the war drum in the name of loyalty to ‘anti-war’ Obama.
So we have come full-circle: an ostensibly anti-war President (a lie) appeals to an ostensibly anti-war party (another lie) to pass a war bill that causes ostensibly anti-war activists to feign shock, which somehow increases the sentiment that the Republicans (who largely voted against the bill) are the sponsor of all political evil. This strangulated logic is our latest and prettiest consequence of believing in parties more than principles. But more than that, it is the consequence of rejecting in the name of realism what we trumpet rhetorically: that politics can be about truth.
I am writing to reject this realism, and refuse to call this rejection naive. I reject it knowing that this is not an issue of Democrats or Republicans — that any party will sacrifice truth for its own preservation. I reject it because believing that it is realistic to believe in amoral politicians and sociopathic self-interest on a public scale while rejecting amorality and sociopathy on an individual scale has bred more blood and disaster than any other philosophy I can think of. To protect this mad logic with the myth that we have prevailed — that justice has been won — makes it even more certain that wars will continue and Congresses will continue to fund them.
Conversely, if we believed that people were the same as politicians — that people were the politicians — if we believed that we could expect and demand that these politicians (us, or other versions of us) act like we would, and for the reasons we would, it would be very difficult to accept a party system where truth was reducible to a loyalty that was itself reducible to the belief that there is a difference between the political and the personal. I believe in this idea, not as something idealistic, but as the beginning of an abiding realism that could actually shake things up.
And if not? Okay, then. But let’s stop with the Theatre of the False Surprise.