the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

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I posted earlier in the week about my pessimism, melancholy anyone?, surrounding the election of Obama.  Simon Critchley has an excellent piece over at Adbusters which draws on similar arguments i tried to make but then foes further.  Critchley is a better thinker and writer than I am so I strongly suggesting more time there than here.

Besides the better explanation he actually offers an ethic to conitue on, whereas at the time of writing I was only able to offer a negative criticism and not a way out of the impasse.  Cricthley draws on Badiou to try and make politics distant.  Instead of relishing in the political victory we should strive for the same progressive victories in every facet of our lives but without the penetration of the state.

I will leave you with a section from the Critchley piece which best sums up my melancholy, better than I could defend it to be good-liberal friends:

The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simply exhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to Obama’s speech on the night of his victory: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term’. On this view, the rhetoric of change (‘Together we can change the country and change the world’) was simply what it took to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative government is elected.

This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process. Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.

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To-day’s topic seems obvious: the loss of my phone.  Kind of.  I did lose it at the DFL party the other night in downtown St. Paul.  Appropriate since I also lost whatever sense of connection I had to Democrats.  For as long as I can remember I qualified myself as a voting Democrat, even though there were the libertarian-voting-Democrat years.  While I still am a voting Democrat, I have swung to the opposite direction: radical-voting-Democrat.

Neither will bring any real change

Neither will bring any real change

Until a few days ago I was not going to vote at all until a conversation with Ursa.  While Obama is too conservative for my tastes (employing the partial birth vocabulary, uncontested respect for property, lack of universal health care, etc…) I was persuaded that this election really matters.  So, despite my desire for a more liberal candidate – echoes of my grandmother: “How do you know he is not a socialist?” echoes of my reply: “Because I am a socialist and he is not me.” – he is a step in the right direction.  I hate to sound like the clichéd American choosing the lesser of two evils but it really was a choice between two evils.

Perusing the newspapers to-day there are all sorts of references to Obama’s election as a blow to racial barriers.  This is crap.  For a couple of reasons.

First, a proof provided by my grandmother.  She was torn about how to vote because she believes that neither a black person nor a woman have any business being in the White House.  Let us assume she votes for the black man instead of the woman, is this really a blow to racism?  Is it okay to proclaim racism dead when it may be the product of competing bigotries?

Second, was Obama black?  The question really is: was he black enough?  This question has been raised repeatedly and summarily dismissed, but is it so easy to dismiss?  Has Obama faced many of the plights of the typical black man in the US?  Has he been the product of stereotypes afflicting many black men?  Or maybe he is instead the exception that proves the rule. I will not list out the differences between Obama and most black men (internationalized upbringing, difference in parental backgrounds, etc…) because they are by now rote.  A black man is now President-elect, but I fail to see how that will change day to day interactions on the street as people are led by their cognitive habits.

My real beef, however, with the claim of the tumbling racial boundaries is that it is the wrong fight.  I am not arguing that racism is neither an important fight nor a good thing.  Race is incomplete as a struggle to make our society more equal and happy.  What about the intersections of struggles?  Does a black woman benefit from the same reliefs afforded a black man?  What about class?  Does Obama not just prove that the real barrier is not race but rather wealth?  Can a poor man, regardless of skin color, ever be elected President?  Of course not.  Even though he may be black, Obama is well educated, married to a well educated woman and is wealthy.  It is understandable that a person may be held down and the attribution may be his skin color, because one cannot see wealth whereas skin color is easily identified.

And this gets us to the heart of the issue: there are too many people to-day that see themselves as set apart from the problem, as though eating a few organic tomatoes can solve working conditions for farm laborers.  As though voting for a black man makes all right with the world.  Admittedly, they are better than many by accepting some change in their lives as a mechanism of progress instead of waiting for the (black) man to save us all from ourselves.  But, liberals are too easily bought off by this acceptance – “I’ve done my part.”  Here is a smarter person than I with a similar thought, mine is the echo:

While Lossky [a Russian exiled after the revolution] was without a doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilise Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systematic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible.  We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploration, including the threat of violence. (Zizek 2008, 9)

This is also seen in the “I voted” stickers.  Great, you voted.  I am proud of you.  You voiced dissent.  And yet one cannot help but witness the stigmatization of some that are not wearing their stickers.  “It’s your civic duty.  You must vote!”  “I voted because I wanted to tell the government that I am not satisfied.”  As though voting is THE way to speak to power.  Even if power is listening, do they interpret your vote the way you want it to be interpreted?  Of course not.  Voting does, however, grease the system and make it appear as though it is functioning smoothly.  The problem is that the system is so greased that a dissenting abstention is also interpreted incorrectly: as apathy.  And apathy is (incorrectly) interpreted as outside the realm of political acts.

Obama Superman

Obama Superman

On election night I was in a sea of people chanting “Oh” “Bama!” “Oh” “Bama!” and I was disgusted.  The problem is the cult of personality.  It is easy to see him as salvation when we have given up on the grand struggles.  Bring back the parties.  Bring back the grand commitments.  Bring back normative assessments.  If there were larger struggles than the choice of 34% to a 38.5% tax rate then we might actually find what it means to be engaged.  The last general election with such a large turnout as last night’s was in 1910.  Is it any surprise that that election happened immediately before the Red Scare.  Political engagement is seen as disruptive and anti-American, whereas voting is supposedly the way True Americans voice their preferences.

Zizek, Slavoj.  (2008).  Violence.  NY: PIccador Books.

As the coverage of Iowa events intensifies so too does my distaste for themes I am seeing.  Edwards and Obama have crossed the line and joined the ranks of Republican candidates in their lament for the loss of some American ideal.  Their speeches consistently rail against corporations and a loss of values.  This is easily seen in the health care discussions (are they really discussions?) but is more disconcerting in the debate about experience they are having with Clinton.  Their response to Clinton’s claim of being experienced is not to mitigate her experience (leave that to Republicans) but instead to criticize the value of experience.

Obama and Edwards claim their lack of experience is good, because it pits them as radicals opposed to Clinton’s reformism.  Their lack of experience means they are not indebted to the system and can thus rail against it.  Further evidence of this tactic is seen by Edwards’ and Obama’s scramble to out-radical the other, as seen in Edwards’ attack on Obama’s claim to negotiate with insurance companies.  This tiff is eerily reminiscent of 1980 Republican squabbles about how to best handle and defeat the evil Soviet Union.  I have to pause when Presidential candidates are bickering over how to best fight other Americans.  That is the definition of populism.

Interestingly enough, Renata Salecl (1998) has a discussion about communism and post-communism which is also eerily similar to the rhetorical moves described above:

So it is for those who are nostalgic about communism: since it belongs irretrievably in the past, they do not need to act to improve their current situation.  That is why the vast majority of such people do not engage in serious political struggle ….  Instead, they persist in the comfortable role of lamenting victim.  The paradox is that in the past, they wished for the end of communism, but they did not truly believe that their wish could be fulfilled.  And today they act in a similar fashion when they dream about returning to the safe shelter of communist institutions, while knowing that this cannot happen.  In their attitude toward the unattainable past, these nostalgic men and women greatly resemble …disenchanted lovers … who mourn for lost love and at the same time do everything to prevent the realization of their desire. (p. 80)

The lament is easy to see in Edwards and Obama.  They will call it the American Dream, but I will call it a myth, a story to guide and not an actual historical moment.  Obama should be more understanding of this nuance, given his identity and from where he hails.  I am not too surprised to see Edwards make this same lament of the southern white man: life was good before X, so I shall fight X.  But does fighting ever actually get us back home?  Probably not, and definitely not in politics.

Things have changed; let us make our current system the most humane one we can instead of trying to buck it.  This is all, of course, without begging the question of how much bucking can the President of the United States actually do.  As they are busy positioning themselves as the uber-radical they forget how caught up in the system they already are, instead arguing their opponent is the one caught up.

Many of the politicians in Iowa to-day are singing the same tune, which is an un-sophisticated view of politics and their role within it.  I like this message in my entertainment, see the Kasier Chiefs’ “Modern Way”, but from my potential leaders and policy-makers I want more sophistication.  I want someone who says, “I have experience improving lives.  I will continue to strive for that goal and I will work with those that have differing conceptions of how to do so.”  Of the current choices that quotation most resembles Senator Clinton.  I am not especially happy with that evaluation, but the stakes are too high.

Works Cited

Salecl, Renata.  (1998).  (per)versions of love and hate.  London: Verso Books.