A guest-post by Scott Stephens
‘This country is without hope’. Such was Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement after months of driving across the surreal wastelands and oases of debauchery that litter the American southwest—a journey he catalogued in his astonishing book, Amérique. But this judgment wasn’t intended as an expression of typically smug European disdain for the eccentricities of American life. It was rather a purely empirical observation that Americans await nothing. There is nothing better out there or to come. As Baudrillard observes, the paradox of America is that ‘it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved’.
This utopian dimension is what allows for the immodesty that foreigners directly associate with American life: it is not the product of arrogance so much as it is of solipsism, a fundamental aloneness in the world, a sense of the incomparability of American culture with any other. The perverse twist, however, is that America is a kind of reflexive utopia that depends on the rapt fascination of the rest of the world to sustain its self-image. And it is this combination of solipsism and exhibitionism in American life that gives one the inescapable feeling that watching the gyrations of its culture and its political posturing is rather like watching somebody shamelessly self-pleasuring.
And this, I contend, begins to explain the very peculiar place that hope occupies within the quotidian life of Americans themselves, and what makes hope such a significant factor in political discourse. Hope is fundamentally the way that Americans relate to the ideal of their utopian ‘freedom’, and yet not as an emotional attachment to some future possibility. Rather, hope is the palliative that soothes the inevitable disaffection that people experience with ‘actually existing America’ by dismissing their failure to realise the American ideal as a mere misalignment of image and reality. Nothing needs to be changed in reality; it is only the image, ‘the look’, that needs adjusting. This quality was grasped with uncommon precision by Don Watson, whose American Journeys joins Baudrillard’s Amérique as the most incisive analyses of the banality of American life since Tocqueville’s Démocratie. (As an American who has long since left the homeland, I’ve developed a real affection for such travelogues due to their remarkable capacity to observe what was always right in front of our faces, and thus better to document the bizarre proclivities of American life.)
‘Sometimes in America, when you are watching television, or a scene on the street, or someone “creating herself” in a café or train, you wonder if in their minds many Americans imagine they live on just the wrong of a kind of theatrical scrim, a thin floating membrane whose opening is almost impossible to find. Almost impossible: but it exists, and if you keep your hope alive and apply yourself hard enough, who can say if one day you won’t walk through it and find yourself in the magical kingdom of celebrity—and soon after you will tell a television host how, like revealed religion, it was all just meant to be.’
This is why hope is the essential currency of American politics. In so dysfunctional and narcissistic a democracy as the United States, the role of the president is, of necessity, to repair and consolidate America’s self-image. And no other proved so effective in fulfilling his presidential role than Ronald Reagan. Here, again, Baudrillard grasped perfectly the importance of Reagan’s ‘look’: ‘Ex-actor and ex-governor of California that he is, he has worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to all-American dimensions’. After the humiliation of the Vietnam War and the grotesqueries of Nixonian politics, it was Reagan who finally brought healing to America’s battered and brittle self-perception—as he used to say, ‘America is back again’.
But what Reagan in fact did was to enable Americans to resume their national slumber, to lose themselves once more in the utopian delusions of a providential existence. Vietnam and the Nixon presidency were thus not some long national nightmare (as Gerald Ford described the period), but one of the few times in its recent history when America was awake and painfully aware of the ugliness of its national life.
And it is here, finally, that we can begin to see the dangers of Obamania: like Reagan before him, Barack Obama is having a narcotic effect on the American psyche, dulling their lived awareness of the Iraq débâcle and reducing the Bush presidency to a mere aberration. His strident opposition to the war efforts in Iraq coupled with the deliberately pandering message of utopian immediacy—‘We are the change we seek’ and ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’—are invitations to the American people to enclose themselves once again in their solipsistic cocoon, and to resume their idiotic obsession with the drama of their national life. Also like Reagan, Obama has a certain ‘star power’ that can resolve America’s PR problems with the international community, a sheer force of attraction that will restore the former glory of the American brand-name.
But lest this seem like a shallow, and perhaps even cynical, description of international diplomacy, it is interesting that Andrew Sullivan (Obama’s most amorous supporter, whose dewy-eyed devotion at times borders on homoeroticism) concedes this very point without so much as a blush of embarrassment. In his cover story for the December 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Sullivan writes: ‘What does [Obama] have to offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan.’
And notice the way Obama expresses himself in the closing paragraph of his speech on the night of the last Democratic primary (3 June 2008): ‘I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.’
Doesn’t this demonstrate that, far from representing a seismic shift in the political landscape, Obama’s campaign is little more than a vulgar repetition of Reagan’s political narcissism? And to this extent, isn’t Obama’s message of change simply an appeal to latent antiestablishment sentiment among the public, and thus a craven affirmation of the status quo? No one has framed these concerns with more precision than Shelby Steele, who insists that Obama is ‘neither a revolutionary nor even a reformist’, but rather a gifted politician who is ‘simply infatuated with the possibilities of his own skin color within the world as it is’, and whose genius ‘is to know his currency within the status quo’. One can’t blame Obama for being such a politician; but neither should we confuse his campaign language with the kind of change that America so desperately needs.
Thursday, 12 June 2008
A guest-post by Scott Stephens