Wednesday 11 June 2008

The dangers of Obamania: why Barack Obama is bringing out the worst in the American public

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.


Bruce Yabsley said...

... little more than ... simply ... simply ...


Have you seen the half-hour speech Obama gave some months back in response to the media ruckus about his minister? Was that a vulgar repetition of Reagan's political narcissism?

I'm sorry but if you want to convince me that the Obama phenomenon is so regrettable --- bringing out the worst in the public indeed --- then please attack the man at his strengths. Quoting an overexcited supporter, or discovering that as a professional politician Obama is (oh no!) a professional politician, is not going to cut it.

Zac said...

As much as I'm all for hope, I have to agree with Scott. One wonders if, instead of a Presidential candidate who says:

"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."

....there might be someone who would be bold enough (although never likely to be elected) to stand up and say:

this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to RAGE upon us and our nation began to MOURN; this was the moment when we as a nation became vulnerable and admitted our utter need of others and recognized our image as a nation in need of REPENTANCE.

Of course, in a nation that is addicted to the IDEA of a healed world, a secured nation, and a self-image of "the last best hope on earth", such a statement would bring nothing but disdain. Prophets are always party poopers.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Sorry, but this is getting worse.

zac you seem to be complaining that Obama is not the prophet Jeremiah. Isn't this idle? You may think we need another Jeremiah; but it doesn't follow that a presidential candidate should be judged by whether he conforms to that image.

Zac said...


I see where you are coming from. I suppose what you are hinting at may come down to a quesiton of the Presidential identity/role? Who is the president and what is his/her role? In turn, how should a presidential candidate be judged? Or is this too simplistic. I think one question that Scott's post deals with is: Is the president to be one who endorses a vision for America that is the most comforting (even if it is not the most true). Of course this is a huge debate. I guess I'm coming from the standpoint of wanting to see the U.S. as well as Canada become a little more humble, such that statements that imply that "we are the best hope for the rest of the world" wouldn't so easily roll off the lips of our "greatest" leaders.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was a great post. I'm not sure about everything Scott says, but i agree with on so many levels. Much of this was an articulation of the feelings in the pit of my stomach.

Thanks for this Scott!

Bruce Yabsley said...

zac I don't know that I want to expound a general theory of the role of the president, or of political speech. But then, I don't think my point needs such a theory to be fully laid out.

The last time I checked, BHO had done a fair amount of critiquing of actual American practice, and of the country's failure to live up to its ideals. As I read it, this point is being ignored in this thread because it is inconvenient to the argument.

Scott doesn't like American exceptionalism; you don't like (North) American arrogance. Very well. Both of you would prefer a strong critique of American self-image, rather than BHO's campaign to build a coalition based (in part) on his reading of American ideals (even if it is sometimes critical of American practice). This is also fine.

But unless you engage with Obama's own criticisms of the system, I don't see how your complaint is interesting at any level. We already know that Obama is a politician; and that he is running for president; and that he is hoping to win. If you think this project is illegitimate as such, come out and say it and let's be done with it. But if you are prepared to allow its potential legitimacy (even as a concession, for the sake of argument) then I want to hear a substantial attack on Obama's campaign _as_ a piece of politics, that moreover takes its strengths into account.

Douglas Underhill said...

It seems really early to me to begin judging Obama's presidency, to be honest. I think we need to see what he actually does, or seeks to do, rather than judge what we imagine he might do, as president.

The tragedy of Reagan is that he didn't deliver on the promises his charisma made. He plunged us into unprecedented debt, annihilated care for the handicapped and made them homeless...I could go on. In short, we can look at his proclamations with cynicism now because he failed to live up to them.

In Obama's case, we really have no idea whether he will live up to the promises he's making.

I would counter, personally, with my belief that McCain will bring out some of the worst in American politics. If he is elected, he seems hell-bent on going to war with Iran. He wants to be in Iraq for 100 years. He's rampantly hawkish and a demonstrated hypocrite who is buying into the playbook of playing to the anxieties of a populace suckling from Fox News fearmongering...

I'll be honest. I'd prefer a failed idealist's soporific hopes to World War III and another few trillion dollars of debt for the Chinese to own any day. And it seems like, at the moment, that is the cynical view of our choice.

scott said...

It's an interesting notion, I think, that Obama's rhetoric of hope is having a 'narcotic effect on the American pysche'. But I think you're overshooting the mark, given (1) the fact that, substantially, every other campaign has done the same (i.e., your criticism may be right on, but isn't just a matter of degree?); and (2) have you seen the (elective) alternatives?

The comparison with Reagan faulters on point 1, in my opinion. Given the character of the American public and thus its political landscape, we should no doubt be aware that any presidential candidate will reflect, to a larage degree, the system within which he or she works - the system in which Obama makes Bush look like a mere 'aberration'. But to me, the salient point for Christians is to remember that this system itself is not our hope nor our primary concern. That doesn't however, mean that we're exempted or isolated from it. So for those of us who know that, but are still going to vote for someone - my question becomes, what's the least bad version of hope the American public is being offered? So if you want to argue we shouldn't vote, or that Hillary's a better option for substantive reasons, you'll have my ear.

For example, I'm a Mississippi boy who knows that racism - in its ties with capitalist construction of identity - is still a sin that divides the nation. I can't ignore that this man, despite the idealism in his rhetoric, was able to talk to the American public about race (in Jon Stewart's words) 'as if they were adults', and have them actually listen. Is this not an event that signals a kind of hope worth having?

There are real, pragmatic, and not purely ideological battles that are at stake in this campaign, and formal criticisms, however interesting, only go so far.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Scott. I really value your Flannery O'Connor approach to the topics on which you write so sharply and fluently: "You have to make your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

But, yes, though Obama is surely no Jeremiah, he sure makes the alternatives we have in British politics look like Hananiahs. (And yet we have the theological spectacle of certain RO folk talking "red Toryism" and pecking at crumbs of hope in the leadership of David Cameron.) And as Edmund Burke said: "No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."

Mind, if you really want to see whether Obama might throw a rock in the pond of the status quo in US politics, it's Palestine, not race, that will be the tester. Already he looks set to fail.

Teresita said...

I'm a McCain voter, but I have to admit that McCain is all talk and no walk when it comes to eliminating the influence of lobbyist money in campaigns, while Obama has clearly drawn the line on that for his own campaign and for the Democratic party as a whole, now that he is their de facto leader.

Anonymous said...

I'd say this account is a bit dated, more representative of the older generation than the younger, though on the whole I find it a reasonable assessment of the American ethos.

Anonymous said...

Obama is a leftist that is infatuated with himself and the idea of power, and who knows how to deliver a speech. A dangerous combination.

Reagan had guts. He had been on the left side of the political dividing line and saw for himself where that would lead and made a right turn for the betterment of himself and America.

The mass exodus of Americans from our shores is a sure sign of how much this country needs to change.

There will be "change" alright. But you can bet the farm that it won't be for the better.

Anonymous said...

People will sub-conciously pick up on this when they come to vote.
That is why McCain will be the next president of the United States - that and the fact that there are many voters who could just about bring themselves to vote for a white woman, but not for a black man. They won't bother to vote and you will be left with four more years of Republican avarice.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Stephens’ claims about “the American people” reminded me of something a former colleague once said: “The great thing about culture-criticism is that one doesn’t have to know anything about a culture in order to criticize it.” Where has Mr. Stephens looked, I wonder, to discover that “American life” is solipsistic, exhibitionistic, and, thus, “self-pleasuring”? Who exactly are the “Americans” who think that “Nothing needs to be changed in reality; it is only the image, ‘the look,’ that needs adjusting”? Where would one find these “American people” who maintain an “idiotic obsession with the drama of their national life”?

Mr. Stephens’ characterizations of “Americans” seem to be inferred from two sources: travelogues and his interpretation of a few of Mr. Obama’s slogans. It is not at all clear that one can infer generalizations from the latter about “the American people,” since, in order to do so, one would already need to know something about these people, why these slogans might resonate with them and so imply something about them, why these slogans could be taken to entail something about the majority of Americans who have not explicitly supported Mr. Obama, etc., just as one would need to know why these slogans ought to count as salient aspects of Mr. Obama’s campaign success. It would appear, then, that the validity of Mr. Stephens’ inferences depends rather heavily upon his other source, namely, travelogues. As is well known, however, travelogues are sometimes wildly unreliable evidence by which to judge a culture--as early nineteenth-century colonialism-cum-cultural-analysis abundantly attests. (I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when Mr. Stephens described Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncements as “purely empirical observations.”) Travelogues would warrant an inference to “what these people are like” only insofar as one knew them to be reliable guides...but one would know them to be reliable guides just insofar as one had some independent reason for thinking that they get “these people” right, which is to say, again, that one would already need to know a great deal about the American people in order for travelogues to warrant generalizations about them. Considering only the sources to which Mr. Stephens explicitly appeals, then, it would appear that his generalizations about “Americans” are unjustified.

I suspect, however, that a third, unnamed source is doing a good bit of work in Mr. Stephens’ analysis, namely, a set of assumptions about what Americans must be like, from which he infers what Americans are like. Nothing wrong with assumptions, of course, but if they are (a) important to one’s argument and (b) susceptible to a justifiable challenge, then they warrant one’s claims only insofar as one can demonstrate one’s entitlement to them. (Otherwise, it turns out that one is merely “bullshitting” [in the Frankfurtian sense].) Mr. Stephens could entitle himself to these assumptions, it seems to me, if and only if he could demonstrate that they hold up to critical investigation of his subject-matter. Hence, if Mr. Stephens has evidence to the effect that the American people are solipsistic, exhibitionistic, idiotically obsessed with their national life, convinced that nothing really needs to change, etc., then he is entitled to his generalizations; if not, he isn’t, and he should either revise or withdraw them.

Then again, maybe Mr. Stephens is not really trying to make an argument, such that he has not implicitly undertaken the responsibility to entitle himself to his assertions (as my response has thus far assumed); maybe I have erroneously taken him to be arguing a point, whereas he is, in fact, trying to do something else, something “performative,” perhaps. If that is what Mr. Stephens is really up to, then, well, fine--an appropriate response would then be something like “Boo! Hiss!”--but he can’t have it both ways, and I think readers should be aware of that. It strikes me as unlikely, in any event, that this is how Mr. Stephens understands his post; it strikes me as far more likely that he takes his claims about “the American people” to be more or less self-evident.

Then again, perhaps I perceive Mr. Stephens’ post as I do because I’m an American (though not, as far as I can tell, an “American”), because I happen to earn a living in the neighborhood where the Obamas live, etc. Be that as it may, Mr. Stephens’ claims about “the American people” strike me as both chauvinistic and irresponsible, and I suggest that he think twice about making such claims in the future. At the very least, he ought to avoid generalizations about "the American people."

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that Kevin likes the phrase "It strikes me."

Erin said...

A great read, thanks Mr. Stephens :) I am sympathetic to much of what is said, and much of it does ring true to this 'mericun. I don't fault too much the idea that "we are the change we seek." Sure, it is distorted, but given the political apathy of the land, any slogan that encourages more personal responsibility instead of relinquishing it to the "powers" that be is important. The more dangerous thing, I think, is the perception that people are taking personal responsibility when all we really do is pin them on someone else. It would be preferable if everyone were to instead wait for an external savior, but at this point my political/theological integration fails me.

The essay becomes confusing though, when I consider the non-white experience in the US. The Americans in the crosshairs seem to be the enfranchised, primarily white, and perhaps wealthy persons- those most invested in the political process. I don't know that the one dimensional hope described accurately reflects the hopes of many minorities in the US, especially Black, Latino or Native American, groups who don't place the same faith in America or the national myth. Which brings me to my ultimate concern: it reads like an essay by a white man about white men. I don't mean that pejoratively, I m trying to “locate” the discourse and it seems more of a critique about political rhetoric and the political industry than what Americans believe, especially non-whites. I might also point out that the Steele quote is not without concern as well. Mr Steele is a fascinating man in his own right, but it should be pointed out he is a “conservative” and elsewhere makes points that seem to undermine the very essay itself. You can look here if you like.
Regardless, it's a mercy to me as an American that there are critiques such as this to mull over and be challenged by, thanks!

Anonymous said...

There is rhetoric, and then there is action. Scott, you're merely criticizing Obama's rhetoric. Why? It's only talk. There is no doubt that Obama will also *do* different things in office, and after eight hellish years under Bush, different can only be better.

MML said...

Two thoughts, from an Obama supporter who has seen the candidate up close and personal (instead of observing from a distance):

1.) I think this post's baseline assumption--that Obama's appeal relies on messianic rhetoric and little else--fails to grapple with the extent to which the vast majority of Americans really and truly hate what has happened over the last years. The desire for change is not cosmetic; it arises from a fundamental sense that we have blundered into an unjust war, ruined our economy, etc etc. The possibility of turning the page on the policies of the current administration is the single greatest factor driving Obama's appeal. Anyone who does not get that simple fact really has no business opining on American politics.

2.) The comment about Andrew Sullivan's "homoeroticism" is a cowardly cheap shot. Shame on you for stooping so low, and shame on Ben for hosting such garbage.

Anonymous said...

The logic of this post is incoherent. It demonstrates no inherent connection at all between its premise and its conclusion. Everything hinges on this: "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." That is, this claim has to supply the link to Reagan that, via Baudrillard, will supply the link to solipsism. But, no such link is demonstrated. It is asserted, but it is not shown. There is no necessary reason why calling upon the American people to take responsibility for their political life is tantamount to solipsism. There is also no necessary reason that because Obama is proposing the alteration of the Bush/Cheney foreign policy that that alteration is grounded in 'star power.'

It is clear that you have a fundamentally different, more radical vision for the kind of change that must happen in American political life. That is fine. I do too. But, this is the worst reasoned, most comprehensively dim-witted set of observations about the significance of Obama's nomination for the presidency of the United States that I have encountered.

And, I say that becuase they are representative of the worst kind of cynicism (of which Baudrillard is the prototype.) That is the kind that proceeds via a negative dialectic which sets itself in opposition to what has been determined as "an appeal to latent antiestablishment sentiment among the public, and thus a craven affirmation of the status quo," and thereby reinforces, not real oppositional change, but the extant status quo itself. And, this is just another way of saying that your argument is actually more cynical, more insidious than the principles of arch-conservatism. (This, btw, is the great genius of the analyst's discourse as deployed by Zizek. It secretely colludes with the status quo, and functions as a surreptitious conservatism. That's why his thought represents the perpetuation and sublation of fascism insofar as he "rightly passes for" a Leftist. It seems to me you are doing the same here.)

Finally, it is not clear to me that you have a clear enough vision of the way political leadership functions. That is, what you have said here about how Obama 'represents' the American public, which you have identified as 'solipsistic' could equally be applied to any significant and effective leader, anywhere at any time. Effective leaders always function as focal points for the desires of those whom they lead. The point is whether that leader is capable of harnassing those desires to greater, more transformative ends. In this respect, Reagan was a great, but ferociously destructive leader, not because he was a good politician, but because he implamented bad policies.

If you think Obama's policies represent no significant change from the past, then you still have a case to make -- and, I should say, a tough one at that. If you think his policies are destructive like Reagan's, then you also still have a case to make. If you think that what we need is something more revolutionary, then all you needed to do was say that. This is just a silly argument.

Anonymous said...

Just as an aside. The phrase 'we are the ones we've been waiting for' is not original to Obama, but comes from the great Jamaican-American poet, June Jordan's "Poem for South African Women". Alice Walker took this as a title for a book of her own, and so its resonance, at least in the African-American community, has little to do with American exceptionalism or narcissistic solipsism but rather is a clarion call to arms for those living in an unjust social order to reject the counsels of despair, fear, and ethnic hatred which are so rampant in our country today.
So, for those looking for a prophetic edge to Obama's words, you could point to no better phrase than this one. Here's the poem in full for those interested:

Poem for South African Women

Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world

The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire

And the babies cease alarm as mothers
raising arms
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open eye

And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea:

we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I turn to survey the ripples caused by the rock I've just thrown in the pond, I always have the same reaction - surprised, and not. The thing that persistently surprises me is the near total incapacity in so many quarters to think theologically, and thus what an entirely foreign practice theological ethics is. For those of you who missed it, what I was trying to do was simply to subject 'America' to a theological critique, which is to say a metacritique of the phenomenon as a whole, its overall conceptual logic. It is this logic - not the will and opinions of individual Americans - that determines the moral status of any given candidate/president. If for no other reason, it is because the will and opinions of the American people are so unbelievably fickle (just consult the senseless and visceral fluctuations of the opinion polls over the course of the Iraq war), and, to be frank, they can't be trusted. Fareed Zakaria has famously suggested that some nations simply can't be trusted with democracy - I agree, and the United States is at the top of the list. What is also being missed here is the tremendous influence 'image' has on American political life - case in point being the 'yawn factor' identified by Obama's chief strategists whenever he talks policy and moves away from cheer-worthy, chest-beating, pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-voting-for-Obama, god-I'm-finally-proud-to-be-an-American slogans. Obama is all about 'the look' and populist, soft-left, antiestablishment rhetoric that goes back at least to Bobby Kennedy. And, for the record, of course I like Obama and am fascinated by his success. But the vastness of the swing from Bush to Obama (and, as Andrew Sullivan points out, there would be no Obama without Bush!!!) has got to alert any clear minded person to something not-quite-right going on here. 'Obama' is the name for national redemption, for atonement for sins past ... and herein lies the problem. In my opinion, we need a McCain in precisely the same way that post-Nixon/Ford America needed a Carter. America needs an intractably moral politician to hold the wound open for a little while longer, to confront the nation with the extent of its own ugliness, to allow for genuine self-examination ... The twist, of course, is this. Hendrick Hertzberg used to say that Jimmy Carter was a bad president because he was far too moral to be a good one. This description has a parallel in McCain. He would be a terrible president, but exactly the kind of non-cathartic figure needed at this time. Not 'hope', but brutal self-criticism. A vote for McCain is the only authentic vote for change.

Bruce Yabsley said...

All in favour of ethics, Scott. Really. As for developing a more theological ethics --- and for thinking more theologically in general --- why do you think I read this blog?

But your defence will not do. You say you were simply subjecting "`America' to a theological critique": fair enough as far as it goes, but you do not get closer to the phenomenon as a whole by travestying the individual phenomena. At the risk of repeating myself, in your original post you rhetorically asked on the slight grounds of one line of a speech and a humid opinion from a supporter:

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?

This is a wildly unreasonable generalising statement. I'm sorry, but these are your words. If you want to make an interesting criticism of Obamania --- and surely there are all sorts of interesting criticisms that can be made --- please start by taking Obama properly into account. Give me a fair criticism of the race speech (and there are fair criticisms that can be made); work the oft-stated judgement that BHO is a "once-in-a-generation" candidate" into the discussion; give some account of why the additional voter mobilisation associated with his campaign --- significant in a country where turnout is all-important, and turnout of the disadvantaged is in general low --- does not count against your argument. And at least address the point helpfully made by egregious about the resonance of that "we are the change" slogan in the black community.

Oh, and BTW: Raising your mate zac by appointing yourself as the prophet Jeremiah (or perhaps I mean John of the Apocalypse) and foreseeing/demanding "a terrible president" in the aid of some eventual greater good? Not helping. If this is where theological ethics leads, I want none of it. And part of me would actually like to be on your side. Give me some help here, will you?

tchittom said...

I'm all for political theology, but this post seems to have gone a bit further into politics for politics sake. Did it discover anything or just use a lot of words to say something that the world press is only too happen to say now? Ben, keep the theology central. If you want to run a political blog, then go start one.

Unknown said...

It seems Mr. Stephens' borrowed opinion of America boils down to the fault of all: Nobody thinks themselves wrong.

To categorize all Americans of this disease is correct, but to cordon the entirety of this human trait in the 50 States is not only troublesome, it is malicious. For all of humanity suffers from this ailment, no less than Mr. Stephens himself.

The problem here is America is the last superpower on earth with a terrible reputation. It is acceptable for those without the Union to critique the nation, but if an American were to critique another country along the same lines they would be labeled an arrogant, narcissistic blowhard. Unfortunately if I were to say the same thing of Mr. Stephens I would suffer the same fate.

This is not to say the critique is in error, but that it is myopic and misses the greater picture. He establishes America as a strawman and then proceeds to throw sophomoric darts at it before shoving it down a flight of stairs in a jealous rage.

Fur surly every nation on earth has seen a charismatic leader who is cheered fondly, revered for generations as a shining example of nationalistic excellence, and given over to critique on every level all the same.

The USA has a lot of problems, amongst them a non-representative government, a two-party system, and voter ennui. But to say Americans simply don't care is foolish. They care but the system is so broken they opt for mediocre over good. They can't vote for whom they want because the simple majority rules the day.

While I wish my fellow citizens would actually use direct action like much of the world does so well, I can also see nationalism on the rise in places like Hungary, Poland, and other emerging countries. They're creating their own mythology much like America has done. But even though we're all living within our cultural narrative, it is pigeon brained to suggest the public is simply pleased to be told they are the change they want.

Perhaps Mr. Stephens misses the actual message Obama is preaching, not that we will be OK to exist as is, but that we all, as a nation, must act to bring the change we want without just resting back hoping the government will do it all for you. This isn't a new message, Leo Tolstoy gave this same message, and Ghandi borrowed it from him to affect change. Dr. King borrowed it next to excite the nation in a time, 40 years ago, much like today. And Obama uses the same rhetoric of Dr. king. If we want to see change, we must begin at home. Together, we can change the world. It is not because we have the answer, but because if we don't do anything, nothing will get done.

But then again, I'd be happy to live in Poland.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ben is going to kill me for spilling the beans on this, though the rest of you may already have figured it out: “Scott Stephens” is really one of Ben Myers’ pseudonyms (like “Kim Fabricius”), and this post is a ruthless satire of several recent trends in theology (rather than, say, an actual theological argument). To be honest, I’m sort of embarrassed that I didn’t pick up on this sooner, since “Scott Stephens’” post manages to lampoon almost everything that is wrong with fashionable theologizing today: he is maximally critical toward others while wholly uncritical toward his own critiques; he relies on name-dropping, innuendo, and florid prose at precisely those points where one would expect an argument; he draws wildly implausible, maximally uncharitable, woefully underdetermined inferences from even the most innocuous bits of evidence; he assumes that one can saddle certain unfashionable out-groups (a role that can be played equally by “America,” “Moderns,” “Liberals,” etc.) with any & all manner of sins, without having to confront the actual members of those groups; he pretends that readers find his claims irritating because “I’m telling them things they don’t want to hear,” when we are in fact irritated by his shameless display of arrogance & irresponsibility; he maintains an air of principled disdain for facts and other stubborn bits of counterevidence; and--this is what finally tipped me off--when others try to hold him responsible for these claims, he ignores all of the objections to which his claims are liable and resorts instead to impugning his objectors' ability to think theologically--as if that’s not precisely what they were doing!

Once one realizes that Ben--er, “Scott Stephens”--is sending up a particular style of theology, everything falls into place, and the point of this exercise becomes clear: by engaging in this kind of indirect discourse, Ben is trying to help us realize that the appropriate response to this sort of theologizing is not to argue against it, to raise objections to which it is liable, etc., since that sort of response is both futile (because he or she will never take responsibility for his or her claims) and counterproductive (because it feeds the theologizer’s self-righteous sense that he or she is “stirring things up” or “throwing rocks in peoples’ ponds”). No, Ben is trying to show us that the proper response is precisely to withhold/withdraw our recognition of this kind of “theologizing” as a legitimate practice: we need to stop reading it, stop publishing it, and stop taking it seriously enough even to argue against. That's the lesson Ben wants us to learn, at any rate.

Once we no longer confer recognition upon this kind of theologizing, then Ben’s satire-therapy will have done its work, and the indirect authorship of “Scott Stephens” can be laid to rest. But as the responses to this post would indicate, we still have a long way to go...

Unknown said...

That's a great point, Milton. But does this mean this guy doesn't exist?

Seems real enough to me:

Anonymous said...

Though I find Scott's comparison of Obama with Reagan eccentric, even preposterous, and his "vote for McCain" platform mischievous, his Tocquevillean anatomy of America would be acute were it not to me - but apparently not to others, whom I'm delighted to see he has so pissed off - unexceptional. Certainly the idea that there will be any radical repair of American foreign policy whoever is the next President would be like expecting an extremely ill person to get better by changing beds. If the world were their ass, Americans couldn't find it on a toilet. But then "Kim Fabricius" would say that in defence of "Scott Stephens".

Unknown said...

Kim has a great point. Just this morning on MSNBC they were talking about the next president's involvement in the global community and a "Republican strategist" on the program said (and I'm not making this up), "The rest of the world isn't doing anything."

Bruce Yabsley said...

But as the responses to this post would indicate, we still have a long way to go ...

Well, I certainly do.

Pardon me for being so hopelessly old-fashioned, but I am not interested in pissing people off, or indulging a taste for the radical, or indirect discourse, or being provocative as such. Nor am I much interested in wasting my time, or anyone else's.

milton ... who are you, milton, by the way, if you don't mind me asking?

Kim Fabricius appears to almost definitely be real: or at least, there seems to be a real person with that name and something like that biography. Scott Stephens seems to be too, although as I don't live in Brisbane or have connections there (and as the organisations to which SS belong don't have very comprehensive web presences) I can't finally rule out his being a very thorough and devious invention.

But the idea that it doesn't matter is pernicious. I make no attempt to disguise the fact that I think Scott Stephens thoroughly unreasonable, or at least, given to saying thoroughly unreasonable things. But as a person and a member of a community --- even a community as diffuse as that of a blog's habitués --- he deserves to be reasonably engaged, even if that amounts to confronting him. As some devious invention, he does not. Because I don't need to be "taught" that some positions can't be defeated by argument: I already know that. Some conflicts cannot be calmed by civility, either: this does not make civility a bad thing, or justify someone being stubbornly rude in order to teach the rest of us the futility of being polite.

Game-playing and a taste for the provocative-as-such, not to mention the sort of behaviour milton so vividly describes, give reflective and essayistic thought a bad name. Enough already.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Reagan I think this site tells us all you need to know about him.

His policies were just a minor prelude to the full scale assault of the USA and world body-politic that the Bushites have been waging for the past 7 and a half years.

Ben Myers said...

As everyone should have guessed, "Milton" is probably one of my pseudonyms too (how could I resist a name like that?).

Oh, and I'll be glad to absorb "Scott Stephens" into my expansive identity — especially if Continuum will agree to forward all the royalties from those Zizek books directly to me!

Bruce Yabsley said...

Care to offer a view on the original topic, Ben? The hall-of-mirrors part of the discussion is beginning to bore me.

Anonymous said...

I am utterly confused, angered, and offended at the kierkegaardian turn this thread has taken! I take great pride in my name, and stand behind it in all cases. Would that 'Ben', 'Scott', 'Kim', 'Milton', and the rest of the rogues gallery would do the same!

My Lord and master, on the other hand, is utterly delighted to see this turn of events. For he knows that pseudonyms, like rogue nations, are delicious targets: they have no feelings of their own, so you can insult and attack them till the cows come home with impunity and orgiastic glee.
What do I mean? Well, for two straight days my grand poobah has been drafting one after another furious attacks upon the utter inanities of the one dubbed, appropriately enough, SS. Filled with a rage I have rarely seen him muster, I watched with horror as each time he completed his missive, rather than fire off his 'mid-range' bomber with a click of the mouse, he hestitated, rather. Then, reading over his post with a furrowed brow, he muttered something about how odd it was that his words seemed to him like nothing other than an expression of neo-conservative America-is-the-hope-of-the-world rantings, a position he has deemed odious for some time now. So, going off to pray, meditate, count his toes or some such, he would return a few hours latter, and like a dog going back to his own vomitious ravings, he would give it another go. But, alas, no go--and he would end up writing something equally offensive to his own post-liberal, anti-nationalistic, american-as-apple-pie-and-why-do-you-hate-us-enough-to-want-us-to-die self. So again, as I watched in fear and horror) not to say trembling, he hesitated.
And, he furthered, he has, in spite of hiding behind a cantankerous old pseudonym who rarely keeps his place (me!) managed to avoid being banned from Ben's site. Attacking Ben's 'friend' SS, he muttered, could end all of that and ruin his fun. Out of self-interest, if for no other reason, he opined, he must refrain from giving 'em hell, as much as he wished to. (Chicken-shit, I say, though sotto voce of course. He's a super-powered beast when you get him mad).
He even considered strolling out unprotected from behind his pseudonymous 'missile shield' and posting with his real name (what a thought! what a concept!), but timidity got the best of him--and he also tried to get me to do his dirty work, but I steadfastly refused, seeing far too much truth in what Scott was saying to do the deed. We wrangled a bit and compromised with my rather astute mention of Obama's gift for literary allusion, a fact which does, alas, do nothing to alleviate the concern that he is simply a more intellectually satisfying front for American interests.
And yet now, alas, the veil has been rent in two, the targets have been revealed, Ben has given the green light: you may fire when ready, Gridley! Funny thing, though, now that it's so obvious who's almighty God in this little drama, and who the devil,
we, and yes I mean we, hesitate. Playing devil's advocate, using fake names to mislead the imperious blogging principalities and powers, you know, this might just have legs! We've always agreed with Blake anyhoo on where Milton's sympathies lie, and lie they do. So, our hat's off to you Ben Fabricius Stephens, wherever you may be. You've played your hand well, and we look forward to further deceptions, ruses, and skullduggery. By such guerilla warfare mighty towers have been made to crumble, and empires have been driven to their knees. Not that anybody would wish to see America lose her privileged place in the world. No indeed. Though I may indeed say it with a Swiss accent, I say it in utter sincerity: May God bless America, bless her indeed. May the gift of divine grace be the burden lifted from her beknighted soul.

Yours in a holy hope,
Saint Egregious (oh, and could you use my first name once in awhile, Ben. It grieves me to be treated so formally all the time here!)
P.S. Alas, I like the word alas.

Jason said...

Obama is just doing what Roosevelt did after Hoover failed during the great depression, he's using the former president's failures to his advantage indirectly by making himself look cheerful, charismatic, word approaching: hopeful. He has run at a perfect time because he looks completely different than Bush and has divided himself with Bush even more by saying he uses a "Politics of Fear" and Obama obviously will use a "Politics of Hope".

It's the same with Roosevelt, it's the same with Reagan, and to be honest, if you are a politician and you aren't using the past Administrations mistakes to your advantage, you're an idiot.

Pieter Pronk said...

Ah, the wonderfull european art of self-reflection/criticism. After we self-reflect everything we are and make a "realistic" and mostly damning judgement of ourselves, we seem to take great pride in the fact that the Americans seem to lack our great skill in self-reflection. If only the Americans were as good at self-reflecting as we are. Our self-reflecting skills make us so much better at staying humble than the Americans. If only they could see that as well, and recognise us as their obvious superiors at self-reflecting.

Hope? oh, in the mouth of an American, without our skill at self-reflecting, self judgment and humility? Surely, nothing will be left of the notion of hope, when an American uses it...

elizabeth said...

i've just come across your blog accidentally and i have to say i am very impressed. this is a brilliantly insightful and balanced entry and i will be reading more of your work.
thanks and keep it up.

Falling off the Grid said...

I see where you are coming from Scott, but I think you are wrong. I am going leave Obama out of this and just focus on your premise. I don't think the consequence of numbness is due to anything inherent to America, other than it prosperity. Prosperity lulls people into apathy. The American dream so to speak is far from any kind of utopia, however you want to define that term. The American dream was built on struggle and I doubt you can stretch the definition of utopia to include the word "struggle". Nowadays, things do come a lot easier for many people in this country and this naturally leads to a sleepy public, oblivious to some major problems both within the country and around the world. But I would contend that this is a consequence of consumerism, which is quickly becoming a global culture, not just an American culture. Regan did luck out with his timing, he probably couldn't help but succeed as a leader considering his timing in the history of this nation. But America did face some major challenges in the 80's that weren't easily concealed from the collective conciousness of the American public. For instance, Iran Contra, the War on Drugs, Recession, record crime, the rise of terrorism, etc. I think that if you asked someone in their 40's which decade was better, the 80's or the 90's, most would say the 90's, despite the promiscuity of the President and several botched armed conflicts (which is similar to Carter, Ford and Nixon's administrations). The leader made little difference, it was the forward motion of the nation towards racial reconciliation, increased prosperity, political teamwork between parties, the rise of technology, etc. The leader is more of a reflection of the people, not the other way around. I think you are manufacturing a psyche that doesn't really reflect the American People. Thats my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

For a different view, visit:

Progressives for Obama

Anonymous said...

Has anyone considered that his language of hope comes from Scripture as interpreted from within the Black Church in the US? This would be much less rosey and ideal than the original post suggests.

To be sure, I'm not so naive to think it is purely this, but it seems to be a fact no one gives any attention. Why?????

Tim F.

Jon Trott said...

I'll be sorry tomorrow, but will vent today.

Shelby Steele? You mean, the same Shelby Steele who backed Hillary Clinton?! He's all about being black within the status quo, eh? I just have to love that bit of racialist nonsense... so warped I hardly know where to begin. If you (or Shelby) mean that he does in politics what Ali did in the ring, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," I'd have to agree. That isn't what you mean, though. What you seem to mean is that he is, to use old street lingo, "an oreo." Really.

As an Evangelical Christian who is -- as will be apparent -- wholeheartedly backing Obama, I readily admit that Obama's rhetoric can and will continue to occasionally overdo it re how massive a "Change" he can actually bring. But to compare him to Ronnie Raygun, other than being a populist (and popular in many circles) candidate is a bit humorous. Let's review why he is not merely a politician, but also a bit of a visionary:

* National Health care, but with a twist or two that might just make it passable through congress. I not only live with, but AM, poor (as in below the poverty line, so I have a vested interest in this issue).
* Nailing Bush / McCain on the war they wanted, got, and now want to continue and even expand to Iran. For this alone, I would vote for and contribute to Obama's campaign. Any self-respecting Evangelical should do so; we are singularly responsible for the "abortions" Bush and Cheney and McCain perform daily on Iraqis. That really ought to tick Christians off and embarrass us horribly, and the fact it doesn't burns me up.

* Someone who talks about Jesus, but doesn't baptize himself and his ideas in gawd-talk. I haven't even heard him misquote Scripture yet, though I don't think any president or presidential candidate can resist that. (No one will ever do it as well as GWB, though Bill Clinton wasn't a slouch.)

* Obama has not yet claimed to be able to "defeat Evil." Bush did so claim that. Repeatedly. Remember? And then he personified it instead. Obama as a new "branding" of America? Darn right. I just heard a European editorial cited on MSNBC wherein the writer noted that -- with Obama -- he was reminded of what America at its best might be. Now is *that* a bad thing? (Rhetorical question.)

* Obama's background in hope is not rooted in mere rhetoric (though thank God for rhetoric as long as it is intelligently-rooted rhetoric! More content-filled rhetoric, please!).

* Cynicism is always clever. It is the usual road thinking people take who really would rather not take the risk of being disappointed. But no risk means no hope. It's a faith thing.

* For the Christian, we are to be in the world yet not of the world. Hope rests in and on God, the Kingdom of God, and God's Word with its direct promises, examples, directives, and (to borrow some Dooyeweerd) "aspects" of reality viewed through the hope of that Word.

Hope is needed, not just wanted. Hope, focused upon a true Object capable of bringing hope to fruition. No earthly kingdom can do it; all promise they can (thus, nationalism). So... we will have to prophetic with Barack Obama as president, I fully realize. We have to bear witness more often against power, period, than we do for it. But to say that, while voting for Obama in the meantime, is to be in the world yet not of it. Obama does not save; Christ saves. Yet, after the past eight years, is this the time to start whining about Obama being merely a politician? Gag me. A really great politician is just what I'm looking for. And if he has some brains -- what a concept! -- along with a heart that seems to pump blood instead of oil, maybe I can dare hope we might end up with some half-decent governance around here.

That's how I'm voting anyway. Come on down to street-level Chicago and let's see why this hope thing might have real legs.

Sincerely, if a bit growly (and yes, overly rhetorical!),
Jon Trott

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