The Death of Politics
From The New Criterion.
March 31, 2009.
There’s something rather touching about the Public Service Announcement I often hear on the radio for a Multiple Sclerosis charity that invites us to imagine "a world without MS." The progress of science and medicine has, after all, given us a world pretty nearly without smallpox and polio. Where there are reasonable public health facilities — not, alas, in Zimbabwe at the moment — the world is also without cholera and typhus. Sooner or later we all look forward to the "cure for cancer" and other diseases, including MS, and some starry-eyed futurologists even dare to imagine the eventual death of death. Yet one of the drawbacks of this kind of easy faith in progress — a young workmate of mine 30 years ago used to dismiss the risk of cancer from his incessant smoking on the grounds that, by the time he got it, they were bound to have discovered a cure — is that it too often leads to a simple-minded progressivism towards things about which it is neither reasonable nor harmless to buck ourselves up in troubled times by imagining an end to. Among these things are those perennial utopian favorites for outlawry, war and poverty.
A few weeks ago former Senator George McGovern, America’s own, undisillusionable Candide, took to the pages of the Washington Post to call on our new President to declare a moratorium, "a five-year time-out," on war.
During that interval, we could work with the U.N. World Food Program, plus the overseas arms of the churches, synagogues, mosques and other volunteer agencies to provide a nutritious lunch every day for every school-age child in Afghanistan and other poor countries.. . .There will always be time for another war. But hunger can’t wait.
Odd, isn’t it, how these quasi-pacifists seem to see war as a kind of sporting event, a bit of self-indulgence that we ought to have the decency to postpone, at least, when there are hungry children needing to be fed? But why stop at five years? If it is as simple a matter as this to call "time-out on war," why not just, well, neglect to call "time-in" again? Why not do away with war altogether and put the whole of the defense budget into nutritious lunches? Senator McGovern does add the stipulation, "unless, of course, there is a genuine threat to the nation," but this merely begs the question about the particular wars he deprecates, Iraq and Afghanistan, which certainly seemed to those who took us into them, as well as — at the time — majorities of the American people, to involve genuine threats to the nation. When has a war not been able plausibly so to represent itself to pluralities of the public?
"I’m aware that some of my fellow Americans regard me as too idealistic," notes the 1972 Democratic standard-bearer against Richard Nixon. (Well, that’s one thing they regard him as being.) "But sometimes," he adds, "idealism is the best realism." There is no answer to that. Sometimes almost anything can be the best form of almost anything else, but as a statement about the world it is as perfectly empty of content as Bobby Kennedy’s dictum, borrowed from another famous innocent, G.B. Shaw, about how "some men look at things as they are and ask, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’"
I’ve always wondered if either Shaw or Kennedy ever actually did ask "why not?" — in a non-rhetorical fashion, I mean. If so, why had there been no one standing by to supply them with any of the many excellent answers to the question of why things that had never been had not been? Not that that would have stopped either from dreaming any more than it did George McGovern, who took up the leadership of the anti-war Democrats after Kennedy was assassinated. There are, after all, plenty more such dreamers today, most of them sporting "War is not the answer" bumper stickers.
The utopians, like the poor I suppose, we have always with us, but I don’t think we have ever elected one to the presidency before. It is not fanciful, I fancy, to say that a good part of the reason why Mr McGovern was buried under Nixon’s electoral landslide was that people — including many of his fellow veterans of World War II who were then alive and now are not — could see even then something of the man’s na veté and otherworldliness now so clearly on display in this bizarre idea for a "time-out" to war, as if the world were some kind of macrocosmic kindergarten class that he had found himself inexplicably placed in charge of. At the time, I seem to remember, this same na veté expressed itself not only in his anti-war unilateralism but also in an equally bizarre scheme to end poverty — another of those "why nots?" I suppose — by having the federal government send a check for $1000 to everybody.
Of course, one thousand dollars was a lot more money in 1972 than it is today, and a family of four in many parts of the country might actually have been able to live on $4000 a year. The change since then is mainly because of the inflation that another gang of crypto-utopians wished upon the country at about the same time by treating money as the creation of the government rather than a measure of the economy’s productivity. But at least the debasement of the currency took place off the political stage, among the technocracy. No one ever went to the American people and asked them to vote to create massive amounts of fiat money, and my confidence in the people’s good sense, circa 1972, leads me to think that I know the reason why not. Now, President Obama has come before the children and grandchildren of the voters of 1972, making the sort of promises — free universal health care, millions of "good" jobs — that Mr McGovern himself might once have blushed at making, and they have elected him for it.
Actually, I think it not quite true that he was elected for his utopian promises, about which there must be at least as much popular skepticism as there is about non-utopian promises from politicians. Rather, he was elected because he seemed like something more, something better than a politician — as, in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s cover story for the week after the inauguration, "President Rock Star." I think it no derogation from the new President’s undoubted charisma that this was not just because of who he is. It was also partly because of who he isn’t. George W. Bush, for one. As I pointed out last month in this space, the extravagant hopes placed in Mr Obama are merely the corollary of the equally extravagant loathing for his predecessor felt by so many of those who harbored such hopes. But there is good reason for thinking that it was politicians in general and not just President Bush that people thought they were rejecting when they voted for Barack Obama.
Readers with memories that stretch back as far as November of 2007 may recall that, as I reported at the time, the self-same epithet of "rock star" was bestowed on Hillary (and Bill) Clinton when the lately-concluded presidential campaign was just getting underway, and it looked to many as if she would be her party’s nominee. I wondered then why it should have been thought a good thing for a potential major-party nominee to be a rock star, assuming it to have been true that Mrs Clinton was one. (Once.) Have we not rock stars enough who are, well, rock stars to have elected one as our president by now if we had thought that being a rock star was any sort of qualification for the office? But the media hysteria surrounding, first, Mrs Clinton and, later, Mr Obama, must have corresponded to some genuine desire among a large segment of the population for a rejection not just of "politics as usual" but of politics itself. For that is what seems to me to be the implication of this welcoming of mere celebrity into the White House.
It’s probably true to say that the overwhelmingly Democratic sympathies of other celebrities would have made any nominee of that party less charismatically challenged than John Kerry into a rock star, but there can be no doubt that Barack Obama fit the desired mold better than most. Noting that he figures as Spidey’s superheroical partner in the latest number (583) of The Amazing Spider-Man, Benjamin Svetkey wrote in Entertainment Weekly:
He’s barely been in office long enough to figure out where they keep the cappuccino machine, yet the new president is already a superhero-size pop icon. . . He’s covered with gusto by both The New Republic and the celebrity media, and has even inspired a London musical: Obama on My Mind opens in Islington this March. A Lifetime TV movie can’t be far behind. He’s bigger than Britney. Bigger than Beyoncé. Bigger even than Brangelina. Looks like John McCain was right, after all. Obama truly is the biggest celebrity in the world.
Yes, but the more interesting point to make is that it looks like Senator McCain was wrong in supposing that this would be a disrecommendation if not a disqualification for the presidency, which was the point of his saying it. After all, we have had celebrities in the sense that the term is used today for at least a century, but we’ve never before thought to put one of them into the highest office in the land, however celebrified some have become on leaving it. Could our having done so now have anything to do with the fact that, as EW went on to note, Mr Obama "is the most pop culturally clued in president in the history of the republic"?
Once I would have agreed with Senator McCain, in thinking (or at least hoping) that being too pop culturally clued in, like being a celebrity, would have hurt a man’s chances of being elected to anything, let alone the presidency. Who, I might have asked myself, could possibly want to put a rock star in charge of the nuclear football? Even rock stars might once have hesitated. But now, the answer seems to be, just about everybody. "We’re hungry for a new leading man to refresh the American franchise (you know, the way Daniel Craig did with Bond). And maybe that’s the best explanation for the Obamamania leading up to the inauguration," as Mr Svetkey concluded his article.
The guy we swore in as president last Tuesday can’t squirt webs from his wrists, but he’s already shown he can do some pretty amazing things. He can alter history with a single bound up the Capitol steps. He can bend the Zeitgeist with his bare hands (and a good speech). He can’t change the course of mighty rivers, but who knows, maybe he’ll be able to change the discourse of a mighty nation.
As for the discourse part, he seems to have done that already. It’s not always noticed how much of the prevailing mode of approach to celebrity in that same pop culture the new president is allegedly so clued in about is ironical. Elsewhere, Entertainment Weekly itself can be remarkably snarky about the celebrities it idolizes as if, before its writers can get on with their breathless adoration, they had to remind their readers — and perhaps themselves as well — that they really know better. At some level, they must recognize the absurdity of worshiping at the shrines of such non-entities as most celebrities are in, if the term can mean anything anymore, "real life." But not in the case of President Obama. At least not yet. He is a completely irony-free zone, as much in The New Republic as in Entertainment Weekly. The former’s cover story the same week was titled, "The New Man" and began. "Of all the contradictions embodied by Barack Obama, none is more fascinating than the tension between his clear instinct toward idealism and his equally apparent devotion to pragmatism."
That’s the high-brow way of saying he’s "a superhero-size pop icon." In other words, he’s got it all, and there’s nothing we have to give up to get it. Like being a celebrity, being all things to all men used to be thought a criticism of a political leader, but that too has gone by the board. So it should not be surprising that when, in his inaugural address, the superhero icon, using the royal "we," said that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," there was no one among the throng of his admirers to point out that he was simply wrong. There are numerous examples from the last eight years of cases where there was, indeed, a very clear choice between our safety and our ideals. As Alasdair Palmer wrote in the (London) Sunday Telegraph
One example is the plot in the summer of 2006 to blow up five passenger jets leaving Britain over the Atlantic. That plot was foiled by the British police. It was foiled on the basis of information provided by the Pakistani intelligence service, who acquired it by torturing Rashid Rauf, the alleged leader of the plot. I doubt that anyone who believes that it is right to protect our security would say that it was wrong to use that information to prevent the attack. But doing so involves seriously compromising our ideals, for it means abandoning our ideal of an absolute prohibition, not just on torture, but on its fruits. Inevitably, it provides an incentive for countries that are not allowed to use torture, such as the US and the UK, to hand terrorist suspects over to countries that do. And that, of course, is what has happened. Obama's insistence on banning all forms of coercive interrogation by American officials means it is likely to happen more frequently in the future.
In other words, the previous administration, in at least some of these cases, chose our safety over our ideals. That may have been a wrong choice. Perhaps the new administration will even make the other one — at some cost to its reputation for "pragmatism." But that doesn’t mean it was or will be a false choice. Though Mr Obama attributed the country’s economic problems to a "failure to make hard choices," he himself failed to mention even one such choice that he might make. On the contrary, like so many of his admirers, he seems to have a stake in trying to make us believe that there are no hard choices, just as he himself doesn’t have to choose between being idealistic and pragmatic. He’s two, two, two mints in one! The language of advertising, brought to us by postmodern irony and an infatuation with celebrity, has also dropped its irony to captivate a whole political class which once would have damned it utterly.
The politics of celebrity is, first and foremost, moralistic. Though celebrities love to think of themselves as "controversial," the point of their intervention in politics is always to abolish controversy. About that favorite celebrity cause, global warming, for instance, Al Gore and the other celebrities keep telling us there is no controversy. It is not a political but a moral issue. Those who oppose their position on what is to be done about "climate change" — assuming they have such a position and not just a posture — are not political opponents but wicked and immoral. And — what do you know? — they are often the same wicked and immoral people who lied in order to engage in an immoral war or pursued terrorists by immoral means. Or who brought about economic crisis by failing to make "hard choices." Or, as the new President said in another part of his inaugural address, gave way to "petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
On the contrary, say I, these things are our politics and always have been. And those politics are, in fact, being strangled by the moralists and practitioners of celebrity politics like Messrs Gore and Obama. The latter’s first order of business on being inaugurated was to adopt a massive spending plan proposed by the long-frustrated big spenders on Capitol Hill under the name of "stimulus" for the anaemic economy and then to accuse those who opposed so obviously moral a course of action of engaging in "politics"! "In the past few days," the President said,
I’ve heard criticisms of this plan that echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis." — the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive. . .I reject these theories, and by the way so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change.
Pace the President, I doubt that the "change" the American people voted for was away from these or any other "failed theories." In any case, the first of them is one that nobody believes or ever has believed — a projection, perhaps, of his own utopianism onto the opposition; the second is not a "fundamental challenge" but, on most economists’ view, an impossibility. The third is something that couldn’t be ignored even if we wanted to, though how vastly increasing federal spending on health care is supposed to lower the cost of it is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, the real objection to the "stimulus bill" was ignored. There are many things that "helped lead us into this crisis" but the "theory" that the government shouldn’t be spending money wildly in excess of its income, no matter how good the cause, was emphatically not one of them. It could hardly be said to have "failed." But celebrity politics can cast the advocates of fiscal prudence in the role of villain as easily as it can anyone else who would gainsay the wish of our celebrity, our superheroical, pop-culturally clued-in president. Once again, as it did in the media throughout the Bush years, the theatre of public life is presenting only morality plays — with Republican "partisans" and the wicked practitioners of "politics" as the heavy, now that George W. Bush has gone back to Texas. This is presumably what the celebrity culture demands. But moralized politics is no politics at all. The governance of the country cannot simply be turned over to morality without any need for politics. That is an even more utopian notion than a "time-out" for war or the abolition of poverty. And yet the media, for once in tune with the mood of the country, seem to have slipped into it as into a warm bath and breathed a sigh of relief. At last! No more politics!