Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Obama won't make it to the White House

It's pretty clear now that Obama is the only possible Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the US. Any other scenario would be suicidal for the Democratic party, which would permanently alienate African Americans and youth, even more radically than it did in 1968, when it ushered in more than four decades of conservative Republican domination of national politics. The Carter interlude was a fluke due to Watergate and Bill Clinton was elected only because of the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot in 1992. Clinton managed to be re-elected only because Congress was dominated by the Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, whose policies Clinton deftly endorsed. And in spite of that "collaboration", Clinton and the Democrats were humiliated by the farcical impeachment drama.

The political history of the US over the past 60 years can be divided into two parts:

1.the 50s and 60s, when the young generation not only took an interest in politics but sought to revise the values behind political decision-making. The beatniks and a generation of young culturally sensitive intellectuals put their mark on the culture of the Eisenhower years without directly influencing the politics. But their contribution to US culture (poetry, jazz, neo-folk and to a much lesser extent - in political terms - rock'n'roll, which initially played a more conservative role) helped to create the atmosphere in which it was possible to elect the young John Kennedy;

2. the three and half decades from 1972 onwards, when the wild generation that had been given a free reign of expression in the 60s settled down to business as usual and began managing the nation’s and the world’s resources, as the empire invited them to do.

Within two years of the Kennedy assassination, when I was still a teenager at UCLA, it occurred to me that the rapidly emerging hippie movement was the direct result of that event. There were, of course, a number of other contributing factors, not the least of which was British rock’n’roll that redefined the internal logic of that eminently commercial musical medium. But the elimination of the long-haired pioneer of a New Frontier (Kennedy's hair prefigured the Beatles) was an immense catalyst of unpredictable change. The replacement of the young image-conscious Bostonian Kennedy by Johnson, the power-conscious political insider from Texas, thanks to the hopelessly undemocratic means of an assassination, ultimately achieved its intended effect by pushing the socially structured, collectivist energy and creativity of the young generation back into a more traditional model of rugged individualism, which after a phase of communal experimentation outside the official polis, could easily evolve into the standard “every man for himself” ideology that is sometimes called “libertarian” (as if it were an actual “political philosophy”) but is essentially reactionary individualism. Tuning in, turning on and dropping out only lasted as a philosophy for a few years, but it produced a major shock during the transition. In the end, when the baby boomers dedicated themselves to securing their individual futures, it was Ayn Rand who had won the culture war thanks to an assassination… followed of course by two others in 1968: those of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

But let's jump forward in history. In another of those historical paradoxes that are magnified when they happen on US soil, George W Bush has single-handedly created a new political youth movement that has rallied around Barack Obama. The key to this identification is that he incarnates a true anti-war stance and represents an oppressed minority. An unpopular war and the challenge of electing a black to the presidency - recalling both the breaking of the tabu against Catholic presidents and the flowering of the civil rights movement - have combined to recreate an ambience similar to that of the sixties for young people. Hillary Clinton, by contrast to Obama, represents a “repressed majority” that is all the more irrational and unforgiving for not having to endure physical and economic hardship in its daily life, making it harder to “prove” the repression which it wants others to perceive as oppression. This has been on the ongoing drama of the radical feminist movement in the US, which has consistently been drawn towards a lobbying mentality and an ideological orientation, preferring various forms of intimidation and moral bullying to focusing on the raising civic awareness.

The atmosphere around the Obama campaign is similar to the years between 1960 and 1963 when Kennedy was elected to the White House. The only difference – apart from what may (if permitted) be called the fratricidal feminist rivalry that has not hesitated to tarnish it - is that Obama has not yet been elected and there’s good reason to think that he may not be elected, in spite of the inevitability of his nomination and polls showing that he should easily beat a John McCain who has foolishly (but logically) aligned himself with the most unpopular and risky policies of the Bush administration.

Chief among the foreseeable obstacles to Obama’s effective entry in the White House are 1) character assassination including racist and anti-Muslim swift boat style propaganda and lies 2) physical assassination, although this doesn’t seem to be as standard a feature of the power toolkit as it was in the sixties (partly because of increased difficulty of mounting a hermetically secure conspiracy in our electronically febrile and highly porous Internetworked world). There is of course one other possibility: a form of subtle insider political blackmail that would ensure Obama’s transformation into a safe and interested spokesman for the military-industrial establishment that has been running the show since the Eisenhower years, as Eisenhower himself anxiously pointed out just before leaving office.

All that is idle speculation, of course. What is more easily predictable and far more interesting is the effect that any of the scenarios that imply the brutal scotching of Obama’s hope and change campaign will have on the younger generation. Idealism and optimism have been key triggers of emotion throughout US history and have always been associated with what I would be tempted to call the “good” or feminine patriotism, clearly distinct from the more modern aggressive defense posture, masculine patriotism, based on protecting what has already been acquired, either by the country in its imperial realization of manifest destiny or by individuals as property accumulators, certainly a more accurate term than landowners. The deepest irony of this campaign is that Mr Obama represents feminine patriotism (maternal, supportive, seeking harmony) and Ms Rodham-Clinton represents the masculine patriotism that was easily drawn into the “logic of war”* in Iraq.

It should be remembered that in the US intelligence – and in particular subtle manifestations of it - is seen as a feminine trait akin to sentimentalism, contrasted with reflex action, preferably ruthless and potentially murderous, as masculine. Hamlet is, of course, an anagram of Thelma! The producers and writers of Last Action Hero with Schwarzenegger deftly reminded us of this cultural décalage (with added irony by presenting the story of Hamlet with images of the androgynous blond Hamlet created by Laurence Olivier and projected in a classroom by a teacher played by Joan Plowright, Olivier’s wife!).

In the West Virginia primary, exit polls showed that according to the Associated Press “three-fourths of whites without college degrees were backing Clinton.” Racism was also noticed as part of the pattern since this profile of poor, uneducated whites (traditionally the butt of the insult, poor white trash), “clinging” (as Obama had already pointed out) to the typically masculine values associated with insecurity and confidence in firearms rather than dogs as man’s best friend, is now considered to be the loyal base of Ms. Clinton, who knows that her best hope of gaining some sort of advantage – beyond seeming to be the masculine candidate – is playing to the fear many people still have of blacks and their need to believe that their own pale skin somehow makes them superior.

In other words, a major drama is now playing out between the masculine and feminine elements in the symbolism of US identity. You could even say that in the country’s very name, the adjective “United” represents the feminine and the plural noun “States” (a collection of autonomous individuals who aggregate only for questions of convenience… and defense) represents the masculine. Furthermore, the two have ultimately proved to be incompatible, a fact that may also be reflected in the evolution of the divorce rate over recent decades. In the red/blue split that has come to epitomize the Bush era, the reds are male and the blues female. Hillary’s 3 a.m. message to the electorate seems to be “better red than dead” as she appears to be willing to “embody” the Bush image of a strong, decisive leader, who may be wrong but will always be strong, rather than the clever juggler of ideas who may be right but will inevitably be the victim of those who are better armed (which is why all good law-abiding citizens should carry concealed weapons – especially in the intellectual space known as a campus - in order to be ready take down the villainous enemies among us).

In conclusion: if the feminine takes a hit this year, as it did with the assassination of John Kennedy (a man who was totally dependent on women, unlike John Wayne!), something is likely to go awry, the usual premises of social behavior will be wrenched in a different direction. No one can predict how that may play out and who exactly will be involved. But it may once again be a curious cultural alliance of young whites and the black community who will find a way of expressing a spirit of revolt, incarnated in the sixties by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock who parodied the extreme masculinity of the Star Spangled Banner. But there may be a great deal less joyful and carefree exuberance than the last time, when a belief in the right to continual prosperity was still in the background. And of course it was that core belief in the right to prosperity that brought things "back to normal" as the hippies left the communes to pursue their careers.

This time around it isn't sure that the belief in conquest and inevitable prosperity are sufficiently present in the background to ensure a safe issue from the cultural revolution born of sudden disappointment. So the real question for those who will do everything they can to protect the status quo from the risks of a black man who attended too many sermons by Rev. Wright is whether they can somehow avoid having the disappointment seem too brutal. Somehow, I don't think they even care. It is in the spirit of masculine US culture to look for the result and not worry about the consequences. The question is, will the patterns of the past hold true in the future. The answer is likely to be, as it always is: some will and some won't. The question is, which ones will and with what degree of force?

* ”Logic of war” is, I believe, a euphemism invented by François Mitterand to justify in advance the French participation in the first Gulf war. Although socialists clearly represent the feminine side more than the macho right, in a similar inversion to the Clinton/Obama one, Chirac was clearly a more feminine figure than Mitterrand, who was caricatured as “God the father”.