September 7, 2009

The president considered as a downhill motor race

Filed under: Uncategorized — ubikcan @ 8:15 am

On Tuesday the president plans to deliver a short address (about 20-30 minutes) to the country’s schools on the virtues of hard work and staying in school. The last time we recall a president in the classroom was the whitish, frozen features of George Bush on that day in September. Presidents Reagan and Bush senior have also given their views to schoolchildren, in schools.

Why then is there a national outcry, with accusations of indoctrination and enforced “socialism”? We are obviously, sensitive to what children are exposed to in schools, which is why there are school boards at the local level. (One district said it couldn’t air the talk because everything has to be cleared by the presumably  ideologically conservative board.) Anyone with the regulation amount of grey matter would on the face of it be able to conclude that President Obama is neither a socialist (the liberals and the left find him all too much the neoliberal) nor doing anything unprecedented, nor really, delivering all that inspiring of a speech. “Stay in school,” “work hard” is hardly the stuff which lights up the soul, however necessary it might be to hear it from time to time.

So we are driven to consider other less surficial factors. The political climate we inhabit for one, is not conducive to logic. We have to acknowledge the big swirling dust storm that is the opposition to health care reform performing its vacuuming across the country. When Obama came into office he was extremely popular and that political capital was no doubt in need of being spent. Obama’s preferred approach however is to rely heavily on the virtues of conversation and reasoned debate rather than enforcement of political will. When health care was last undergoing attempted reform the Clinton’s took a much higher line–and failed. Yet when Clinton left office his ratings were among the highest of any exiting president (63% or so if I recall) and today he is still at the least grudgingly respected. Not so, president Bush junior or Carter, despite the latter’s endless good works. Unfortunately, the Clintons did not succeed in achieving reform.

In that context then, one in which a president is trying to move the country, the forces of opposition are already mobilised. Whether Obama is correct, and is applying the lesson of the Clintons by not forcefully stating his plan first but rather letting Congress develop it in an effort to be bi-partisan–well, this is a bet Obama does not seem to be winning. Reasoned debate and knowledgeable argument are rather like tentatively waving a stick at the duststorm (which you should imagine as a huge house-devouring blob from a 1950s sci-fi movie). It’s a classic downfall of liberalism: that the right facts and good will can capture hearts and minds. For liberals of this bent, the power of knowledge alone should trump the game.

But they forget rule 1: knowledge is never alone. This is why Foucault spoke of power/knowledge. It’s that huge lightning-ridden storm looming over the town’s water tower, growing and growing.

Let’s also see that the president is an unlikely figure around which to unite the country (so was Bush junior; his ratings after 9/11 fell and fell and fell and he exited at a broken trans-axle, metal-grinding rating of what, 28%?). How much of this is because he’s black? We were warned of this during the election. Old divisive lines across the country are being reactivated. The racisms which faced the 1960s civil rights movement? If they’re not back, they’re awakening. Yes, Obama is half-white and we thought that a symbol of national unity. But he’s called an African-American and his family is black and he’s in power and there’s a global recession. Hatreds have sprung from much lesser things.

There are three other reasons I’ve seen liberals point to for the current animosity. These are the center-right media, the complicity of the conservative leadership, and the bum-fluff response of Democrats. All are familiar and truly relevant, especially the first one, but they are also the kind of argument that pervaded the West Wing. Now that was a show that believed in the redeeming powers of knowledge yet paradoxically leveraged the entire history of Hollywood movie-making to manipulate our feelings (remember the Whiffenpoof episode? We cried). But you can’t have it both ways.

No doubt on some academic panel somewhere in the country there has been a reasoned health care debate with facts, figures and knowledgeable participants that did not sink to cross-talk and shouted talking points. A video shot round the left blogs of Senator Franken calmly discussing the subject in front of a woman wearing a shirt with the droll message “Taxed Enough Already Party” where the initial letters of the first three words were acrostically-displayed against the last word–tea party, geddit). From anger to acceptance via reasoned discourse! But these are small settings with restrained participants. No such patterns can be mapped on the national landscape. TV rules politics (still, yes despite blogs) and the right rules TV–why, well because elites still matter in this country and elites want to protect, ie conserve, their status. We have not become more equal, we have only become more diverse.

This little side-storm, spun off from the main one (to continue the visual) is symptomatic then. When liberals were dunked in the waters of le droit, like Achilles their heels were gripped by their mothers, and they left a mortal weak spot. Liberals call themselves “reality-based” as Colbert parodied in his speech to Bush (“reality has a well-known liberal bias,” hence, the need for “truthiness” or what should be true). They say this because they have knowledge, facts, even truths. But as creationists know, you cannot be killed by any of these.

So on Tuesday the controversy that you’ll see will be another indication of the downhill race to the bottom. I almost wrote that the controversy would be meaningless, but of course it’s all too meaningful.

Title with apols to J G Ballard.


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