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Now We See You, Now We Vote

Norman Ball

"Want to be wherever nowhere will be, i.e. invisible!" – Kirpal Gordon, Eros in Sanskrit

I often feel a sense of 'stealing fire' whenever I contemplate a  sea-level change. Very recently, in one of hose odd moments of Dick van Dyke serendipity, I fell over the following Baudrillard quote:  "Metamorphosis abolishes metaphor, which is the mode of language, the possibility of communicating meaning." Here was a clue. At the moment of change we are least beholden to meaning, to the past, to our accumulated disappointments. We are momentarily invisible to ourselves. However  change merely plunges us into a new regime, a fresh configuration of grinding realities. The danger is that, as we act upon our feelings of hope, the new condition that we move towards (hope's ostensible end) can be ill-considered.

Of course change can be a pragmatic necessity as when we jump out of  the way of an oncoming train. All too often though the call for change is an abdication, a desire to escape dreary sameness. In this highly  seductive context, the new circumstances are, in an odd way, secondary to the enjoyment we derive when we move to embrace them --the great giddy rush of air that results when a tired promontory is vacated. The real end is not the changed condition per se, but rather the thrill of pondering a new identity in a new town. Who over the age of forty doesn't relish a clean slate?

In America we've developed a yen for 'the change thing'. We entertain change too much—largely because change is the source of so much entertainment. The question that needs asking is, are we indulging change-for-its-own-sake or are we making well-considered strides towards a more promising regime? Bringing this philosophical preamble down to the earthly realm of presidential politics, is Barack Obama—and to a lesser extent Mike Huckabee—the logical beneficiary of a cathartic change in the body politic or are they the latest straw-men in America's all-out pursuit of the pleasure principle? Or, to quote Sam Vaknin's landmark work on narcissism, is Obama only the latest dirigible, America's current 'grandiosity bubble' almost certain to deflate when the daily reality of holding office, with its myriad compromises, takes hold? On the heels of the equity bubble bust, real estate values launched their own outsized ascent. A President's fate is tethered to the business cycle. Quite unfairly, he either basks in the glow of prosperity or endures the epithets resulting from hard times. An economic determinist might argue that Obama owes his near-mythic stature to the recent collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. With the credit markets in disarray, perhaps he is the newest inflation, the latest evidence of America's reluctance to face a bubble-less horizon.

****

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes -

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he's a dummy.

—from 'The Change', Tony Hoagland

The other day on C-SPAN I watched Hillary Clinton getting roundly booed by Obama supporters. The most noise came during those moments when she offered her own rendition for bringing change to America. And this was at a New Hampshire State Democratic event! Hardly a hostile crowd, it was nonetheless an audience savoring the demise of an 'in-house' dynasty and relishing the prospect of change. But just how unpalatable had the Democratic status quo suddenly become? After all Hillary Clinton had  been the crowd's favorite just hours before. What really had changed?

Later that evening, Republican pollster Frank Luntz assembled a room of New Hampshire voters to solicit their impressions of the Democratic debate held earlier that day (and after the event described above). Remarkably almost the entire room had switched from Clinton to Obama over the intervening days and hours. So much for Clinton's thirty-five years of public service on Democratic-friendly causes. That had all slid behind a storm in a teacup. The crisis du jour? Clinton's visible irritation with both Obama and Edwards' characterization of her as a status quo figure during the evening's debate. Inquiring minds wanted to know, had her arched eyebrow flashed anger, irritation, arrogance or entitlement? How could such an eyebrow be allowed to inhabit the Oval Office? The  seasoned New Hampshirites Luntz had praised only moments before for their unflappable Yankee rectitude had bitten the easy fruit of the last visual image. Obama had just turned in a better performance than Clinton. The flat screen of television had flattened the experience disparity with frightening alacrity. I should also note that Luntz has been accused of staging infomercials with actors posing as voters. The surreality deepens.

I might add that Clinton's subsequent primary victory restored my esteem for that state's reputation as a reflective electorate. Mind you this is not meant as a disparagement of Obama; but rather an attempt to separate Obama the man from Obama the invisible man, that is, to extract him from his anthropomorphized role as a symbol of change. Obama the man may stillbe the superior candidate of the two. I wish to avoid polemics here. The fact that New Hampshire selected Clinton is evidence they resisted the change-at-all-costs theme. Whether they selected the right candidateremains a matter of opinion.

So much for my own superficial musings. My next-immediate thought was  that the butt-end of the present dynasty, George W. Bush, has, by way of an historically abysmal presidency unleashed a thirst for new beginnings beyond any sense of proportion—or partisanship. Suddenly the public's desire for change is like a flesh-eating virus. The status quo—any status quo—is prima facie radioactive. Bush has succeeded in putting even his committed enemies on the run to the extent that they, like him, labor under the burden of experience. Oddly, it's lame-duck Bush who has become the Clintons' worst nightmare with Obama the beneficiary of the anti-experience backlash. For avowed Clinton fans, it must be like having the baby thrown out with the bath water. The fact that Clintonian experience may be required to counter the Republican mud-slinging machine in the general election is, in the current heated moment, an unexamined probability. After all there are many reasons to dislike the Clintons. But should George Bush be one of them? Could the change train be overreaching? Certainly the current mood for change is as clear as it is veeringly reflexive. Out with the old, in with the new, whatever the old—or  new—may be.

The public's recourse to an antiseptic clean owes much to a Puritanic strain in the American psyche that whips up periodically with all the fervor—and mass hysteria—of a witch-hunt. Paraphrased, it is that wordly knowledge is the root of all evil. Resumes are trash bins. Today's political pendulum is on a mission, perhaps even a mission from God—certainly if Huckabee prevails. Unfortunately we may be holding our noses right into a trap. Do I hear Keats' negative capabilities banging about? Huckabee and Obama are Jimmy Carter in stereo, the latter a politician elected on the 'strength' of being someone we knew practically nothing about. With this aversion to flesh, surely Ralph Ellison's invisible man will one day occupy the White House. Flesh out fantasy and it quickly betrays a nervous tic; the manifold disappointments of a pock-marked, peopled landscape. In his poem 'Dear Derrida' David Kirby further plumbs the deconstructivist angle, suggesting that we may prefer that there be 'no them' as we've already concluded there is 'no us'. Weary of our leaders' asymmetric warfare, we yearn for a fresh symmetry, a face as invisible as our own:...

each was telling us that there is no us:
      that cultural structures
or the media or Western thought
      or the unconscious mind
or economic systems make us
      what we are or what we seem to be, since,
in fact, we are not, which isn’t such bad news,
      if you think about it, because it means
we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously.

Near the end of the poem, one of the characters chooses to ignore the advice of the speaker, opting with dead seriousness for the ultimate invisibility gig—suicide. Where the uninitiated sees in a new face a pig-in-a-poke, a believer sees salvific potential. The Huckabee and Obama fevers have all the earmarks of flights of fancy or tent revivals. Underlining the intensity of the change theme is the fact that both parties are reaching for the back of the rack in the same election year. Who could have guessed the far-reaching power of a credit crunch? Had the incumbent Gerald Ford not run in 1976, what Republican change agent might have taken his place? And wasn't Ford, author of Watergate's final chapter with his pardon of Nixon, himself a human sacrifice to change? It's a testament to the vagaries of a mirage that Carter's and Ford's estimations as Presidents have fallen and risen respectively with the passage of time. Political saviors are a reckless indulgence. This will sound world-weary, but shouldn't national crises elicit cries for experience? Connectedness, despite its pejorative connotations of griminess, will be crucial. Hit the ground running or die. You want a learning curve, go be President of Malawi. Things move more slowly there. You want a theocracy? Go live in the Vatican. We are also a consumer-driven culture more than we care to admit. This may further explain the outsized appeal of the outsider. However throwing naivete at intractable problems often deepens the intractability (the Carter years). Obama could be a prodigy. For now all that can be said is that he and Huckabee are new. Their shelf-dates notwithstanding, they will still be beholden to their respective parties where agents of change are routinely eaten for lunch.

We are in the boomerang phase of American idealism when we seek to innoculate ourselves from the world by finding the cleanest hands. During this phase, the notion that politics and dirt are essential bedfellows is ignored. America will not find the political savior it seeks in either of the major parties as the latter are well-oiled corruption machines. But please, no moralizing. It is what it is. And frankly, doesn't the world deserve an apology from Americans before Americans deserve a savior? Nor is morality bifurcated, especially in a society that, for all its ills, can still toss up 'unvetted' figures like Obama and Huckabee. The leaders and the led operate from the same moral compass. If 'they're all  crooks', then so are we. The fact is, THEY are what WE would be if only WE had THEIR political connections. So enough sanctimony from the amen chorus. Ina nation that spends approximately $10 billion a year on pornography, it's safe to say Puritanism is a bygone affectation. What the hell is apolitical savior anyway? Huey Long? Joan of Arc? Bart Simpson?

The business of politics does not yield readily to amateurs. Nor is denial-fueled idealism a viable path. We only end up idealizing the muck. The pragmatist asks, which venal politician aligns best with my own venalities—which politician will steer the country closer to my own or my children's plebian ends? These are the low-falutin questions that need to be asked. Currently they are being skirted. After Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Americans can be excused for wanting to sprint to a higher altitude. As forgivable as this impulse is though, it's still an impulse unleavened by rumination—or contrition. The crimes committed in our names will not be absolved by pretending we have a new fresh sheet of paper before us.

The world deserves the most experienced Americans we can find—now more than ever. It would be yet another exercise in national self-indulgence to flirt with a seductive new face which, like all new faces, will earn its derision soon enough. What we need is a little less mad science from the Great American Experiment after a disastrous start to the 21st century. So don't get your halos in a twist folks. In the final analysis, they're all just politicians. This is neither anti-Obama nor pro-Clinton screed, but an appeal for cooler heads—and the steadiest of hands.