the guiltiest pleasure

Norman Ball

[I wrote this essay shortly after the 2008 New Hampshire primary just as the Obama lovefest was shifting into high-gear, so circa January 2008. I sensed we were in the presence of a clinical charismatic and that a mass seduction was in the offing. Perhaps more people have subsequently come around to this view. Certainly they were hard to find in Democrat circles at the time. A couple of weeks before, around Christmas 2007, I had interviewed the late Alex Cockburn, editor of Counterpunch, and found to my surprise his chief fascination was with conservative evangelist candidate Mike Huckabee who himself was enjoying a surge on the Republican side. Though ideologically poles apart from the Arkansas minister, Cockburn marveled nonetheless at his populist appeal and shrewd political skills. Currently, Huckabee is exploring another run for the Presidency in 2016.]

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

     Between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I find myself tempted by the former for reasons that don't lend themselves to a cool reading of the facts. Am I caught up in a swell? In one of those odd moments of Jungian synchronicity, I stumbled over the following Baudrillard quote the other day:

     "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. This can makes us feel out of the woods. Out of body, out of danger. The contemplation of change can be an irresistible opiate.

     This is not an uncompromising assault on change, but rather an acknowledgement of its enormously seductive qualities and attendant capacity for leading us astray. Of course change can be a pragmatic necessity too, as when we must stop smoking or risk the loss of a lung. But all too often the call for change is an abdication, a desire to escape dreary sameness. Who over the age of thirty-nine doesn't relish a clean slate? In this seductively charged context, the new circumstances can, in an odd way, be 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. All too often, change is a sly riff on more-of-the-same, Eliot's 'gesture without motion'. We are plunged into a new regime, a fresh configuration of grinding realities. The danger is that, in the euphoria of acting upon our feelings of hope, the new conditions that we attain (hope's ostensible end) are not adequately considered. In fact the objective was never the changed condition per se, but the thrill of pondering a new identity in a new town. We crave hope and suffer change.

     America has a yen for 'the change thing'. We entertain change so much because few things entertain us quite so much as change. 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 Obama -- and to a lesser extent 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 work on clinical narcissism, is Obama only the latest dirigible, America's current 'grandiosity bubble' almost certain to meet a Hindenburghian fate when the daily reality of holding office, with its myriad compromises, takes hold?

     This will offend the transcendence-seekers, but a President's fate is tethered to the profane space that houses, for example, the business cycle. Quite unfairly, he either basks in the glow of prosperity or endures the epithets resulting from hard times. On the heels of the equity bubble bust, real estate values launched their own out-sized ascent. An economic determinist might argue that Obama owes his current mantle of expectancy to the recent collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. With the credit markets in disarray, perhaps he is the newest inflation, financial-engineering-made-flesh. Far from a seminal figure, Obama may simply be the latest symptom of a venerable disease, the latest evidence of America's reluctance to face a bubble-less horizon. Prozac, please.

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.

     My next-immediate thought was that the butt-end of the present dynasty, George W. Bush, has, by way of a 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 bathwater. 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. In a recent Charlie Rose appearance, Bill Clinton encapsulated the inherent unfairness of the prevailing calculus, arguing that, whereas Hillary was a proven agent of change, Obama was a symbol of change who had yet to demonstrate his effectiveness as an agent. Politically astute as ever, Bill was attempting to assuage what had become an unmistakable drumbeat: out with the old, in with the new, whatever the 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 worldly knowledge is the root of all evil. Resumés are the grates of accumulated ills and vices. 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 to match the untried potential of 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...

     Later on in the poem, one of the characters rejects the narrative's advice, 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 and an intractable war? 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. It's a world-weary refrain, but shouldn't national crises elicit cries for experience? Connectedness, despite its pejorative connotation of backroom bargaining, 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 naïveté 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 the newest of the new. Their shelf-dates notwithstanding, they will still be beholden to their respective parties where agents of change are routinely folded into programmatic realities.

     We are in the boomerang phase of American idealism when we seek to inoculate 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. In a nation that spends approximately $10 billion a year on pornography, it's safe to say Puritanism is a bygone affectation. What guise would a political savior take 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 qualified Americans we can find -- now more than ever. Whether that qualification involves old-school experience or a clean break with the past is a question best left to the collective wisdom of the electorate. I have elaborated my misgivings without suggesting a superior candidate. However, 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 -- for the newness of that face alone. 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 all suffer profound shortcomings as career party politicians. Cast off your wings, your fleeting desires, and with the steadiest of hands, vote your considered best for the future.

     *The essay appeared originally in the November 3rd (2008) Club Journal