Tuesday, October 05, 2004

That B-Movie meme again

I've written before on how the political discourse in the West is all about nostalgia and reducible to the B-movie aesthetic of politics as theatre. I was struck by this again when watching one of the sunday morning political talk shows this weekend, hosted by Howard Kurtz on CNN, that what seemed to be important was not what the news was, but how it was discussed by the press and the talking heads.

The talk was all very meta, ironic and all about the imagery and spin. The realities of another bloody weekend in Iraq didn't even impinge on the discussion in any way, nor was there any policy analysis of the issue du jour, the presidential debate. The implication was that we are all too sophisticated to discuss substance, what mattered was how these politicians came across, how they looked, whether they picked their nose. They might as well have been baying sheep for all these commentators cared.

In much the same vein, here is Tom Engelhardt commenting on the first Bush-Kerry debate:

Presidential fiction on the morning after

"One irony did strike me as I watched a rare only half-controlled Bush performance where he did not look like his usual relaxed, folksy self: The Republicans love to denounce Hollywood, but they have proved the most fabulous purveyors of fiction and seductive imagery in our recent political history. Reagan may have been our official actor-president, but George has been much underestimated for his ability to act out both the roles of 'George Bush' and of the President. Even the debate agreement document itself, all 32 pages of it, had the detail of a Hollywood agent's contract with a big studio -- and Bush family consigliere James Baker was that agent.

Normally surrounded by blanketing 'security,' the President's campaign road events -- with their carefully reserved tickets, their choreographed chants and softball questions, their air of private theatrical performances only open to invited (or paying) guests -- have all the easy, repetitive smoothness of a Little Mermaid-like stage show at Disneyland. Far more than in any other campaign of our lifetime, the Bush campaign, until tonight, has really been a fabulously successful cartoon version of politics, buffered from any reality whatsoever. Unscripted realities have generally been kept well out of sight in blocked off protest zones and when anyone has crashed the campaign's space -- anyone, that is, wearing the wrong t-shirt or protesting in any way -- that person has almost instantly been airbrushed away. Who else has ever created such a self-enclosed political universe, so -- as everyone likes to say -- 'on message'? (And imagine that, at any given moment, there are not one but two performances taking place -- the second being a carefully coded set of signs and signals for the President's fundamentalist Christian audience.)

And what about the President himself with that wonderful walk of his -- not on display at the debate this evening -- slightly bow-legged as if he had just dismounted from a horse before striding on stage, the shoulders curved forward, the head held just in front of the body, the hands hanging at (but off) his sides as if he were indeed a mythic cowboy, a gunslinger ready to draw. (Never mind that, just out of sight, the outlaws have taken over the sheriff's office and are performing their own version of A Fistful of Dollars.)

Of course, this country's greatest and most seductive export has always been imagery (and the fictions that went with it): whether films from the Hollywood production line, TV shows that have sometimes turned much of the world into the equivalent of couch potatoes, or ad mini-dramas that travel the planet as our ambassadors, outdoing every other form of alluring fiction.

As it happens, the Bush administration's skills have been dazzling and attractive only domestically. As a Hollywood extravaganza, their campaign would be an instant failure because there would be no foreign box office. But if your goal is power at home and the world be damned, then the George machine has been a remarkably effective image producer, given the minimalist materials at hand. (Think Iraq, the price of a barrel of oil, jobs in America, or the economy generally.) Whether or not that was changed by the first debate I don't know, but it's enough to drive you bonkers. His 'ranch' in Crawford isn't actually a ranch; his 'Texas' youth happened mostly in the East; his 'military service' wasn't really military service; his 'success' in business was a sham; little that he said in his last debates against Al Gore bore any relation to the policies he's since pursued (remember his humility about 'nation-building efforts' back then); his Iraq, of course, isn't Iraq; his version of war, learned in the movie theaters of his childhood, bears no relation to war; and so on into some clean, well-lighted nightmare of the soul.

The flamboyant enemies he's preferred -- Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and now Abu Musad al-Zarqawi -- have themselves been fascinated by our image-making skills and have been into making their own images and fictions in imitation of the Hollywood that turned out Predator, Alien, and any number of catastrophe films."
These days, I'm more concerned with the campaign my mum is waging in Ghana for the Ho West constituency. Politics in Ghana, and espcially the region she is campaigning in, is still very primitive. People are so poor, living barely above subsistence that all incumbents had to do to in the past to get their votes was drop a few bags of rice and a couple of chickens, if that. Slogans or policies mattered for naught. And yet there was no tangible reward for these people for their 95% votes. No infrastructure, no roads, no running water or electrictity. And still there would be those who would vote 6 times in row if there was any difficulty with the polling - much to my uncle's disgust in the last election. At least in the US, your senator would throw some pork your way, some highway contracts or bridge, some pet scheme of some sort.

There's a heady challenge in trying to reverse 18 years of absolutism and incumbency let alone if you're trying to elevate the political discourse. So you need the printed t-shirts, the bicycles, the megaphones. You need to look good, you need to be almost a charicature, your message almost doesn't matter.

The West has shown that endpoint of politics is this sad Kerry-Bush road show. I almost wish that this weren't the future of Ghanaian politics say in 20 years time. But it is. It's that B-Movie theory again, I'm sad to say.

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