There is a Mike Judge film called Idiocracy. The film itself is quite poorly done, but its premise is intellectually spectacular (even plausible). It envisions a future where intellect is severely compromised because the poor continue to overpopulate and the rich, the educated, have increasingly smaller numbers of children until knowledge is lost and cretins rule the world. And it’s set in America.
Watching the US election process this year, this film kept coming back to me. It seemed off to me that the world’s most powerful nation had an almost puerile contest where few major ideas were discussed or considered, despite the intellectual prowess of both the contenders and the others they vanquished in the nomination process. It was, and Sarah Palin was the culmination, a glossed-up beauty contest.
When Richard Nixon was running against Kennedy, in one of their presidential debates to be televised (they were then far more about issues than politics seems to be today). Nixon was ill and hadn’t worn TV makeup, the lights made him sweaty and the illness yellow. Those who saw the TV debate thought Nixon lost the debate, but those who heard him on radio thought he won. And it’s been a downward spiral ever since TV rose to become the dominant medium.
I have been impressed by the way Barack Obama handled his campaign. He had a lot stacked against him: he is black, has a Muslim middle name (Hussein), opposed the reactionary patriotism of America in its vengeful imperialism and had the temerity to question the blind faith in capitalism that pervades the polity.
In his successful quest for the presidency, it seemed the whole world became Americans. Europe, Africa, the Middle and Asia, all seemed to endorse him, and it would be a discredit to him to suggest it was because they wanted to see a black man in the Oval Office to make symbolic reparations for America’s chequered past. The power and influence of America and the ideologues that ran the executive in the past eight years based on faulty ethnocentric doctrine has made the world a far more dangerous place to live for all of us.
Pakistan seemed to be a small exception because of a bravado remark Obama made that suggested he might invade the country. That was a truth exaggerated to kill the integrity behind the message. He simply said if the Americans were in hot pursuit of terrorists from Afghanistan they would continue till the job was done. That presumes that the people had engaged militarily with known enemy combatants of some stature, and it would be far better than the cold drones that kill people of questionable importance in terrorism in Pakistan, embarrassing our government and killing innocent civilians.
The charade of American politics that tries to capture truth from the ordinary, like Joe the Plumber, has hurt it immensely because it has dumbed down discourse. Most people may not remember, but before Joe the Plumber there was the Ponytailed guy in the debate between Bush Senior and Bill Clinton. The Ponytailed guy asked an incomprehensible and possibly naïve question to which Bill Clinton gave mock paternalism and an instabstantive answer that George Bush didn’t pander to as well as Bill did, a precursor to Joe the Plumber. The fact that Barack Obama had to give a tame answer to Joe the Plumber on the need to tax the rich was a sad commentary on the self-censorship to stave off the reactionaries in America to take up another red scare by a Democrat.
Now that Obama is president he needs to address the blind ambition of America, and its incompetence from hubris. He needs to realise Brand America is on the verge of recall in finance, possibly on the dollar and definitely in the military. He needs to realise that the way America treats its citizens needs to be reflected in how it treats the rest of the world. That what is good for America may be bad for it as well, such as corn fuel subsidies, rampant consumption that imperils this planet. And in many ways, he does acknowledge that, which gives us some hope too. Like Pakistan, he will be inheriting a country damaged by a benevolent dictator convinced of his own righteousness that imperilled his nation.
In Obama’s election some evidence came to light that he had friendships with people who held extremist and radical views, like the preacher at his Church. Obama did a good job of distancing himself from them. But I believe that somewhere inside him lurks a radical who will challenge the status quo, a corner of his soul that may not entirely believe in alternative views but enjoys discourse with them. That’s what America really needs.
The writer is a Rhodes scholar and former academic. Email: fasizaka @yahoo.com