Monday, June 9, 2008

History Dickery Dock

It's one thing to be told that you're living in historic times. It's another to be told that not only must you happily appreciate this, you should enthusiastically applaud the fact, regardless of personal doubts or criticisms.

Since Obama secured the Dem nomination, we've been buried in applause lines and self-congratulation. Imagine, a country that once considered people of African descent as property, then as third-class citizens, might actually elect a black man as president. Aren't we special? Aren't we so open-minded and unique? Why, only 40 years ago, Obama might well have been beaten by racist cops and attacked by racist dogs for wanting only to cast his vote. Now, we can vote for Obama and undo that nasty history which is more or less over, and even if there are places where black voters are disenfranchised, well, no nation's perfect, but America comes pretty darn close. So, get on your feet, all of you. Get on your feet and applaud and cheer our collective evolution. We deserve it.

Hey, beats thinking about the real world.

But then, in a depoliticized, hyper-stimulated society like ours, such behavior is to be expected. Presidential campaigns long ago ceased having anything to do with actual politics, and emphasize personalities instead. This has been the case for some time, but until now, the personalities were middle aged or old white men. George W. Bush versus John Kerry was particularly tough to glamorize, as there was only so much that glittering paint could mask.

Obama and Hillary changed all that. The imperial manager selection process received a much-needed jolt of fresh energy, and whether you liked or loathed the leading Dem candidates, you couldn't ignore their presence, their verve. After eight years of Texas oil magnate rule, the system desperately required rebranding, and millions of consumers wanted to believe that the system still worked. Obama and Hillary served both functions and more. Not only are countless Americans filled with PR-enhanced pride, the country's owners are probably breathing a sigh of relief. The rubes are back in the star spangled tent, tossing flowers, smiling, dancing.

You see this pretty much everywhere at the moment, and I'm sure the celebrations will intensify as the summer drags on. What else is there to do? But I was somewhat thrown by Katha Pollitt's take in the recent Nation, though I really shouldn't have been. She too is feeling all historical and stuff, telling her readers regarding Hillary:

"Because she normalized the concept of a woman running for President, she made it easier for women to run for every office, including the White House. That is one reason women and men of every party and candidate preference, and every ethnicity too, owe Hillary Clinton a standing ovation, even if they can't stand her."

Not just applause, but a fucking standing ovation. Actual politics, or even the philosophy and ideology that may animate politics, is a secondary concern, if it's a concern at all. Hillary showed that a woman could seriously run for high office. What she would do if elected isn't all that important, at least when compared to the symbolism of her candidacy. This is why Pollitt urges those "of every party" (the Sparts, too?) to leap up and cheer Hillary. Personality trumps politics every time, that is, if you want to be taken seriously as a political commentator.

That Hillary encountered some truly misogynistic behavior on the trail does not beautify her squalid politics, which in this campaign included conscious race-baiting of Obama. Yet if you take Pollitt's hand, Hillary's ugly views soften in focus, but cannot be erased completely. Pollitt acknowledges this, mentioning Iraq and the probable racism of a portion of Hillary's supporters. Pollitt's not even sure that she can trust Hillary to get behind Obama, but in the end, these doubts fade as Pollitt advises Hillary to throw some history mojo at Obama, since, once elected, he'll "pursue policies to benefit all women -- on labor, healthcare, sexual violence and many other issues." I bet the Concerned Women for America can't wait.

It's instructive to contrast Pollitt's fantasies and projections about Hillary and Obama against her slagging of Nicholson Baker's excellent, horrifying book, "Human Smoke." Over 474 pages, Baker slowly, carefully describes the inevitable march to the Second World War, demystifying official heroes and myths, showing the similarities between democracies and tyrannies when it comes to nationalism and total war, and amid the madness, Baker elevates the period's pacifists as the true champions of freedom and human rights. This enraged Pollitt: "By the time I finished the book I felt something I had never felt before: fury at pacifists."

Now, taken alone, that's not necessarily a terrible statement. Depends on your view of violence, state-backed or otherwise. When I finished "Human Smoke," I didn't share Pollitt's fury; I merely felt sadness, not only for those whose prescription for humanity had absolutely no chance at that time (or probably any time), but for the human race overall. I don't believe that WWII was a "good war," but it was an inescapable one, given the geopolitical realities of the period. Still, it seems a bit odd to be furious with long-dead people who opposed the mass slaughter from the beginning, and who had zero influence over those waging war. For these people, Pollitt has contempt. For Hillary Clinton, who is dripping with Iraqi blood, who spoke about obliterating Iran while backing Israeli violence against Lebanon and Gaza, Pollitt has admiration, and insists that we share it and express it, despite what we really think about the woman. I only hope that Pollitt didn't wear her good shoes when standing to applaud her hero.