Monday, January 12, 2009

“Things do not change; we change.” Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau

An NPR report this morning put Obama and Bush talking points side by side to show just how alike the outgoing President and incoming President are beginning to sound.

Obama, for instance, campaigned saying he would shut down Guantánamo Bay and ban torture, upon taking office, but now says he won’t be closing the controversial prison during his first 100 days in office. “It’s more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” he says. (No shit.) He’s also beginning to show a lot more admiration for the security and intelligence community, and while still vowing to ban torture, he says he doesn’t want these highly “talented” professionals to constantly be looking over their shoulders.

I saw this coming a long way back. It’s not just that things start looking different after one gets a White House briefing, though there is that, and it’s not just that Presidential candidates say anything to get elected, even things they can’t possibly back up, though there is that too.

Fundamentally, it’s a matter of there being a narrowly constricted prototype for who gets to run for President in either major party, superficial differences of style and tone aside—ambitious, narcissistic, malleable front men (and women) for the interests of the real (mostly out of the spotlight) powerbrokers. “Liberal” and “conservative” stopped being anything more than branding at the top levels of government long ago. Goodbye, Adlai Stevenson. Goodbye, Barry Goldwater. Hello, Mickey Mouse.

I’m not saying there weren’t important differences between Obama and McCain. There were. But the principal differences were stylistic, tonal, and symbolic—citrus-scented gel versus ocean-breeze foam.

McCain downplayed the God theme (letting his running mate pick it up in alto), while Obama played it up—not so much as to carry the whole tune, but certainly enough to be resoundingly heard, particularly in churches in the South. Both candidates swore to keep America rich, heterosexual, family centered, and gun toting … if not bearing those arms in Iraq, then perhaps in Iran. No less than the Republicans, the Democrats find it necessary to assuage the key lobbies—for China, Israel, oil, and banks and other lenders … what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” in his unheeded warning to Americans as he left office back in 1961.

And I’m not saying that the Presidency cannot be a tool for real change. It can … and usually is. The change, however, is mostly subtle and cultural—not so much a revolution, as emerged repeatedly with varying success during the Enlightenment, as a makeover … you know, like pink is the new tan, or whatever.

In my cynicism, I believe that no substantive change will happen in America without another bloody revolution and that Americans today have no stomach for revolution, bloody or bloodless. Like “liberal” and “conservative,” the word “change” (bandied by both parties last year) has become just another unique selling proposition, like “new and improved,” which legally requires only a change of marketing—i.e. adding “new and improved” to the package makes a product new enough and improved enough to satisfy government standards for truth in advertising.

Still, it is my “hope” (vague word—desperately in need of substance) that Obama’s symbolizing of change can stimulate real systemic and cultural changes for the better of the nation and the world. As a student of art and literature, I know that symbols have considerable weight—they affect behaviors, attitudes, choices, and meaning, and they can sway history. But we have to remember that change is not inevitably for the good, so we need to bolster our hopes with wariness, inquiry, and shitloads of clamor.

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