Obama’s Debord-ian Dog Whistle

I have previously suggested that in not releasing the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, President Obama was deliberately seeking to break out of the logic of bin Laden and the Bush Administration’s war of dueling spectacles (“World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton, 20 October 2011). I made this suggestion somewhat farcically. Has President Obama set himself against the spectacle? Effectively he may have — and that’s intriguing in itself — but has he done so consciously, intentionally? Has the President read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Or does the President have some ideas whose provenance is unknown to him? Are French Marxist theories of capitalist propaganda and false consciousness influencing U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism? It doesn’t even rise to the level of surmise.

But then last night I was listening again to then candidate Senator Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech (Wikipedia | YouTube), delivered in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy (National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008), where he says the following about racial controversies (starting at 28:56 in the video):

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Two points:

  1. In common use, the word “spectacle” is an indefinite noun. People who aren’t invoking the theories of Debord would say, “We can tackle race only as a spectacle”. “Spectacle” used without an article, or “the spectacle”, with an article indicating a proper noun, are how people with Debord on the brain use it.

  2. As a brief explanation of the machinations of the spectacle, one that appeals to common language and experience, this is not bad.

At this point I think it is within the realm of possibility that President Obama has consciously and intentionally set himself against the spectacle. Of course President Obama is not a radical, but a meliorist and an incrementalist (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”). He is not about to explode the spectacle tomorrow. Audacity is apparently formal; it is for hope, ambition, dreams. Small opportunistic (almost Clintonian) victories are for real-world policy. But I think when the opportunity presents itself, President Obama does seek to reject and counteract the logic of the spectacle.

I don’t want to throw fuel on the right-wing illuminati — this is like my own little D’Souza-esque conspiracy — but how strange would it be if President Obama were engaged in covert acts of sublimated high philosophy, if the ideas of Guy Debord were actually influencing the President’s thinking about strategy in the war on terrorism and cultural narratives in media? If the U.S. had actually, explicitly (at least in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief) broken with the logic of dueling spectacles, to — I don’t know what — something else, it would as if Nietzsche’s “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” (Beyond Good and Evil §285) were playing out right here in the Capital today.

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World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton

The holiday from history ends and the war on terrorism begins with the spectacle of September 11th. The Bush administration decided to make dueling spectacles of the war on terrorism when it opened the war on Iraq with “shock and awe”. The logical conclusion of the first major arc of the war on terrorism would have been the spectacle of Osama bin Laden’s bloodied corpse, but President Obama decided to deny the world that spectacle. That bookend to the war on terrorism would remain unconceptualized in the spectacle (Barack Obama is “the first Jewish president“).

What we got instead of the image of the death of Osama bin Laden was the image of the death of Osama bin Laden reflected on the face of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton witnessing the death of Osama bin Laden, Situation Room, the White House, 1 May 2011

Secretary Clinton has tried to fob this image off, saying, “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”

Is this the Clintonian reflex, or Obama’s postmodern commitment to non-representation and non-meaning? Or maybe it was a yawn?

She should own this moment: it’s one of the most amazing and iconic images to come out of the war on terrorism. And she is turning the office of Secretary of State into the U.S.’s emotional barometer.

Today, when Libyan rebels managed to locate and kill Muammar Gaddafi, one of the first vectors of this story was when, while preparing for a series of pool interviews in Kabul, Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton was handed a BlackBerry with the news. Again, no image of the event, but the event reflected in Hillary Clinton’s reaction.

Hillary Clinton reacts to news of Muammar Gaddafi's capture, Kabul, Afghanistan, 20 October 2011

It’s like world history meets Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Wikipedia | YouTube).

Also of note, that baby bump just over Secretary Clinton’s right shoulder is Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, wife of Anthony Weiner.

Foreign Policy Micro-Initiatives

Matthew Yglesias comments (“Resilience,” The Atlantic.com, 30 October 2007) on Robert Kagan’s Sunday editorial (“Free Elections Come First,” The Washington Post, 28 October 2007, p. B7):

The unfortunate reality for those like Kagan who’d like to believe that an incredibly aggressive, violent, coercion-oriented US foreign policy is the height of moral probity is that living conditions around the world are, in general, improving for the better without us. There are major exceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Korea but there’s nothing about a glance at those places — Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories — that have benefited from American “democracy promotion” policy that would make any sane person think we need to Kaganize our approach to Russia or China.

This should not be to say that the U.S. should sit passive, but rather than blowing the entire budgetary and soldierly load on one or two high risk foreign policy extravaganzas, what the U.S. should pursue is multifaceted, low-grade, low risk diplomatic pressure and programs across a wide range of countries and issues. It has a higher probability of success, failures have less consequence and unlike massive military interventions, history is on our side here.

Unfortunately foreign policy thinking under the tutelage of George W. Bush, et. al. and the right more generally has taught the country to love the spectacle. The slow, meandering work of diplomacy is no longer enough to capture and hold the imagination of a people who have come to expect “shock and awe,” explosions, daisy-cutter bombs, multi-million dollar airplanes and soldiers looking like a bunch of badasses. No besuited pencil-necks touting human rights reports will suffice for this appetite.

In this regard the President and Congress are no longer really strategists who take as their primary object the international situation, so much as senior public relations people involved in the creation of images for mass public consumption. The images then become the raw material of a primal American dialog about manliness, virility, strength, fear, safety, children, et cetera that takes place in an almost entirely solipsistic fantasy world. So the terms of our foreign policy debate have become whether or not a scrawny Greek guy looks convincing driving a tank, how manly George Bush looks in a flight suite and who would be better received serving Thanksgiving dinner at a surprise visit to a FOB.

The problem with foreign policy micro-initiatives is that they don’t enter into the symbol system of U.S. political dialogue.

Bread and Circus Versus Nuts and Bolts

The New York correspondent for the U.K Independent opines on the latest symbol of the decline of the United States and the means by which voters are kept distracted (Usborne, David, “Baseball and Bombs Get the Cash — Bridges Are Just Dull,” 6 August 2007):

You don’t have to visit this country for long to see how its transport infrastructure has deteriorated since the interstate system was built by Eisenhower in the Fifties.

Never taken that pot-holed ride from JFK to Manhattan? Fasten your seatbelts for more turbulence. Or covered your ears in the screeching tunnels of the city’s antiquated subways? As for a cross-country ride on Amtrak, good luck.

Money here tends to flow towards items that make the pulse race. That would be elections, wars and that other national passion, sports. If there was a World Cup for baseball – rather than the so-called World Series in October which involves only the US and Canada – then finding decent venues would barely be a problem. Name a big city that doesn’t have a brand new, state of the art stadium it wants to show off.

Actually, that would be New York. But that is about to change. Its two major baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, are in deadly competition right now and not just to land places in the World Series play-off games this autumn. It’s about which of them can get their spanking new stadium finished first.

That’s right, while the Brooklyn Bridge gathers rust (yes, it is on the critical care list), somehow this city is building not one but two baseball stadiums barely six miles from each other, one in the Bronx, the other in Queens. It doesn’t matter that the teams have perfectly good places to play for their fans already. They are not flashy enough.

Increasingly circus is not merely some free-standing distraction, but conjoined to the very decline it serves to dissemble.