Friday, 7 November 2008

Obey Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am elated that Barack Obama is our new President (well, currently, President Elect). Let me also state emphatically: the man is neither the Second Coming NOR the Anti-Christ. Should it not be obvious, I'm originally from Texas - I suspect a fair few there harbour secret fear that our 44th President is in fact the harbinger of end times (and in such a scenario, does this cast Oprah as the whore of Babylon?). As I said on Wednesday to John, 'Ah, look, Texas didn't go for Obama.' John's reply: 'August, if Texas had gone for Obama, that would have been the headline.'

And he's right - Texas remains one of the most conservative states in the Union. There are many people in that state of many affliations and attitudes and I am not tarring 22 million people with the same brush. But even all the cool folk of Austin can't outweigh the predominance of Bible bashers (I should know - some of my nearest and dearest are; even if, as my friend Marc assures me, they are of the 'liberal' end of Evangelicals. And I suppose, as with my mother, it is rare to find Dorothy Parker fans who also believe in the literalism of the good book...).

So to the emotional histrionics: the Obama victory was so desired by so many of us. People who wanted to expunge the eight years under George Walker Bush. People who wished the illegal war in Iraq had not been waged as we had demonstrated in our millions on 15 February 2003. People who, post-9/11, had wanted justice not vengance. We see in Obama the potential for a President who has lived outside of the USA and grew up out of the contiguous 48 states (it was as if McCain felt - okay the PUMAs want a woman at all costs, hmmmm, and Obama grew up in Hawaii - aha! Palin - female and Alaska - that'll do!). Someone whose life experiences have shown him more than the internal myth-making machines any American child grows up shaped by: someone who sees America in relation to the rest of the world - not someone who sees America as the world.

We see in Obama, the potential for an intelligent, diplomatic engager who voted against attacking Iraq. We understand that he was running to be leader of a still highly conservative country and that concessionary postures would be forthcoming once the nomination was secured. But even for someone looking for a real Left to revitalise in the US, Obama promised a chance for a radical departure from the fascistic policies we'd faced under Bush (even if some of this radicalism was restricted to the level of identity politics; nonetheless, the thought that, after the poaching of the 2000 election by the Bush family, a non-dynastic mixed race new politician with roots as a lawyer who opted to work as a community organiser in the city of (the now late) Studs Terkel could be the head of our state was thrilling).

And yet. The hysterical response to Obama's victory has smacked of the verso to the Death of Diana as experienced in the UK. Or a positive verso to the recto of the witch-hunting over BBC presenters Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and their upset to Andrew Sachs (who, as John said, is not a 'national treasure' as some have said, but an actor reknowed for playing a racist stereotype on 13 episodes of a 1970s sitcom!) over his 'Satanic slut' granddaughter. It's band-wagon emotionalism. Can't there be jubulation, relief, pleasure and rational thought all at once? Can't we be a nation that eschews the hooting and shouting of the football field or wrestling match when in the arena of politics?

I know emotions are manipulated and pursued throughout campaigns and have been for dozens of decades. But shouldn't we want to rise above the level of infantile attachments and remain at the level of considered thought? Must everything remain childish like never ending high school pep rallies? Does everyone want the tyranny of the Ballmer world of 'developers, developers, developers'? Where everyone's a cheerleader or vocally opposed to the baddies of the piece, as if the real world were one real pantomime? Why must everything become a performance? A comedy in which we are all the live studio audience?

Why must melodrama be our bathetic genre of choice when the going gets tough? Why do we need to amuse ourselves to death and reduce real issues to punchlines? Why must we engage with a politician's views - whether we identify with them or find them abhorrent - on the level of sexist or racist abuse couched as jokes and jibes and love nothing more than someone who can laugh at themselves? Why are we thrilled when politicians take a night off the stump and engage in a formal white tie and tails event where they mock themselves and each other? Is light relief that important? Must we tamp down our terror in the face of wars and economic collapse and global instability through limp satire and raucous laughter as we push further and further towards trivialising the world's most pressing concerns into a daily show of idiocracy?

Why do we find inspiration in Fairey's Hope Obama and Progress Obama posters? These are developed out of his Obey Giant programme. One developed from a 'They Live' John Carpenter film inspiration about manipulation and selling - combined with a wrestler's visage of Big Brother styled staring eyes - to create a purposefully enigmatic and compelling image. It is a provocation - and yet the Obama work is meant to be straight-forward, uncomplicated advocacy? How does that work within visual communication / cultural terms? Does no one find this troubling or worth discussion?

Obama's campaign made an emotionally manipulative / affecting music video which is on YouTube. It is called signs of hope and change. It is a montage of 'ordinary Americans' holding - a la Bob Dylan or Gillian Wearing - signs which simply say either Hope or Change. And it is set to a loop of the rousing instrumental opening to the song 'Fake Empire' by the band The National. Even the names of the band and the song seem pointed; yet not too didactic or polemical. It's a frustrating video because it sucker punches you on the level of the emotions.

After eight years of intensified imperialistic militarism and rampaging global greed for resources and power - Americans were desparate for precisely such signs of change and hope. Yet it feels so vapid - Change; Hope; Progress. Change we need. Yes we can. Can what? What change? Are we talking about African Americans finally reaching beyond the years of segregation and racist denial of their right to exist freely in their own country?

Are we talking about change from the fascism of surveillance and dirty wars and torture and extraordinary rendition and blacksites and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Kissinger leading the inquiry into 9-11 and Colin Powell (rewarded for helping to initially keep quiet My Lai by Nixon appointing him to a White House role and thereby launching his career via this nasty backhander) with his slideshow to the UN to push for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Change what - hope for what - progress from what and towards what?

And then one day it struck me. I was reminded of a piece Fred Orton wrote on Jasper Johns (sic: actually, it seems it was Jonathan Katz on Johns and Rauschenberg; he's written several pieces on this). He said that Johns had to develop a kind of visual code within his work of the 1950s - that it was an encryption of real intentions and real meanings, tied up with his situation as a gay man in a world where such identities had to stay on the level of the hidden and merely hinted at; where overt expressions were physically and legally dangerous. And this is when all the euphemistic discourse came into focus.

It was not the vacuous talk of ad-speak - where new and exciting and improved are bandied about without concrete specifications so that we are bedazzled into opting for unnecessary purchases. It was the password at the door - it was the underground railroad in the world where Big Brother is watching and listening and the Patriots Act as though they'll round you up at any minute. Where everyone is insecure about what they can and can't say or do. Where overt expressions feel physically and legally dangerous. Where short story writers get detained at airports and Cat Stevens packed back onto a plane and disallowed entry to talk to Dolly Parton. Where people are deported and disappeared and no one talks about it: they just carry on shopping.

That's when I understood the need for signs of hope and change. Let's just hope that the change we need is what he delivers.


PS - this is quite funny: Palin & Bush

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