No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
- H.L. Mencken
Frontline recently ran a documentary that amounted to interwoven bios of the respective characters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It made two points very clear. One, it takes an obsessive personal determination to seek the office of President of the United States of America. And, two, this being America in 2012, the capacity to delude, evade and outright lie through one’s teeth is critical to the process.
Unlike parliamentary systems like in Britain, the US campaign involves years of campaigning that involves filling up media and cable news space with pizzazz and conflict that has nothing to do with the real problems of America. Paradoxically, citizens get tired of it all as they clamor to be entertained by it. Avoiding substance becomes a real art, as the various media emphasize personal drama and the political equivalent of sports statistics. Meanwhile, the real problems fester and get worse, making American politics a lot like the Romney-Ryan health plan: Wait until the problem has reached the emergency level, then call 9/11. In American politics, this usually means a military or police option. Who says bi-partisanship is dead?
The two-hour Frontline documentary broke this mold a bit and actually analyzed what made the two candidates tick and, most important, what it was about them and their lives they most wanted to hide from the American people.
Obama was raised a virtual international orphan who developed into a strong-willed loner determined to fit in and to lead by facilitating a “get along” attitude among the diverse elements of American culture. He wants to avoid any discussion of this because, while his mother was an American citizen and he was born in Hawaii, his absent father was Kenyan and the American culture he has spent his life trying to fit into has deep and powerful strains of racism and a fear of anything foreign. One begins to appreciate how much Obama has hidden of his roots when Frontline points out he is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a Kill List.
Romney, on the other hand, was born into a powerful political family that was part of a religious group — the Morman church — that suffered and transcended serious trials. This inclined them to circle their wagons and struggle mightily to provide for their families in a religious version of The Godfather saga. Reportedly, the Romney family made, lost and re-made fortunes a number of times. But like Obama, Romney can’t discuss his family history because his grandfather and other Morman relatives were polygamists.
So both men avoid mention of the core historic realities that made them what they are. This fits nicely with the nature of the current political campaign we’re living through, which relies to an unprecedented degree on distraction and the bald-faced lie. The real challenge of our presidential candidates is to keep a straight face as they tell the biggest and best whopper that will delude the greatest number of voting Americans.
With the nation facing several potential disasters and major epochal corrections in both the financial area and in the realm of imperial influence — plus the bothersome issue of a deteriorating infrastructure — nothing is more important in the relationship between political leaders and citizens than being direct and honest. But it’s not being done.
H.L. Mencken understood the mind of the American people. He knew the power of the marketing reality that thrives in this country, the power of what is represented on the outside of the box versus what’s really inside the box. Americans wanted to be dazzled with illusion. Bill Cosby understood this when he used to talk about how kids loved to be scared out of their wits by cheap horror movies. “Scare me! Scare me!!” he would say in a kid’s spooked but delighted voice. Those kids have grown up and they’re facing the facts of imperial decline and they’re now saying, “Lie to me! Lie to me!! Keep telling me how exceptional I am!”
The Manchurian Candidate in Blackface
Dinesh D’Souza is an Indian immigrant who has carved out a place for himself in conservative academia and journalism that, similar to V.S. Naipaul in the 80s, might be described as a pro-western, self-hating ex-colonial Third Worlder. That’s a mouthful, for sure, but that’s the drift of his thinking in the documentary film he has co-produced and co-directed called Obama 2016. The reference is to what the country will look like after four more years of Obama. D’Souza intentionally confuses what many see as a reasonable notion of managing US imperial decline with a sinister desire to “downsize America” and destroy liberty.
As a Third World immigrant to the US, D’Souza’s film essay raises a number of quite interesting things about Barack Obama, the man. It digs deeper than the Frontline doc into the things that Obama wants to hide lest they make the dumb Americans Barnum delighted in run screaming into the night. Unfortunately, D’Souza indulges his right wing leanings and the film quickly becomes a stupid documentary version of The Manchurian Candidate, with Obama threatening the great traditions of America as a zombie receiving marching orders from his dead father’s grave in Kenya.
“We’re all shaped by our pasts, and we carry elements of the past into the future,” D’Souza says early on. He’s right about that, and Obama’s roots and early history are pretty unusual for a President of the United States. While it may be only a technical point, Obama is not an African American; he’s half African and half Irish-American. The point is, he carries none of the heavy historic baggage of African Americans born into a world burdened by the legacy of Jim Crow and the relentless cultural assumption of second-class citizenship that seeps into the soul and does the devil’s work. He certainly grew to understand what it meant to be “black” in America; but he seems to have been lucky enough to keep some detachment from any bitterness. The conservative mixed-race, black writer Shelby Steele says in the film that Obama figured out that white America wanted a black leader who was not angry over America’s racist history to assuage their deep-seated guilt. He says this explains how “Obama came out of nowhere” to be elected President.
Add to this his mother’s second husband Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian whose family fought as guerrillas against Dutch colonialism and whose house when he was a kid was burned down by Dutch soldiers and you have great fodder for a right wing scare campaign. It was Lolo, as told in Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, who taught the 7-year-old Barry to fight to protect himself on the streets of Jakarta. (I hesitate to add, this was at a time when John McCain was in a flight suit bombing Vietnamese people who had done nothing to him.)
Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Denzel Washington as the Manchurian candidate
So far, no one has produced a documentary based on a Return Of Dracula plotline with Mitt Romney as a robber baron figure like J.P. Morgan or Henry Clay Frick sucking the nation’s wealth into a Cayman Island account. Such a film might be a big success if it tied itself in with the current vampire craze and, of course, made Romney into a bad vampire.
The Manchurian Candidate Gives a Press Conference
Given Obama’s history that D’Souza and Frontline both say he’s hiding from, what might happen if Barack Obama actually stopped hiding? Yeh, it’s a stretch. But imagine: What if he woke up one morning like Ebenezer Scrooge after his night with the three ghosts and called a press conference:
“I called you all here to make a statement. It’s short. And there will be no questions. There will be ample time for that later. Right now, I just want to clear some things up.
“While my father was arguably a lousy father, he was a noted anti-colonial academic writer on the left who fought for the freedom of the Kenyan people from the yoke of British Colonialism. Our own founding fathers were, of course, very different from my father and their situation was very different from that in Kenya in the 1960s. But they all fought against British Colonialism.
“So, I want to go on the record to say two things about that: One, everything is complicated in life, especially in political life. And, two, that said, I am opposed to the oppression and colonization of any people by another people. I’m proud of my father’s work freeing Kenya from the British. For those who think I’m channeling my father from his grave, that’s in your head, not mine. I can’t help you.
“We live in a very volatile world today; we don’t live in the past. I am not suggesting in any way the United States abandon its influence in the world. As a former President once said, read my lips, I’m saying colonialism was a bad idea and its time is over. It’s history. Done. Yesterday. Fini. The End. As for the US, what worked for President Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago won’t work today. It’s 2012, and there is no time for colonialism or its more recent manifestation, the controversial notion of imperialism. The needs of our great nation make it clear those days are over. We need to re-evaluate all that.
He chuckles. “I see that got your attention.” As an aside: “I’m sure we’ll have more to discuss on that later.
“Finally, I want to say that my father was an African political thinker and my mother was an Irish-American anthropologist who loved to travel to exotic places and meet people there on their terms. I’m an American trained as a lawyer. Rumors aside, I’m not from another planet. I am quite Earthbound and even very American in my thinking. I am as American as anyone in this audience. I love my country as much as anyone here.” He looks around the room. “And if anyone wants to challenge that, you are free to do so in whatever publication or on whatever blogsite you want. That’s what’s so great about America. Have at it!
“The point is, we need to cut out the nonsense. We need to be honest and realistic for a change. We need to tell the truth. Whether we like it or not, we live in a dangerous world, and we as a nation have done our share of creating the mess the world is in right now. This does not mean I hate America. I’m sure some will say that. Again, have at it. It’s not true. My America believes in a fair and level playing field for all people. I’ve let some of you down, but I’m now ready to work hard for that kind of America.
“If you don’t re-elect me and you choose to elect my opponent, I’ll be fine. There are many other things I can do with my life. But I just want you to know I truly would like to be your President for four more years. I think we can do some things that will be good for the future of America, which, let me assure you, is not going to be an easy row to hoe. We are in a very tough spot today caused by a complex array of decisions going way back. The future has to be different. And we’ll have to fight for a fairer future.
“Yes, it’s true both my grandfather and Mitt Romney’s grandfather were polygamists. (He smiles and shrugs.) It’s true. So, you’ll have to decide your vote on other issues. I think polygamy is wrong, but I can do nothing about my dead grandfather. My background has been as an American citizen in a complex world, and it has taught me the value of people and how important it is for them to connect and look out for each other. To me, that’s what a society is about. I’m not a financier who buys and sells companies and sees life in the bottom line of a financial statement; living for me is not about pleasing a group of stockholders or a class of winners at the top. It’s about extending dignity to all.
(He chuckles.) About that, I’m sure I will be debating Mr. Romney in the future.
“So let me close by echoing the famous words of that great American novelist, Norman Mailer, when he ran for mayor of New York. Some say Mailer was a joke as a candidate, and maybe he was. But his campaign slogan rings true down through history, and I wish to close with it now:
“It’s time to ‘Cut the bullshit.’
“Good evening. And God bless America.”