Posted on Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 at 10:21 am
Author: Ali Eteraz
Tom Brokaw was on Charlie Rose the other day and he said that Barack Obama could be our first “postmodern” president. Brokaw admitted that the didn’t know what postmodernism was, but whatever it was, Barack Obama was it.
From the context one could conclude that Brokaw wasn’t referring to any philosophical concept, but to fact that Obama didn’t grow up in the 60′s and that he wasn’t a baby-boomer like all other politicians before him. In other words he was trying to come up with a roundabout way of saying that Obama was young. According to that rather specious – and wrong – definition of the word, fine, Brokaw can pretend that Obama is a postmodern.
However, there are other, more accurate definitions of postmodern, and the primary one is the one that my philosopy advisor in college told me. It goes something like this: Post-modernism is the idea that there is no master narrative; that the world is composed of contingent, accidental and disconnected ideas, circumstances and events that have been brought haphazardly together.
“Postmodernists conceive of the world as a carnival,” concluded the good professor. He was a practicing postmodernist and dressed the part.
If you go by that definition – and pardon me for going with a JD/PhD over Brokaw – then it is not Obama, but John McCain, who has a chance of being America’s first postmodern president. One can surmise this by doing nothing other than looking at the Arizona Senator’s campaign.
Late in the Democratic primaries in April, while John McCain was waiting to see who he’d have to face, the story that the McCain started pushing was that Obama was an elitist and a snob. To this end, much hay was made of a comment Obama made in San Francisco in which he used the words “cling” and “religion” together.
McCain’s favored attack-dog at the time, Mitt Romney, he of Harvard and Bain & Company, came rushing over to expose the elitism of a man who had taken student loans to get through college.
Karl Rove followed along with his attacks and declared Obama to be a “cooly arrogant” country club chap.
A story – or narrative, if you will – was being developed.
Then, in typical postmodern fashion, the McCain camp blew up their own story. They released the infamous celebrity ad in which images of Obama were conflated with those of Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Now, admittedly, at first blush, celebrity and elitism do go together, but the problem with the ad was that the sort of celebrity that the McCain camp accused Obama of practicing wasn’t the elitist kind. I mean, are you really accusing a man of being an elitist if you are likening him to a tramp-stamped pop icon of trailer parks, and ditzy girls who make badly lit homemade porn?
If McCain had wanted to continue with his “elitist” narrative against Obama then he should have shown Obama hanging out with America’s real elitist celebrities; perhaps someone like Bono or Angelina Jolie or Madonna. One could only infer from this lack of clarity that, ultimately, McCain hadn’t been building a narrative. He had just been exploring an idea until a more interesting one captivated his attention.
This isn’t the only example of such weird tactics. Take the way, recently, that the McCain camp has been accusing Obama of socialism and trying to redistribute American wealth to the poor.
Whatever the actual merits of the critique, it has been executed with nothing short of postmodern irony: a down-on-his-luck, unemployed, and unlicensed laborer with back taxes – i.e. Joe the Plumber – becomes the mouth piece for economic policies that provide tax benefits, not to himself, but to multi-national corporations.
Then, just as suddenly, to completely undermine whatever traction the idea of Obama being in the pocket of the poor might have established, McCain decides, at the last second before the election, to highlight how Obama has been ignoring his poor and broke auntie in Boston. If you are trying to say, “My opponent takes from the rich and gives to the poor!” it makes no sense to point to someone poor in the opponent’s own family and say: “Here is a poor person he has ignored!”
In a postmodern world things aren’t consistent or inconsistent. They are “interesting.” If something is interesting it is worth exploring. The trouble is that in the world of politics anything and everything is interesting. By focusing on all such things you run the risk of over-saturation, until you become the victim of farce.
Indeed the McCain camp did become farcical. McCain initially identified Obama as “inexperienced” and then, just a few days later, decided to bring perhaps the most inexperienced person in the history of presidential politics onto the scene.
Then, the McCain camp decided to demonstrate how serious it was about the economy by suspending its campaign. Yet, by the next day, despite the fact that nothing in the economy had changed, the campaign was back on. Indeed, it was revealed, that even during the suspension the campaign had continued.
In both of these decisions McCain didn’t see the contradiction because he had become accustomed, like a postmodern, to evaluating each individual event individually, without regard to the larger picture.
These problems emerge directly from the fact that McCain, and the people he has surrounded himself with, are all postmodernists. They don’t believe in a world of “master narratives” (a good example of a master narrative is Obama’s “Change We Need” slogan).
McCain seems to believe in a world where circumstances and events occur haphazardly and his job is simply to latch onto the most recently occurring event until the arrival of another, more interesting, event displaces his interest.
I think by the time all is said and done, McCain and his people will realize that just as human beings can’t live in such a state of flux – which is why postmodernism remains an unrealistic philosophical system – neither can political campaigns succeed with such an outlook.
It certainly isn’t becoming of a Presidency.
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