Mendacious Hillary Clinton and the proper progressive response to materialist misconceptions in politics


You don’t hope because the odds look good. You hope because they don’t.

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Always precarious and almost indistinct, real action exists in such a way that it has to be pointed out and emphasized by loud proclamations, rather like the circus ringmaster amplifies his calls and orders a drum roll so that a pirouette on the trapeze—novel and daring, but also extremely fleeting—will not be ignored by the public. Ultimately, the aim of all these constructions is to devote every energy to the present, even if the subjectivation of this present sometimes gets bogged down in the rhetoric of hope. Only the recognition of the fabrication of a present can rally people to the politics of emancipation.

—Alain Badiou, The Century

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Senator Hillary Rhodam Clinton, despite her variously nefarious primary tactics (hyping a baseless Obama-impugning story fed to the American media by the administration of Canada’s conservative, Republican-friendly prime minister; scaring Ohio voters with the implication that not voting for her would be voting for bombing sleeping children; lending comfort to racial prejudice by prevaricating on the question of Senator Barack Obama’s religion; denouncing Obama, whose legislative record is more successful than her own, and whose intellectual street cred trounces her own, for speaking in platitudes and slogans, while embracing those same empty signifiers when it’s politically expedient; etc.), still enjoys the support of many Americans. What is she saying that people are still buying? Clinton’s argument for why she should be given the her party’s nomination for the presidency over Obama, and, barring an electoral miracle, in clear violation of the will of primary and (and especially) caucus voters, appears to run something like this: Facility with political mudslinging and prudent prevarication is a prerequisite for being president. In successfully misrepresenting my opponents, I demonstrate my ability to fight and win, an ability that will be essential in the imminent political war of the coming decade. I, Clinton says, I am used to playing dirty, and so am all the better prepared to repel the vast right-wing conspiracy’s attack machine, to fix healthcare and end poverty by vanquishing my opponents and planting a flag for a centrist progressivism! I should get the nomination because I’m tough as a Yale bulldog.

As a reason to vote for Clinton, this is intellectually inadequate for anyone who values seeing progressive policies successfully implemented over the chance to rally behind Clinton in the glorious coming political wars. (It’s also, in light of the fact that Clinton has lost most of the battles she brags of surviving, foolish.) A Clinton presidency would incite an acrimonious atmosphere—or, rather, would extend and intensify the atmosphere inaugurated by her husband and perpetuated by the sitting president—in a way that an Obama presidency will almost surely not.

This atmosphere is materially embodied the fictitious bullets Clinton fictitiously dodged in Bosnia: at both literal and figurative levels, Clinton manufactures acrimony, senses of fear and danger, and then exploits that sense to effect political ends. At the literal, subjective, interpersonal level, Clinton, in “misspeaking” with such audacity, manufactures conflict (bullets) to achieve a political end: appearing tough, brave, heroic, etc., while addressing the fifth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. Figuratively and on the bureaucratic, public-discourse level, she manufactures conflict (political bellicosity) to achieve a political end: the implementation of progressive policies. Her bullets have failed in the court of public opinion, yet her bellicosity and disingenuousness have somehow remained alluring to some. Clinton believes that principled disingenuousness is the proper status quo: don’t talk openly with diplomatic leaders; don’t release financial records; don’t for a moment be taken in by an earnestness like Obama’s, which is always and necessarily a cover for something less solid and/or more sinister. Finding a candidate who can instill us with a genuine sense of hope and promise, Clinton would tell us, is precisely as likely waking up tomorrow to find that everyone suddenly agrees on everything. So why call Clinton’s disingenuousness into question if it’s being wielded to achieve goals we want to see achieved? This is the message of most remaining Hillary supporters, and, somewhat astoundingly, it works.

Why?

We expect and accept this brand of disingenuousness from candidates because winning office requires pandering to groups whose views do not square with one another. Winning necessitates an overextension of the candidate’s character beyond what is believable for any single subject; it stretches the candidate too thin for there not to be at least a few dozen holes. To the extent that a candidate’s catering to one person or group makes him distasteful to another person or group, that candidate can be said to be some shade of “dishonest.” The candidate is expected—forced—to be laughably consistent. Thus is John Kerry labeled a “flip-flopper” for revising a past decision in light of new evidence—that is, for exercising good rational judgment. Thus is Clinton repeatedly dogged by Obama and others, legitimately but with too little judiciousness, for her vote to authorize President Bush’ s invasion of Iraq.

In this way the candidate himself represents us, “the people,” in a radically literal way: it is as though fissures that divide American subjects from one another sexually, racially, educationally, economically, intellectually, geographically, are reflected by him, or perhaps violently thrust upon him. Either way, insofar as we expect him to represent manifold people, we accustom him to a constant state of sociocultural flux, a disingenuous chaos that finds an analogue in the public political discourse of the United States as a whole. That is to say that our politicians gaps in integrity operate like divisions in public opinion: although they cannot be reconciled, we act as though they can be so as to sustain the narrative of our melting-pot opportunity-rich nation-state, in which each unique one of us is an equally loved, equally powerful, equally respected citizen, a narrative that is at the core of “American” identity as its conceived today. So to ask the politician to be consistent and at the same time represent an “us” in any substantial way is to reconstitute him as a self-contradictory plural and to then place upon that plural our common collective injunction to “be good,” to “get along.” It is as though we divide the candidate into a classroom of third-graders fighting over blocks and shooting rubber bands at one another while their teacher makes a trip to the restroom, yet then are surprised when, on the teacher’s return—that is, on the arrival of the get-along injunction enforcement mechanism—blocks are rapidly redistributed, pencils and rubber bands are shoved frantically into desks, children wear faces of tension and doubt as they try to force themselves back into a unit, to effect the very uniformity, the evenness, the discreteness we expect of the candidate. Indeed, this moment of frenzy as the classroom door swings open, as children scatter to conceal evidence of their transgressions, is, I think, an apt way of thinking the psyche of the candidate. There is in it a sincere straining toward order, in the children struggling to revert to their farce of consistency. This order is merely suggested, and by an authority figure on the threshold of the room, perhaps about to step out again, at which point chaos will resume. What keeps the politician “honest” is what keeps the kids in their seats: not a desire for tranquility and smooth functioning but the collective injunction to smooth out conflict so as to not face punishment. What binds us together as Americans, similarly, is not a common identification with any particular notion of an ideal social configuration, an affinity for any particular sort of “tranquility,” but rather the collective injunction to accept and tolerate what we perceive as confusion or weakness or sinfulness or stupidity in others’ practices and beliefs, thereby avoiding serious ideological discord. Our sense that we should be bound together as a people, as Americans, despite our differences, is—like the fantasy of an eternally peaceful classroom or the demand that politicians live up to our notions of “integrity”—sustained solely by itself, and not by any deeper, “fundamental” bond. That is to say that what sustains our political apparatus is a delusional, perpetual cycle of the injunction to “be good” coupled with a near-universal acknowledgment that meeting the myriad standards for “goodness” we set is impossible. Our system is based on a circular, self-sustaining contradiction.

This point—that the standards we’ve set for candidate behavior are so not only extraordinarily absurd, but absurd in a way that mirrors the contradictory nature of what we call our national identity, in a way that indicts all of us as the collective perpetrators of a false vision, albeit a false vision that can be said by Clinton and others to “get things done”—is not as pessimistic as it might seem. Indeed, I see in it the potential for a radical optimism that is premised on and powered by the very absurdity that could otherwise undo it. [1] Or, as The New Yorker‘s Kelefa Sanneh aphoristically puts it in a recent piece on the black liberation theology of Obama’s beleaguered spiritual advisor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright: You don’t hope because the odds look good. You hope because they don’t.

What those who argue that Obama’s potential to effect transformative, systemic change is all “hype”—“false hopes,” “pipe dreams,” etc.—miss is that this “hyping” of potential for transformation is indistinguishable from and so effectively fungible with any “real” transformative conditions. This is the effect of opinion polls at their most basic level: the appearance of belief, whether that belief is “genuine” or not, engenders belief. This is also, since Pascal’s wager, the fundamental premise of religious belief. It is how we can have a society in which we all of us have our beliefs [in God and so forth]—but don’t believe our beliefs; others—clergy, social activists, politicians even—do the believing for us. (It is also, since the beginning of consumer confidence polls, the first premise of the market: reports of material conditions affect those material conditions in an incessant loop; the clergy of Wall Street tells us repeatedly that the math is just far too complex for us to touch.) Similarly, there is no difference between “real” potential and “false” potential until after that potential is declared by history to have been realized or not realized. History will retrospectively judge whether the Obama potential was “real” or “just” the naiveté of an interesting but ineffectual coalition between an effectively disadvantaged subpopulation (blacks), well-educated liberals, and more than a few reform-minded Republicans. Until after that judgment, speaking of real and false potential is nonsensical.

The very thing that so-called “Obamaniacs” are indicted for—belief in potential—is itself evidence of the potential for enough to believe in that potential to make the potential a reality. This does not mean that those of us who believe this we naïve (not even those of us who are enthusiastic enough to make many of the rest of us want to vomit): belief in potential is not synonymous with belief in certainty. Belief in potential for change is (a “belief,” again, whose status as “real” fluctuates until history can retrospectively judge the potential as real or not; a belief without retrospective confirmation is the only significant sort of belief), however, the unavoidable corollary for change “itself.” There is literally no other way for a belief to manifest itself materially, to show itself in the “real” world. Beliefs never “do” that; they can only “have done” it. That is to say, again, that the reality of a belief in potential for change can never “be”; it can merely, in the view of history, “have been.” Thus the position of those who oppose Obama based on his supposed lack of substance or solidity, his lack “real” potential, is self-referential and empty. His potential will be “false” if enough people believe it is false; yet the opposite holds true too: belief engenders belief. There is no material core of belief; it is self-replicating, it operates virally. To question the substance of Obama’s potential, to question his potential ability to transform our society in a series of positive, indeed revolutionary, ways that none of the other candidates could, is naive in precisely the way allegory—or rather sincere belief in the material reality of allegory—is naive. Both assume as a premise, both carry as an ideology, the strict and literal and absurd equation of imaginative personifications (as in Spenserian allegory) with material reality: change is not a concept, but an actual material substance (as parodied brilliantly by The Onion); death is not an abstraction in allegory, but a figure draped in black with a scythe—it is Death come to carry you off. Real Potential for Change, when it comes, will not carry papers identifying it as Real Potential for Change. Our job is not to recognize it when it shows itself. Again, that very notion, that of identifying a genuine potential for change before the time when that “change” would happen, makes no strict sense. History, not contemporary opinion, makes judgments about what is real and what is not real. As surely as Death will never literally come for you, Real Potential for Change can never literally show itself as such; it can never “come,” it can only “have come.” Our clear job then is to proactively pursue that potential, to exploit whatever opportunities we’re given to set about producing it through our own concerted literal, intellectual, artistic and political work.

Of the opportunities with which we’ve been presented in recent decades, the one that presents itself now in the form of Barack Obama is unprecedented in American politics. If Obama is shut out of this election, history will judge the impediment to transformative change to have been precisely that nobody seemed willing to leverage his image and intellect to produce transformative change. There need not be a “social reality” conducive to fundamental transformation. Indeed and again, there cannot be such a reality: there can retrospectively have been. Our productive course of action, then, is to not only maintain but redouble our attempts towards fashioning a social reality conducive to transformative change—efforts without which such a reality clearly cannot exist (or, rather, will never “have existed”).

If Hillary Rhodam Clinton becomes the next president of the United States, she may well have some policy triumphs: she is an able politician. But her consciously chosen battlefield—one of Vietnam resentments and Cold War metaphors, of baby-boomer pandering and exploitation of the electorate’s fears; of dissimulation and deception—will be the one on which progressives, including the senator herself, have often and publicly been roundly clobbered for the past two decades. Under Clinton’s ensigns, that battlefield will be singularly bloody.

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NOTES

[1] The New Yorker’s George Packer makes this point with specifically respect to Obama’s approach to race here: “Obama is a black candidate who can tell Americans of all races to move beyond race. As such, he is uniquely positioned to put an end to this era, and uniquely vulnerable to becoming its latest victim.”

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