Friday, May 30, 2008

Gods and Puppets

Gordon Craig argued that puppets are "descendants of a great and noble family of images, images which were made in the likeness of God." You can see something of what he means in this video: the amplified illusion, with all the torturous labour to perform it crudely visible, is so much more powerful than any more realistic enactment possibly could be. The awe it evokes is similar to that elicited by images of gods, which, although we know them to be human creations, call our dormant imaginations into play in ways that, breaking free of banality, seem superhuman.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barack Obama

Being Canadian, I naturally don’t get to vote in the U.S. Presidential primaries or elections, but just as naturally, I have an opinion. Because it is the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, everyone has some stake in who becomes the next President of the United States of America. And because the country is our closest neighbour, our largest trading partner, and our nearest relative culturally, Canadians have an even greater interest than most others in the question.

So here is my opinion. When the candidates were first named, it seemed to me that John McCain was obviously the best of a rather weak Republican field. For the Democrats, I assumed that I would favour Hillary Clinton, despite some slight misgivings about a couple of her past tactical blunders. At the time, I had little direct knowledge of Barack Obama, so the suggestions of his “inexperience” seemed credible. Over the course of the winter, however, I became convinced that Obama is by far the most promising candidate, for the following reasons.

The world is at a crucial turning point in which the ecological crises are and will be generating enormous political tensions all over the globe, and especially in the Middle East and Africa. Deforestation, lack of clean water and over-population will foment drought, famine, disease and social violence. It is naïve to think that this coming situation is any longer avoidable; the crucial question will be one of how it is managed.

In any attempt to meet this problem creatively and positively, the role played by the United States will be crucial. The world needs it to play a positive role of leadership, because we cannot afford to have so powerful a player working against the needs of the team. But if the United States continues to be riven on the domestic front by all the old dysfunctional suspicions and hatreds between the Right and the Left, between the rich and the poor, and amongst Black and White and Hispanic Americans, it will not be able to provide effective leadership. Likewise, if the profound hatreds and suspicions felt towards the United States by many in the world ⎯ particularly the Muslim majorities in the Middle East and North Africa, which are the greatest ecological and political trouble spots ⎯ continue to grow, then we can only expect the cataclysmic results of the inept invasion of Iraq to spread and worsen. Hearts and minds must be won over and united at home and abroad in order to begin to unite moral authority to the political power possessed by the United States. The nation needs to recover the high idealistic ground represented in its founding documents and overthrow all the years of self-interested conniving, petty ideological grudges and profound social disaffection that have resulted in all those many disgusting spectacles of moral failure which I hardly need to itemize here. The person who should be the next President of the United States is the person with the character and skills best suited to creating the conditions in which this nearly miraculous transformation can take place.

I don’t believe that John McCain, for all his courage, can do such a thing, because his domestic ideas are basically cut from the well-worn wishful-thinking of the Reagan era, and because he is too deeply distrusted outside of his own country to build any new bridges. I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton can do the job, because although she has had some good ideas, she is in her character a profoundly partisan politician. Her campaign style is further evidence of this fact. In the past, she may have been right sometimes in pointing to the workings of nefarious right wing conspiracies, but nothing she has said since the days of Kenneth Starr’s investigations is likely to allay the hatred of any of those who have been against her. If she gains the Presidency, it will represent, at best, a swinging of the pendulum back to something like its place under the leadership of her husband; but she will carry an even longer history of partisan grudges with her, with much less of Bill Clinton’s disarming charisma to offset the anger and distrust.

Barack Obama, by contrast, is as honest and forthright and as non-partisan a Presidential candidate as the United States has seen in more than a century. His rhetoric is inspiring not because it offers facile platitudes, but because he re-embraces the founding principles of his country from a stand-point that is fully-informed and truthful about the deep grievances and angers felt by many about the repeated betrayal of those principles by self-interested political parties. He is formidable in debate, but refuses to stoop to cheap shots, not out of weakness, but because he believes what he says: that such kinds of discourse represent much of what is wrong with the political culture of his country, and he would like to change this.

The notion of Obama’s inexperience is a canard. The eligible person with the closest experience of what it is like to be President in the post 9/11 world is Dick Cheney. Is there anybody who believes that his experience really qualifies him? George W. Bush, who is rightly considered a strong candidate for "Worst U.S. President in History," was the son of a President, and moreover had years of experience as Governor of Texas (where the experience he gained included signing more sentences of execution than any other politician in American history). The point I am trying to make is this: people gain their experience of decision-making in a certain sort of context; they come to believe through experience that certain kinds of decisions are the most effective. So, if you want a different sort of decision-making, you go to somebody with a different sort of experience: someone whose different experiences have created a different sort of character. That Obama understands American politics well enough to have come so close to the Amerian Presidency as he has already, while runnng a radically different campaign that refuses to practice the politics of fear-mongering, of resentment, of unfair insinuation, of character assassination or of venality, shows, to my mind, that he is eminently well-qualified for the office.

Finally, let’s consider the question of race. You would have to be profoundly self-deceptive to deny that race matters a great deal on both the domestic and the international stage. The feelings of disaffection from the American mainstream among young Afro-Americans is probably as severe a problem as the feeling of hatred and distrust of America amongst the Islamic nations. But imagine what the prospects might look like for a solution to this problem from the point of view of someone who actually represents the future. Try to put yourself in the place of a black twelve year-old---either an inner-city Afro-American or a Muslim living in North Africa---who has been taught that the founding principles of American democracy have become nothing more than hypocritical words used by rich, white patriarchs to secure political advantage. The effect of hearing these principles recovered, in a realistic, committed way, by a man who does not come from a rich, white background but who has attained a position of respectability and influence; who has a deep understanding of Islam that was fostered by being taught in a Muslim school; who refuses to gain advantage through low, partisan attacks; and who fearlessly speaks about difficult truths, would make an incalculably huge positive difference.

I’ll close with three videos. The first is a long one: about 40 minutes or so. It shows Obama making what I consider to be one of the finest political speeches of the modern age, a speech given in Philadelphia in March. He is talking about perhaps the most inflammatory issue in American society: race. He is honest, forthright, realistic, dignfied, statesmanlike and hopeful. In my view, only the most hardened cynic could listen and yet remain unmoved by what he says.

The next two are short music videos featuring songs by Will.I.Am, from The Black-Eyed Peas. I include them here in an attempt to capture something of the inspiration Obama instils in others. It is difficult to think of any other politician in recent years who could have inspired such heart-felt, unironic, admiring and hopeful tributes as these are.