Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Letter from America - The Hospital- 18 Sep 08

Is the world goin' down in a whirlpool of financial doom, celebrity domination and the cult of personality? Alan Miller writes from New York on the skewed importance placed on the personal lives of the US presidential candidates. Is Palin a victim of a savage press...and is it relevant?

Are you a ‘Wal Mart Mum’ or a ‘Target Mum’? Maybe you are a ‘Nascar Dad’ or an ‘NPR dad’? Gone are the days of course where there were Democrats versus Republicans because that requires politics of some kind. The disintegration of competing ideologies has left us witnessing the sad rump of what has come to replace it: lifestyle identity politics.

With all the fanfare that surrounded the OP (Obama Phenomenon) we were lead to believe by a largely wide-eyed press that America was undergoing a radical transformation somehow, with widespread participation in mainstream politics. It is of course true that we have seen a (very encouraging) heightened level of enthusiasm among young people. However, Obama’s strategy has simply been to declare his personal credentials. Over and over again. So while we know where he grew up and about his parenting and falling in love, we know little still about any broader political principles. That is largely because there aren’t any. Indeed, Obama – somewhat like Tony Blair before him and the trailblazer for the dash to the centre Bill Clinton – asks us to elect him on the basis of his background, multicultural experiences and conscience.

Meanwhile, John McCain’s continuing reference to being tied up in the Sixties didn’t seem to cut the cheese so well – so now we have a VP candidate who is being both promoted and denounced entirely on her personal behaviour and outlook. Let’s just make the point clearly now for the record, that it does not matter how good or bad a parent you are – this has absolutely no bearing on you as a politician. Interestingly, those who perceive themselves as more ‘liberal’ are increasingly the ones, on blogs, late night TV shows and the radio viciously ripping in to Sarah Palin on the basis of her personal decisions as a mother. While I absolutely support the right of women to chose when and how they make decisions about their own bodies, I find it despicable the way many have attacked Palin – not at a political level engaging any ideas, but rather personally.

Thus we are then faced with all the nonsense about lipstick. Try hard as they may to distance themselves somewhat from this mess, it is the Democrats who are exposing themselves as the snobby patronising elitists with contempt for ordinary people in the US. Many in Britain, who like to wonder pleasantly “how so many Americans can be so dumb” when referring to electing Bush for a second term, also share this nasty outlook. The problem is though, not that there are so many stupid people out there, but rather that we don’t have any politics any more. Only lifestyle choices.

David Brooks wrote about an emerging demographic in his Bobos in Paradise and more recently we have seen a further “balkanisation” of Americans with Bob Bishop’s The Big Sort:Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart and what we are witnessing is a new moral outlook based on where you shop, what you buy to eat, wear or drive. Thus we have everything from “Hippies for Obama” to “Polar Bears for Obama”, “Latinos for Obama” and even “space for Obama” – I kid you not.

This is a travesty and reduces politics to a schoolyard fashion parade. Having just returned from eastern Europe, I was reminded once again of the legacy of failed ideas on our world – and reminded also of the need to be clear about the times we live in and the way we understand them in order to affect any change. Someone once said that “All that is solid melts in to air” as the new world was being forged out of the old, material and at the level of ideas. Now what we are facing is the ossification of life with ranting and personal attacks replacing the clash of serious ideas wedded to larger political principles and ideas. Let’s all have a stab and holding the line and exposing this utter nonsense for what it is – on both sides of the pond. We are not after all what we eat, drink or wear, but rather much more. It is high time we denounced this nonsense for what it is and insist on a serious clash of ideas about how we are to live.