"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Monday, 3 November 2008

Vision Thing

On American Elections and being careful for what you wish.

I have never been to the USA, and given my dislike of flying I doubt I ever will, however, judging by the British media, it feels I have lived there my entire life. I don’t dislike the US or my image of the US; as world leader I certainly prefer a strong US to ‘certain other countries’. So the following is very much an outsider’s view based on coverage provided on television and in the newspapers, for good or ill.

I don’t like Blair, Bush, Brown, Major, Thatcher and I’m not keen on either McCain… or Obama. ‘Heresy!’ you cry, ‘you’re European, you’re vaguely in the media industry, you’re ostensibly left-leaning- how can you not be head over heels in love with Obama?’. In Britain and the EU it is not so much expected as obligatory to love Obama. But I have a few small problems promising my unquestioning loyalty.

Through the prism of the somewhat wall-to-wall British coverage of the US elections over the last 18 months I have become increasingly dispirited by US politics. Assuming that the serious UK news programmes (Newsnight, Channel 4 News) are reporting the best and brightest bits it leads to a suspicion that the level of debate is somewhat lacklustre and, dare I say, shallow. (Although British politics is not exonerated from the Joe The Plumber-moments- anybody remember ‘Jennifer’s Ear’?) The levels of spending seems ludicrous- Obama seems to have over half a billion dollars with which to sell himself. Could there be anything more discomfiting than a candidate being able to buy a half-hour infomercial across seven mainstream channels? Maybe that McCain appeared in a skit on Saturday Night Live and Obama appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Is this what the contest for leadership of the free world has actually come down to- who can do the better appearance as a straight man? These comedy shows (as shown in the UK) seem alien in their partisanship towards Obama but presumably this is only natural and acceptable in the land of Fox News. I can’t help but find Britain’s strict election rules somewhat reassuring and comforting in comparison: all political comedy and satire is removed until the votes are all cast, scrupulous fairness is required in news and current affairs television coverage, spending limits per candidate, set party political television broadcast slots and so on.

However, over and above such electoral niceties, I find I have a minor problem with Obama (and McCain for that matter). I don’t know what he stands for. Moreover, from the coverage on Channel 4 News and Newsnight, it has become worryingly apparent that seemingly neither does the vast majority of the voting American public. Despite how deeply they delve into policy issues on Saturday Night Live! When asked what Obama stands for and why they are voting for him, every supporter interviewed said their man stands for ‘change’. Sounds good. After eight years of the Bush presidency ‘change’ has a nice ring. Pretty much sells itself. The British news crews then asked ‘how will Obama change things?’ and this is always followed by deafening silence. Can I be the only one who finds this somewhat worrying? After 18 months of campaigning and coverage this is still a mystery?

Some of the things Obama stand for include tax breaks for the poorer members of society- leading to cries that he is a Socialist trying to redistribute the wealth- but why has nobody compared this with one of Bush’s first actions to provide tax breaks for the very rich on average saving them the cost of a Lexus? Is it so much better to redistribute the wealth upwards? Obama wants some sort of nationwide health insurance coverage to help the quarter of the US population that can’t afford to become sick. Apparently, McCain also advocates something similar. However, this is decried by many because it is Socialist and would lead to an abysmal system like the (to paraphrase one commentator) ‘two-tier National Health Service where there are nothing but queues and everybody dies waiting for service’. This is, of course, nonsense- the NHS may have its failing but at least everybody has a right to treatment ‘free at the point of delivery’. And how isn’t the US system two-tier where the rich get top-notch treatment and the poor apparently barely get treatment. One ‘God-fearing man’ said it wasn’t for the likes of him to bail out people who need medical help because they should just work harder. (That would be based on a quote from the Director’s Cut of The Bible where Christ says ‘every man for himself’.) Another policy? It is claimed Obama will pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan- except senior Obama aides have already approached Britain warning them that British troops will be required for an Iraq-style surge in Afghanistan. He also says he will bomb terror targets inside Pakistan if the leadership there won’t act. And the only other major policy that I can find for Obama is that he favours protectionist trade tariffs. This would hit Britain hard- the UK exports as much to the US as it does to the whole of the EU- it will hit British Manufacturing and British jobs- people will lose jobs.

I would be deeply surprised if many Europeans and Brits really know what either candidate stands for. They just know they didn’t like Bush and that Obama is nothing to do with that era… while McCain is… therefore Obama is ‘a good thing’. A lot of the Left-leaning on this side of the Atlantic seem to be supporting Obama because he’s African-American and adopt the seemingly patronizing view that the US ‘needs this’ (as someone put it). But would they support an African-American if he was running under a Neo-Con ticket? Moreover, the African-American population is currently about 15% which is about the same proportion as the Hispanic minority but by the middle of this century the Hispanic population is estimated to rise to 30% while the African-American population is estimated to remain almost static. So, why has there been little consideration of a Hispanic president? And if some of this relates to correcting past sins- why has there been no suggestion of a Native American/ Amerindian president- surely correcting the first and greatest sin in the foundation of the USA. Yet why aren’t the British and European Leftists worrying about the fate of the working-classes of their home countries if this new American protectionism is made real- maybe the worker doesn’t matter so much to them any more. (Though how different it might be if this protectionism included the television and film industry!)

Then there is the unspoken and, to my mind, scariest part of these Presidential elections- the Vice-Presidential candidates. Someone once said ‘the job of VP isn’t worth spit’. Never before has it mattered more. Everybody mentions that McCain is old (though seemingly still fit) yet they only joke about the possibility of his dying in office. They forget it is a very real possibility and if he dies two years and a month into his first term the world could have ten years of Sarah Palin*. Then there have already been at least two thwarted Neo-Nazi plots against Obama and there is no reason to believe there won’t be more and no reason to believe given past history (Kennedy, Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) that one might not be successful. And only one has to be successful. Then the world will be led by Joe Biden. Sarah Palin is incredibly scary and Joe Biden is… incredibly anonymous.

Now everybody will criticize me for not supporting Obama, for criticizing the USA, for not criticizing McCain enough and so on… truth is I can’t support either candidate and it doesn’t matter because I don’t have a vote but whoever emerges triumphant the world will change about as much as it will stay the same. My main criticism is reserved for those who have left the policies unexamined, allowed the candidates to remain unquestioned and for the paucity of political debate and coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the words of that great British export to the US, Jerry Springer, I have ‘one final thought’: Obama is praised for being young, dynamic, charismatic, religious and moral though not overtly so, against war, pro-talk, pro-equality and social justice, a great orator, a little inexperienced but a beacon of change and hope after years of division and stagnation. So maybe there’s the real reason I distrust Obama as much as any other politician- I’ve heard it all before- it’s how they described Tony Blair in 1997.

*that would be two terms plus the remainder of the previous incumbent’s term if they’ve made it past the halfway mark.

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