Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pantomime debating

I remember a marvellous moment in the television series of Alex Hailey's 'Roots' (one of those landmark series that trace across your childhood when television meant something). We are in the 'Deep South' after the Civil War when white supremacy was being re-established after a brief interruption. An electoral candidate is explaining to an assembled group of listeners that he has studied the art of rhetoric and absorbed the speeches of Cicero et al. He steps onto the balcony and his first word, uttered as battle cry, is 'Niggers...'

He knows his audience and his task is not to advance an electoral address grounded in truth and value but to win. Win first the attention of his audience, appeal to their prejudice and fear and get their votes to win the election. He, if memory serves, succeeded admirably.

This memory surfaces, I fear, every time I see coverage of the US Presidential debates where the only thing that appears to matter is who appears to have won. Winning does not seem to depend on any particular access to considered truth (or the argument about what might be true and of value). It appears to depend on the style deployed and whether one candidate's 'sound bites' captured the audience's attention more than that of the other candidate.

This, if anything, is more depressing precisely because both candidates (mutual demonisation aside) appear quite decent. Their decency, however, is no apparent protection against them choosing to participate in this pantomime of apparent debate.

The debate is both 'apparent' because of its style but also because of its substance.

Sad to say there is no appreciation in either party that the United States is as much part of our global problem as a part of any solution. The only US President with the courage to confront the US with its shadow was quickly replaced by a sunny salesmen of business as usual (Carter being defeated by Reagen). The only other President to raise its shadow did so safely after leaving office - namely Eisenhower and his notable expression of his fear of the dominance of 'the military-industrial complex' (a dominance that sadly trundles along quite nicely dragging the US deeper into debt and into the quagmire of failed military adventure).

So expressing a preference for one candidate over another is rather akin to deciding which person would make you marginally more comfortable while the ship sinks. In that case you would have to plump for Obama because at least he may have a glimmer of what is at stake (though so did the Romney who was governor of Massachusetts though not now after his apparent conversion)! You have to wonder: who are these people really as they ebb and flow with the tide of public opinion (though opinion may too formed a word for it)!

There is no reasoned debate about a gridlocked US political system where the careful separation of powers is held to ransom to conflicting political ideologies and where consensus (or indeed truth seeking) is a foreign land of which the parties are mostly ignorant. Nor of a financial system that simply does not work and whose failings post-2008 have not been remotely addressed. The US ironically has become a focal point for climate related disaster but there is no discussion of climate change. The world has experienced possibly its worst harvest in a generation but there is no discussion of food security and corn farmers are still being subsidised by a bankrupt country to convert their corn into ethanol so the poor go hungry. Meanwhile the country that is the beacon of democracy (self-appointed) has most of its diplomats holed up behind concrete and metal pillars because frankly people do not much like it as a state (whereas as a culture it is widely admired, copied and aspired to). Then there is the debt...

It is rather like two parents arguing about wiping a child's nose while it expires before them of pneumonia!

And yes I do think it is that serious...

It is all a bit depressing especially when it is a country (as a people) I deeply love. But it does rather point to general malaise - where is global leadership and when are people going to emerge who you can genuinely admire? Where on earth are they?

Perhaps the era of looking to leaders is passing and we should learn the complex arts of anarchy (post collapse) or simply, in the words of Voltaire, learn to cultivate our gardens (if we are lucky enough to have one)!

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