Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Subtext of the First Romney-Obama Debate

The consensus of pundit reaction to the first debate between Romney and Obama is that Romney won on “style” if not also on substance. Liberal pundits point out that Romney lied over and over again in the debate, flip-flopping or shaking his Etch A Sketch; these pundits concede, though, that while the Republican nominee was smug, condescending, and arrogant, smirking and squinting at Obama, Romney showed much more enthusiasm. Conservative pundits gloat that Romney stood toe-to-toe with the President and delivered the policy specifics that Americans allegedly requested. Obama was “professorial,” making solid, well-worn points against Romney, but with atrocious delivery: the President didn’t dumb-down or speak in punchy, pithy sound bites, and he kept looking down while writing notes instead of maintaining eye contact with his opponent, as though he were physically submitting to Romney; moreover, Obama missed all sorts of opportunities to go after Romney, to vanquish his unworthy foe, to speak the truth about the abysmal state of the Republican Party. 

Arguably, Romney had more to lose so he came better prepared in addition to having more recent debating experience--albeit with the clown car of the other Republican contenders, like Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. Obama may have been distracted by pressing political matters like Syria or Iran, he may not like debates, and he may have been coached to sit on his lead in the polls and thus to not take any chances. But as psychologist, Drew Westen, pointed out a year ago, Obama’s lack of passion throughout his time in office has been not just disappointing but baffling to liberals. While still a senator, Obama campaigned for the presidency with such fervor that Democrats thought he was the anti-Bush Messiah. In reality, it turns out that anyone with even minimal acting ability can read a teleprompter with a fiery tone; plus, most of Obama’s memorable campaign rhetoric--“Change!” and “Yes, we can!”--was amorphous. Obama wanted to restore bipartisan sanity to Washington and was rewarded with the descent of the GOP into an apocalyptic cult that brooked no compromise with the Democrats, and was bent on annihilating liberalism and ensuring that Obama was a one-term President. Republicans would vote even against legislation they themselves proposed, to deny Obama a legislative victory. 

The biggest lie Republicans now tell is that such vitriolic hatred of liberals is justified by Obama’s socialist extremism. Republican leaders have learned from cognitive science, as well as from the New Testament, that the best way to sell your policies is to couch them in opposition to a mortal enemy, to activate your minions’ fight-or-flight instinct. When Republicans distort Democratic policies, pretending that American liberals want to impose a communist dictatorship on the US, outlawing capitalism, and so forth, they not only demonize their opponents but reinforce an equally stark definition of what it means to be a Republican. This is the underlying reason why Romney was so energized in his first debate with Obama. Even though Romney is personally a moderate, pragmatic centrist, which is to say a nihilistic, Machiavellian sociopath who will say anything to get elected, he’s immersed in a miasma of Republican myths, in the so-called Fox News bubble, which inspires him to pretend that Obama has a diabolic plan to steal from hard-working, job-creating capitalists to further spoil the 47% of do-nothing moochers. 

The reason this is a lie is that Obama’s actual ideology is just as much an empty shell as Romney’s. Both men know that political ideology in the US is a sideshow, since the economic power of the wealthy elites dictates the political agenda and holds the country hostage. For example, this is what it means for Wall Street banks to be “too big to fail.” As the radical pundit Max Keiser says, the American plutocrats function as parasites and financial terrorists, literally holding the power to sink the American economy unless the government swears fealty to their plan of establishing a neo-feudal social order. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Obama is a postmodern and thus a disenchanted liberal. He’s too smart to believe in anything; certainly, his liberal Christianity is vacuous, consisting of feel-good New Age slogans that can’t withstand three seconds of rational examination. (See also Liberalism and Libertarianism.) And this is why, as Westen says,
When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.
Obama can’t even directly criticize Republicans, let alone demonize them, because far from being a zealous socialist he personally stands for absolutely nothing--and this, despite the fact that he’s confronted with Republicans who are actually more or less evil! Perhaps mesmerized by the audacity of that evil, Obama retreats to relativist, multicultural, post-Enlightenment liberalism, which means his principles dissipate as soon as they’re called to action. 

Is “evil” too strong a word” for the Republicans’ social Darwinism and Ayn Randian egoism? Of course not. As became clear when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul in a debate whether libertarianism implies that an uninsured sick person should be left to die if he can’t afford health care, and Paul was forced to backtrack and obfuscate when a thrall from the audience cried out in ecstasy, “Yeah!”, the selfishness at the root of economic conservatism is the same that motivates all wicked acts. Amoral social Darwinism, according to which the social safety net should be torn away to preserve the freedom to profit from the application of vices in a beastly competition, is the same worldview that rationalizes blue collar forms of evil, such as first degree murder. As horrible as murder is, the white collar sabotaging of progressive government institutions so that they’re helpless to prevent the re-naturalization of the social order, which is to say the reconstitution of jungle-style dominance hierarchies, is no less evil for being a much less direct form of violence. Callous henchmen get their hands dirty while a heartless mastermind pushes buttons in his underground lair, but both are forms of wickedness. 

And even after being humiliated by Republicans, who won back the House, obstructed the Democrats despite their holy mandate for change after eight execrable years of George W. Bush, and stooped to exploiting American racism to paint Obama as un-American, Obama sleepwalks through his first chance to personally slay the dragon. Face to face with the chief representative of the toxic Republican Party, Obama still shies away from drama, from conflict. For numerous reasons, Obama can’t afford to tell Americans the truth about the decline of their political system, but one such reason which isn’t widely known is that Obama has no philosophical grounds to reverse that decline or to condemn the juggernaut that’s chiefly to blame for the US implosion. Even if Obama wanted to be cautious, to protect his lead by avoiding gaffes, a true-believing liberal would have been unable to stop himself from eviscerating the leader of the odious Republicans, were he given Obama's chance.

Like King Denethor from Lord of the Rings, who succumbs to terror after peaking over his parapets and beholding the vastness of evil Sauron’s might in the form of his horde of monsters and demons that stretches to the horizon, Obama’s hesitance speaks to a larger problem: the bankruptcy of postmodern liberalism. There is currently no viable philosophy or religion to resist the conservative myths that favour a reconstituting of what Lewis Mumford calls the megamachine, which I interpret as the natural state of oligarchy. Ancient religions are hopelessly anachronistic if not also compromised, while Scientism (secular humanism) eliminates the whole field of normative inquiry as unsusceptible to scientific solutions. I submit, though, that a prerequisite of a more worthy alternative is what I call existential cosmicism.

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