GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 5, 2008

One Originary Thinker’s Account of the U.S. Election

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:54 pm

First of all, we just received a very valuable lesson in the efficacy of scapegoating:  the singleminded hatred of Bush cultivated by the Left over the past 8 years has translated directly into the deification of Barack Obama.  That singlemindedness is to be wondered at:  there were no guarantees that the robotic effort to blame every single bad thing that happened in the world on Bush, and to separate him from every single good thing that happened, would work to discredit Bush rather than the purveyors of the myth.  On the other hand, it’s not clear what else they had to work with.  Bush, in the end, turned out to be vacillating, “compassionate” conservative who simply could not bring himself to believe that his opponents were willing to disable us in front of our enemies in order to defeat him; much less that they were so desperate to defeat him because they hoped to disable us in the face of our enemies.

 At any rate, what struck me in Obama’s victory speech was how one could see almost everything he says and, indeed, his entire persona, as a precise photgraphic negative of the stereotype that has been produced of Bush.  That is why, if Bush is the source of all evil, Obama can be the source of all good, of “healing” and transcendence.  The power of Obama’s otherwise vapid oratory might be explicable on these terms:  from a time of division to a time of unity, from antagonizing the world to inspiring it, from the old (white) guard to the new inclusive order.  As a non-threatening (in Shelby Steele’s formulation) “negotiator,” Obama takes upon himself our White Guilt, all of which had been deposited in the person of George W. Bush, and cleanses us of it. 

From a historical and anthropological perspective, then, the question is whether the mimetic crisis has been deferred, or are its forces merely gathering?  On the one hand, the esthetic and sacrificial coherence of singling out Bush (and other Republicans, to the precise extent they could be shown to have been contaminated by Bush), and defeating him decisively in the figure of his assigned surrogate, McCain, might have the desired cathartic effect.  The symbolic scapegoating, mediated through the terms of the liberal democratic order’s procedures for succession, would make more bloody or destructive versions unnecessary.  Here, we might have an argument over whether the liberal democratic order does do anything other than provide simulations of scapegoating events so as to protect us from actual ones.  I think it has to do quite a bit more, because scapegoating has no epistemological value–it offers no help in providing accounts of reality and preparing for future events.  And if the terms of the mimetic crisis have remained unchanged, how can the symbolic scapegoating appease the victimary gods?

It will perhaps be up to Obama whether those terms remain unchanged.  He would have to do at the least the following two things in order to emerge as more than a kind of fertility god springing from the soil manured by the sacrificed Presidency of George W. Bush.  First, he would have to stand in between the Democratic majority and one or more of their interest groups as they grab for more than their “fair” share of the spoils of victory (the sparagmos); second, he would have to take actions aimed unequivocally and unapolegetically at one or another of America’s declared enemies–only such actions would position Obama as a genuine defender of the national constitutional order, rather than the idol of those resentfully parastic upon it. 

If Obama chooses to remain at the center of the cult that has brought him to power, what might we expect:  who would be the next victims?   There don’t seem to be any immediate threats (the Left, of course, will be the first to insist upon the ease with which threats can be fabricated), precisely because the victory seems so complete:  the most powerful Republican now in power will be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, hardly a promising bogeyman.  The talk radio hosts?  They can be easily ignored, at least for a while, and anyway it would be almost too easy to simply cut them off (reinstating the “Fairness Doctrine” won’t easily produce the required sacrificial event).  More promising might be show trials for members of the Bush Administration, not excluding Bush and Cheney themselves:  that would be red meat for the base in a more than usually literal sense.   But one would run out of them fairly quickly as well.

The question won’t arise for real until Obama confronts genuine obstacles.  What might those be, and what would be the appropriate scapegoats?  One easy answer is the financial crisis, where Obama could follow the lead of both Roosevelts and seek the heads of various “malefactors of great wealth” (presumably those who don’t donate to Democrats), plus increasingly confiscatory taxes–this might be very bad economics, especially in a recession or depression, but very good politics.  Environmental extremism also points out quite a few possibilities, like producers of coal and the oil companies.  Obama need not take the lead in any of this, instead simply nodding to supporters in and out of government–by this point, quite a bit of law changing and regulation can be effected through well situated lawsuits in front of friendly judges (and many more of them will now be friendly). 

I doubt that there is anything anyone opposed to this agenda could do until it plays itself out.  I suppose a bout of scapegoating comes to an end when it has been ritualized and institutionalized:  in this case through ritual flagellations of racism, polluting technologies, expressions of “intolerance,” warmongering, and so in, in politics and throughout the culture.  Which means a lot more of what we have now, but without even the token resistance and possibility, every four years, of appealing over the heads of the elites to the populace available up until now.  (No, I don’t think the Democrats will try to cancel the 2012 elections–but they can arrange things so as to face a severely underfuned Republican will be thoroughly “profiled” and demonized from the beginning.) But when these institutions fail to successfully target all the resentment they generate, or generate new resentment through their intrinsically imprecise application, and fail to account for a wider reality unresponsive to them, we can expect the victims to turn on each other.  Undeniable failures will call for a reckoning, starting perhaps first of all with the Big Media, for whom continued idolization of Obama will become incompatible with actually reporting on what he says and does.  A whole system of taboos have been established protecting Obama from serious questions, and they are all taboos deeply rooted in both victimary politics and Bush hatred (which are really two sides of the same coin).  Someone will have to break those taboos, some “insider,” who will then be punished; more will come forward, leading to a new sub-system of victimage.  With the break-up of the cult, a renewal of a thinking of the center might be possible.  The only figures who will emerge with any credibility at that point will be those who managed to avoid all responsibility for what happens in the meantime.


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