This article is a little educational insert for the deaf, dumb and blind, a group which includes myself, since I too need reminding of the basics from time to time. I forget the simple stuff that makes life worth living as much as the next spinach-avoiding human. The topic of this article, too long to be a broadside and too short to warrant serious attention, is obvious from the title. However, a primer needs examples and for this what better trick hat to pull one than politics? Lately we've had a funny thing happen. The world of politics and the world of ideas, always sort of parasitical of each other, have come together to give us some new words that no one, even an expert, can begin to understand. With that disclaimer, let us begin and see how some of these philosophical, slash that, falutin' words make their way onto the scene of modern politics. (I was going to say modern crime but I didn't want to be crass in the first paragraph.)
Let's start with two over-bandied words that mean nothing: postmodernist and deconstructionist. The first job will be to find an appropriate example of a postmodernist who is also a politician. For this we have to admit that the POTUS is the ideal postmodernist bloviator for this task. What are the terms 'postmodernist' and 'deconstructionist' if we apply them to our B.loviating H.ero, O.bama? Since every respectable essay should have some starting assumption, I will assume for a moment that it is true that he appears to present simulacra of a postmodernist (pomo for short). 'Please forgive me if 'simulacra' in this case is given in plural since as yet it is not clear to us that the B.H.O is one particular bloviator. He has so many different faces, religions, philosophies and ideals that from day to day it's hard for moron and bananas like me to keep track of who he is.
The secret of B.H.O.'s pomo-ness (sounds like a tomato) is that he's meticulously up on the latest fashions. Who can deny it? The man is modern, even down to his flaneurish dress suit, donned especially for that $70,000 date in NYC. He's on the pulse of the present, the latest mode. The point about his fashion statement is important since one of the most crucial things about being postmodern is to have a theory, i.e., a view of the world. However, the theory, to be postmodern, has to have a literary flair, reveal a story, a drama, just enough suffering. It's the stuff of movies, and B.H.O. is the star. The fact is we are not making this up about the love affair between fiction and politics. Postmodern theory today turns to literature and film to give it the pathos – the human scene in all of its emotion – needed to move the masses. I think it was de Sade (from whence we get the word Sadist) who, in developing his philosophy and his politics of crime, said (way before Marx, 100 years before in fact), in a text filled with death and destruction and debauchery: that culture is the opium of the people. And here we are. It has arrived. Culture is indeed the panacea of the masses. The postmodern instinct to mesmerize the people via culture is in full swing. Capital as 'commodity' does a heck of a lot more damage to free beings than religion, it seems, and works faster to lull the sheeple to sleep. Poor Marx: wrong again. But why would a postmodernist like Obama need to turn to literature, um, fiction, to tune-in to the pathos of existence or to frame a movement?
It has to do with self-reference. By drawing attention to fictions the pomos draws attention to fictions of the self (supposed prejudices that need be remedied) and generate sympathy for specific stories (the cure for said prejudices, corrective fiction). Through fiction – stories about coming up in the world (the Story of Sotomayor comes to mind) – we learn about possible worlds, and thus participate in change: the ideologizing of a new world. This storytelling is constructive morality. I won't digress too much on the full extent of what is entailed by 'constructive morality' here. Maybe that's another essay, another day.
Since we don't have all day, let's move to the next falutin' word on our list: deconstructionist. In addition to looking like a postmodernist, B.H.O. sometimes resembles a deconstructionist. A deconstructionist follows naturally to and from postmodernist. The terms are like hand-wringing: they go back and forth. It makes sense: to assemble, to construct from fiction a brave new world, you have to do some dismantling of the disappointing old world you wanted to replace: the real, boring world that, not fictional enough, actually includes non-postmodernists, the morons and bananas like me who are supposed to believe every word of the latest fairy tale, then shut up and eat our peas.
B.H.O. is a postmodernist and a deconstructionist because his ‘text’ is very broad (the world). It is broad which means that he can write about anything and anything in it is material for creative fiction. Because the text is broad it is hard to pin down. But it's hard to pin down not only because it is broad. A president's reach is global, after all. It's hard to pin down not just because the whole world and everything that happens in it is in play but because the text is constructive. It's fictional as much as factual details are in a constant state of readjustment. The story changes from day to day. There is no solid thesis. Sure, the world, the real world changes. We can't avoid that, but the world as text, Obama's fictional reworking of the world, is constructive and therefore pervasive not only as a fiction: the text is applied to the real world and becomes part of the real world. We are not talking principles. One applies principles to a situation and as a result something might happen. We are talking about texts, not principles. (You have to think about this like an 'index.' You are reading or are being read a text/as a text. A finger goes to a certain line to call your attention to something important. You are mesmerized and agree it must be important.) Now for the funny thing. This fictional text does en-compass the entire planet in its moral compass. Moral? Well, the simulacra of a morality. All this means is that in this 'story' we are getting likenesses of Obama, likenesses of the world, likenesses of religion and moral principles and these likenesses, as stories, infiltrate reality all the time. Stories, things we read, become fact. We don't have to believe them completely, just enough to move to the next crisis, the next chapter.
We are getting so many likenesses thrown around that it's hard to tell if any of them have anything to do with reality or if they are dancers hiding the real, dancing bear. (I think we all saw that youtube video?) The image is apt: the good postmodernist is certainly a dancing bear, surrounded by dancing girls to distract anyone from seeing him fumble across the stage doing something entirely different than what we think we see. But back to the moral compass. It seems to us that Obama's moral compass is merely a likeness of moral principle. He wears it like that silly black suit which probably cost too much, the one he wore on the promised date with Michelle to NYC. He wears it when he needs to go out and look spiffy and make a good impression. In example, what are some of these moral likenesses Obama wears? For one, his claim of a desire, through the passage of a bill, to ‘feed the world’, or maybe we should point up a more localized desire, 'to make things right for the American black man.' Maybe when he's alone he doesn't admit these desires anymore. Something new grabs his eye and what drove him yesterday is now old news. Maybe desire becomes an ancient memory, now replaced by yet another story that can only mime it.
A useful way to settle the question of whether Obama is both postmodernist and deconstructionist would be to discover his actual ‘beliefs,' not that this would be easy. It would help determine whether his postmodern bona fides were in order: does he really believe his own stories? (Maybe belief of this type is what affirms the postmodern bona fides).
I'm going out on a limb to say it's both. He believes and he doesn't. He's been wearing so many masks for so long that they're looking awfully real. Being postmodern is all about being in the present, adapting your position to the current configuration or situation, instigating and reacting to events. So he's an immediate rather than deliberate president. Sometimes he's an accidental president. At each instant he tweaks himself (his image) according to the situation at hand. This, in turn, promotes a new situation. This of course means that others can use him by predicting the way he'll tweak himself in order to gain praise. For B.H.O to gain praise means that, depending on the situation, different 'belief' components are needed. It's a toolkit filled with bells and whistles, and the right tool is whatever works. So you can say "America is a Muslim country" and you can say "I am a Christian" and you can say, "my father was an agnostic" and you can say "my father was a Muslim." In the situationist mentality, all of these statements are true, as indexes of situations and crises, as moments in the long parade of fashion moments. Being up-to-date, in the present, means that caring if what he wears now conforms to what he wore yesterday is a ridiculous expectation. Should we concern ourselves with such trifles? Of course not! Out with the old. But if, from the outside, it seems that he sometimes does believe himself, sometimes has some shaky principle, then he seems awfully forgetful, and he appears to be a bumbler. Maybe when we realize that he's more about style than substance, that he's tweaking a 'look,' it helps to explain the constant flip-flop.
In spite of all we've said, it still seems he's got a belief system, maybe two.
On the first level he's out for himself and his friends. That's the belief system. It's the law of local power. Whoever has the power uses it to get more and if you read the ever changing kaleidoscope of recent events through this rule, then there does seem to be a 'moral compass': the moral of the 'story' being that whoever has the power is the law and the law is anything the whoever in power decides. The dictator, in the end, is a thug, and power, nothing else, is his principle. No matter how charming and kind, and no matter what he says, anything he gets you to agree to will diminish you and enrich him. He's a shill in a black tuxedo.
On the second level, there is a political belief system to support the first, as described in the previous paragraph, a system that serves to consolidate power, and offers just enough illusion of fairness (forget freedom) to trick some honest people into believing they are on the good side when really they are neck deep in fascists. There are no sides for the fascist. Bipartisanship is just another way of telling the following story: 'there is some set of beliefs we share, on which we can come together in harmony.' A partisan, on the other hand, is someone who believes in an idea. To be bipartisan is to compromise a belief for the sake of false harmony. False harmony is one of B.H.O.'s goals and explains why he compromises and wants us to compromise. But, as he well knows, it's only an illusion. The real message: keep the masses sedated. The problem is that it's not natural for human beings to compromise. We like to argue. Sometimes we are wrong for refusing to compromise. Sometimes our lack of harmony is truly ugly. Sometimes we are dead right to disagree. Having strong views, being a partisan, has taken on a negative connotation. Maybe the evil of partisanship is another 'story' floating around. In fact, a capacity for partisan thinking reflects character: one has an idea or principle and sticks to it, defends it even at the risk of life or limb. Thankfully, the founding fathers didn't agree on all things. They were partisans par excellence. Checks and balances (another form of harmony) were a way of maintaining rather than dissolving the freedom to disagree and the freedom of speech. But talk of ‘checks and balances’ is not very postmodern. So we won't say more about it here.
We've unpacked a dense muffin for the hungry soul, in a kind of abstract way, assuming a degree of knowledge about what's happening these days. Since we only claim to be blue collar philosophers, we have avoided too much philosophical mumbo jumbo, contenting ourselves to a general terrain of the subject, and in everyday English. Even without an entirely rigorous path, we hope that certain principles shine through.
Principles seem to be lacking these days and saying the word occasionally is not a bad idea. In the case of Obama, principles are not to be found. There are ideological roots instead. There is some blowing back and forth (picture alfalfa) but I'm not sure any of this constitutes principles. 'Why not,' someone will ask, 'the plant is definitely rooted somewhere.' But, with so much distraction and crisis every two minutes we often can't see what the 'roots' are. Is every idea the same? When something takes hold does this make it a weed or a prized garden plant? We only see the top of the plant, for which the wind and sun determine its general orientation. This is a fine point: how to see roots with the naked eye. Does the direction of the plant say much about the structure of the roots? The more we look for the roots of the ideologies currently blowing over America, the better off we'll be. I digressed, but the question was: why are roots not principles? The answer is that roots spread in every direction looking for water. They are thirsty. They want water. In this analogy, ideology is like roots. It wants power. That is its desire and aim. Not all principles on the other hand, have such an aim. Some would say that power is a principle but power is force more than principle. A principle is a function through which reason filters and judges its own acts. Force, on the other hand, is an imposition of power on others by those who can. Such an imposition of power gathers everything and demands obedience, not reason. It allows only its own view, its own speech. To our understanding, a principle is an idea, not of power and force, but of liberation and freedom. An idea can have power and force but of a different kind. It guides our actions without dictating them, and it enables us, because we reason, to freely go beyond the play of force that inscribes our animal nature.