Posts Tagged ‘american culture


Baracking out in the Granite State

Since i’ve never lived in a battleground state, American politics really feels like an internet phenomenon followed from afar. Saturday, I got my first taste of democracy in( )action: canvassing for Obama (and Shaheen and Hodes, but I’ll get to those two in a minute) in Nashua NH. Between the too-early wake up (6.45) and the many folding tables covered in big box store brand rugelach and boxed coffee, I could tell I was in for a treat.

The Obama regional office in Nashua is located along a strip of fast food joints in a low-slung former mattress showroom, which may have fallen victim to the economic slowdown. Volunteers from Little Rhody (including over ninety from Brown), Massachusetts, and Connecticut joined local folks in tight shivering circles sipping apple cider and learning how to use the demographic information in our walk packs. There was enough campaign lit to educate thousands on the need for A New Direction in Washington and enough campaign stickers for people to put them on both the inside and the outside of their jackets. The impressive variety of local campaign posters in the windows – mixed in with handwritten oak tag signs – and the circulating Shaheen volunteers in green hoodies gave the scene a real small town feeling.

Sen. John Kerry speaks from a pickup truck in Nashua

Sen. John Kerry speaks from a pickup truck in Nashua (with Paul Hodes backing him up)

We were assigned to canvass Westgate Village, a charming development southwest of town. The McCain-Palin lawn sign outside our first house, 2 Boulder Circle, made it perhaps the easiest of the day. Zack and I were novice canvassers, so when we got to our next target, Birdy took the lead to show us how it was done. Unfortunately, the middle-aged Republican man who answered the door was not pleased when she asked for someone who lives down the street. It was the first door closed on us, but we coded it as a “not home.” They’ll get another visit later this week.

It was clear that the people in the neighborhood were wise to our little canvassing scheme. The first person to actually talk to us we caught on the way into his house with some groceries. We were at the house next door, and it was clear he was trying to sneak in without being noticed. He (re)informed the campaign, through us, that he is an Obama supporter. It was his fifth time being canvassed this week. Most of the doors we knocked never opened. Most of the driveways were empty, but it definitely felt as if the people of Nashua know not to open their doors late on saturday mornings.

One of the most shocking (and encouraging) aspects of the trip was a real look at how the Obama campaign is overwhelming McCain on the ground. While knocking on several doors, we noticed old Obama “lit” on the stoop. Since we were dropping the same glossy pamphlets, it had probably only been a couple days since the last canvass. But we never saw any vestiges of the McCain campaign; no canvassers, no lit, and only two lawn signs (including a particularly repulsive and contextually ineffectual “Another Democrat for McCain”). We “talked” to several McCain supporters (“you have the wrong house, kids”) but it seemed as if the McCain campaign has given up on a state that is historically red and only recently turned purple.

Our best house was a recently convinced supporter holding her one year old daughter. Since the canvass was officially a joint effort between the Obama and Shaheen campaigns (apparently Hodes was a bit of a free rider on the effort) we tried talking about the senate and house races. It was awkward. I certainly support Shaheen unseating Sununu-R, but I can’t speak convincingly about the race beyond the meek “It’s really important for Barack to have as much legislative support as possible in the senate.”

Back at HQ after an edible Boston Market lunch we joined a little parking lot rally. John Kerry got up on the bed of a green pickup (i forgot to check whether or not it was a domestic model) and gave a rousing little speech about how he thinks McCain is a great guy but would be a terrible president (all i could think of was Jason Sudeikis’ Biden impression from the SNL VP debate). It was great to wave the Obama sign and snap a grainy cell phone picture while cheering at the same talking points we used hours earlier. I was especially impressed by Kerry’s self-effacing discussion of McCain’s flip-flopping combined with a slight jab at himself.

Before yesterday, I had never been to a political rally, never canvassed a battleground state, and never felt as close to American democracy. It was definitely worth missing a few hours of sleep.


treating palinism seriously

Though I wonder whether it’s appropriate to credit Sarah Palin with a sufficiently coherent worldview (and I mean this with stress on world, since it’s clear that she lacks the life experience, self-reflexivity, and intellectual sophistication to understand either the structure of globalization, any foreign cultures, or the way non-Americans perceive this country) to qualify as “Palinism,” Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed in today’s NYT productively analyzes her assertion of American exceptionalism. For Cohen, the defining characteristic of Palinism is anger, which comes from a building sense of American decline in the popular viscera. This anger is manifest in the widespread and willful ignorance evident in debates over issues from climate change to military strategy; as the left attempts to produce a discourse grounded in fact, the conservative movement continuously adheres to a love of truthiness that exposes its ignorance of the gravity of the matters at hand

The article is particularly interesting when placed into dialogue with Empire as a Way of Life, by William Appleman Williams, which I just read for Race, Empire, and Modernity. While it’s difficult to claim today that any one particular event or discourse is the strongest evidence for Williams’ thesis (since so much points to the imperial character of American political/social/economic ideology), Palinism is certainly a contender. Assertions of American exceptionalism increasingly ring hollow in the Internet age, when your ability means more than the color of your passport.

In his preface, Williams argues that a characteristic of the “imperial way of life” is an inability “to say no to our desires.”  He quotes another historian’s description of “our ‘growing national disillusionment when it appears that the desires must be limited'”, which is a surprisingly prescient evocation of Palinism more than thirty years before anyone outside of Anchorage knew who Sarah Baracuda was. If we take this discussion of desire seriously, it’s possible to read Palinism (and the related desparation of rust belt whites ‘clinging to their guns and religion’) as a truly fetishistic construction. The unreasonable importance Palinists give to trivial social policy is the fetish obscuring their (dis)avowel of American decline. Only an enforced ignorance of the rapidly morphing world order could make denying gay marriage seem worth the effort.

With the financial system collapsing around us and the real vacuity of American wealth no longer ignorable, a truly international awareness is essential. Even Adam Smith’s own analysis supports the need for a global approach (it’s good to fight on their turf):

Riches do not consist in having more Gold and Silver, but in having more in proportion than the rest of the World… whereby we are enabled to procure to ourselves a greater Plenty of the Conveniences of Life than comes within the reach of Neighbouring Kingdoms and States

Instead of colonial plunder, today’s riches are virtual: information, skill, education, creativity, etc. It’s not enough for a Palinist to “know” that we’re in a bad spot because imported stuff costs more, jobs are being “outsourced” in inreasingly creative ways, and people are asking to be paid in Euros. In this century, leaders need to understand education, productivity, energy policy, foreign affairs, cultural production and everything else of importance in relative terms. Thinking America is Exceptional laughs in the face of a global approach because it raises painful truths about our own value. We need our leaders to interrogate this fetishism before we wake up an irrelevancy.


Putting it in perspective

After thinking about coverage of the Palin interview yesterday, i went to this morning to find the second part of the interview (this event was too good to be squashed into one night of television). Instead of finding a link to a video of our potential VP, i was treated to a large (and obviously effective) ad for Wipeout, a new show that does for Spike’s infamous MXC what the Food Network did for the original Iron Chef.

The Iron Chef transition from funny dubbing to the American “Kitchen Stadium” worked out pretty well. We’ll have to see if the MXC concept is still as funny once we actually know what the announcers are saying. I guess that’s why they decided to make it really American: the announcers (one of whom is from ESPN) spend much of the show making fun of the fat people who fall off of some bouncy rubber surface, slam their faces into a wall, and fall into a pool of mud. It’s kind of like a cross between The Biggest Loser and a beer commercial.

After this, I went downstairs to make some breakfast and was listening to NPR, for what I thought would be a refreshing dose of sanity. Instead, I was clued into the expert opinion on Sarah Palin’s performance. Apparently she didn’t make any big gaffes. There was even a discussion about whether the Bush Doctrine question was fair.

I expect that from a News Corp property, but NPR? Dismayed and confused I finished my cinnamon bun and retreated upstairs to bury myself in Althusser and some more of the sweeper.

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