This week I’m going to Melbourne for the launch party of the second issue of another literary journal, where I’ll be reading an excerpt from my story ‘Meeting the Colonel’, set in a fictional dictatorship somewhere around the Hindu Kush, in a loosely real maravilloso style. I blush when it read it now, with its awkward narrative structure and thinly veiled polemicising – it’s been two years since I wrote it, and I haven’t been writing fiction for much longer than that. (Does one hate ones old work less with time? I hope so.)
A more serious problem for a politically motivated storyteller is the danger of being overtaken by events; as with fashion, twenty years distance is interesting, two years is merely outdated. Many things have changed. Most significant for the ‘war on terror’ was the regime change in Washington. Obama’s inauguration had a profound symbolic resonance beyond the borders of the USA, as eulogised by reggae singjay Sizzla in Black Man in the White House. Expectations were high around the world that a new, benign American foreign policy would replace the bloodshed and turmoil of the Bush years.
Some of us, disillusioned by other charismatic and supposedly transformational leaders (Tony Blair, in my case) or philosophically predisposed to see the changing of the guard at the top of the capitalo-parliamentarian state apparatus as a charade, did not expect much. But to the starving, a crust is a feast, and after eight years of intransigent climate denial, war crimes, atrocities, profiteering and the privatisation of war, Obama’s emollient rhetoric was music to the ears of many on the Left. Who can blame them? Once installed in office, however, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge noted at the time, ‘the issue is no longer what he is and means, but what he does’. Sarah Palin, of all people, posed the unavoidable question: ‘How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?’
For one thing, vested interests are alive and well, as shown by the vastly watered-down version of healthcare legislation. The institutions of American government and their arcane rules tend towards split-the-difference policymaking, and a certain level of entrenched conservatism. As liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias points out:
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fact that in a unicameral United States of America, we would now have passed both a comprehensive health care reform bill and also the most important piece of environmental legislation in the history of the world.
But the perception of the Obama administration struggling to break the mould is only half-true. In other ways, his rule has exceeded the aggression of the previous one. Unmanned Predator drones have struck rural areas of Pakistan, an American ally, more times in the first year of Obama than in the eight years of Bush (Sanger 2009). It’s worth a look at General Atomics website, which includes the Predator and the Predator B in its list of products – there’s even a brochure you can download. It sounds like dystopian science fiction, but it’s real. Try reading it from the perspective of someone unfortunate enough to happen to live in the Hindu Kush, in daily danger of becoming tomorrow’s next ‘collateral damage’ statistic.
As to Israel–Palestine, the current diplomatic row might seem like a promise of change from the usual fine words and massive military aid to empower the occupation and the apartheid-like treatment of the occupied. But as Tariq Ali (2010) points out:
Obama’s official line towards Israel would be manifest even before he took office. On December 27, 2008, the IDF launched an all-out air and ground assault on the population of Gaza. Bombing, burning, killing continued without interruption for twenty-two days, during which time the President-Elect uttered not a syllable of reproof.
If a restructuring of Middle East policy is in the works, it is not due to benevolence but pragmatism. General Petraeus is the one calling for a strategic adjustment, not on humanitarian grounds of course, but because the one-sided American approach to Israel–Palestine is creating massive bad press in the region that threatens to endanger American hegemony of power.
Ultimately, politicians are self-interested creatures; anyone who puts ethical principles above the search for power, rather than using them as a tool in its service, is weeded out long before a general election. The system of bourgeois democracy has two customers – party donors and voters – and no prizes for guessing which matter more. We should not look to politicians for salvation; they are obstacles to be overcome. As Obama put it (somewhat disingenuously, given that he was in the midst of building a presidential campaign with personality cult features): ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’.
Ali, Tariq 2010 ‘President of Cant’, New Left Review 61.
Sanger, David 2009 ‘Obama Outlines a Vision of Might and Right’, New York Times.
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