Obama in Loolaaland: the presidential visit and the production of belief

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“…more than 11,000 articles were published in over 3,500 publications in 110 countries in the 48 hours surrounding US President Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland.”

from rte.ie

These days, before we eat something, we like to know what it is made of, where it comes from and under what working conditions it was produced. This allows us to grant an ethical meaning to the product and to make a critical decision about whether to consume or refuse to consume it. If the coffee isn’t fair trade, it carries the negative meaning, and perhaps even the spiritual residue, of its original exploitative and/or environmentally destructive conditions. We don’t want to put that bad stuff inside us because it would make us part of the badness.

Products with some of the vilest origins end up in the most attractive packaging, promoted by the prettiest women and the apparently most virulent men. That’s business right? Everyone gets this. But it’s how politics works too, especially and intensively so at the high-end.

Obama’s visit was, first and foremost, a production. It was a production involving a cast of thousands, organised into military, pr-media, and administrative divisions, and deployed across two countries.

It was a co-production, jointly organised by and mutually benefiting the Irish Corporate State Machine and the American one. The Irish Machine is subordinate to the American one, because it is less powerful. While on tour here the American Machine plugs in to the Irish Machine and makes use of it. The Irish Machine becomes, in effect, an extension of the American. On the other hand, the Irish Machine benefits from the temporary power injection by appearing more connected to the main sources of power than it actually is.

But the relationship between Obama and Kelmore Ginny isn’t one of equal fellowship, but of the master’s contempt for the stable-boy who has dressed up in his cast-offs. As soon as Obama left Ireland his ‘love’ for the ‘Irish People’  was eschewed in favour of some serious realpolitik. 48 hours after the Celtic love-in Obama and his financial advisers were in Brussels arguing hard for a strengthening of the euro. This is the worst thing that could happen to the Irish elite’s -very shaky- export-led growth strategy. Obama was only putting his arm around Kelmore Ginny  the better to backstab him.

But, says Kelmore F. Ginny, it isn’t about what Obama can do for us, but what he can help us do to them. The American and European ruling classes believe in Obama because they see that, temporarily, contingently, he serves to maintain and potentially deepen their grip over the majority. The ruling class will always be backing what works to keep them in power, and what works is a dynamic concept, it changes over time according to circumstances. Sometimes it’s a Thatcher. Sometimes it’s a Blair that’s required. Sometimes it’s a Pinochet, a Mubarak, or a Hitler. Cowen’s gone rotten? Why don’t we try feeding them the Kenny-Gilmore stuff?

Once it was Bush and the Neo-cons that worked for Wallstreet. Now, for a time, it’s Obama.

There is much plagiarism in power. The minor Count will always imitate the King. Association with the overlord has an aggrandising effect. It may even be true that Enda Kenny was being sincere when he claimed he did not know he was plagiarizing Obama in his Obama-style speech in an Obama-style rig-out in an Obama-style setting. Identification can be so total and so beneficial to the identifier it becomes unconscious. Obama is to contemporary European neo-liberal politicians what Twiggy was to fashonistas in the sixties or Robert Smith was to Cureheads in the 1980’s. He doesn’t just offer an image but an entire mode of adaptation. He is evidence of a process of evolution in ruling class strategy, a new and more usefully glamorous way of packaging exploitation and oppression in order to continue them.

Obama, the godlike, achieves something mystical from the elite’s point of view. He manages to do the dirty filthy work that must be done in order to maintain a system that thrives on extreme and widening social injustice, at home and abroad, while retaining the aura of the progressive. Is this not the perfect miracle of power in the age of Austerity?

The effect on many Irish commentators and opinionaters of the visit was potent, erotic, narcotic. It was often expressed in ecstatic and quasi-sexual terms. The swooning over Michelle Obama is a case in point. One commentator wrote that she ‘now had a girl crush’ on Michelle to go with the ‘man crush’ she had on Obama. This is raving. It’s the kind of thing I used to get whispered in my ear in Sir Henry’s in 1992. ObamaMichelle works on the liberal intellect the way decent ecstasy used to work on the brain of the raver, making ordinary bodies extraordinarily attractive, turning cliched gestures and words into the height of charisma and wisdom.

Middle class belief in Obama has a massively creative element on the part of the believers, although what they believe in is pretty much stock material. If the Obama production was a novel it would be a Mills and Boon. If, in these days of the knowing TV scribes, it was a drama series, one doubts it would make it past the screen test stage. The presidential narrative, its plotlines, its dialogue- all of them carefully drafted and redrafted, designed and redesigned, by an army of professionals in his service, would be laughed out of a creative writing classroom. The same people who are cynics in the unreal sphere- the sphere of art and literature- become Branch Davidians in their fatal devotion to Obama.

We must pause over the Obama-worship of the bourgeois press and the commentariat in order to say that, although this had the appearance of a spontaneous outpouring, and even though it was experienced as spontaneity by the givers, it was not in the least spontaneous. The belief in Obama, as in any cult or cultesque leader, is sincere, even if it involves a sanitising of the image and a suspension of the critical faculty. Outside of the ruling class which employs him, the belief in Obama is true belief. It is sincere, but it also artifice. It is part of the production.

The response to the visit was calculated and calibrated and worried over in the plan-of-production by the Obama Machine, advised by the Gilmore-Kenny Machine. The commentariat and the ‘intelligentsia’ (and the ‘Irish People’  which is the self-inflating label they adopt) responded to the Obama-Gilmore-Kenny machine in exactly the way they were programmed to. It’s as if the cue cards were installed on the inside of their eyelids. No need for canned laughter and canned applause when you’ve got canned people.

To repeat, the reaction of all those so called experts and national opinion formers was pre-decided by Obama’s planning department. Each set-piece was designed to produce a stock response, and it did. Obama learned a few words of Irish, Michelle wore a succession of ‘stunning’ suits and princessly dresses in order to impress the talking heads of the culture industry, and impressed they were, dutifully, automatically.

In the fairy tale the bird sings in the emperor’s window, drowning out the cries of the massacre in the courtyard far below. But the bird in our modern day emperor’s Irish window is not even a real one. It is a wind up toy, designed by sorcerers with Ipads.

If the Obama Machine thought that there existed in Ireland such a thing as a critical intelligentsia with a public avenue of expression, they wouldn’t have come here. The emperor only travels in ordered to be worshiped.

Therefore, the Obama visit necessarily involved, as did the Queen’s visit, the suspension of civil and political rights in the host country. Oppositional activists were harassed; posters were banned, or were torn down systematically by police or council workers. Ireland temporarily adopted some characteristics of a dictatorship, in order to celebrate the ‘world president’ of democracy.

This is not the only, or even the most repulsive, hypocrisy of the visit. Obama’s visit was a carnival of hypocrisy, and of the hypocrite. But so it is with everything Kenny-Gilmore, and with everything Obama. Betrayal wears the costume of faithfulness, denial of truth, suppression of expression, reaction of progress, and amnesia of memory.

Empire has never been merely a geographical territory; it also involves mental conquering and the occupation of culture, of thought, and of expression, of all the codes of social communication. These are all occupied in the sense that they are turned to the ends of the empire. The empire employs the liberals and the soft leftists, and there is no need for them to be aware of it. In fact, allowing them to believe that they are expressing their true individual feelings is an immense boon to the empire. That they can believe in their precious being-themselves even while every other toy bird in the forest is chirping the exact same digital ditty is only to be marveled at.

As well as the Machiavellian unbelief of the rulers, and the automated erotic-paternal attachment of the middle level, there is a third kind of belief in Obama which is perhaps more initially depressing. But it is where we will have to go to find our radical hope all the same. Most black workers and poor in the US still believe in Obama despite everything he has not done for them. In Ireland it was obvious that the general population also admires him, though with something less than the enthusiasm of the chatterers.

In any case mass-belief in Obama should not give the far left an excuse for a fit of nihilism as it seems to have done in some quarters. It does not mean the people are incorrigibly ignorant or stupid. Among the people belief in Obama has a sensible and positive element. He is the one who brought down Bush. He is also the one who said he was for the poor and the worker and against the rich and the powerful. The left winger who decides that there is no more hope because Obama has sucked it all up (and, literally, made shit of it) is only having a tantrum and  not thinking straight.

Mass-belief in Obama is part of the broad recognition that something deep-seated is wrong with the world and that we need to be saved. It was the desire for radical change- coupled with lack of a viable grassroots alternative- which brought Obama to power. Obama is the underdog who came from behind to  knock over Bush, who is justifiably one of the most despised creatures that have ever existed. For this alone Obama is certainly worthy of admiration.

The victory of the Obama Machine, and of the Democratic Party Machine that he took over after a relentless power struggle with the Clintons, prove a salutary and bitter lesson for the far left. The Obama-Democratic Machine was the only thing that proved capable, at this point in time, of pushing aside the Neo-cons. It performed a task which, even if it is pure symbolism, even if to the oppressed and exploited of the world it is ‘nothing but a change in the badge on the warder’s cap’ we can still surely recognise as desirable, and necessary. The Obama victory unleashed a carnival of hope. It drew its enormous carnivalesque energy from a harnessing of a widespread renewal of activism in broad and often long moribund sections of the population. The grassroots wanted a huge variety of good things and, in the absence of a radical left alternative, they focused on Obama as the means of achieving them.

The masses are capable of temporarily believing in anyone who promises to better their lot and who has sophisticated means of manipulation at their disposal, as Obama does. But this belief does not have any permanence- it does not adhere to any one object. They will believe in someone else next year. This is not just a negative phenomenon. It means the people don’t truly believe in anyone but are looking always for something true to believe in. Hope, then, does not have an expiry date. Time proves all messiahs fake and the people move on. What we are waiting-in-time for is for the exploited majority to become conscious of the fact that no one can save them but themselves. This is a process already well underway in many of the hotter parts of the world. In the past we spoke of Boston versus Berlin as symbolizing the neo-liberal and social-liberal poles of Irish political discourse. But Dublin may yet prove closer to Cairo than to either of those failing alternatives. Obama is a substitute and a totem of a vast, deepening, and ineradicable desire to change things for the better.

Obama won’t do that. He can’t. He wouldn’t. But, yes, we can.

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Dave Lordan is activist, poet and teacher. He blogs at davelordanwriter.com

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