- P.T. Barnum
Frontline recently ran a documentary that amounted to interwoven bios of the respective characters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It made two points very clear. One, it takes an obsessive personal determination to seek the office of President of the United States of America. And, two, this being America in 2012, the capacity to delude, evade and outright lie through one's teeth is critical to the process. This is clear when debates become exercises in landing "zingers."
Unlike parliamentarian systems like in Britain, the US campaign involves years of campaigning that involves filling up media and cable news space with pizzazz and conflict that has nothing to do with the real problems of America. Avoiding substance has become a real art, a process that encourages the various media to emphasize personal drama and the political equivalent of sports statistics. Meanwhile, the real problems fester and get worse, making American politics a lot like the Romney-Ryan health plan: Wait until the problem has reached the emergency level, then call 9/11. In American politics, this usually means a military or police option. Who says bi-partisanship is dead?
The two-hour Frontline documentary broke this mold a bit and actually analyzed what made the two candidates tick and, most important, what it was about them and their lives they most wanted to hide from the American people.
Obama was raised a virtual international orphan who developed into a strong-willed loner determined to fit in and to lead by facilitating a "get along" attitude among the diverse elements of American culture. He wants to avoid any discussion of this because, while his mother was an American citizen and he was born in Hawaii, his absent father was Kenyan and the American culture he has spent his life trying to fit into has deep and powerful strains of racism and a fear of anything foreign.
On the other hand, Romney was born into a powerful political family that was part of a religious group -- the Morman church -- that suffered and transcended serious trials. This inclined them to circle their wagons and struggle mightily to provide for their families, reminiscent of The Godfather clan. Reportedly, the Romney family made, lost and re-made fortunes a number of times. But like Obama, Romney can't discuss his family history because his grandfather and other Morman relatives were polygamists.
So both men avoid mention of the core historic realities that made them what they are today. This fits nicely with the nature of the current political campaign we are living through, which relies to an unprecedented degree on distraction and the bald-faced lie. As the nation faces a host of potential disasters, the real challenge of our presidential candidates is to keep a straight face as they tell the biggest and best whopper that will delude the greater number of voting Americans.
With the nation facing major epochal corrections in both the financial area and in the realm of imperial influence, plus a deteriorating infrastructure, nothing is more important than being direct and honest. But it is not being done.
P.T. Barnum understood the mind of the American people. He knew the power of the marketing reality that thrives in this country, the power of what is represented on the outside of the box versus what is really inside the box. He felt Americans wanted to be dazzled with illusion. Bill Cosby understood this when he used to talk about how kids loved to be scared out of their wits by cheap horror movies. "Scare me! Scare me!!" he would say in a kid's spooked but delighted voice. Those kids have grown up and they're facing the facts of decline and they're now saying, "Lie to me! Lie to me!!"
The Manchurian Candidate in Blackface
Dinesh D'Souza is an Indian immigrant who has carved out a place for himself in conservative academia and journalism that, similar to V.S. Naipaul in the 80s, might be described as a pro-western, self-hating ex-colonial Third Worlder. That's a mouthful, for sure, but that's the drift of his thinking in the documentary film he has co-produced and co-directed called Obama 2016. The reference is to what the country will look like after four more years of Obama.
As a Third World immigrant to the US, D'Souza's film essay raises a number of quite interesting things about Barack Obama, the man. It digs deeper than the Frontline doc into the things that Obama wants to hide lest they make the dumb Americans Barnum delighted in run screaming into the night. Unfortunately, D'Souza indulges his right wing leanings and the film soon turns into a stupid documentary version of The Manchurian Candidate, with Obama threatening the great traditions of America as a zombie receiving marching orders from his dead father's grave in Kenya.
"We're all shaped by our pasts, and we carry elements of the past into the future," D'Souza says early on. He's right about that, and Obama's roots and early history are pretty unusual for a President of the United States. While it may be only a technical point, Obama is not an African American; he's half African and half Irish-American. The point is, he carries none of the heavy historic baggage of African Americans born into a world burdened by the legacy of Jim Crow and the relentless cultural assumption of second-class citizenship that seeps into the soul and does the devil's work. He certainly grew to understand what it meant to be "black" in America; but he seems to have been lucky enough to keep some detachment from any bitterness. The conservative mixed-race, black writer Shelby Steele says in the film that Obama figured out that white America wanted a black leader who was not angry over the history to assuage their deep-seated racist guilt. He says this explains how "Obama came out of no where" to be elected President.
Add to this his mother's second husband Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian whose family fought against Dutch colonialism and whose house when he was a kid was burned down by Dutch soldiers and you have more fodder for a right wing scare campaign. It was Lolo, as told in Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, who taught the 7-year-old Barry to fight to protect himself on the streets of Jakarta. (I hesitate to add, this was at a time when John McCain was in a flight suit bombing Vietnamese people who had done nothing to him.)
So far, no one has produced a documentary based on a Return Of Dracula plotline with Mitt Romney as a robber baron figure like J.P. Morgan or Henry Clay Frick. Such a doc might be a big success if it tied itself in with the current vampire craze and, of course, made Romney into a bad vampire.
The Manchurian Candidate Gives a Press Conference