Mandy Rice-Davies didn’t do much of note after the Profumo affair in the early 60s, but she didn’t have to. Appearing as a witness in the explosive case, the high-class call-girl gave us an unsurpassable shorthand for modern political life when confronted with a well-born former client’s claim that he had never met her: “Yes, well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

So, according to President Bush, the fundamentals of the economy are “basically sound”. HWSTWH. Phil Gramm, McCain’s economic advisor says that Americans are going through a “mental recession”, a comment which, in its arrogant blitheness, has eerie echoes of Keating’s “what are people complaining about?” talk radio death-rattle.

Gramm is as responsible as anyone for the deregulation that has allowed ever more abstract levels of finance capital and non-existent money to spiral upwards, so HWSTWH.

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Yet as Ben Bernanke revises his earlier assessment that threats to the economy are “diminishing”, and talks frankly — without using the word — of stagflation, as the principal mortgage holders in the nation have to be bailed out, the US continues to talk about nine million different topics in fiteen second cycles.

The island of Malta is the only country to have been awarded a medal — the George Cross for its resilience in WW2 — allowing it to style itself Malta, GC. In similar fashion, the US is perhaps the first nation to have, collectively, ADD and to raise, by its very conduct, the arguability of putting Ritalin in the water supply.*

Thus, as the slow grinding of gears in an economy which has been borrowing rather than building for a decade, the discussion is all about whether it’s an attitude problem. Thus, as gas prices lock in at levels that make mobility in sprawling suburbs increasingly unaffordable, the discussion — never criticised or challenged by a compliant press — is of off-shore drilling which might, in 15 years, increase domestic oil supply by 4-6%, maybe. Thus as… arrrggghhh.

One interesting thing is the manner in which different spheres have different forms of distraction. Thus the rest of the world and the political junkie sites were consumed by a New Yorker cover depicting Obama as an imam, and his wife as Angela Davis, the great 60s black radical replete with afro and ammo belt — a reference that just about every commentator missed, in true amnesiac form. Global debate was fast and furious about this flat and literal depiction, passing for satire.

In America? Not so much. Outside of the 400 blocks or so on Manhattan Island where it functions as a local rag, The New Yorker is, for many people, about as visible as the Almanach de Gotha. Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder, says it “wasn’t for the little old lady from Dubuque” and that good soul is blissfully unaware of the therapy cartoons and Twyla Tharp reviews she’s missing out on.

Indeed The New Yorker brouhaha illustrates perfectly how easy it is to get a distorted picture of US politics from the cable news, etc, because Miss Dubuque isn’t watching those either.

She’s most likely getting her political info from network local news bulletins, programmes whose overwhelming parochialism swathes national campaigns in stories of local traffic accidents and kiddy-disease fundraisers. On these programmes, one learns that McCain is old, Obama is black, and one or the other is ahead or behind in polls.

What the US lacks are the central current affairs foci provided in Australia and the UK, by the Westminster system — where the head of state has to appear at the dispatch box and respond to merciless grilling — and central interrogative current affairs places like AM, Lateline or even, god help us, Neil Mitchell.

So everyone talks past one another, about what they want to emphasise. There’s no agora, no arena where core issues — and which issues are core — get thrashed out.

So it is the loudest, least reflective people — the FOX newses, Rush Limbaughs etc who misdirect debate — or attempt to — label a candidate leading by 8 points as a marginal elitist and claim to be the voice of the nation.


*actually it already is in the water supply. So many kids are on the drug that measurable amounts of it appear in treated water.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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