Cab from Union Station, that great barrel-vaulted hall, the first of many suggestions of Rome you get in this most European of cities. Sharing the ride with a young couple from Germany — because there’s no cabs, there’s no hotel rooms — who are barely aware of the election. Not because they’re not interested in it, but because they simply assume that Obama will win.
The possibility of a McCain upset – something I think is a lesser, but real, possibility, around a 20% chance – does not occur to them. “But how could anyone take McCain seriously?” Frauka says. “Ja ja” says Horst. OK his name’s not Horst and he says “yeah yeah” but he’s totally her bespectacled biatch. The white cabbie keeps his counsel. “How would it be possible?”
It would be easy to throw back at these two harmless Germans — and that’s a phrase no-one who lived in most of the 20th century would recognise — the old “Not the Nine O’Clock News” joke that the country became “the first in Europe to start two land wars and then win the Eurovision song contest with a song about peace”.
But these are space-travellers from post-historical Europe, a place which whatever its vicissitudes, things get done, things get co-ordinated, stuff is thrashed out rationally. They have no idea what they are hitting, Frauka and not-Horst, that their travel is not in space but in time, to some place that is an amalgam of the 19th and 20th and — godhelpus in its voting system the 18th — centuries, a place of struggle between class, between race, an undeclared, multidimensional war that cuts up the air.
Fall trees everywhere; along the train line from Philadelphia, along DC’s broad avenues, trees bursting into flame, orange, red and yellow. Fall, the season of tragedy. On Friday night everyone was out for Halloween, neighbourhoods alight with pumpkin lanterns, lights in houses, kids and parents in costumes – trad ghosts and goblins and seven-year-old Sarah Palins, hair-bun, redjacket and fake specs — and you’re reminded again of a double feeling.
One is the old mix of resentment and fascination, what Wim Wenders hit when he said “the Americans have colonised our subconscious”, that wow, here you are, in a Pennsylvania suburb watching Halloween feeling, how many movies did you see in rumpus rooms, old VHSs rented from the local milkbar/video store, which had a Halloween scene in it, horrors or comedies?
Here it is, the actual thing, the real, so preceded by its simulacra that it is more fascinating to you, than it is to Americans themselves. Americans just live in America, this rather mundane place of malls and ticky tacky foreclosed houses, crappy jobs in Dilbertesque offices or chain restaurants. You — i.e. me, but also you — on the other hand, lived in Moorabbin, in Punchbowl, in Caboolture, in Glenelg, in Cottesloe, in (insert Tasmanian local here) — and an almost identical American existence gained a gloss that its own participants do not feel.
More than anything you envy, as a citizen of one new world society immersed in another, how much ceremony they have, how much ritual, how much American life is still beyond profanation, is the sacred. Halloween, the State of the Union, Thanksgiving, Homecoming*, Prom Night and Graduation, fraternities, parades, etc etc.
When soldiers walk through airport arrival gates, people applaud. You didn’t have to approve of the consent to understand as an Australian that something else is going on, something you are not only excluded from, but are defined against, the idea of “fuss” and “being a wanker”.
Despite the best and worst efforts of various parties, we resist any serious attempt at real celebration of nationhood. Australia Day doesn’t exist, and ANZAC day is a bizarre spectacle — in Turkey it’s just a stop on the Kon-tiki tour, in Australia it’s some weird ghoul fesitival where people pretend to be their great grandparents by wearing their medals — and that’s it. There ain’t nothing else, but the beach.
My own vice is to be a serial nationalist. I loved Britain because I was half-English, but I loved Finland too, and Sweden, after about three months there, their strangeness, their pagan undercurrent, the sense that however civilised they were, the edge of the forest was close, and beyond that, all bets were off.
So it’s not difficult to fall in love with America either, because for most of us, it was always there. If you grew up anytime post 60s, you grew up on Scooby Doo and Spiderman, on Mad magazine and Pez sweets, on Grease and roller-disco, on et cetera and et cetera.
I remember going to what I am told was the second McDonalds opened in Australia, in Elsternwick in the mid 70s. Had one ever tasted anything like this before, the cheeseburger that melted on the tongue? It did so because it was 60% sugar, and fell apart on the first hit of saliva, but, hey, it felt like the host, like the body of Christ. It was a sacrament, the incarnation of all those things you’d seen on the recently-coloured TV screen.
So America is always waiting for you. Soon as you get here, the feeling is unheimlich, uncanny. You are more at home than you were at home, you have pretty much stepped into the TV screen and found it real, but that homeliness feels … unhomely. It was meant to keep its distance, to be forever out of reach, and here it is.
But even more strangely, America does not know America. This is a country built on the audacity of revolution, of radical and bitter conflict, of the idea that there is a necessary violence to social relations which cannot be avoided. That violence is often directed against the weaker — native Americans, blacks, trade unionists, the Vietnamese — but America is made and reconstructed when violence or forcefulness is taken up by the weak, when the abstract sentiments of the founding documents are put into play.
Empire came so quickly to America — with the Louisiana purchase in 1803, an act which was, incidentally, flagrantly unconstitutional — that its revolutionary nature was buried almost immediately. Yet it was founded not by the second stage revolution of Jefferson and John Adams and others, but by the initial uprisings and agitation in Boston in the 1760s, directed largely by Samuel Adams, a man whom most Americans will know only as the name on a popular — and disgustingly sweet — brand of beer.
Adams fomented the American revolution in the 1760s. He made it in fact — he joined a whole series of local grievances of contradictory groups, from importers to inland farmers, to sailors — to a common theme of a general revolution, a thing which none of them had hitherto considered. He schemed, he lied, he cheated, he rabble-roused to persuade reasonable people who wanted a normal life, to an unreasonable and violent conclusion. His world historical importance is that he was the first professional revolutionary – he had only one goal, which was the creation of revolution. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
A devout Christian, he led mobs trying to lynch British soldiers. When the first shots were fired on Lexington green, a confrontation he had largely provoked, he was in hiding, with John Hancock, because the British had a death penalty on his head. He would later organise the sacking of Hancock, a lifelong comrade and friend, because he thought there was a better candidate for leader of the revolutionary army, a bloke named Washington, whose selection he ensured by sleazy politicking in Philadelphia taverns during the constitutional conventions.
Finally he wrote the articles of Confederation, the document of union that preceded the Constitution. The Confederation articles were unworkable, but they were a far more radical and democratic idea of what a nation could be — that it would be a confederation of united states — of people governing themselves, with a President of minimal powers, sorting out differences between them.
Sam Adams’s articles of Confederation were a post nation-state form, before the nation-state even got going. They were designed to frustrate any drive to empire, making it impossible for the President to be a de facto emperor. Almost immediately it became clear that if America were to be a trading nation — not what either Sam Adams or even Jefferson particularly wanted — treaties would need to be signed (with the Ottoman empire initially) and a President would need to have both commercial and military powers, and well, here we frikkin are.
Of all the founding fathers, Sam Adams is forgotten. Every twenty years someone writes a biography of him, trying to restore his place, but it fades away, before the second tier revolutionaries, Jefferson, Washington and that utter charlatan Benjamin Franklin. Of course he is. A revolutionary order, if it wishes to become an empire, must forget its foundation as a series of radical gestures. The weird thing about America is that its founding base is a non-base: those words in the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…
The nub is in the question of legitimacy. How do you determine when it is necessary to dissolve bonds? The deep import of the D of I is anarchistic — it puts the bias of right towards the revolutionaries, the breaker-uppers. If you’re going to keep a country together you need to bury that impulse really deep, have it forgotten.
But you can’t ever bury it completely. The more you try to squash it, the more it returns as the repressed. The repression is obvious, it is two million in prison, it is “American exceptionalism” it is “we never surrender” it is etc etc. Its opposite is more elusive.
It returns in dreams of chaos, in Tarantino films, in neighbourhoods the cops won’t go, yes in Halloween, or in John Brown and Harpers Ferry, and Bill Ayres and Bernadine Doehrn, and people who come to the conclusion that such great evil is being done in their name that they must risk the death of innocents to stand in its path.
Yes of course the right are right. Barack Obama, though almost certainly a centrist now, was formed in the crucible of the left — of radical leftist circles in Hawaii, Occidental college in California, of the Harlem and Chicago lefts. Of course he is a transformational person utterly unlike that worthless c-cklicking twunt Tiny Blair (remember him?).
There is no need to doubt his own record from his autobiography, that he worked through black liberation, Marxism, the New Party etc etc, and ultimately came to a conclusion that corresponds to Anthony Giddens’s idea of the radical centre, that things could be done in the heart of it all.
So if for all that he wins, yes, I think this will be a transformation of America, its self, its role in the world, a situation that will be productive. A situation far beyond the greasy trading of political advantage.
For all the hundreds of people, the thousands I have met in America, I hope he wins, for their improved access to healthcare, even those who opposed it as socialism. Their capacity for self-delusion is total. When you tell them of (Oz) medicare, they cannot believe it — twenty bucks for a GP visit, free blood tests … they think of its signs and wonders…
Had there been a Republican Congress I would have urged a McCain victory, because that would have got us to a third world war quicker, and that can only be to the good, in revolutionary terms. But a split Congress — White House admin … there’s no good in it…
I think a unified Presidency and Congress, of Democratic nature, would be the last gasp of the idea that western capitalism can restore itself which of course it can’t, but would allow a space for other things to develop. America has ceased to be interesting. China, India, that’s interesting. America has ascended to its final status which is as subject matter for a Hopper picture.
I hope I hope I hope that a sufficient number of people have been summoned to the future by Obama’s concrete proposals and general approach to vote for a future. But who knows?
And in the final hours, Obama’s white grandma died. I vaguely recall that Mungo got into trouble for saying in 1974 that the best thing Bob Menzies could do would be to die for his party and give them a state funeral, and come on, you’d have to think it’s possible that McCain even now is in Arizona with his hands around his 96-year-old mother’s neck…
But God it’s hard not to be moved. There’s a 110-year-old woman in Texas, whose father was a slave, a SLAVE, and she’s voting this week. Come on … blow wind and crack thou cheeks and let a coupla tears go for that..she is part of the same historical moment, but there is so much more than that … we are the dreams our parents had, their dreams of dreams, the sense of possibility projected into the future…who knows who “Toot”, Obama’s grandmother was?
She was a white Kansan woman who accepted her crazy hippie daughter’s mixed-race child and raised him through his adolescence. Forget all judgements for a moment. She stepped up, she gave him something, now on display. If the Obama campaign means anything, if its victory means anything, it is that we do not live by our fears but by our hopes, our sense of what is possible, of the best in any national etc tradition we find ourselves in.
And should it fail … well godhelpus … but we go on we can’t go on we go on…
The cab pulls up. Remind yourself that you live in an empire, not a dream, the sugarwhite dome of the capitol in the window. The old Marxist in me wants conflict, dissatisfaction and chaos, but the man who has one life on earth, rapidly draining away, can only say I hope that Americans tap into their radical past, the ghost of Sam Adams, their political unconscious, and rip it up, and f-ck the empire, and Obama, and I am now going to a bar to drink to Toot, and her daughter, Obama’s mother (“gettin up at 4am to learn English ain’t a holiday for me either Buster”) who never saw this come to pass, but whose dreams were folded into realities at every moment…
Ya es da dia.