“You can lose forty pounds on our meal delivery system” the flat screen blares above the newsstand at Thurgood Marshall International airport, the deal being spruiked by an Ann Coulter lookalike “at $2 a meal, that’s less than most Americans spend on food!”
You can say that again. Coming back into the Great Satiation from Mexico — even flying in from Cancun which serves as a sort of halfway house — it all comes flying back at ya, how bloody big we all are, the sheer amount of stuff there is here.
One is also reminded of the other great thing about spending time in a country whose first language is not your own, to wit, you have no idea what crap people are spouting in the public square. Behind the screen of Spanish, Mexico seemed an ancient and stately land, death-obsessed and serious in which the matters of the universe are discoursed upon in a manner equal parts Catholic scholastic and Mayan cosmic consciousness, but let’s face it, once you work out what they’re saying, they’re probably just being d-cks like everywhere else.
The last translated op-ed piece in the English-language Mexican daily I read drew on Ayn Rand to admonish the southern indigenous communities from dwelling in romantic notions of culture etc etc. Doesn’t fill you with confidence.
But back in the anglosphere you have no doubt whatsoever that we’re closer to what that phase in the history of the universe that the Toltecs called “kakapopofnangfnangfnangyuk”, or the moment when the sh-t hits the fan.
Do Mexicans for example, talk as much about who they are, or what they mean for the world, as is happening across all three news channels this evening, about 40 hours out from the actual moment of inauguration. You can flick from Doris Kearns Goodwin talking about the better angels of our nature, to David Brooks on the End of Ideology, to some dude from the University of Haxamachee talking bout Andrew Jackson being drunk when he gave his first speech.
Clearly, recompression will take a while.
The desire of Americans to make a ceremony — a festival — of the stuff that a lot of people do in a more low-key fashion, is one thing it’s easy to forget, disappears indeed when you cross the borders. Americans love a show. Mexicans seem more interested in three square meals, and saving up to get the roof finished.
And as always, team Obama knows how to give the public what they want. For the last two days, they’ve been ratcheting up the excitement, so that the actual event itself will seem like Zeus coming to earth, his forehead popping open like a pod, to reveal the new God King who would lease into the transcendence of being and knowing.
Saturday, the Great Man made his way slowly to Washington on a train coming from Delaware, via Baltimore into the capital, making a few speeches along the way, to ever-increasing crowds, and then getting off, somewhat matter-of-factly, at Union Station, a perfect piece of symbolism. Today, Sunday, was taken up with the big gig on Capitol Hill as tens of thousand crammed in to see the Boss, backed by choir, Stevie Wonder, U2 etc etc rock it out with the Lincoln Memorial as backdrop.
You couldn’t really think of a better way to announce that, however much it may fall short of conception, the aim is to reanimate certain aspects of American life that had been petrified, honoured in monuments — headstones made big enough to stop what they commemorate from getting up and walking around again — and that is why this moment has a way of sweeping up so many even while they maintain a scepticism about what it can or will achieve.
You don’t need to go much further than opeds in today’s Oz and Fairfax to see how easy to is to misunderstand that. In Fairfax, Steve Harris, former company supremo, takes a thousand words to tell us that thinking in terms of black and white gets us nowhere. Gee, thanks Steve.
Though this is a time-honoured slot in Fairfax papers — former suit, given column reveals himself to have absolutely nothing perceptive or original to say about anything (or the Hywood Manoeuvre as it’s known) — Harris’s piece takes the form to a new low/high, in its complete departure from anything you could recognise as useful to understanding American life.
Wittering on about whether Obama is mixed-race, or half-white or whatever, Harris doesn’t seem to have understood the first and founding reality for any American — that race is a social category, not a biological one, a product of which community you’ve been brought up in, and what the identities projected onto you are. And anyone black in America who decides to live as if race doesn’t matter is more than a little suicidal.
At the opposite end is David Burchell, the resident burnt-out leftie in the Oz, whose current role in life seems to be to make Gerard Henderson pleasant-reading by comparison. Burchell’s sneering, snide, exhausting tone is sour grapes, raised to the level of vineyard status — joining the Communist Party well after Prague ’68, editing the Australian Left Review until it died beneath him, then developing a Foucault-obsession, and a political mancrush on Mark Latham, the sole argument of this lifelong inner-circle editor and academic is that he’s a voice against the elites. For Burchell, Obama’s popularity will melt as surely as Rudd’s has done in Australia.
Quite possibly, but you have to be seriously ignorant of what’s happened in America — or only interested in denying the legitimacy of any political event that passed you by — to believe that much comparison between Rudd and Obama is of much use at all. Quite aside from the historical import of the Obama election as an event – if nothing else happened, it would still be significant — the situation of America, of US society, is so fundamentally different that the challenges and possibilities presented to Obama are of a different order. To make some modest reforms to the US health system — something achievable given the corrupt US set-up of, well, everything — would save tens of thousands of lives, and alleviate a great deal of unnecessary suffering and fear for tens of millions of people.
For America, the modest and centrist administration proposed by Obama is radical, because it is rational, and we haven’t had much of that in the past eight years. Some cultural liberals may well be disappointed, but so what. The Obama victory was a mass movement, not a few articles in the New Yorker (though it’s easy to think so if you confuse the limits of your study with the limits of the world). Burchell sounds like most of the US right, and they didn’t get it either, which is why they lost.
Mind you, Bono has just come on TV and in response to the question “what does Obama mean” has answered “he proves that America exists”, so y’know…
Tomorrow, in another felicitous coincidence, it is Martin Luther King day — even the strongest atheist would find it hard not to see providence in that, or in the first successful splashdown of a US jet in aviation history on the Hudson last week. Yes, I’m joking. But … No, definitely joking…
Desperate for this damn thing to begin a nation tenses and waits…