I tuned in last night to the first presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain, televised from Oxford, Mississippi. I was stopped in my tracks before it even began by the announcement of the Moderator (Jim Lehrer) that the audience had agreed not to respond to anything either candidate said – there would be no applause, catcalls, etc. And indeed for the small part of the debate I could bear to listen to, the audience might as well have been church-goers - that auditorium at the University of Mississippi was as quiet as a tomb.
This incident forcibly brought home to me the fact that for Americans, politics is a religion and religion is a politics. I was reminded of a game my children and I used to play when they were small, called “Opposite Day.” The rules of this game are easy – just say the opposite of what you mean. For example, “I hate you” really means the reverse. The funny thing about this game is that it actually gets harder and harder to play; lies and insincerity actually demand more energy to sustain than candor and truthfulness, and after a while one runs out of things to say. It becomes surprisingly difficult to keep finding something new to lie about.
To call the highly scripted-for-television exchanges between the two senators a “debate” is an Opposite-Day joke, just as it seems a stretch to call the dead silence of the audience anything remotely resembling attendance at a political event. Are there other examples of Opposite Day in America? Mr. Obama claims to want to run a campaign for transformation, but he appoints one of the most enduring Washington insiders as his running mate (Mr. Biden).
Mr. McCain’s Opposite Day coup de main with Ms. Palin is actually more complicated. The Opposite-Day significance here is the manipulation and exchange between Public and Private. For Sarah Palin, motherhood and Family Values are a political stance, elevated to humorless display and dogmatism at every opportunity. The fact that she is the governor of Alaska is merely incidental; the fact that she governs Alaska like a family is also incidental; the fact that she is virtually incoherent on public, social and historical issues (see her interview with Katie Couric on “foreign policy”) is also incidental. Nothing of these things actually matter, you see. What matters is that she is a Mom, and Mommyness now merits public office.
That Mr. Obama is black and Sarah Palin is female have put the Opposite-Day metaphor right at the center of American political life. In this case the “opposites” do actually express an authentic reality. But the authentic reality has little to do with politics and governance. The candidates are virtually indistinguishable in their views and they are likewise equally irrelevant because there no longer exists any meaningful framework in which to gauge the exercise of political power. That framework, the correspondence between language and reality, has been blasted out from beneath both candidates. The real holders of power are the financiers in an economy that no longer has anything to do with production. The news media also wields real influence because it has become indistinguishable from propaganda and the shaping of cultural narrative.
No wonder Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad are continually demonized as Public Enemies One and Two. They say what they think. That is their crime; that is why they are relentlessly belittled; that is why the Opposite-Day West has been reduced to a caricature of Caligula. It is told that this insane Roman emperor rode his horse “Incitatus” into the Roman Senate, perhaps as a way of expressing his contempt for it. All that the Western “leaders” can do today is incite. They cannot rule, and above all, they cannot create.