More electoral ruminations

Apparently, Zizek (sort of) supports Obama. This marks a change from four years ago, when Zizek welcomed Bush’s victory. Now, I am not usually concerned to follow all the microscopic twists and turns of Zizek’s party line; especially in matters like this, since I think that he is way too Eurocentric to understand what’s going on in America. But for once I think he might be on to something.

As Jodi summarizes Zizek’s argument (since she expresses it far more clearly than Zizek himself does):

Zizek’s position on Obama is rooted in the realization that appearances matter. It matters whether our society is one in which the officially acknowledged ideology claims that torture is sometimes useful, that some couples destroy the fabric of society, that its perfectly fine if the top 1% of the population are vastly wealthier than all the rest. With Obama, then, the domain of the officially acknowledged and acceptable changes. And this change brings with it a whole set of different potentials, different possibilities. The truth of the claim, then, rests not simply in whether Obama, Biden, and their handlers believe it. It’s more than that, the minimal or virtual difference that shifts the entire political frame, that creates opportunities that otherwise would have been foreclosed.

In other words, no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are (and they are, if you think — for instance — about how Biden pours forth all this rhetoric about helping the less well-to-do citizens of this country, while at the same time he has spent his entire political career working hand-in-glove with the credit card industry to screw over working- and middle-class Americans just so Visa and MasterCard can increase their already obscene profit margins even further) — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons (though Zizek would probably give Hegelian ones instead). As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

This is why I think it is important to vote for Obama in spite of everything. There is an essential moral difference between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin; just as (in a comparison that Zizek, to his credit, does not shy from), there was an essential moral difference between Stalin and Hitler. Zizek condemns the currently fashionable habit of lumping Stalin and Hitler together as totalitarian dictators. The difference, as in the Presidential race today, has to do with hypocrisy. Stalin professed support for human rights like free speech, for self-determination, for peace, and for harmony and equality among individuals and peoples regardless of race, ethnicity, etc.; all these principles are enshrined in the Soviet Constitution of the 1930s. Of course, in fact Stalin was a megalomaniacal tyrant who ruled arbitrarily, violated all of these ideals, and put millions of people to death; but Zizek is entirely right to suggest that such hypocrisy is morally superior, and far to be preferred, to Hitler’s overtly racist and anti-democratic ideology — which he unhypocritically put into practice. It’s for this reason that American Communists of the 1930s-1950s (observers of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath from afar, just as Kant was an observer of the French Revolution from afar) are far more honorable and decent (for all their ludicrous idolization of Stalin and sleazy maneuvers against other factions on the left) than the anti-Communists of the same period.

In recent years, and especially in the weeks following McCain’s selection of Palin, conservatives have excoriated liberals for, basically, thinking that conservatives are stupid, and that stupidity is the only explanation for why anybody would, say, be enthusiastic about Palin. And I think that the conservatives who argue in this manner are somewhat correct — at least to the extent that, as I’ve said before, many liberals’ scorn for Palin has prevented them from seeing the great appeal she has, affectively, to large segments of the electorate. We shouldn’t argue the election on the grounds that Palin is “unqualified” or that she is “trashy.” Rather, we should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes. And not in spite of the Democrats’ hypocrisy, but rather precisely because of this — because their hypocrisy is, as it were, the compliment that vice pays to virtue — the moral thing to do in this election is to vote for Obama.

[ADDENDUM: I should clarify that the above is written in the knowledge that it is an entirely futile utterance. Even though there are nearly 6 weeks left until the actual election, it is pretty clear at this point that the race is already over. McCain is the indubitable winner, with the only question being whether his margin of victory will be as slender as Bush’s margin over Kerry, or as vast as Bush Sr.’s margin over Dukakis (of course, it will probably end up being somewhere in between). So you might say that this posting enacts a sort of proleptic mourning. The irony, though, is that I am mourning, not the failure of some grand hope, but rather merely the continued frustration of a hope that, even in “victory,” would not have been fulfilled. I am mourning, in advance, the failure of a failure. Such is the depressive postmodernist condition: in comparison, even something like Walter Benjamin’s melancholia seems like the most lurid optimism, a grand modernist gesture that we cannot believe in any longer. But it is precisely in such a situation that Kant’s injunction, that we must believe in, and have hope for, the prospect of an improvement of the human condition even in the face of all empirical evidence for the contrary. Our deepest moral obligation is to be faithful to this hope, even though its fulfillment cannot be foreseen, and even though it is something that can be promised “only indefinitely and as a contingent event.” ]

[2ND ADDENDUM: I fear that I am beginning to sound like late Derrida, with all his words about infinite deferral, democracy to come, etc. I can only repeat what I have said before; that essentially Derrida’s thought is a minor, but honorable, footnote to Kant.]

55 thoughts on “More electoral ruminations”

  1. Now, now Steve. What is this all about?: “…it is pretty clear at this point that the race is already over. McCain is the indubitable winner, with the only question being whether his margin of victory will be…” Tsk tsk. Need I remind you of 1948’s headlines? Something about a Dewey and a Truman?

    In fact, since you wrote that line McCain’s numbers have dropped substantially. Now, I’m not going to make any predictions, and you may be quite correct that the race is already over. But, I don’t think so. Not at all. Biden was right to quote Shakespeare during his speech. Past is prologue.

    We shall see. And I hope that you’re prediction is wrong.

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