The Politics of Rage

politics_of_rage

Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Advertisements

2022 La guerra del gallo

In some ways there is nothing more real than armed conflict–it is after all a matter of life and death. But in other ways there is nothing more surreal, more phantasmatic. And if one literary response to warfare emphasizes its grim materiality (think, say, of Erich Maria Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front), another stresses the absurd: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Likewise, it may seem odd to think that one of the best-loved TV shows of the twentieth century portrayed the Korean War with canned laughter, but that was exactly what M*A*S*H did. War: it makes us laugh as well as making us cry.

Juan Guinot, 2022 La guerra del gallo

While Juan Guinot’s debut novel 2022 La guerra del gallo isn’t perhaps as funny as he thinks or hopes it is, it certainly makes hay with the absurdity of war. And the second half especially has all the (il)logic of a rather bad dream. Indeed, I was more than half-expecting that that’s how the book would end: with the revelation that the titular “war of the cock” was nothing but the febrile fantasy of a protagonist whose grasp of reality is tenuous throughout.

It’s another commonplace to note that war drives us mad; that even if we were once lucid, the experience of battle is enough to make us lose our mind. Today, the medicalization of this effect goes by the name of PTSD; in other times, it was known as shell shock. The difference with Masi, Guinot’s (anti-)hero, is that he goes crazy not because he has seen war up close and person, but because he hasn’t. He is an adolescent at the time that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict breaks out, and though he eagerly signs up to fight as a patriotic Argentine, “to his dismay the [call-up] letter never arrived, the war ended sooner than anticipated, and the final result of the conflict was so disastrous that it left him shocked and he started to show all the signs of an ex-non-combatant; he saw Englishmen everywhere” (27). Traumatized by Argentina’s defeat, and above all that he could play no part in it, he therefore vows personal revenge against the colonial power of the English “pirates” whom he blames for all his ills.

Masi’s obsessive preparations for the future war of triumphant vengeance are at times no more than faintly ludicrous: he stalks the suburban rail services for spies, for instance, and when he finds one (identified by the fact that he’s wearing a “Kiss” t-shirt), he follows him, shouting at him to “go home” to the annoyance of the so-called spy and his fellow-passengers alike. But more often he is frankly deranged, and ultimately he (literally) gives his father a heart attack when, on receiving as a present a small styrofoam globe, he shouts out “I have the world in my hand. Now they won’t stop me. [. . .] English bastards, I’m make them shit fire” (52). Then, kneeling over his father’s corpse, Masi pledges “My victory will be yours” (53).

Unsurprisingly, the boy is carted off to a mental hospital. Equally unsurprisingly, he believes this to be a dastardly trick of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In any case, decades pass and he is still far from cured when, in late 2021, he finally escapes his imprisonment and, with globe in hand and balaclava on head, he sets off on his new mission: to liberate the Rock of Gibraltar.

The world has changed by 2022 and here the object of Guinot’s satire shifts. For it turns out that everyone in this dystopian near future is effectively deranged and has lost the power to distinguish between reality and the imagination, the real and the symbolic. For the War of the Cock ends up being a dispute between France and Portugal in which two Dr Strangelove types, one on either side, decide to launch missiles against each other. This is the result of a deadly televised reality show in which boxers from the two nations brawl for the exclusive claim to their shared national symbol, now sponsored by a nefarious mega-corporation called BioCorp.

In the middle of the mayhem, and as the collective eyes of the world remain glued to their TV screens, Masi makes his way through Spain on a deserted train in the company of a stray dog with apparently supernatural powers. (There is much magic in the book; Guinot would have been better advised to leave it out.) And in the final dénouement he does indeed manage to expunge the stain of Argentine defeat forty years previously, by expelling the English from Gibraltar and raising the Argentine flag on top of the Rock. But the pity is that almost nobody notices. By 2022 if it doesn’t happen on television (and Masi’s antics don’t), then it might as well not have happened at all.

It would be hard to accuse Guinot’s book of subtlety or even of much sophistication. But then that’s perhaps partly the point. War is stupid, he’s telling us, and it makes fools of us all, whether we are doing the fighting or not. On the other hand, this novel is often so farcical that it makes one pine for at least a little of the bloody materiality that Guinot suggests we have forgotten in our militaristic obsessions. After all, the strange thing is that this is a war book in which there are barely any casualties: the French and Portuguese missiles collide midway in the heavens with little damage done, as the entire population of southern Spain is hunkered down in their bunkers to watch TV; at the end, the only victims are Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, who collectively leap to their deaths in the Mediterranean. If this were the only idiocy of war, then surely there wouldn’t be much to fear.

Coke

I don’t own a television. This is not out of any particular principle: we had one back in the UK, but just never got around to buying one here in Canada. So I’ve never been in the Canadian media loop, and have never missed it. Plus I have plenty of other ways of distracting and/or entertaining myself, not least watching television shows that just happen to be packaged in convenient DVD packages.

So with the Olympics, and even though I really didn’t see very much of it, I have been watching much more television than usual. And what strikes those of us who are not accustomed to it (or what strikes me perhaps even more particularly given my long exposure to the BBC) is less the programming, which I can get by other means, than the adverts. There are so many of them. And they are often so very odd.

There are two current adverts that were played throughout the Olympics that I find particularly strange, and particularly disturbing. And at the risk of this blog becoming (almost) all Canada (almost) all of the time, I note that they are both selling, in part, images of Canadian national identity. Or rather, they rely for their success on certain images of Canada that are dear to this country’s inhabitants.

The first of these ads is this one, for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain. It’s discussed, among other places, on Darren Barefoot’s blog. Frankly I still can’t quite get my head around it, except to say that I think it is truly appalling.

The other ad is this one, for that rather recognizeably US brand, Coca Cola:

I find this extraordinary, too.

The commercial purveys a sense of Canadian identity tied up with sport, specifically hockey, and the rituals and memories that go with that: from playing street hockey to watching a game at school, going out to a bar, or seeing a match live. The Canadianness of this progression, or rather the way in which this is precisely an apprenticeship in Canadianness, is emphasized with images of flags and maple leaves and the consistent presence of red and white highlights. Of course, it is only gradually (and more obviously at a second viewing) that you realize that the most ubiquitous of these red highlights are those associated with Coca Cola: this is an ad about becoming Canadian by growing up with coke as well, if not more than, growing up with hockey. So we are to associate Canadianness equally with coke and with hockey: they form a nexus by which the viewer is to interpret his (or her) progression from child to adult.

But the odd thing is the ad’s punchline: As the camera flies across an ice rink towards the goal, as though the viewer were put in the position of either a speeding player or indeed the puck itself, and as the music reaches a crescendo, with cheering in the background and a cutaway to three women in red raising their index fingers, we see spelled out between us and the goal the text: “Let’s make sure everyone knows whose game their playing.” We then cut to an overhead scoreboard on which we see coming into view… the iconic Coke bottle and the words “Coca Cola” repeated (for good measure) four times.

Again, I find this very strange. The advert works in so far as it takes for granted the fact that any Canadian is going to be able to answer the implicit question: Whose game are they playing? Why, hockey is Canada’s game of course!

(The truth of this assertion, by the way, is as far as I can see very far from certain; in fact, of the NHL’s famous “original six” teams, for instance, only two were from Canada, the other four all being from the US.)

But precisely because the ad’s ideal viewer already knows the answer to this question, they are likely to misrecognize the answer that the ad itself seems to give to that question. For though the ad provides implicit acknowledgment of the contention that hockey is Canada’s game, this is not what it actually says. Rather more explicitly, the answer it appears to provide to the question “Whose game are they playing?” is, well, that it is Coca Cola’s game.

Now, we can perhaps understand this assertion two ways in so far as the ad is suggesting an absolute identification between Canada and Coke. Hockey is Coca Cola’s game because it is Canada’s game, and perhaps even vice versa. The circular identification between viewer, soft drink, and country is now complete: the viewer identifies with Coca Cola through his identification with Canada (and again, perhaps even vice versa). This is what the commercial appears to be trying to achieve. But this is surely a hard sell. For after all, what product is more fully identified with the USA, notionally the country whose claim to hockey is here being denied (though when was the last time that a non-US team won the Stanley Cup, I feel like asking), than Coca Cola? Coke is the quintessential product of American modernity. Why else do they call Americanization also “Coca Colonization”?

The other possible reading is an absolutely post-ideological one: the advert is telling us that hockey belongs to Coca Cola because, well, corporate interests have now fully bought up what is imagined to have once been the kind of communal organic activity that the ad’s narrative initially suggests. Indeed, finally the story that the commercial most explicitly is telling is this: you grow up playing hockey, and thinking it is your sport, that it is a pastime that defines you and your imagined community; but then at some point you come to the realization that it isn’t yours, it’s been bought by corporations such as Coca Cola. They own it now, and don’t you forget it.

Of course, this is a familiar narrative, too, and you wouldn’t have to press a Canadian hard to hear it: they’d talk about “the trade” or about the opening of hockey in Sunbelt markets in the US while it is taken from hockey-mad cities such as Winnipeg. Any Canadian worth their salt can despair at the corporate takeover of their sport, and at the evils of the NHL’s presiding commissioners that have allowed it to happen. (Such complaints, too, make up Canadian national identity.)

What’s strange is to see one of those corporate interests telling this same story, too.

television

The Wednesday quotation, Part VII: Chávez’s government by television.

Welcome to Aló Presidente!, a television chatshow like no other. Sunday’s edition, No 295, was the longest yet, a marathon of politics and showmanship, and for many proof that Venezuela has become a country governed largely through television. There are cabinet meetings, national assembly debates and committee hearings in the offices of state in central Caracas, but the most emphatic exercise of power resides in the weekly show hosted by the president. This is where Mr Chávez engages with the masses, announces policies, muses on his political philosophy, and signals the next step in his self-described socialist revolution.

“Chávez governs from Aló Presidente. It is on this show that ministers find out if they have been fired or hired; it is here where mayors and governors are reprimanded for anything they have done wrong,” said Arturo Serrano, a political scientist at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. (Rory Carroll “Government by TV: Chávez sets 8-hour record”. The Guardian 25 September, 2007)

manchester

Tony Wilson“Look at Tony Wilson, live on Channel Four.”

Sadly, no more. And the earth itself groans. (Via Who Knows Where Thoughts Come From, who likewise was put in mind of The Times’s song, “Manchester.”)

NB even the BBC can’t decide if the man’s name is (Cambridge-educated) Anthony or (Salford lad) Tony.

Now watch 24 Hour Party People in which Wilson, played by Steve Coogan, meets God on a Manchester rooftop. “It’s a pity you didn’t sign the Smiths, but you were right about Mick Hucknall: his music’s rubbish and he’s a ginger.” Marvellous.

Oh, and then there’s this (via Blood and Treasure):

And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.

The hacienda must be built.

conviviality

Alma GuillermoprietoWriting in 2000, a period during which the FARC still enjoyed state-sanctioned control of large swathes of South-Central Colombia marked out as a “zona de despeje,” a cleared zone, Alma Guillermoprieto notes the grubby normality of everyday life in this safe haven. In San Vicente de Caguán, “there are loud cantinas; fleshy women in too much makeup under the glaring sun; block after block of storefronts selling boom boxes, high-heeled shoes, glitter eye shadow, and telephones shaped like hot dogs” (Looking for History 55).

The guerrilla, as far as Guillermoprieto can see, spend their time mostly lounging about: buying mascara and nail polish; chatting with neighbours; watching TV, their FALs and AK-47s casually propped up in the corner of the room. Of course, the point about a safe haven is that it’s a good place for a little R&R; it’s not as though there’s no war on, and indeed with up to 20,000 people under arms, the FARC are able to carry out significant actions, “waging something very like real war against the Colombian state” (60). (And here’s a pretty good round-up of recent accounts of “Latin American’s Longest War”.) But even this war has become very much a habit among its combatants, some of whom have known little else than life as a guerrilla.

For instance, compañera Nora, “a trim, agreeable woman in charge of the FARC’s liaison with the public” (57) has spent well over half of her thirty-three years in the rebel ranks. Meanwhile, the insurgent leader, Manuel Marulanda or “Tirofijo”, has been out in the hills in one form or another since the “Violencia” of 1948 to 1958. In Colombia, civil war is very much a way of life, for some almost a lifestyle option: Nora is reported as saying that she joined the FARC, at the age of fifteen, after she had seen a guerrilla column with its “brisk young women, in uniform and carrying guns, and thought they were the most powerful and glamorous creatures she had ever seen” (59).

At the time of Guillermoprieto’s visit, the FARC and the Colombian government (under President Andrés Pastrana) were engaged in a “peace process,” though these are hardly exactly peace talks: they are rather a “ritual encounter” celebrated “on a regular basis, and call[ed] progress” (64). No real dialogue was underway, and in any case everyone knew that at the margins prowled the military and their comrades in (para)military arms, the so-called “self-defence” units.

DMZ mapBut in any case, such hope as Guillermoprieto entertains is based on the notion that the FARC’s experience in this demilitarized zone might bring about a rehabituation. In that they had not been granted sovereignty of this territory that was often misleadingly nicknamed FARClandia, Guillermoprieto notes that “”for the first time, the guerrillas are coexisting with the citizens of a small town, and even having to get along with its mayor” (66). The rebels are forced, in their downtime, at ease, to be “sharing social and political space with the inhabitants of San Vicente” (68).

For Guillermoprieto, then, the experience is a lesson in conviviality, that takes place at a level well below the comandantes non-negotiations with their official counterparts, and even well below the ideology that in any case is hardly the rebels’ motive force.

This is not to say, however, that this process of conviviality is not connected in some way with the media–though it may not be mediated in any conventional sense. For Guillermoprieto ends her account with what we are to take as a hopeful sign: a sudden realization that comes to her on her last morning, as she is taking breakfast at a fonda, or small restaurant, abutting the local FARC headquarters. A television is on, as in Latin America one always is. And the programme playing was Xena: Warrior Princess, the TV industry’s ironized take on fighting women. But this irony establishes, perhaps, some common ground:

Two waitresses, as young as the guerrillas next door, were glued to the program. And then I realized that the guerrillas were too. The FARC videos were still playing just on the other side of the wall, but the kids were taking turns sneaking out of the headquarters to stand at the doorway of the fonda, watching Xena. (71)

Of course, as a postscript acknowledges, just a couple of months later the US Congress approved “Plan Colombia”. And by early 2002, the state withdrew its support for a demilitarized zone, the army returned, and so disappeared any hope for Xena-blessed conviviality.

Xena