Obama and Pop Culture

Trevor Paglen Limit Telephotography

Trevor Paglen
Limit Telephotography

About a year ago I quit blogging. I had mostly been writing about politics and my frustration with the political culture–what Mike Judge called the Idiocracy–led to James Joyce’s prescription–”Silence, Exile, Cunning”. So when I decided to resume a week ago it was because I felt that the world of culture was in such an amazing transition phase–what I call the Digital Interregnum–that I could confine my self to writing about music, film, TV, art, video games, social networks, sports and never have to get frustrated in print about oligarchy and the death of democracy.

And then this morning the front page of my New York Times featured a story, The Rise of the Drone Master:Pop Culture Recasts Obama and I felt the urge to comment. The thesis of the piece is simple.

Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

As the article points out most of the artistic themes are around surveillance, privacy and drone wars and I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that my own disapointment with a man I supported from the day he announced in February of 2007, didn’t stem from his unwillingness to bring the National Security State to heel. Obama was, like every President who preceded him into the oval office since 1953, a prisoner of the establishment.

So what do I mean by The Establishment? Since 1953 when two senior partners of a Wall Street law firm, the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles began running American foreign (and often domestic) policy, an establishment view, through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike, has been the norm. As Stephen Kinzer, in his book, Brothers, has written about the Dulles brothers, “Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.” They created a world in which the Wall Street elites at first set our foreign policy and eventually (under Ronald Reagan) came to dominate domestic and tax policy—all to the benefit of themselves and their clients.

Clearly when Obama appointed Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton to the top posts in his administration it should have been clear that the Wall Street-Military Industrial Complex was still firmly in charge. But I refused to believe that Barack was just a front man for the oligarchs, and to his credit I believe that he genuinely believes that our 60 year post World War II belief in playing the global cop is a fool’s mission. But the Snowden revelations have shown how afraid he is to really challenge the conventional wisdom when it comes to the surveillance state. So the artists do what artists always have done, they take part in what Marcuse called the Great Refusal:”In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.”

I don’t think there is any way for Obama to prevent the artists from defining his legacy in such dystopian colors. Unless of course he decides to go all Bulworth on the country after the November elections and use the last two years of his Presidency to really use the Bully Pulpit to reform our sadly broken politics.

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2 Responses to Obama and Pop Culture

  1. rhbee says:

    It seems that you and I can not give up hope even though we do believe that what our artists see is true. That Winter Soldier was just sad. Why is that? Look at the freeways clogged with real traffic in the age of the internet. We are fucking fracking for oil and enjoying a construction boom while our strip malls clamor for tenants. What is wrong with our minds that makes us behave with such disregard for any real future. The age of our collective behavior is still juvenile. Somewhere in our lizard brains we know we have to figure this out even if Obama doesn’t go all Bulworth on us but still we hope he will or someone will. Because when it comes down to us, we seem more than willing to herd ourselves to the multiplex instead.

  2. Fentex says:

    I watched the Robocop remake last weekend and found it a little interesting.

    I wonder if it attempted any satire. The original was from start to finish satirical, but the new one only had Samuel L. Jacksons character as the only possibly satirical component, and that character was not especially incredible as a analog of contemporary political commentators. I can’t tell, because commentary in reality can be just as divorced from reality, if that character was even intended as satire.

    I got the idea the movie was intended to be a straight up investigation of how far from possible it’s core conceit of military drones/robots repurposed to policing is in today’s political climate.

    Which would explain why it’s ending was so nonsensical. Unlike the original there was no reason Robocop should have won his battle in the remake. Some soporific blather about humanity overcoming hardware is pointless wishful and wilful abandonment of the story’s implications.

    The new Robocop should have had as depressing an arc as Obama has had.

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