Political Vaudeville


Mainstream media debate over the forthcoming US election has been fixated on the trivial rather than the substantive. Foreign affairs issues have barely been discussed — not least the Iraqi rejection of a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad — and leading reporters still cling to the belief that the Republican candidate John McCain is an essentially decent man who has been forced to run a negative campaign against a resurgent Barack Obama.

The economic crisis has been portrayed as a problem to be managed rather than prompting a wholesale questioning of the system that produced the mess. The magazine Dollars and Sense examines what has been ignored by much of the media and finds the current and former captains of America’s finance system following the personal finance maxim "Pay yourself first":

"The top execs at Morgan Stanley have, in fact, received $10.7 billion in compensation for the year to date, an amount greater than the current net worth of the company. The CEOs defended their action, noting that it is generally considered rude to tip waiters less than 10 per cent, even when the service is bad."

Despite a distinct lack of media curiosity, Noam Chomsky argues that evidence that the Western capitalist system was on the brink of profound trauma has been ample and available for years:

"The basis for the crisis is predictable and it was in fact predicted. It is built into financial liberalisation that there will be frequent and deep crises. In fact, since financial liberalisation was instituted about 35 years ago, there has been a trend of increasing regularity of crises and deeper crises, and the reasons are intrinsic and understood…

"You couldn’t predict the exact moment at which there would be a severe crisis, and you couldn’t predict the exact scale of the crisis, but that one would come was obvious. In fact, there have been serious and repeated crises during this period of increasing deregulation. It is just that they hadn’t yet hit so hard at the centre of wealth and power before, but have instead hit mostly the third world."

Such insight has been largely absent from our press — and mere greed is a far too easy explanation for the chaos. Instead, we are treated to endless — admittedly amusing but utterly irrelevant — stories about Sarah Palin being mocked on Saturday Night Live. Politics as a two-team sport has never been more vacuous, and this at a time when most Americans are struggling to make ends meet.

Mark Danner, writing in the New York Review of Books, argues that the "radicalism of Barack Obama lies not in his policies but in his face. It is a radicalism not just of colour but of emergence, for scarcely a year ago that face was utterly unknown to the overwhelming majority of Americans. Not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has a major party put forward as nominee a candidate so little known to the country."

Danner isn’t incorrect, but what would Obama represent to the world, other than "change"? After a recent presidential debate between McCain and Obama, foreign affairs expert Stephen Zunes rightly chastised the Democratic candidate for failing to challenge the litany of falsehoods spread by the Republicans. How for example, asked Zunes, "should the United States consider the Iraqi government an "ally," given that the two largest parties in the ruling coalition have historically allied themselves with Iran?"

Or take Israel/Palestine. Some leading Jewish American commentators, such as MJ Rosenberg, argue that the power of the Zionist lobby in Washington is declining, the visibility of Palestinians is increasing and the concept of two states for two peoples is growing in strength. He writes of a recent American conference attended by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad:

"Perhaps most impressive was that this event was happening at all. A dozen years ago, Palestinians were on the margins of acceptance here in Washington. Few respectable types-let alone US officials-would allow themselves to be seen at a Palestinian event where, of all things, the Palestinian national anthem is sung along with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. But this year I saw dozens of prominent officials, including Deputy National Security Council Adviser Elliot Abrams, enjoying themselves among Fatah-supporting Palestinians. Not an image I’ll soon forget!

"Things have changed since Golda Meir preached that there was no such thing as Palestinians. The Palestinians have been ‘mainstreamed’ which means that at long last their voices are being heard in Washington."

His optimism is badly misplaced and belies the facts on the ground in Palestine itself. Furthermore, to feel pleased with the presence of Abrams, a neo-conservative who actively contributed to the civil war between Fatah and Hamas, is delusional. Rosenberg is simply reflecting the cautious hope that an Obama presidency would bring a renewed chance of peace to the Middle East. If only this were the case.

The Israelis are currently discussing a Saudi peace plan from 2002 that would grant the Jewish state a comprehensive deal with the Arab world if it withdrew to its 1967 borders. Alas, the settlement movement, numbering over 400,000 people, will never allow this to happen and colony expansion has only increased in the last year. Those pushing for the two state solution today are imagining the conflict as they wish it were, rather than how it really is.

Would Obama change the equation? Perhaps marginally. During her visit to Australia last week, leading academic Sara Roy, senior research associate at Harvard University’s Centre for Middle East Studies, said that she and her colleagues believed that a post-Bush environment may bring a semblance of "balance" to the region and a renewed push for open and transparent dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Although Roy has never met Obama personally, Harvard colleagues talk of a man who greatly impressed the university and displayed a solid moral and ethical outlook. A leading law faculty professor said that Obama was the most impressive student he’d seen during his 30 years of teaching. Furthermore, when Obama finished his degree he received over 600 job offers from across the country, including some of the leading law firms. He turned them all down and worked in Chicago as a community organiser.

While none of this means he would be a good President, it does provide a small window to the kind of America many of us would like to see. Nonetheless, in these weeks before the election, we have to suffer dreary articles by figures such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser praying that an Obama presidency would again show America to be a "force for good in the world". Such pronouncements ignore the reality of American behaviour before September 11. Torture, extraordinary rendition and the overthrow of unfriendly regimes didn’t start with the Bush Administration.

The last eight years have undoubtedly wrought carnage across the world but simply changing President isn’t going to repair the damage. It is the responsibility of journalists to question the assumptions that led the Western world into the morass. From the financial crisis to the war in Iraq, business as usual won’t suffice. Obama will do little more than tinker around the edges.

The American people should demand more.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.