Thursday, April 06, 2006

On Presidential Speeches and "Worsism"

John Berger has an interesting take on the French President's address last Friday. While he specifically targets Jacques Chirac, he might as well be describing Madame La Présidente.
In the past political leaders, when addressing the nation, proposed construction. They might exaggerate, minimise the price to be paid, or simply lie; their projects could be as different from one another as the Third Reich, the United States of America or a Socialist Republic. Their propositions nevertheless evoked the realisation of some vision, or the creation of a society which did not yet exist. Construction.

Under other circumstances in the past, political leaders proposed the active defence of already existing institutions and practices, more or less respected by those they were addressing, and now considered to be threatened and in danger. Such propositions often led to chauvinism, racism and witch-hunting. Yet their rhetoric encouraged and made real, however briefly, a widespread and lived sense of shared loyalties, during the saving of something.

The rhetoric of today's political leaders serves neither construction nor conservation. Its aim is to dismantle. Dismantle what has been inherited from the past, socially, economically and ethically, and, in particular, all the associations, regulations and mechanisms expressing solidarity...

...No electorate is yet prepared to accept such a dismantling. And for a simple reason. The act of voting, however manipulated or free the election, is a way of assembling memories in support of a proposed future programme...

...Consequently the process of dismantling has to be disguised and hidden. And today this is political leaders' first task. Their own role of course is also being dismantled. But they have already chosen to exercise, enjoy and exploit their albeit diminished powers, rather than confront any global truth. It is this which explains their pragmatism combined with their staggering lack of realism. As also their unprecedented shiftiness as politicians. Their task is to prevaricate whilst the broker's deal is arranged elsewhere.

Return now to the typical address of political leaders in the times we're living. Whenever they face contestation, they have to hide what is happening by swiftly erecting a wall of opaque words...A verbal wall to hide what is happening. And on the other side of the wall the bulldozer continues to dismantle.
Barbara Ehrenreich on American "Worsism"

Years ago, there was a theory on the American left that someone—maybe it was me—termed Worsism: the worse things get, the more likely people will be to rise up and demand their rights. But in America, at least, the worse things get, the harder it becomes to even imagine any kind of resistance. The fact that you can be fired “at will”—the will of the employer, that is—freezes employees into terrified obedience. Add to that the fact that job loss is accompanied by a loss of access to health care, and you get a kind of captive mentality bordering on the kinkily masochistic: Beat me, insult me, double my workload, but please don’t set me free!

Far be it from me to advocate the burning of cars and smashing of store windows. But why are American students sucking their thumbs while the Bush Administration proposes a $12.7 billion cut in student loans?

Where is the outrage over the massive layoffs at Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and dozens of other major companies?

And is the poverty-stricken quarter of the population too stressed by their mounting bills and multiple jobs to protest cuts in Medicaid and already pathetic housing subsidies?

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