The Moment of Truth — September 26, 2009

Our President’s Body, Ourselves

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: that beautiful moment when the swelling finally goes down.

George W Bush, aka The Decider, aka Mr. Bigshot Decider, has a lot of deciding to do. Now that the Do-Nothing Rubberstamp Congress has finally put its foot down on the president’s kangaroo-court torture mill, Bush will have to decide whether to do testicle-smashing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fingernail ripping Mondays and Fridays, or vice versa, and whether a defendant should be blindfolded throughout his trial, or just blinded to save on cloth.

Meanwhile, the movie “Death of a President,” airing on BBC 4 in early October, is causing a stir among all manner of miffed US citizens for simulating news video of a fictional assassination of Bush. Their reactions have been quite strong: It’s sick! It’s disgusting! Why does everyone hate us? It’s the liberal media! They refuse to present the good side of our president to the rest of the world.

Personally, I like the idea of beginning a drama with the assassination of Bush. I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic. Moreover, if that’s really a word, I think it lends realism to the storyline …whatever that may be. (I think it has something to do with the death of a president and the effect of his assassination on world politics.) In a way, it can be seen as a re-imagining of 9-11, and I think a valid one, viewed in light of what we now know are the amoral motives behind the Bush Administration’s responses to and manipulation of that tragedy.

I think it’s interesting to use the body of the president as a stand-in for the World Trade Center (of course, I also think it would be interesting to use it as a trampoline), which itself became a rhetorical stand-in for the nation as a whole. The outrage expressed by US citizens toward the BBC film makes clear how easily we in the US confuse/identify the figurehead with the nation itself. Those who label the drama “sick” or “disgusting” reveal a visceral identification with the man that goes beyond empathy, as if he were the King. Or a sacred symbol submerged in a jar of urine. And this is, after all, a president whose policies are guided by his administration’s assertion that he ought to have the powers of a king. And he is about as effective a leader as a cross in a jar of urine would be.

Across the blogosphere, those objecting to the film’s catalytic event seem for the most part xenophobes of a type peculiar to life under the George W Cheney nee Bush Administration, whose credo might be: if only the mealy-mouthed foreigners, multiculturalists, US workers, and starving Africans would shut up and get out of our way, we could whip this world into shape in no time flat.

One expects self-righteousness from this group, just as one might expect more reasonable objections to the film from cooler, less reactionary quarters.

The righteous indignation of the “fair-minded individual” is what I find more troubling. I want to share a comment I read (on a blog at the Daily Mail online) that typifies this position. Describing herself as no supporter of Bush, she therefore feels free to display the exact kind of self-congratulatory smugness that many otherwise thoughtful, fair-minded individuals abroad react to by “blaming America first.” Nicholson Baker, in his enigmatic and amusing book, Checkpoint, reacts to the Bush administration’s smugness by portraying a character who entertains fantasies of killing Bush with an electronically-guided boulder. It’s the smugness of Ann Coulter and the members of the Bush administration, who clearly know they are ill, but believe forcing that illness upon the nation through deceit, coercion, and repeated exposure to their contagion is the way to get what they want; and from them, we’ve come to expect it. From June Cleaver, not so much.

Our reasonable citizen is one of those upstanding individuals who feel they speak for the majority of Americans, those with common sense. The kind who pride themselves on their politeness but are the first to pick up torches and chase the monster to the windmill. They were the infants for whom 9-11 was a slap awake from their fantasy land of suburban obliviousness into a semi-waking world in which they no longer felt “safe.”

This is my own projection of her personality, of course. But I’m a shrewd judge of people, in my old age. I’m ten thousand years old. Below is her post. She is responding to a line in a review by a Daily Mail staffer in which said staffer ponders his lack of shock as a British citizen over the dramatized shooting of Bush. The commenter first quotes the staffer, then smugly assails him.

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“‘Also, we have a tradition in Britain of using the culture to savage our political leaders [says the writer of the Daily Mail article being commented upon].”

Cute [says our sober citizen].

Here in America we have a tradition of voting people we don’t like out of office. When that fails, making fun of them on Saturday Night Live is sometimes also experimented with.

Somehow, creating a realistic film of the assassination of a foreign leader never occurred to me as a form of culture.

I’ve voted against George Bush twice. Gabriel Range, on the other hand, made a snuff film about him. Which of us is acting to improve the world?

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Wow, she VOTED? Now that’s ACTIVISM! She’s a regular Cesar Chavez, MK Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela rolled into one. She should definitely break her arm patting herself on the back.

We have a tradition of voting people we don’t like out of office–touché! We also have a much stronger tradition in the USA than they do in Britain of SHOOTING AT OUR CHIEF EXECUTIVES: Lincoln, McKinley, Kennedy, Ford, Reagan, to name the most well known. Maybe if we savaged our presidents a little more with culture we could keep the violence of our gun-wielding psychos from boiling over. I doubt it. But perhaps it behooves us to be somewhat circumspect before getting on our high horse.

On the other hand, better to take one’s anger out against foreigners and their fictional transgressions than to address an actual problem, right? That was the rationale for invading Iraq, wasn’t it?

You know what else they can do in Britain? Without waiting four years for an election, they can register their lack of confidence in a government and bring it down–if it sucks badly enough, as ours currently does. But, you know, you can just sit around picking your ass until 2008, if that’s what you consider doing your civic duty.

The USA is the world’s only superpower, for the time being, so our internal civic affairs have repercussions around the world. The indignation against a foreign filmmaker for misappropriating the body of our ruler is fueled by a fallacious sense of ownership. He’s not just our president.

We call the President “the most powerful man in the world,” but most of the US polity have little idea what that means or even what the “world” comprises. Our national self-image is acrobatically self-deceptive. We’re psychological contortionists. We presume the global primacy of our language and culture, we see our collective selves as the best actor playing the most important role on the world stage, but we get our boxer briefs all in a bunch when they burn our flag in the streets of a far-off nation (or here at home–but that’s another story). The flag, incidentally, is not our nation anymore than is the President.

9-11 highlighted our dissociative mentality. After the Towers were attacked and destroyed, and all those people massacred, the world held its breath. Do we think the world would have waited to exhale had terrorists pulled off such a massive attack on skyscrapers in Singapore? And then the outpouring of sympathy and support, it really was as if the USA was an entertainment superstar who had been stabbed in the gut and lay now in the hospital receiving bouquets from his worldwide droves of fans. Clearly we’re not just another country. We’re a superstar.

Here’s an analogy that might be useful for the purposes of this discussion: we’re like a gifted child in a large family of otherwise unremarkable children. We demand and get a lot of attention. Great things are expected of us as a matter of course. But we’re also prone to bigger, more violent, more frightening tantrums than our siblings, who try to stay clear so they don’t end up on the receiving end of our anger. Our siblings, however, often resent that we expect deference in all we do. And they also resent our personal turmoil having so much effect on their lives.

Adding to the resentment is that our siblings don’t even live in the same house with us. When I’m traveling abroad, I’m always astonished to be reminded how little we matter in the day-to-day goings on of the rest of the world. We get so used to a White House response being part of every international news story. Foreign news media, for obvious reasons, don’t report things that way. It’s possible to read an entire newspaper in some countries and not come across a single mention of the United States. Improbable, but possible.

But when the gifted child has one of his tantrums, the whole neighborhood knows. And right now the gifted child is going through an addled period, playing at being a boorish, belligerent drunk, so the tantrums aren’t even coherent, they’re flailing, dangerously clumsy seizures.

What happens when the prodigy who’s learned to justify any action it cares to take, however destructive, gets grievously wounded and roused to fury? What are the repercussions for the siblings? And what kind of sick, totalitarian leader would Dick Cheney be? That’s the question “Death of a President” asks, and I hope it’s clear now why a foreign nation would ponder it. The President of the United States is not our nation, nor does he belong exclusively to us.

For goodness’ sake, people, we’re privileged to live in this extraordinarily wealthy, dynamic, globally influential nation, crazed with acquisitiveness and free-market fetishism and prone to public exchanges of gunfire. We’re bound to attract a little media attention, don’t you think? Especially now, when we’re governed by baboons. I don’t deny anyone’s right to complain about something they feel insults or infuriates them, I just want to point out the distorted self-image motivating the complaints.

We consider it unreasonable and idiotic and awful when fanatical Muslims riot in response to cartoons insulting the founder of their religion. I assume that’s because, for one, we govern ourselves with far greater calm and civility, and two, we understand there’s a valid cultural discussion at work in the cartoons; they’re not just blasphemy for blasphemy’s sake.

And even if they were, blasphemy for blasphemy’s sake is part of cultural discourse, too. That’s why I’m pitching the sequel to “Death of a President.” It’s called “Use of a Dead President’s Hide as a Bag for Guano.” And during that key scene of my movie, when the Mexican-American groundskeepers are filling the largest organ of the president’s body with puffin and penguin poo, I expect each and every one of you to remember this conversation we’ve had and show some damn humility.

This has been the Moment of Truth… Good day!