Anticipating History

An unwelcome characteristic of this age is the scarcity of genuine communal moments. It is a feature, I think, of a culture that is recorded and analysed to death. Instead, nostalgia is commodified and sold to us at expensive music festivals, or third hand on wide-screen TV screens in pubs. Is this presidential campaign a genuine historical moment, or is it just being packaged as such?

Lots of people, including me, are waiting for Barack Obama’s speech tonight.

Much has been made of the fact that this speech will be delivered on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington. The venue for Obama’s acceptance speech has been changed to accomodate all the people that want to watch him deliver it.

There is so much anticipation, I am reminded of how I felt around the time of the Live Earth concerts. The constant analysis (how will this affect the polls; will he deliver?; &tc) threatens the moment. How many people are watching for the sake of the speech and for the sake of the election, compared to those who are watching only to analyse, and to say that they had been there as history was made?

On the other hand, perhaps that is the entire point of going to such an event. Not to be persuaded, but to say that you were there, that you were part of the moment.

An unwelcome characteristic of this age is the scarcity of genuine communal moments. It is a feature, I think, of a culture that is recorded and analysed to death. Instead, nostalgia is commodified and sold to us at expensive music festivals, or third hand on wide-screen TV screens in pubs. Is this presidential campaign a genuine historical moment, or is it just being packaged as such?

Observers in Martin Luther King’s day would not have worried about this. They would not have bothered with the ‘meta’. They could allow themselves to be less cyncial, and genuinely sincere. Anyone who tries that these days is mocked. When Obama and his team attempt to create a genuine moment in history, they are accused of hubris, elitism, messiahnism.

But that is the quest. Our yearning. For sincerity. We think we see in Obama what we do not see elsewhere. Not in John McCain, who has become a cranky, walking contradiction. Not in Gordon Brown, who smiles with half his face. Not even in David Cameron, who, in coming the closest to being convincing, unfortunately slips down into the political equivalent of the Uncanny Valley.

7 thoughts on “Anticipating History”

  1. Well, I suppose that the first African-American to accept a presidential nomination is historic in its own right. But true, it would have less context if he fails to get elected.

    For what its worth, I don’t think it was a history-making speech, or intended as such. Instead it seemed to focus on policy, and on attempting to counter some of the Republican memes.

  2. I do find it annoying and irritating that we, the general population here in Britain are having the minutiae of the US presidential run-up business pumped down our throats by tv and newspapers, like we should be interested, like America’s navel-gazing is the most interesting thing in the world.

  3. I have to disagree on a number of levels! First, I don’t think we really get the minutiae. The commentary from UK papers seems to focus on broad themes in US politics, with some fairly fundamental ommissions. In this respect, they seem to be (perhaps necessarily) perpetually behind the US news cycle. For example, they were still asking “Is America Ready for a Black President” long after Obama’s Primary wins made that question tedious. I find myself going to US blogs for pointers to US news.

    Second, it is undeniable that America is still the most influential country in the world, both economically and culturally. Despite the failings of the Bush Presidency, I still think it represents the ‘best hope’ for liberal democracy and toleration. Indeed, this election is now starkly about the competing visions of America – the inclusivity and post-Boomer politics of Obama, or the neo-con/theocratic route that McCain, bizarrely, seems to be pursuing with his pick of Sarah Palin. Whether America revives itself from this nonsense, or descends further into the nationalistic abyss, is extremely important. And sometimes, this debate does reveal itself through the minutiae, such as Palin’s record as governor of Alaska.

  4. Thanks for this, Rob. I was hoping you might be able to explain it to me. The thing is though, that this is America’s debate. We do not have a vote, or indeed any other opportunity to participate in it. While the outcome may indeed have far-reaching effects, and thereby *will be* newsworthy, I fail to see why the exedingly long and tedious run-up to it should be of any interest whatsoever to the average british lay-person. I would sooner focus my attention *and* news content on the pursuit of our *own* liberal democracy, instead of voyeuristically rubbing our noses against a debate that we a) have no part in, and b) will be academic as soon as the election has been won.

    I can understand how or why a person who was especially interested in The Political Process would find it interesting, but as you say, there are plenty of other sources they can get coverage from, without forcing their niche interest on the rest of us, by taking over our news media with what is, ultimately, an irrelevance.

  5. News isn’t just about influence though. The process – how we came to be here – is important. Understanding how Americans think, vote and make other decisions is important if we are to interact with them. And we are.

    And to suggest that we have no influence over them is not quite true. No country is an island. I may choose to visit certain parts of America, or be culturally involved with that country in some way, or trade with them, based on what I know about them.

  6. Understanding how other nationalities think and make decisions is important? Not according to the richest most powerful nation on earth.

    And a tiny, abstract and diffuse potential for cultural influence is a rather minor point, compared say, with either economic or democratic power.

    All this excessive, prurient attention to the US election campaigns is rather hypocritical, in view of the media’s “Bush’s poodle” remarks during the Blair years. Makes me think “pot, kettle”. It’s no wonder Americans think they’re the most important people on the planet. Personally, I beg to differ. I couldn’t be less interested.

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