BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 JAN 09
Featured in
Issue 120

Out With the Old

On 20th January, George W. Bush’s disastrous reign will be over, but the hard work will be just beginning

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 JAN 09

George Bush departs from the White House by helicopter, 2008

The debacle of the Bush era is nearly complete. In his brief remaining time as president the man who failed his country and disgraced his office more than any predecessor can still make matters worse. Judging from his recent actions, and above all his recent inaction, he will. Thus a full reckoning of the damage Bush has done lies ahead. And, inasmuch as he has been the most secretive and imperious of presidents, history’s auditors have work for years to come, especially given the delayed effects of the calamities he set in motion. His has been the worst of times.

Whether, as many hope, Barack Obama’s presidency will spell better, if not the best, of times – heavily discounted by the cost of cleaning up the Bush mess – is not yet known. Already some of the change Obama promised can be felt in the air. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have played a small role in anticipating that change as a member of Obama’s arts policy committee.) The most salient dimension of this shift is Obama’s belief in pragmatic governance and practical democracy, which in the USA has always meant coalition-building and hard-bargained compromise.

That an African-American of mixed heritage, bearing a Muslim name and boasting an élite education, could have created the groundswell of support that got him elected in a nation traumatized by war and poisoned by hysterical ‘opinion-makers’ is a testament to the people who joined forces to achieve that end. The process leading to this unlikely outcome is a lesson in how social, racial and economic divisions can be overcome and how common goals can be identified despite a drumbeat of provocation aimed at exacerbating tensions among different groups while creating new ones. A year ago few, even among those quick to rally to Obama, would have bet the farm on victory – much less on winning decisively.

Now everybody can take retrospective pleasure at the miscalculations of pundits who argued that one candidate was a shoo-in while the other had no chance at all. Most of these prognostications came from the poll-sniffing, blog-grazing, manure-spreading herd of professional commentators whose political scope is next year’s trend and last year’s burn-out. But when it comes to eating crow, there are some sages higher up the food chain who have just had their meal served to them.

For if, as I believe, one can say that ‘our long national nightmare is over’, we have awakened to very hard realities in which the conventional ideological wisdom of all camps has had a margin call. The quotation above is Gerald Ford’s declaration that Watergate and the reign of our last worst go-it-alone president, Richard Nixon, were definitively behind us. We now know they were not. Indeed, it was a cohort of neo-conservatives within his administration who brought us Bush I and II. All were spurred by a frenzy to undo the ‘liberal excesses’ of the 1960s. Stunned by this backlash, many former progressives retreated from the field, with some finding refuge in the academy.

Of that contingent, a sizeable number have been theorizing and teaching an admixture of doctrines aimed at deconstructing ‘late capitalism’ – this long-awaited spectre at the feast has arrived! – while rationalizing their withdrawal. For much of the 1980s, ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium they have enthralled the art world and generations of students with sweepingly deterministic generalizations about such meta-conceits as the Mirror, the Multitude, the Fold, Desiring Machines, the Schizophrenic Subject and more. Looking back on that period of seismic booms and busts – may we call it Manic Recession ending in Manic Depression, full stop? – one has to wonder how it was (and why!) that these elegant arcana distracted so many who had once organized against racial and sexual prejudice and post-colonial wars in Asia and Central America, as well as how they succeeded in imbuing acolytes with their fixation on doomsday, thereby de-skilling them for, and dissuading them from, activism and the painful process of learning from the mistakes it inevitably entails. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the Left had all the good arguments, but the Right won all the battles.

Well, Obama’s ability to mobilize a disparate, deeply disillusioned populace should punctuate that episode in high-minded pessimism just as surely as it rebukes the casuistry of reactionary think-tankers. Ezra Pound once wrote that generalizations are like cheques: what matters is what is there to back them up. The managers of hedged profundities, sub-prime theoretical speculators and pitchmen of Postmodern derivatives have blown their wad. It’s time to close the book on Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan and their convoluted colleagues and take the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971) down from the shelf. If you haven’t heard of it, look it up; we’re going to need it.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.