By OWEN THOMPSON
The worst of the most extremist fibres of western societies have surfaced recently with telling impact in two very emblematic countries. The plights of Presidents Barack Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy on either side of the Atlantic reflect the very worst of both countries and are indicative of mushrooming tendencies that are potentially quite dangerous. They come on the back of the devastating effects of the economic crisis on employment, public investment and welfare in general. Obama is suffering the very worst of America’s ‘Hurt Locker’ syndrome; Sarkozy, the hyperactive, gossip magazine president, has chosen the most dramatic fuite en avant to arrest his growing discredit at home. France, America and the Western world now hold their breath.
America is being told by its very determined extreme conservative forces, who can’t fathom Obama being in office, and can fathom even less what they fear he represents, that its president not only is incapable of leading the nation out of the economic crisis, but that he is an awful Muslim, born somewhere in some land of infidels, who is in league with unholy devils in a concerted effort to bring the very worst to their sacred land.
He is allowing stem-cell research, taking troops out of Iraq, passing universal health care bills, telling the world that America, instead of using force as a matter of course, will seek more and more diplomatic solutions to crises. He is also not immediately and categorically dismissing gays as monsters of nature, telling state governors they can’t chuck “illegal Mexicans”, who have been illegal in New Mexico for decades, out of America, without considering certain nuances. Worst of all, he has the audacity to say that a Muslim mosque can be built on Ground Zero, because America is, after all, a land of freedom of religious worship. While such a president is busy with such useless niceties, wasting time with things that only get in the way of what real, hard American values are all about, the economic crisis continues. This cannot be allowed. Enter The Tea Party.
The Christine O’ Donnell chorus starts to resonate with increasing vigour, intensity and popularity: vociferously condemning pornography, masturbation and homosexuality; diligently opposing official aid for the fight against AIDS, an ill that is only just punishment for the sin of promiscuity; eloquently defending the sacred, proper role woman must play as wife and mother, at the service of a husband’s peace and tranquillity. O’ Donnell’s victory in the Delaware primaries has alarmed even staunch Republicans, as the Republican Party is virtually being dismissed by Tea Party advocates as something not strong enough to defend the right values.
It is somewhat ironic that the year in which Obama decided to officially bring American troops back from Iraq is also the year in which the Oscar for Best Film went to Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. A remarkable film about America’s senseless crusade through a terrain of aridity, coming up against nothing but hostility, more hostility and even more hostility. There is no solace, no release from unending aridity and killing. Soldiers become so physically and psychically consumed by such a landscape that they are incapable of seeing the world in terms other than the enemy constantly over their shoulders, who must be sought out and killed before he kills. No release, no water, no oasis, no liquidity, no fertility. Nothing but aridity and killing. Everyone and everything descends into a realm of grim mental diminution, as life is reduced to soldiers’ capacity to feed off each others’ fears and their ability to perpetuate hostility in order to survive.
In one particularly powerful scene, one of the soldiers, back in America on short leave, goes up on to the roof of his house to clear away leaves left by wet winter weather. In such a landscape he finds himself literally trembling, quaking at the sight of water, greenery, anything that is not aridity, hostility and killing. He desperately needs to get back as soon as possible to war, to dryness, to destitution, to constantly searching for enemies to kill. In his barracks, his only, close, intimate possession is his locker, where he keeps his clothes, his pictures of his loved ones. It is the only thing in his life of war that is not hostility or seeking out of the enemy.
He eventually loses the ability to savour even that. His mind can’t be at rest, lest someone or something sneaks into his locker. Even his locker begins to cause him hurt. He becomes a cruel symbol of a country literally up to its neck in helmets, machine guns, soldier boots and suicide bomb repellents. A country that is becoming nothing but one humungous hurt locker.
Recalcitrant conservative forces have begun to perceive their president as their enemy. Too much of what he is trying to do runs counter to what they are convinced America is and must continue to be. He must be stopped. Fox News, radio preachers and Tea Party activists have managed to convince millions of Americans (significantly more than when he took office) that Obama is Muslim, and therefore a danger to their country. He must not be allowed a second term, and must be stopped in his tracks in his first. The Republicans have devised a plan to block all his initiatives, stall finance for and implementation of many of his approved measures —like universal health. At times of economic difficulty, when sensitive national issues are touched (the whole 9/11 Islamophobia scenario, for instance) so many people fall back on the need for muscle, strength, old values. A serious battering is forecast for Obama in the coming mid-term elections.
The liberal conservative financial and market forces are also determined to maintain their stranglehold. The economic situation will not be allowed to improve. At the end of it all, enough people will say that too many changes and too many reforms are being attempted. America can only run smoothly when solid, solvent finance and business masters are in charge. Obama’s determination to dismantle Wall Street perversity has not gone down well with those who have, traditionally, been the financially powerful in America. Add an economic crisis to moralistic, military crusading and the die is cast.
It is difficult to say whether France’s dilemma is even worse. Sarkozy’s deport-the-gypsies strategy is his latest measure of desperation. Populism playing the cheap, xenophobic card. The discourse is very simple: nothing is wrong with us. Things only go wrong for our country when problems are brought in by others. Romanian gypsies are an easy scapegoat. They have neither the means nor press clout to defend themselves (unlike other persecuted ethnic groups) and EU leaders shamefully fail to tell Sarkozy where to get off. When EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding spoke up and said not only that Sarkozy was out of order, but also likened his actions to the beginning of similar treatment to the Jews seventy years ago, she was rebuked for her “strong language” by a conglomerate of EU leaders. The real issue was swept under the table and all the focus fell on Commissioner Reding’s “un-diplomatic” choice of words. And Sarkozy is allowed to soldier on, though Commissioner Reding has publicly stated that she is not about to drop the issue because what Sarkozy has done is illegal. It has been a month of great shame for Europe’s major pan-national body.
Sarkozy’s actions have to be decoded within the courtly intrigue of the mediocrity of French politics and politicians, and the fertile ground that still exists for dangerous populism in French society. Sarkozy’s popularity has plummeted very quickly indeed, from 70% acceptance in late 2007, to 26% at the beginning of this summer and 25 % in the middle of September. The reasons are many, ranging from his inability to deal with the country’s economic and unemployment problems, to the fact that the vast majority of the French population think that all the Carla Bruny bedroom intrigue, which kept him on the covers of gossip magazines for the better part of his first two and a half years in The Élysée Palace, was unbecoming of the office of the president of France. With such a dip in acceptance ratings, out came the cheap deport-the-gypsies card. It appears to have backfired.
The French, in spite of notoriously strong anti-immigrant feelings, have not been afraid to say that what their president has done with Romanian gypsies is illegal and out of order. It is the thing about France. There will always be enough basically decent-minded people who embrace perfectly embraceable conservative values and find it hard to fathom crass populism and xenophobia. Least of all from the president of their dear nation. A recent poll showed that 56% of French citizens are fully in favour of the EU pursuing legal action against the French government for their illegal deportation of Romanian gypsies. Polls also show that a majority have a far better opinion of the incumbent French Socialist party leader Martine Aubry and an even better opinion of the man generally felt to be waiting in the wings to be the French socialist party’s candidate at the 2012 presidential elections, Dominque Strauss-Khan, who clearly has his eyes set on returning to French politics when he finishes his mandate at the IMF. It is premature to start looking as far forward as 2012, but there is a deeper issue here, which the French have already started dealing with.
The French have gradually grown fed up of the rancid, age-old, anti-immigrant discourse about undesirable foreigners bringing the country down. In cornered, overly settled civilisations, it is an easy recourse often used by certain forces to explain away stagnation. The French nation has just about heard enough easy excuses for the stagnation it has been painfully suffering for some time now.
The woeful showing of its football team at South Africa 2010 was blamed in certain quarters on the French national team being left in the hands of nouveaux riches immigrant brats who never truly felt the French colours. Economic travails are being blamed, today, on Romanian gypsies, (yesterday it was smelly North African immigrants). So when, after three years at the helm, a president who has been shown to be incapable of dealing with the country’s economic and unemployment issues, decides to use muscle and tell the nation that things are the way they are because of a few gypsy settlements on the outskirts of a few cities, the French nation simply doesn’t buy it, especially after it was brought into the open that the government had issued clear orders to Prefects to dismantle Romanian gypsy settlements and deport Gypsies – something which had been officially denied. The simplicity and shallowness of the discourse no longer wash.
Two countries, two civilisations, so sure of themselves, so convinced that they are the models, the guiding light for humankind this side of modernity, have reacted differently to fundamental shortcomings of theirs that have been painfully laid bare. The French have the strength of a European tradition to fall back on. There is something in the culture that will always drive them to say no to things that remind them too much of the ante-chamber to war conflicts that tore their continent apart not so long ago. “That is exactly how they started with the Jews; first they were told they couldn’t own property; then they were told they couldn’t be on the street at certain hours; then they were told… etc… before it all culminated in an orchestrated plan for extermination, carried out before the eyes of so many who simply could not have imagined that it could happen”… It is the kind of reasoning being heard now in the wake of Sarkozy’s recent antics. Cheap populism against the defenceless is a phenomenon too many Europeans fear. It is too harsh a reminder of something unpalatable.
America’s dilemma is a trifle more worrying. A news channel and a group of tea party lobbyists are a source of great concern for the Republican Party at the moment. They know the great store Americans set by their lockers, physical and figurative. The neutral observer cannot but see that Sarkozy has in front of him a nation that is indignant. And that Obama has to deal with a nation deeply stricken by its own very particular brand of hurt.