Frontmen and fanboys


When Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone describes “Obama’s Big Sellout“, it’s hard to decide whether he’s deeply stupid or just cynical. On the one hand, he may actually believe that “Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street”, and has subsequently “allowed his presidency to be hijacked by sniveling low-rent shitheads” (that is, his “gang of Wall Street advisers”). Of course, he’d need to have disregarded all the evidence, available throughout 2007-08, that Obama was a typical, mainstream Democrat candidate, whose content-free platitudes announced little more than a Wall-Street-friendly and Silicon-Valley-coddling social liberalism of the Clinton/Rubin mould.

On the other hand, the accusation of “selling out” suggests Rolling Stone‘s favoured rhetorical ploy: projecting the ethical categories of rock music on to party politics. Every four years the magazine presents its chosen DLC frontman, pitched in a generational battle against some hidebound Republican fogey. Obama, with his BlackBerry and three-point shooting, fit the bill better than Al Gore or John Kerry ever did. So, in the tradition of NME rock journalism, maybe Taibbi is puncturing yesterday’s personality cult, allowing his employer to anoint another Next Big Thing messiah who’ll change Washington.

Here’s a pretty simple heuristic for Rolling Stone, expressed in language it may understand: if some forty-plus guy in a suit approaches you, selling hope and change – don’t buy! Wait, get some policy details, and get them in writing.

Whether he’s over-credulous or intellectually dishonest, it’s tough to empathise with the disillusioned fanboy. Sure, given the character of the US political system, it’s natural that people should long for a strong leader to take on entrenched interests. The good king often outshines his courtiers in intelligence, heroism, and personal magnetism. Sometimes these qualities lead a popular movement to venerate him as a “man of the people”, the Great Helmsman or “the One”. But these are infantile, anti-democratic elements in a political culture. They are also doomed to disappointment. A hierarchical state, with a centralised decision-making authority concentrated in a president or head of state, is inherently prone to anti-democratic measures and idiosyncratic changes of direction. Rather than whining about “sellouts”, better to embrace the wisdom of crowds, a large representative sample of the population, deciding collectively. The people themselves, rather than any putative “man of the people”, are far more likely to “stand up to Wall Street”. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone would probably need to change the design template for its cover.


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5 Responses to “Frontmen and fanboys”

  1. kathi Says:

    rolling stone is hardly the epitome of political journalism (or any other type of journalism really). do i sense that you don’t like obama?? cos i’m not sure we can be friends anymore if that’s the case….

  2. Nick Says:

    Well, that’s an interesting point. The way Rolling Stone treated Obama’s candidacy was more or less the modal treatment in the US press, and overall the dominant frame for understanding the ’08 election. That’s one reason the Obama campaign was so successful. The Democrats successfully managed to frame the contest as generational – McCain with his odd formalism (“My friends”), physical stiffness, web illiteracy etc. I don’t need to cite the figures on youth voter turnout and campaign contributions.

    And Taibbi’s article is pretty representative of criticism Obama is getting from disillusioned US “liberals” right now.

    I’m not bothering to criticise Obama here. I’m questioning the intellectual honesty/capacity of people who are surprised by his presidency. No-one who paid the slightest attention in 2008 should be suprised.

  3. kathi Says:

    ah, perhaps i didn’t pay enough attention. it’s entirely possible (probable). i guess i just really wanted to be able to be optimistic about a political leader, now that rudd has been such a disappointment.
    i’ve come to the conclusion that the only solution is to found a new colony on a planet where there aren’t any economy driven, cold hearted, imagination-less dullards to ruin it for the rest of us!

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