PESSIMISM OF THE INTELLECT, OPTIMISM OF THE WILL

Charles Bernstein interviewed by Régis Bonvicino

Régis Bonvicino: Let’s think of the worst-case scenario: McCain wins. What will happen to the U.S.? How will McCain work with a Democrat Congress?

Charles Berstein: That is too depressing to think about! But then again perhaps all the more necessary to consider, along the lines of Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. There would need to be a huge and constant counterforce of protest and contest if the Republicans remain in power either in Congress or at the White House. Gore was wrong to wither away: we needed a strong and constant shadow government in 2000. At a practical level, a Democratic congress would block the continuation of the most repugnant Bush policies, but a Republican president and Democratic congress produce a stagnant, festering period. And a triumph of the permanent government too in terms of foreign policy, military, and economic “experts” calling key shots.

RB: Let’s think in the best scenario: Obama wins. What do you expect from his administration?

CB: Obama is far more moderate than most on the left would like. I think that is his essence, not a tactical position; he radically moderate in constrast to Hillary Clintons’ pragmatic moderate stance. But moderate will still be a swing away from the right wing extremism and domestic terrorism of the Bush years & Republican Party rule. And I do feel, again with Gramsci, that the optimism Obama engenders will be good for all. Certainly in foreign policy simply returning to multilateralism and cooperation with Europe and South American will be an improvement on most fronts. And presumably Obama will restore a greater respect for the rule of law, for safeguarding the environment, and also for economic justice. But it will be slow and cautious.

RB: Why the U.S. so divided, culturally speaking?

CB: Maybe Obama’s ascent represents a turning away from this polarization, a bit. But there  is a deep strain of white reséntiment and entitlement rooted in fixed, quasi-religious beliefs that tend to demonize those who don’t share those beliefs; but perhaps those “salt of the earth” Americans are getting tired of being manipulated by wedge issues. There is some sign of this. As I have said before, George Lakoff’s Moral Politics is the best account: the split between “strict father morality” and “nurturing parent” ethics, as I like to put it.

RB. How deep is the economic crisis?

CB: How deep is the ocean? The deep economic crisis isn’t the one we hear about on TV but the one we experience on the streets: the radically increasing amount of US wealth held by the richest few and the dispossession of the rest of us. The current  crisis is a symptom of this increasing maldistribution of wealth. It’s interesting that McCain has focussed on this lately, in reverse, Red bating Obama (who is no Red!). But the truth is McCain is a plutocrat, as is our wealthy and more palatable New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

RB: How the crisis will affect the arts? Will they revert to a more sustainable, less funding-dependent, level?

CB: The current economic crisis will affect the funding of all arts organizations, from big to small. At the same time, the visual arts world is bloated by real estate and high-end investment prices that drive away art as an active engagement with aesthetic thinking and with exchange (rather than commodity) values. Poetry, being a relatively outside the commodity market, is not going to be affected directly, but of course it is the external conditions that create the poems. Poetry shifts with the tides. Crisis is not so much good for poetry as it’s its bread and butter.

RB: Do the national political polls in the U.S. reflect the view of the people?

CB: The major national polls are probably more accurate than ever but always reductive, always biased by the distortions of their “opinion sampling” approach, where even the follow-up questions make sound bites seems complex. The polls are to politics what nouns are to poetry: all handles no handling. We get responses to foregone conclusions. But the problem is not the polls, per se, but the news media’s inability to get unstuck from its own catch  phrases and clichés. I was watching CNN the other day, a segment they call “Truth Squad” that supposedly fact checks the statements of candidates. And they said Obama was lying when he said that McCain had offered no ideas on the economy different than Bush’s. Oh, the Truth Squad squawked, McCain had said x, y, & z they said, and Bush had never said x, y, and z, as if McCain’s lies and distortions and refusal to take responsibility for his previous votes and positions made Obama’s point untrue. The problem is that an excessively literal idea of “facts” stands in the way of truth, which is always metaphorical. There needs to be a truth squad for CNN’s truth squad.

And then there is the obsessive focus on “undecided” voters as if what they think is more important than what the 95 percent who have decided think; which mirrors the undemocratic focus on a few so-called “battleground” states (a produce of the undemocratic Electoral College system). When it matters not at all how many people vote for Obama in my neighborhood then you realize the fix is on. In any case, to be undecided at this point borders on the imbecilic; so in the U.S. polls the imbecilic is identified with the independent. But hey: both words have four syllables.