Horton Hears a Who in Iowa: Kitsch and the Caucuses

As readers here know, I often link to Scott Horton over at Harper's. He is very insightful and informative on certain issues, especially the corruption of the American justice system.  So it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say that his post about the Iowa caucuses is without doubt the least insightful thing he has ever written. And I draw attention to it only because it represents so perfectly the kind of self-deluding mythological mindset that afflicts so much of American political discourse.

It is hard to understand how someone who is able to discern so clearly the rank, deep-dyed corruption at the heart of the American legal system can turn around and produce such a treacly, soft-focus, warm and fuzzy Disney-cartoon version of the nation's political landscape as Horton presents with this piece: In Iowa, the Mending Begins.

Where most sentient beings see a parade of lying corporate lackeys flattering the prejudices of a handful of white folk in a ludicrously unrepresentative process in a small state, Horton discerns "a celebration of democracy...to be approached joyously, with optimism and hope." And while he rightly and aptly dismisses the likes of Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani as grotesques straight out of the pages of Sinclair Lewis, he is awestruck by several of the other lying corporate lackeys: "There are many candidates in this crowd who have the undeniable mettle of leadership."

Towering above them all is John McCain -- a world-historical figure who Horton says surpasses even the great Daniel Webster with his "undeniable nobility of spirit and dedication to foundational values." This would be the same John McCain who was hip-deep in the "Keating Five" imbroglio during the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s, when his biggest financial backer (and family business partner) went to jail for fraud. (The S&L scandal was a now-forgotten swamp of corruption that also saw a Bush brother escape jail time while costing the American taxpayer a billion dollars to clean up his mess.) This would be the same undeniably noble John McCain who in the last seven years has shamelessly sold out whatever principles he might have possessed in slavish, groveling service to the very president whose criminal corruption Horton himself has limned so well. At every turn, McCain has whored himself for Bush, caving in even on the issue of torture [see the note below], providing unstinting backing for the war crime in Iraq, and urging on a further war crime in Iran.

Horton also finds himself warming to Hillary Clinton -- aided in this thaw by the hot air from Bill, "the most gifted political speaker of his generation," whose gift of gab is apparently capable of turning rock-ribbed Iowa Republicans into Hillary Democrats. (Of course, given the close ideological, political and personal relationship of the Clintons and the Bushes, this is not exactly a miracle on the level of the loaves and fishes.) And Barack Obama too comes in for Hallmark-style praise, "mapping a near perfect vision of past and future" and projecting "a new sense of what is America." This would be the same Obama currently shilling for the Big Money interests eager to feast on the carcass of a "reformed" Social Security system. (Among many other Big Money interests pouring vast rivers of legalized bribes into Obama's campaign coffers.)

Horton ends as he unfortunately began, with more mythological evocations and "second-tear" kitsch:

So tonight Americans will gather and perform a strange rite in those 1800 precincts across the snow-driven prairie. That this process starts in America’s heartland...seems somehow very appropriate... [It is a] time to check the voices that populate our political landscape against the nation’s shared values and ideals. Who among them will withstand a test of time and truth? This election is not like the ones that went before it. Americans are not making this judgment solely for themselves. At this point, they hold the proxy of all humankind.

Here we see a clear expression of Kundera's observation:

"Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

How nice to be moved, while holding the proxy of all humankind, by the sight of Heartland Americans measuring our politicians against the nation's shared values and ideals. Just what those shared values and ideas might be -- if they exist at all outside the inflated, self-deluding rhetoric of our comforting myths and unexamined assumptions -- is left unsaid here.

To his credit, Horton also calls on Americans "not to fear self-criticism and fault-finding" in the joyous celebration of democracy that is the presidential race. "It is a time for introspection and self-criticism," he says. And that's certainly true. However, it's hard to see how any meaningful criticism or introspection can take place in a mindset so besotted by second tears that it can view a gaggle of lying corporate lackeys like McCain, Clinton and Obama as towering historical figures with the undeniable mettle of leadership.

Note: For more on the undeniable nobility of John McCain, see this piece from 2006: Compact with Evil: The McCain "Compromise" on Bush's Torture Program. Here are a few excerpts:

After George Bush's Rose Garden hissy fit, in which he declared that he would simply stop interrogating suspected terrorists unless he could torture them, John "I Only Flip-Flop On Matters of Deep Principle" McCain and the other so-called "Senate rebels" have capitulated to the unpopular president's petulant demands.

...And let us make one other point -- and in a most impolitic way, for the truth is often an impolitic commodity: John McCain is a goddamned liar. Yes, he himself suffered torture, yes he came through it, yes, we all admire his fortitude during that ordeal in his youth: but his record in later life, in politics, is that of a moral coward with good PR skills. (Not that it takes much skill to wow the poltroons who squat on the commanding heights of the corporate media world today.) And today, he has opened his mouth and emitted a damnable lie, to wit: "the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved.”

This is an untrue statement, analogous to saying the moon is located in his rectum or that he can bite through pig iron with his bare teeth. Every step the Bush gang has taken in this pro-torture, don't-prosecute-us campaign is designed to weaken the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions, which have been adopted into American law by Congress -- in bills sponsored and championed by Republicans -- are crystal clear on torture. There is no need to "preserve" their integrity with new legislation; there is nothing wrong with the Conventions that need to be "fixed" -- unless, of course, you wish to use interrogation techniques that any sentient human being would recognize as torture. In that case, of course you have to "fix" the Conventions by gutting their integrity, letter and spirit.

John McCain might be a moral coward in his old age, but he's not stupid. He knows all this. He knows that the Bush Administration has been trying to wriggle out of the Conventions since the earliest days of the "War of Terror." He knows that gutting the Conventions is at the heart of Bush's "interrogation program" which McCain and his "rebels" have just saved with their grand "compromise."

Therefore, we will say it again clearly, so that even the nabobs on the Washington Post editorial page can hear it: John McCain is a goddamned liar, and his "agreement" today serves some of the most evil principles ever supported openly by the United States government since slavery.

But hey, he's noble! And he's deeply committed to America's foundational values. Even old Dan'l Webster can't hold a candle to McCain.