North American culture is a study in contrasts, where modesty and restraint, good sense and earnest impulses coexist with coarse ambition, and money and celebrity worship. So what else is new? Breastfeeding moms on the cover of Time magazine, and bottom-feeding criminals circling around futures markets or tearing down the highway to hell. Live and let live living next to live free or die. So what else is new.
And yet, the frenzied attacks on President Obama since last Wednesday’s debate with Mitt Romney have been particularly revolting, underscoring as it does our society’s schizophrenic attitude toward what constitutes good and bad, right and wrong, and especially winning versus losing.
Style and verve clearly count in debating, but substance and strength of argument are its heart and soul. President Obama was way off form on all counts, with scant evidence of his usual unflappable, even inexorable oratorical style. He appeared tired and was clearly nonplussed that Romney had chosen to play to the centre instead of pandering to his party’s right wing, as he’s been doing for months. He allowed Romney to lie, obfuscate, interrupt, and threaten the moderator’s livelihood. He failed to seize countless opportunities to nail Romney down, or to illuminate his own vision, point of view and accomplishments. He almost seemed drugged.
Romney had clearly been winding himself up for this fight with what he thought would be a much more formidable opponent. Denying his tax-cutting agenda, shamelessly inserting the refrain “jobs”, “jobs”, “jobs” wherever he could, accusing Obama of destroying the economy and refusing to “reach across the aisle” – an Orwellian moment in which delusion became reality through sheer repetition… Obama, inexplicably, nodded his way through the attacks. In the end, the flyweight crushed the heavyweight.
Or not? Obama was nodding because he recognized the double-speak, and expected this parody. He’s heard it a thousand times now, and prevailed. Remained cool, brought health care to tens of millions of citizens who would not otherwise have had it, took out Osama Bin Laden, reframed a faltering superpower’s international mission from overt imperialism to enlightened cooperation.
Romney used the debate to declare his love of coal, his intention to drill for oil wherever he could, to insult Obama’s intelligence, and simply to say things that are not true.
A proper debate is not a guarantee that all parties will present true facts, and debaters can be forgiven for getting them wrong, and lauded for their persuasiveness. But, as this whole tempest in a teacup regarding Big Bird and PBS illustrates, America is now lining up for its bread and circuses, prepared to glory in the blood of the ring while the true powers that be carry on with the real carnage.
I believe Obama doesn’t want to be a part of that. And I fear he has to be, because these are the new rules of the game. I hope he wins, but the whole thing remains distasteful and likely will only become more so.