News from Around the Parish

The Right Reverend Barack Obama delivered his sermon ‘Moral Courage: What it is and How to recognize it’ at the Robben Island Human Rights Museum, South Africa, last week.

Afterwards, he presented a gold watch to ‘Grandfather’ Nelson Mandela, for his long and faithful service as caretaker at the museum. His wife, Graca Machel, accepted it on Mr. Mandala’s behalf as he was feeling unwell.

During his visit the Right Reverend blessed a $7 billion new US-led project to increase access to electricity in Africa. He vowed to assist Africa in bringing “light where there is currently darkness.”

Later, in Soweto, the Right Reverend unveiled a ‘plan to have future African leaders groomed’ in America!—the Washington Fellowship for Young Entrepreneurs.

“This won’t be the most expensive programme we have, but I actually believe it will end (up) being one of the most important. It’s important to me personally because it is a great way for me to show confidence in all of you,” he said.

But first, the Reverend pointed out, they had to ‘root out’ corruption because that is a very ‘bad thing‘ and a barrier to ‘investment’.

Such was the enthusiasm of the people of Soweto in welcoming the Right Reverend that the police felt obliged to intervene. But no harm done, all joined hands and the visitation was declared a success!

Joseph Allbright and Marcia Kunstel. Ex-official: Cia Helped Jail Mandela. Chicago Tribune. June 10, 1990.

Obama vs. Romney: Candidates for narrator of the American Dream

The nation state as an ‘imagined political community’ (Benedict Anderson, 1991: p. 6) is helpful in comprehending the presidential election in the United States of America.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion (p. 6).

It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship (p. 7).

This imagined community is essentially a collective emotional phenomenon. Emotions were social phenomena long before they were considered the exclusive preserve of individuals. A nation comprises emotions about itself, its neighbours, its enemies, and its friends.

At the core of the imagined community of the United States is the ‘The American Dream’: a belief that anyone—regardless of creed or colour—can succeed in life if they work hard enough; a belief that the US is a leading light of freedom towards which all other nation-states will ‘transition’.

Americans are socialized into believing in this collective Dream. It is this they swear allegiance to. It is this that members of its armed forces are willing to kill and die for. They see nothing self-righteous about being the judge of human rights in other nation-states and publishing an annual assessment.

There can be no working class in this narrative, for that would imply conflicting interests, only an all-encompassing middle. Those Americans who are not part of the official narrative, the poor, the sick and the elderly, are invisible to the American state. It takes an occasional shock of the real, such as Hurricane Katrina, to bring them into view, to reveal the dark underside of America.

This ‘dream’ is the backcloth to political discourse, talk shows, movies, sitcoms, professional sports and the news media in the United States. Its official spokesperson, keeping it all together, is the Head of State, the president himself. A master of ceremonies, the president interprets events in terms of this narrative, weaving it into a symbolic order. The president is the narrator and the conscience of this imagined political community.

Presidential elections are exercises in emotional marketing or branding. They decide which candidate can best embody this imagined political community, be its standard bearer, resonate with these collective emotions.

This is what is going on between Obama and Romney. Their task is to weave a narrative, present an auto-biography, that is consistent with the American Dream. These are not debates about real life problems at all. These are scripted and stage managed reality shows. Voters are props, their questions are hooks on which to hang over-rehearsed, market-tested sound bites.

This is why hardly anyone noticed until the other day that—a couple of weeks before the election—Obama had not gotten around to declaring his manifesto or platform, i.e., what he wanted to achieve in ‘four more years’. Not one of America’s journalists thought to ask.

As with people, we judge nations not just by what they think of themselves or say, but also by what they do and how they behave. Outside of the United States, people tend not to share America’s high opinion of itself. An American traveling to Europe post-Iraq, for example, discovers this quickly. America’s largest creditor, the People’s Republic of China, now publishes an annual review of human rights in the United States. It makes sobering reading. See Human Rights Record of the United States in 2010.

Back to the show:

It’s coming down to Obama’s use of fear vs. Romney’s anger.

Look for a security ‘event’ to decide it.

Romney and ‘los indignados’

Momentum has changed in favour of Mitt Romney following the first televised debate in the U.S. Presidential election campaign, but momentum in what and why?

The change is in emotional momentum. We got to compare what they said and, equally important, how they said it. Romney struck an emotional chord and Obama did not. This chord is still reverberating and it energizes the Romney campaign.

Hope is a spent force and Obama may well be spent too. The dominant emotion, certainly on the streets, is the rage of the indignant: outrage.

‘Los indignados’ (‘the indignants’) is the name of those who take to the streets to protest the imposition of ‘austerity’ in Spain. It is equally applicable to similar protests throughout Europe, North America and the Arab world. Different scenarios; similar emotions. ‘Los indignados’ are mad, and occasionally joyful, and justifiably so.

Romney, unwittingly I suspect, quivers with the same feeling, if for very different and less noble reasons.

Indignation was the source of his advantage in his debate with Obama. It was evident in his scorn of the President. He’s not accustomed to being talked down to like that.

Romney is indignant about Obama’s seeming inability to ‘solve’ America’s economic problems. He’s indignant about Obama’s foreign ‘policy’ and the liberties America’s enemies take with its interests. He’s indignant because he feels all of this is unworthy of America and its ‘honour’. This indignation may be without grounds, but the feeling he projects seems genuine and that’s all most of us care about.

This indignation resonates with the viewing public because they felt the same way, albeit, again, for different reasons. Had it not, Romney could easily have been perceived as churlish and mean-spirited. He said the same words as before but it was how he said them that made the difference in perceptions of him.

Never forget that the hatred between Republicans and Democrats is so large because the differences between them are so small. They are both parties of the corporate world, financed by Wall Street.

Romney’s is the indignation of privilege and the old order. But before this is figured out it may well be too late for the real indignants. Things are going to have to change, but this change will be fought for from below, not bestowed from above.

Reason before emotion: Obama vs. Romney

This was billed as an emotion-free evening. The audience had been told not to emote, to maintain silence. This it did, apart from occasional laughter.

This was an opportunity to display one’s power of reasoning; a time for the candidates to present their ‘plans’ to the American people. There was even discussion of a plan by which Americans can enact their constitutional right to pursue happiness. They’ve got plans for everything.

Your plans, however, are what you tell God when you want to make him laugh (this is very old humour). Events, accidents and serendipity—i.e., other people—tend to get in the way. So what is the point of this?

And yet, emotion is always there, beneath the surface in the form of voice inflexion, facial expression and body posture. It is these we judge.

Obama seemed a little weary, his appetite jaded; almost as if he wasn’t sure he wanted another four years as president. When you’re used to stage-managed adoration, it must be difficult to come down to earth for occasions such as this. I think he under-estimated Romney.

He could not resist milking the occasion of his wedding anniversary (‘Sweetie, Happy Anniversary’). Nor could he resist the almost obligatory flattery towards the American people, especially in his concluding remarks. When there is no audience feedback, these rhetorical devices do not work and they gave the impression of being contrived (which they are). But Obama is clearly an intelligent and decent man and he performed well—but not well-enough, I suspect.

Romney was a revelation, in that he wasn’t as bad as we expected him to be. In fact, he was good. He came across like a young Ronald Reagan. The same earnest, but polite, insistent enthusiasm. He was chomping on the bit. He wants to be president, whereas it’s not clear if Obama still does.

When they had finished with reason, emotion joined them on stage in the form of Mrs Romney and Mrs Obama and the evening was declared a success.

An aside on the Republican elephant, emotions and leadership

More could be made of the Republican elephant. It’s a constant presence but they never do anything with it.

It’s a no-go logo.

We can learn a lot from elephants. Even republican ones.

First, Mitt Romney made clear that this general election is all about leadership. America needs ‘Less flexibility and more backbone’. Look no further, then, than Elephantidai Loxodonta (African) and Elephas (Asiatic).

Karen McComb et al (2011) found that among African elephants it is the older, most experienced matriarchs who lead, especially when the social group is confronted by a predatory threat from a male lion. [Only the male lion is a threat to elephants. The females do most of the other hunting.] Most noticeably, the older females learn to listen to the roars of the lions and decipher what they are saying.

Here one naturally thinks of the formidable, white-haired Barbara Bush, the matriarch who led the Republican pack for many a long year and saw off all manner of threats to her sons in short order.

Who, one wonders, is the matriarch in this break-away Romney social group?

There is an evolutionary basis of leadership among animals, including humans, although it is scarcely understood.

Research on humans, McComb et al. argue, suggests that age is correlated with leadership in domains requiring specialized knowledge, and that ‘there is recent evidence that decisions about social conflicts improve with age‘ (p. 1, my emphasis).

Well then, here’s a lesson for candidate Romney-the-Elder, who might use it to his advantage over that nice young man currently occupying the White House.

Second, if there is a more exquisitely emotionally sensitive creature than an elephant I’d like to meet it (although the horse comes close). The elephant is sensitive because it combines mental and physical strength. Noble gentleness. Disciplined power.

Was not the Buddha likened to an elephant?

‘One day, a brahmin found the Buddha sitting under a tree, composed and contemplative.

“His faculties were at rest, his mind was still, and everything about him breathed self-discipline and serenity”.

The sight filled the brahmin with awe. The Buddha reminded him of a tusker elephant: there was the same impression of enormous strength and massive potential brought under control and channeled into a great peace’ (Karen Armstrong, Buddha. Lipper/Penguin. 2001, p. 160)

Yes, Romney should be more elephant-like. That’s not emotional woodenness, America. It’s a nucleus of calm, equanimity, and internal solitude.

Will Republicans have the collective wit to see these associations staring them in the face?


McComb, K et al. 2011. “Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278(1722):3270–3276.

Cowboy Romney—Obama is ‘Unforgiven’

The most noteworthy feature of Romney’s big evening at the Republic Convention last night was the cameo role of Clint Eastwood.

He seemed to illustrate the maxim, never let an actor speak in public without a script. When he addressed that empty chair, at first glance he looked like a bar room drunk.

But he was there to provide the cowboy narrative, the rhetorical stage for Romney’s performance.

And aren’t cowboys men of few words. We know that their heart is in the right place even if their mouths don’t always work properly. His mere presence was all that was required.

It doesn’t matter that Eastwood is not a real cowboy. Nor that the ones he plays in movies have little to do with actual historical cowboys.

It is the mythical cowboy that matters for it is central to American identity, an icon by which to viscerally connect with ‘regular’ Americans.

This mythic cowboy, we surely know, possesses great courage and strength of character.

Enter square-jawed Mitt Romney.

Against this cowboy narrative backcloth, he’s no longer a religious nutcase, but a morally upright and God-fearing man of character who knows right from wrong and is prepared to act on this basis. Just like a cowboy.

Never mind policy then. This is about emotional connections, not mere logic.

The message that matters: this is how President Romney would respond to problems and threats—quickly and decisively. He’s not going to ‘lawyer’ them to death. He will not waste time discussing with allies or negotiating with enemies. He will do what is right for America.

He’s not daft. Americans like their cowboy presidents. He’s not wrong either. The most effective presidents—such as LBJ—are thugs when it comes to Congress.

And what, dear reader, is the common theme of cowboy stories? It is the heroic cowboy saving innocent people from danger. In this case, the heroic cowboy is candidate Romney and the source of danger is none other than President Obama.

‘What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs’.

‘Less flexibility and more backbone’.

‘The future is our destiny’.

His audience at the convention looked middle-aged, well-fed, mean-spirited and grumpy. As if the sheen had gone from their lives and they couldn’t understand why.

Romney tells them why.

In essence, Romney’s most fundamental criticism of Obama is that he has trifled with America’s honour. As Clint Eastwood might have put it in Unforgiven:

‘Some wrongs can never be forgiven’.

Peggy Sue loves Willard Mitt—Vote Republican

Mrs Romney—Ann—was the star of the show last night (Tuesday) at the Republican Convention in Tampa. She did ok too.

She’s auditioning for First Lady, so it was only fit and proper that she got emotional. About love, actually—the love between herself and her husband, our candidate.

See the video at Ann Romney tells Republicans Mitt ‘will not fail’

I was reminded of Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Peggy Sue was one of the most popular girls in high school, enjoying life with her friends and her boyfriend Charlie. It was the typical high school dream, until she finds herself married to Charlie and becomming a young mother. However, her life takes a serious turn, leaving her depressed and facing divorce when Charlie runs off with another woman. At her high school reunion, Peggy Sue faints and wakes up back in high school. Despite her confusion about what has happened and how to get back to her own time, Peggy realizes that she has a chance to start her life over, to avoid her depression and her marriage to Charlie. However, just because she knows the future, does that mean she can really avoid it? Source

That was no republican convention. No, that was a high school reunion. And that’s not who we think it is either—it’s Peggy Sue Romney, in her senior year at high school, taking us back in time to the 1950s when life was sweet and love true.

Like America, she has the chance to start over again. She chooses him and America should too.

Note that America is cast in the female role here. Mitt Romney is courting her. He is one of two suitors for the hand of America. He’s got the bashful smile. All he he needs is a bunch of flowers.

Peggy Sue provides a character reference. She tells us that he is a good man who can be trusted. America—he will not take advantage of your innocence. ‘This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America.’

It was a touching, heartfelt performance. I don’t doubt that Mitt and Ann are a devoted couple. But that’s no qualification for being president.

This is the romance of nostalgia and I doubt that Americans will fall for it. (Although it worked for Reagan).

‘Nostaligia’ comes from ‘nostos’ meaning ‘return home’ and ‘algia’ meaning ‘longing’.

We’re nostalgic for something real. We long for a sense of belonging, for a home in a quickly moving society of atomized post humans. When she says  Mitt ‘will take America to a better place’, that’s what she’s getting at.

But the ‘real’ is gone. It can be recreated only in a movie, Peggy Sue. We live simulated lives, with simulated emotions. There is no home to go back to. We have to move forward and create something fresh, something authentic.

There is something more.

The Romney’s live in Belmont, a suburb of Boston.

Belmont (a suburb of Venice?) is also the home of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Portia is a rich, beautiful and intelligent heiress. Her choice of husband is bound by the stipulations of her father’s will. Potential suitors must choose one of three caskets, of lead, silver, and gold. He who choses the right casket win’s Portia’s hand in marriage.

What, then, does the right casket contain? It contains Portia’s portrait.

Perhaps, the United States is like Portia. They are both a little weary of the world.

PORTIA By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.

Like Portia, America must accept the suitor who follows the stipulations it inherited. Like Portia, America derides each suitor. In both cases, it is a lottery.

America will choose the casket which contains its own image.

Brand Romney Takes Flight

Brand Romney/Ryan is to be launched this week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

We will be presented with flattering and contrived life stories of Romney and Ryan, woven into a narrative about America and how it can be ‘turned around’ and rescued from Obama’s policy of ‘hate and division.’ The ‘Comeback Team’ above presumably refers to the team that can restore America to its ‘former greatness’.

‘Comeback’ is a throwback to the title of Romney’s 2004 memoir Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games. His leadership ‘helped save the Olympics from scandal’. Now he’s going to save America from Obama.

Ordinarily at a political convention, delegates chose the candidate. But the only legitimate candidate, who can speak without reading, Ron Paul, has been muscled out of the picture and won’t be appearing.

Romney’s Convention Power Play: Sununu Evades Ron Paul Delegates To Avoid Floor Fight – Business Insider

Also in the interests of ‘party unity,’ ex-president George W. Bush, his vice-president Dick Cheney, and ex-VP nominee Sarah Palin will not be attending. All will be air-brushed out of existence.

Todd Akin, whose bizarre views on rape caused such a kerfuffle, has been ‘asked’ not to attend.

The delightful Miss Condoleezza Rice will be there. Perhaps she’ll give a piano recital. I suggest a requiem.

Just as there can be beer without alcohol, this will be a political convention without politics. The candidate has been chosen by attrition and skulduggery. Romney isn’t a politician at all. He’s a CEO who wants to ‘lead’ America Inc. To get the job he’s got to turn himself into a brand, just like Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey. Not a political party, then, but a launch party.

Romney’s ‘message’ thus far is difficult to make out. It seems to be this:

Obama had his chance and he made a mess of it. Now he’s running a campaign built on ‘anger and divisiveness’.

“That’s the kind of divisiveness that I think Americans recognise and I think it’s one of the reasons why his campaign, despite spending massively more than our campaign, that his campaign hasn’t gained the traction that he would have expected.”

Obama takes things to a new low, the message continues, by trying to link Romney to controversial views on rape recently voiced by another Republican.

Mitt Romney: Obama campaign seeks to ‘divide America’

The bottom line here is that for Romney, Obama is not behaving as a president should. ‘We expect more from a president’. He’d do and say anything to stay in office.

Team Obama’s Reelect Strategy Revolves Around An Unrelenting Negative Campaign

I think the Romney campaign is on to something here. Obama has certainly invoked fear by presenting himself as the protector of America. See Brand Obama seeks emotional traction. It is a but a small step to extend that emotion to fear of Romney/Ryan’s policies.

Fear, of course, is the opposite of hope. Obama is vulnerable here to accusations that he’s reversed emotional direction. Nor does he do ‘fear’ at all well. But the scamps at the White House may well have something up their sleeves.

Romney Ad Puts Obama Campaign Tactics on Trial

The polls suggest that Bush and Romney are evenly matched. It’s all to play for. Who wins will depend on who is most successful in suppressing the vote and getting the vote out. Republicans seem particularly enterprising here.

Republicans across the United States have passed a spate of voter suppression laws aimed at those most likely to vote for Obama. They are specifically targeting African American women who, in the past, created a gender gap that decisively elected Democratic presidents. (Ruth Rosen. Voter suppression: the “Schurick Doctrine” and the unravelling of American democracy, 27 August, 2012.)

As they say, it’s the best democracy money can buy.

Head and Heart—The President and First Lady

We’ve been looking at the role of emotions in the marketing of the two candidates for the President of the United States.

It’s worth noting, however, how the President and First Lady represent a gendered division of labour between the head and the heart, or reason and emotion.

The President embodies reason, deliberation and decision-making.

The First Lady embodies emotion, especially caring and compassion.

Thus while candidates do their utmost to corral the emotions of voters, once they’re elected they’re expected to prevent their emotions interfering with rational decision-making—unless there is political advantage in not doing so.

That emotions are central to ‘rational’ decision-making we will consider separately.