Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Magical President

I have so many things stored up to write about, but having to work hard for my living lately means I haven't had time to write about them. So sometime soon there'll be a flood of posts.

In the meantime, let me tell you about this weird article I read in last Saturday's Australian.

I should preface this by saying I have a dilemma about newspapers. Rupert Murdoch owns most of Australia's newspapers, including the only daily published in Brisbane, the crappily tabloid Courier-Mail, and the nation's only real national paper, the Australian. This means I have a choice - buy a Murdoch paper and be assaulted by right wing propaganda, or a more moderate Fairfax paper full of stories about Sydney or Melbourne. Every Saturday Murdoch wins because I get a Brisbane TV guide.

So anyway, last Saturday they reprinted an article from the New Republic (right wing US rag) about the "Cult of the President". Apparently this bloke called Gene Healy has written a book of that title which says that Americans like to believe that their president is a superhuman figure who can solve all their problems, rather than just the head of the government. Healy says "he is a soul-nourisher, a hope-giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise". The article (written by Jonathan Chait, not by Healy himself), goes on to cite the current Gulf oil spill as an example. The President is under pressure to, and does, accept responsibility for this even though he neither caused it, nor has the capacity in his government to do anything much about it.

This is a fascinating concept. On the surface, it's just a normal piece of right-wing hyperbole. Healy, the New Republic and the Australian set up a straw man (the omniscient president) in order to pursue their deregulatory small government agenda. We over-rely on government to solve our problems, they are trying to say, and this is clearly ridiculous. Therefore government in general is a bit ridiculous and the less we have of it the better.

This is all very well for people who are as rich as Rupert Murdoch, who can afford to pay for their own health care and if their beach gets oily can buy another one. But if you are a poor person, or a fisherman who relies on Gulf fishing grounds for a living, you need someone to protect you. That's not likely to be the oil companies - or for that matter their political friends like the Bush family.

But that wasn't the first thing I thought of. I actually thought of medieval mythology. Perhaps Healy did too - I haven't read his book, but he doesn't mention it in the article I linked to. In a lot of medieval mythology kings are indeed seen as magical figures. The fertility of their country, its safety from invasion, and its freedom from natural disaster were all seen as evidence of their success. A drought, flood, famine or epidemic could see a king violently deposed, while a king who lived in prosperous times would be seen as great. There was something mystical about this - a good king would have the approval of God or the gods, and a tragedy would demonstrate the withdrawal of that approval.

Ironically, this is the kind of thinking more associated with the religious right than the socialist left. For the left, there is no magic about government intervention - it is just the government protecting the weak against the strong, using the legal and financial resources at their disposal to hold the wealthy to account and to redistribute some of their wealth. For the right, though, it looks like magic, and they fear it. After all, who wants to be held to account, or have their wealth redistributed?

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