Wednesday, May 18, 2005

And A Double Side of Freedom Fries

Still afloat in a haze of Gallowegian euphoria, I've spent the morning watching the Joy of George dawn over the American blogosphere. I'm honestly a bit verklempt, reading all these people hollering their amazement and delight and vindication and respect that someone has dared to stand up to their forked-tongued leaders and speak badass truth with passion and supreme power. I believe we witnessed something historic yesterday, and I can only hope and pray it provides the critical impetus for American progressives at long, long last to demand something honest and substantive and real from their representatives. And if that should happen to involve the creation of a serious grassroots left-alternative party to challenge the unearned hegemony of the Democrats, well, then...

The explosive conjunction of Galloway with the Senate points up a phenomenon I've had in mind for a while, a quite significant cultural disconnect between American and British public discourse. I call it the Freedom Fries Effect.

Beyond the obvious explanations of arrogance and turret-minded isolationism, the big reason Norm Coleworm and his boys didn't see GG coming is that American political discourse just doesn't work that way. There is a bizarre, pervasive doubleness to the rhetoric of public life in the States, a sense that public discourse is at a significant remove from, and operates according to different rules than, the discourse of everyday life.

There's a reason the House of Representatives, as the nation stood tiptoed on the rim of the Iraq invasion, took the time to invent Freedom Fries. It's the same reason that, having drafted perhaps the single most oppressive, race-baiting, civil-liberties-abrogating piece of legislation in modern American history, they then set their legislative minds to crafting it a name that would acronym up to 'USA PATRIOT'. And that reason is not, though it can hardly but seem so from outside, that most American people actually think in these terms.

Certain frightening (but smaller than you might imagine) segments of the population aside, regular Americans don't in their daily lives actually talk or think in the crudely jingoistic, 50s-vintage formalistic politois affected by their legislators. And I would lay you good money that our legislators don't talk like that when they're in mufti (witness, most spectacularly, the Oval Office tapes of Richard Nixon, and it's no coincidence that those pottymouthed revelations contributed mightily to his fall from public grace). Certainly they none of them seem ever to live up to the commensurate behavioral standards enshrined in that discourse.

But somehow, when it comes to politics there's this powerful ambient expectation that life will be conducted in a rhetoric that appears, as far as I can tell, to be a preserved-in-amber relict of the McCarthy era. You could see it so clearly yesterday in the hearing: in his incongruous nasal New Yorky whine, Coleworm sounded like a high school kid reading out the Declaration of Independence as he recited the allegations. Levin carried it slightly more naturalistically, but the diction was just as stilted, fully in keeping with the whole fetishized-majesty-of-Congress thing they were clearly hoping to cow Galloway with.

Of course, they completely failed to reckon with the decided British lack of Freedom-philia. British political discourse is many things--rumbustious, fruity, contentious, just-this-side-of-libellous--but it is not pompously cod-patriotic. The vicious rough-and-tumble of Parliamentary debate is a revelation and a voyeur's delight to an American used to the droning faux-politesse of Congressional proceedings, what the Guardian today (in just one of its truly stupidly snarky pieces of GG coverage) point-missingly called its 'soporific gentility'.

American political life simply has no room for a major political candidate to be universally mocked as a vampire, and to my mind that's a damn shame. Now, I don't believe for a minute that most British politicians (especially not Mr. Howard) are in actual practice any less eville, hypocritical, fatally compromised and slippery than American politicians. The nature of politics under capitalism more or less requires that these are the kind of people who end up governing. But I do see a decided stylistic difference in how political life is conducted, and for my money there's a lot more cop in enduring it without the double layer of rhetorical cloaking.

Political doings don't go down easier with a spoonful of Freedom Frying Oil, and the rapturous reception of George Galloway shows I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Update: Dead Men Left provides a very good qualifier to this, to wit, there are also substantial differences of political content in what Americans heard from Galloway yesterday, and hopefully responded to.

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