Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dear James,

That Emma Goldman should be delcared Queen of the Universe is, I think, self-evident. Nevertheless, I take issue with your argument.

The term leadership is, as you imply, a product of discourse. It is also, therefore, deeply ideological, in that it is bound up with assumptions about liberal democracy, capitalism, and, as I wrote yesterday, gender difference. For these reasons, it merits analysis, critique, and, possibly, deconstruction, and we can thank postmodern theorists for undertaking precisely this task.

However, to propose that we jettison the term entirely, even with great subversive élan, is unproductive and, I believe, hopelessly naive. I say this because, at the end of the day, there is a sphere called politics which trundles on with or without our theoretical approval, and which affects large numbers of human beings in real and vitally important ways.

Take, for example, the case of Katrina. The complete inability of federal, state, and local officials to command themselves and the institutions they preside over led directly to the needless deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people. The "chattering classes" call this a failure of leadership, and, in my view, they are entirely correct to do so.

Whether we consent to being governed by them or not, political officials have access to resources and modes of power that we, as mere citizens, do not. They can declare states of emergency; they can marshal the armed forces or the police; they can approve requests for economic assistance and direct them accordingly. We cannot do these things, and so we have little choice but to rely upon government to make such decisions on our behalf. Perhaps it will be different after the revolution, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the days and weeks after Katrina, the American government failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to its citizens. As Bush and Brownie dithered, people died. Worse, they died knowing that they had been abandoned by their government, which was, it seems, otherwise occupied.

As Bush’s later photo ops demonstrated, the spectacle of leadership is not the same thing as leadership. It is, to be Baudrillardian for just a minute, the signifier wrested away from the signified. This is, I think, what you mean when you call the television images of Giuliani on September 11 meaningless, which, in a certain sense, they were.

However, to give credit to Giuliani--who is, as you well know, a political figure I generally revile--the signifier was not merely a stand-in for the signified. He was, by all accounts, acutely aware of what was happening in his city, and very much involved in the coordination of his administration’s response, not days or weeks after the fact, but immediately. He was, in common parlance, on top of things.

Thus, the photo ops were not just photo ops, but a symbolic representation of Giuliani’s command of the situation. That is why they were ultimately successful, and why Bush’s later efforts were not. In times of crisis, people want to be reassured by their political officials—witness, for example, the footage of Katrina survivors at the Convention Centre screaming at the news cameras, over and over again, “Where is Nagin? Where is Blanco? Where the fuck is the President?” As citizens of a democracy, they have every right to want this.

However, people are not stupid, as some theorists persist in believing, and when push comes to shove they will not meekly accept the signifier in place of the signified. Studies have shown that media strategies are only effective in the absence of lived experience: that is, when there is no other reference point. As Katrina proved, if you are suddenly starving and homeless in a throng of other starving and homeless people, a photo op means nothing at all.

In the case of September 11, New Yorkers were legitimately reassured by Giuliani. Hell, as I braced for World War Three and wondered where the fuck America’s president was, I was reassured by Giuliani. Was I suffering from false consciousness? Do I therefore deserve derision and contempt?

More to the point, how would a postmodern theorist have handled the situation? By sneering at it? By deconstructing it? By writing still another book about the impossibility of politics? As a philosophy professor I admire greatly once said, “philosophers can’t even fix their own toilets”; God help us if it is them to whom we turn when the shit hits the fan.

Worse, the postmodernists have had a hand in relinquishing the sphere of politics to the lawyers and robber-barons that presently comprise the political class, and who should be held criminally responsible for their chronic malfeasance. By thinking ourselves above the political fray and retreating into our own otherworld of floating signifiers, we renege upon our basic responsibility as democratic citizens to police the conduct of those who lead us, and, ultimately, to effect change. As we do, the people we claim to theorize for—minorities, the disabled, the poor—die like dogs in their streets. Bravo. Have another research grant.

In closing, I will concede that leadership is a difficult and potentially dangerous term, but until the revolution comes, I will continue to expect something like it from those who govern me. You are free to do otherwise.

With love,


Anonymous said...

Vila, I think I love you.


g_pi said...

Me too.

Remind me, however, to never cross you...

Vila H. said...

Don't let my blog fool you--I'm a total pussycat. Well, usually.