in Kulturkampf

Obama, Prisoner Of The Bubble

A few years ago, a group of bloggers on the left coast began referring to the Beltway establishment as “The Village.” They were referring to the 1967 television classic starring Patrick McGoohan. Asked yesterday by Bill O’Reilly what was the worst part of being president, Obama replied:

The biggest problem for me is being in the bubble. It’s very hard to escape.

For those who haven’t seen it, The Prisoner was a cerebral work of metafiction; critics have called it the greatest television program ever. MacGoohan, who wrote and directed several of the show’s 17 episodes, included a fair amount of meditation on bubbles. Thematically, the show has inspired Lost and the latter Battlestar Galactica. As a source, The Prisoner has been winkingly acknowledged by an out-of-place penny farthing bicycle in a key episode of Fringe. Its roots go back to Plato’s Republic and show up in the title and subject of an M. Night Shyamalan film nobody liked. All of them portray humans seemingly blind to what is obvious to an audience; they are characters in bubbles.

Bear in mind that The Prisoner was seen as far ahead of its time despite its ancient themes. Visualized at the height of Cold War tensions and Vietnam disasters, The Village is a global, cosmopolitan place that is impossible to escape. Like the hotel California, you can check out any time you like — but you can never leave. Number 6, the anonymous secret agent held captive in this place with cordless telephones and doors that open automatically, has resigned the world. He hates secrets, and wants a world of his own that is built on truth. He is the individualist as an archetype; he insists on being a free man and not a number. At times, he is pursued by “Rover” — a giant, apparently intelligent bubble that smothers him with affectionate aggression.

The Village is run by a succession of Number Twos; his unseen captors are so confident, they let Number 6 run for the office — and win. That episode is instructive, and I think a key symbol for understanding the reality that presidents face upon reaching the office. Having won the greatest honor American voters can bestow, a person is faced with the loss of all privacy and rights. The Secret Service is ever-present and aware. Nothing comes in or out of the bubble without being known. The Secret Service can tell the president what to do (in fact, they condition him to respond to their commands immediately). They safeguard the nuclear football. They are a bubble, built on purpose and after bipartisan appeal, to protect the most important man on Earth from lone gunmen. At the first sign of a threat, they react by covering the president and getting them away from said threat with all the affectionate aggression of a giant, white science fiction Rover. One might see the vast executive branch as a kind of village in which, given eight years, two Texas oilmen can do as much deregulatory sabotage as they like without altering the way things actually work — just as the prisoner seems unable to make a dent in The Village, even when he ostensibly has a free hand in it.

Appearing first in the otherwise high-tech office of Number Two, the penny farthing bicycle is a symbol of the unease with which a person can ride, much less skillfully use, a thing so large as a government. It does not move on its own, but requires constant attention in order to ride without disaster. One might also see it as a commentary on the unwieldy problems that political executives face. As WaPo quotes the O’Reilly interview,

“I think that the thing you understand intellectually but that you don’t understand in your gut until you’re in the job is that every decision that comes to my desk is something that nobody else has been able to solve,” he said. “The easy stuff gets solved somewhere by somebody else. By the time it gets to me, you don’t have easy answers.”

Obama said he has to use his best judgment knowing that “you don’t have perfect information and you know that you’re not going to have a perfect solution.” (Emphasis mine)

We’ve seen this empiricism from him before; it has frustrated his potential allies on the left, and only slowly won accolades from the Beltway village itself. It is the polar opposite of Bush bravado and certainty. How do you untangle an end to mountaintop removal mining without destroying the coal industry? How do you untangle America from Afghanistan without leaving a mess? How do you accomplish those things while winning legislative battles?

Imagine for a moment that Chris Hedges, great progressive critic of power, was elected president through the best efforts of green and left. Upon taking the oath, Hedges would be welcomed by Washington society with galas and parties; as a southern city, the District has always been big on society events. There is an entire branch of the White House staff dealing with the details of presidential parties at any given time because all of politics actually are local. Our notional President Hedges yearns to abolish security agencies and military units; but before he can even begin, he is introduced to the people who will spend the next four years fighting to maintain those things exactly the way they are. Indeed, it is hard to see how he was elected without appearing at the very defense factories he would close. On the question of whether Hedges would change more than he would change Washington, the answer is probably yes: power would reduce him to just another politician.

Indeed, Hedges makes a great deal of power in his writing — as a thing to oppose. Power is bad for children and other living things. Power wants empire, oppresses free peoples, and coarsens culture. Yet our President Hedges would, upon being elected, be instructed in the nuclear codes — and would be prevented from smashing the nuclear football with a sledgehammer. I mean no disrespect to Hedges, whose book rode my hip during his speech at Operation Winter Soldier (would that I had found him in the crowd for an autograph before he marched to his arrest!); he’s a fine writer who does great credit to the progressive tradition of letters. But even he would be altered, and furthermore Hedges might be the very first to admit this. With great power comes great responsibility, right? Recognizing this, some on the left succumb to nihilism and anarchism; but they are not a representative sample. More to the point, most Americans understand this intuitively. It is only in the margins that you find the bicycle-blind, and they are merely trapped inside another kind of bubble.

Each bubble carries its own mythology and rationalization. To be sure, the presidential bubble is a naturally secretive place, leaving observers to fill the blank space with demons of their imagination. All attempts to expose the inherent cognitive dissonance therein are futile, however, because the myths and rationalizations are those of The Village, imposed long before the oath of office.

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