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Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Newt Gingrich: The invented political gnome
The Republican politician has yet to show initiatives that are his own, not those of his donors.
Last Modified: 03 Apr 2012 06:47
Newt Gingrich has relied on the huge donations made by just two donors [EPA]

New York, NY - From Paracelsus (1493-1541) to CS Lewis (1898-1963), JRR Tolkien (1892-1973) and all the way to JK Rowling, the creative crafts of alchemists, philologists, novelists and high fantasy legendarium visionaries have seen fit to give humanity the dubious gift of the small humanoid creature that lives underground, minding his and our business - and we call the thing a gnome

As a figurine, a spectre and a creature, the invention of the gnome was an act of supplementarity, an afterthought to our humanity, something that was supposed to be a supplement, but that has ended up supplanting. The gnome to man is like writing is to speech - if Derrida were to write on gnomes. As all other cases of supplementarity, the humanoid gnome did not compromise humanity - it made the familiarity of the human foreign. 


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Be that as it may, a gnome is a humanoid invention belying the insufficiency of humans in minding their own business. 

As Paracelsus imagined them, gnomes were earthly creatures, short in height but high in spirit, the terrestrial brethren of the celestial fairies. Gnomes were subterranean, guarding minerals, inventing things. They were playful, mischievous perhaps, busy-bodies, making life curious, crowded. 

But (by hook or by crook - alas) the logic of capitalism cannot be compromised: After the Walt Disney production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a garden variety of these gnomes were invented that soon began appearing on suburban lawns. These "Garden Gnomes" made their appearances just before the term "Zurich Gnomes" was applied to Swiss bankers and their evidently secretive dealings in subterranean dungeons with gold and such. Terms, just like gnomes, have a mind of their own. 

The garden gnomes popularised by Walt Disney ultimately resulted in Kelly Asbury's computer-animated Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), a spoof on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, turning one of the greatest tragic masterpieces in the English language into a farce, a delightful giggle - at the end of which Gnomeo actually gets to haggle with a live statue of Shakespeare on altering the tragic ending. The farce demands and exacts a happy ending. In its farcical disposition, the frivolous character has rebelled against its ennobling authorship.

By now, the gnome is a living sign - from the suburban lawns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to movies in the age of CGI. As a product of Disney Corporation, the American gnome is now the iconic sign of the politics of pandering to commerce, capital and their promiscuous cultures - now ruling the US and dreaming of dominating the world. 

HAL has taken over 

One looks at the Republican Party presidential candidates parading on television these days - before and after Super Tuesday - and one wonders, between US bankers, corporate media and the culture industry that has gone amuck with the Walt Disney imagination, what sort of perturbed animation is plotting to rule the world next. 

Like all other invented gnomes, the garden variety that one particular presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich (who shares some genes with just about every other politician in the US), best represents is completely scripted. He has no idea, no thought, not a word of his own. 

The deeply corrupted US electoral system has run out of improvising and, as a system that is self-destructing, has developed a Tourette Syndrome trapped inside a political apparatus that is all show and glitter and completely gutted of all substance. Like HAL 9000, the computer in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the system has taken over, refuses to "open the pod bay doors" and keeps spitting out robotic replicas beyond any meaningful difference, taking over the spaceship.

Like a garden gnome, Gingrich sits there on the lawn and allows you to imagine him the way you want. In the judicious words of John Stoehr, the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale, "tirades on the poor work habits of poor children, the immorality of food stamps and the evils of the media" are the sorts of grand political wisdoms that Gingrich has to offer to this presidential election.  

"Yet even in the South," John Stoehr adds, "this land of racism and religiosity, there's only so far a guy like Gingrich can go using the rhetoric of tribalism. Eventually, a serious candidate for president must stop saying what he is not and start saying what he is, and, in doing so, he must clearly outline what he will do to address the basic human needs that we all have, whether we're racist or not." 

On that score, it is not just Gingrich that fails, but the entire political culture that has given birth to him and that he best represents - Republican or Democrat. Stoehr says: "A zero-sum game has been the foundation of his [Gingrich's] career. Only when someone loses does he win. In short, Gingrich has no core. His self is truly a self that comes through the eyes of others. While Du Bois believed African-Americans' "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings" would metamorphose into a proud new American humanity, Gingrich's two souls and two thoughts don't synthesise, so much as self-destruct." It is precisely that self-destruction that today defines US politics, precisely in the opposite direction of Du Bois' noble dreams and aspirations.  

This self-destructing gutting of any meaningful substance from US democracy is by no stretch of imagination limited to Gingrich or to the Republican Party. "Over the last 30 years," according to new analysis by the watchdog Sunlight Foundation, "political contributions made by financial industry executives increased by 700 per cent." 

Unlike the other 99.99 per cent of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access, writes Drutman. In a world of increasingly expensive campaigns, the one per cent of the one per cent effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80 per cent of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.

As an invented gnome, the byproduct of a market economy Walt Disney best represents, Gingrich is definitive (not accidental) to US political culture: and precisely for that reason it is not accidental that Gingrich calls Palestinians "invented people", for Palestine and the obscenity of the US unconditional support for the apartheid state is precisely the truth that exposes the lie that every four years sells itself as "American democracy". 


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But when it comes to Palestine, even those staggering numbers from the Sunlight Foundation are now obsolete, in circumstances when one single billionaire such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson can single-handedly handpick a candidate such as Gingrich and just bankroll his bid for presidency with millions of dollars - just because the Adelsons like his domestic policies that would enrich them even further - and his foreign policy that would place Israel über alles. According to reports:

Together with his wife Miriam, Adelson has donated $10m to a "Super PAC" backing Gingrich's presidential bid. Super PACs (political action committees) are a new group of organisations, created by a recent loosening of campaign finance laws, that can accept unlimited donations as long as there is no official co-ordination with a candidate's campaign. The donations are among the largest from individuals in US political history. While other rivals to Romney struggle for cash, Gingrich does not. The Super PAC, Winning Our Future, has put TV ads all over the airwaves and even bought space for a half-hour anti-Romney documentary that helped give Gingrich his victory in South Carolina.

So yes: this indeed is the best democracy that billionaires can buy. 

Tyranny in democracy

Like any other Walt Disney gnome, Gingrich is the product of a system that keeps spitting out its plastic products every four years - and they get discarded and pollute the environment faster than they are marketed.   

The system is abusive - even of its own products. In a widely circulated clip on YouTube, we see Gingrich dozing off after a long and tiring day on campaign trail. Now he has come for a teleconference on a wide screen at AIPAC. He is so tired he cannot keep himself awake and keeps falling asleep on camera. Finally, a moderator at AIPAC conference asks him to speak. He is completely frazzled and says he understands there is a panel and he is ready to respond to any question, for he has nothing to say.

There is an awkward moment and then the moderator from AIPAC informs him that there is no panel and he can say whatever he wants. Gingrich, still barely awake, collects himself and rambles away, still his syllables dragging because he is sleepy, "I say this very briefly ... I think ... We need a fundamental ... reassessment ... of our entire understanding ... of the threat of radical Islam ..." 

If there is just one moment that reveals the undiluted and irredeemable banality of US politics and the gall that these politicians have to flex their military muscles around the globe "to spread democracy and human rights", it is this very moment. The gnome can scarce keep himself awake. He is asleep - and from the depth of his miasmatic subconscious, he spits out gibberish about radical Islam, for as a garden gnome he has been programmed to equate AIPAC with Islamophobia - and he does have an audience for that equation, all fully awake, alert and dangerous. 

As gnomes, these politicians have no character, no culture, no convictions. They are made of plastic, disposable after one or a few rounds of elections. There is a gaudy artificiality about them, just like a façade, nothing behind it, no soul, no substance, no enduring sentiment, let alone intellect. They are fillers of a system that uses and disposes of them faster than they can come back.

In the land of gnomes - who will dare to think independently and overcome the tyranny embedded in democracy? In his prophetic Democracy in America (1835-1840), Alexis de Tocqueville understood these gnomes - soulless plastics populating the political scene - more than a century and a half ago: and foretold the impossibility of thinking within this plastic machine:    

Princes made violence a physical thing, but today's democratic republics have made it as intellectual as the human will it seek to coerce. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism tried to reach the soul by striking crudely at the body; and the soul, eluding such blows, rose gloriously above it. Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: 'You will think as I do or die.' He says: 'You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you… You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.'

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his recent Publications is Post-Orientalism:  Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008). 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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