It is what it is.

datePosted on 13:52, July 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Having returned to my Asian redoubt after 5 weeks in the USA at the family homestead, I can now take stock and reflect on the tone and tenor of American public discourse. Every time I make the yearly pilgrimage back to my native country I notice changes in how people phrase the moment. A few years back, when Dubya was leading his crusade against evil-doers, it was all about “bring it on,” and “opening a can of ass-whuppin.” Last year it was about, paradoxically, ‘change we can believe in” and “being thrown under the bus.” This year’s social motif is caught in the phrase “it is what it is.”

From public officials, to celebrities to the (wo)man on the street, the answer to most thorny questions or complex issues is captured in that phrase. This is remarkable because normally Americans have a strong sense of optimism and unbrindled faith in controlling their own destinies. But the public mood this year is one of resignation and fatalism, if not powerlessness and pessimism. People appear universally resigned to being pawns in a larger game, to be at the mercy of “powers that be,” to being unable to shift the course of their lives based on hard work and idealism alone. Cynicism abounds, apathy is on the rise once again, and people just expect to be disappointed by their leaders or do not expect much from that at all. Somewhat perversely, this debased threshold of consent gives the Obama administration added cushion or leeway when pursuing its policy reforms–anything it manages to accomplish in the policy field will appear to be unexpected and seemingly heroic. Coupled with Obama’s personal charisma, this means his administration really has to do very little in order to impress the mass public.

For the moment the dark mood is pervasive. When asked about personal indiscretions or ongoing subservience to corporate interests (most evident in the stilted debate on national health care), politicians reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about lawsuits, deaths and scandals, celebrities reply: “it is what it is.” When asked about job losses, foreclosures and stifled dreams, average Joe replies “it is what it is.” When asked about the utility of either of the the two wars the USA is fighting, the universal response is that “it is what it is.”When asked if Sarah Palin’s resignation speech was drug-induced or merely incoherent, the reply inevitably is “it is what it is.” This is the 2009 version of the 1970’s adage “s**t happens.” In each instance the point of the phrase is not only to convey resignation; it also signals an end to the conversation on a particular subject.

There also has been is a signal turn in the American social psyche. In a country that already saw little value in public intellectuals and critical discourse, the turn symbolised in this one-sentence fatalism is a sign of despair. It also may be a sign of social rot.

In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller? Why does it not have any responses or initiatives to counter the Obama administration’s projects on a variety of fronts? Why does it continue to cater to religious extremists, social bigots and media charlatans? Why does it allow Dick Cheney, of all people, to be the defender of the faith? Why is it mired in McCarthyite fear of “socialism” or “communism?” Why does it deny any wrong done by the Bush 43 administration, be it the constitutional subversions of the “war on terror,” the trillion dollar national debt, the national financial melt down or the erosion of US international prestige and power? Why does its de facto leaders openly call for Obama’s downfall, in an abject display of disloyal opposition? Why does it not see the need to undergo serious self-examination and rejuvination along new ideological lines given the abject failures of the Bush 43 administration and the electoral massacre suffered in 2008? 

All of this is the stuff of Democratic dreams, and short of arrogance born of unchecked power, the Democrats pretty much have a free run through 2012 (and beyond) so long as the Republicans continue to pursue their 1950s Barbie and Ken dreams in a country where Barbie is increasingly of mixed race and Ken just might be gay. Therein lies the problem, because devoid of a real political opposition that offers substantive alternatives on matters of policy to them (and which extend beyond the tired opposition to abortion and gay rights), the Democrats will, inevitably, succumb to their own greed and indifference. We might call the latter the Clinton syndrome.

The question then is why, in an age of fatalism, the Republican Party does not respond to the challenges of the moment in something other than retrograde fashion?The answer it seems is that it is what it is.

17 Responses to “It is what it is.”

  1. Tom Semmens on July 13th, 2009 at 14:38

    The sort of resigned fatalism you describe is rampant in New Zealand as well, and I would venture it is general across the Anglosphere just now.

    After a generation of neo-liberalism people have been bullied and threatened and generally traumatised into a state of learned helplessness.

    The United States seems riven and distracted by the canker of a deeply divisive and balkanised bickering. Its political class seems unable to shrug off a paralysing ideological straightjacket every bit as detached from and impermeable to rational discussion and reform as anything the mad mullah’s of Teheran could come up with. Much of this introspective war against itself can be traced to the deliberate and calculated electoral policies of the Republican Party itself. The current state of the GOP is a reflection of the dead end nihilism of the road the likes of Karl Rove and Cheney have taken it down. I just think Friedrich Nietzsche’s could have had the GOP in mind when he said: “If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you.”

    I wonder how long the people will remain in the grip of such fatalism though. Like Nivelle’s Grognards, they’ve stopped grumbling.

  2. Pablo on July 13th, 2009 at 15:10

    Excellent comment TS. I agree that something has to give, and my prediction is a split in the Republican Party, with Palin leading something called the New Independence Party (or some such) as the aggregator of the religious right/racist/bigot/social conservative/isolationist wing, and the GOP with the likes of Mitt Romney and Colin Powell representing the corporate/globalist/national security/moderate wing (such as it is). Either way, they are doomed to fail and could well produce a defeat of far greater magnitude in 2010 and 2012 should they indeed split and fight amongst themselves. Such fraticidal behaviour is already evident in the Cheney/Limbaugh/Coulter rants against people like Powell, and the leaking of unflattering information about Palin by former and current McCain staffers. Yipee!

    On the other hand, the measure of a government or administration is taken by the quality of its opposition, so this does not auger well for the longer-term responsiveness of the Democrats in power.

  3. SPC on July 13th, 2009 at 15:46

    The term to use is “depression”, the economy may not (yet) be in that state but the people are.

    The cost of their wars, the cost of their banking crisis, the cost to their future (how will social security or anything approaching national health care be afforded) of this debt.

    The USA has to grow out of its many myths and deal with its reality as a mature democracy. But in a nation where the majority await some advent of God’s kingdom to rule in place of their democracy it’s hard to expect either realism or inspiration.

    As for Obama – the recent agreement to accept a warming by two degrees, no more and no less, is meaninlgless. None of those present has kept committments made 30 years ago to provide .7% GDP in foreign aid. So how can they promise on behalf of future governments until 2050?

  4. Quoth the Raven on July 13th, 2009 at 17:02

    I would have thought a lot of this apathy came from false expectations of change. I think it can be summed up in another American expression, a portmanteau, Republicrat.

    In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves?

    You could ask the exact same of the Democrats.

  5. Nicholas O'Kane on July 13th, 2009 at 17:57

    In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller?  

    What a partisan view. I guess you are completely unable to see the viewpoints of other people.

    Have you ever thought of the idea that the republicans don’t change becuase they genuinely believe in these principles. As for the moral hypocrites, yes there are some, but only a small minority. Mark Sanford is only one of several million people in the party.

    And it is not as homogenous as NZ parties, and there are liberal (I use liberal as a NZer) Republicans. They are a minority but still there.

    Try and rewrite the post to say something good about the party. Or maybe your too blind to do so.

  6. Lew on July 13th, 2009 at 19:21

    Nicholas,

    It seems you’re trying to argue one of two things; either the Bush jr administration and its 2008 presidential campaign was not an administration marked by racism, moral hypocrisy and corporate theft; or that the Bush jr administration and subsequent presidential campaign was not genuinely representative of the Republican Party. Which is it?

    L

  7. Pablo on July 13th, 2009 at 20:23

    Nicholas:
    Tell me something about the GOP that I do not know. Had you paid attention to the next to last paragraph you would have noticed that I have concerns about the Democrats as well. Or is it you who are too blind to see? If you think things are well with the GOP you are seriously deluded–come to think of it, sort of like Palin is.

    Lew: he is either stirring or blinded by partisan delusion, hence his inability to discern the fundamental flaw in his comment that you have nicely pointed out.

    QtR: The Democrats may be a poor alternative, but they do not engage in the morality-preaching, bible-thumping jingoism that is the stock in trade of the GOP. Or did you miss the theme of their last presidential campaign?

  8. Ian Llewellyn on July 13th, 2009 at 21:15

    I don’t know enough about US politics to comment, but I have noticed an interesting thing watching politics here and in America and the “feedback” effect in both areas amongst partisan supporters.
    The republicans seem to have been captured by ever more rabid parts of their wider church as they talk endlessly amongst themselves, endlessly reinforcing their prejudice.
    The rise of the internet, blogs etc seems to have sped up and intensified this. A great example is the strong belief amongst rabid republicans that Obama is thick and can’t talk without an autocue.
    This is repeated endlessly amongst believers who do truly believe that everyone else is in the dark and will one day wake up and see the truth.
    This is despite the fact that anyone who watches the president in an ad lib situation can see he is thoughtful and speaks very well.
    Same goes on in NZ
    Listen to the “feedback” on the left wing blog sites and John Key is a liar, with a secret agenda and no policy at the same time, who is out to screw NZ.
    This is endlessly repeated amongst the believers who reinforce each others belief.
    Most even minded people would just say wtf are you talking about.
    The same amongst the Nats, the endlessly repeated mantra of corruption, self-interest, cabals etc in the run up to the last election was terrifying to any reasonable person but perfectly plausible to those talking amongst themselves.
    The feedback loop amongst true believers on all sides of the spectrum has definitely intensified in recent times, it will be interesting too see how it plays out.

  9. Lew on July 13th, 2009 at 22:03

    Ian, you’re absolutely right.

    Shrinking barriers to entry to the democratic sphere have lead to exponential growth in the quantity of discourse, which leads to choice fatigue among participants (honestly, who has time to read ALL of the internets?). Choice fatigue leads to people adopting opinion proxies instead of developing coherent opinions of their own, and they choose those proxies largely on partisan grounds. This has always happened, just the mode changes. It’s what agenda setting theory is all about, and why talk has been about the highest-rating political medium for generations. But the shrinking barriers to entry lead to a rhetorical arms race among competing pundits, where cut-through is king, and one achieves cut-through by saying clear, decisive, memorable stuff which is most likely more bluster than it is substance.

    This has been pretty thoroughly thrashed out in some circles but not really in the ‘sphere where it is most evident. One such thrashing is Jon Johansson’s excellent and reflexive “The Problem of Partisan Noise“. I keep meaning to get a copy of Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain; it sounds like the sort of thing everyone who takes their political loyalties seriously should read.

    L

  10. Tom Semmens on July 14th, 2009 at 09:25

    Like most places, New Zealand picks up on trends from the United States, and our right wing is no exception. The acolytes of unreason here take their cue from what they see and hear on Fox News, and adopt the same tone and language, albeit hollowed out of any real threat. Some of this permeates through to more “reputable” right wingers here as well. I was listening to Matthew Hooten yesterday, and as I listened to his juvenile gaming of any and every issue I was struck at how ingrained and reflexive this “gaming the issue” response is in the US right and, by extension, those who take their political fashion from that source.

    It occurred to me that this perhaps points to the heart of the problem of the GOP, namely they have now hopelessly conflated style with form. They’ve totally confused political campaign rhetoric with the subsequent reality of governing. For many (most?) in the Republican Party a toxic mix of irresponsible politicking, religious intolerance, economic extremism and almost comical nationalism means that the means of attaining government have become an end unto itself.

  11. Quoth the Raven on July 14th, 2009 at 13:37

    Pablo – There is more to moral hypocrisy than engaging in “morality-preaching, bible-thumping jingoism” or don’t you get that? Don’t be such a condescending……

  12. Pablo on July 14th, 2009 at 13:48

    QtR: Nothing condescending at all in my reply. I would agree that all (US) politics is ultimately about the art of hypocrisy writ large, but I find it difficult to believe that you would not see the difference between the GOP and the Democrats when it comes to the “do as I say, not as I do” issue.

  13. Quoth the Raven on July 14th, 2009 at 14:30

    I do see the difference, but there is still moral hypocrisy from the Democrats it’s just different from the moral hypocrisy of the Republicans. That’s why I said there’s more to moral hypocrisy than just “morality-preaching, bible-thumping jingoism”
    On a related note one of the most disturbing things in american politics is they seemingly can’t get into any prominent position without professions of faith and PR shots of them going to church or an endorsement from a religious leader and such.

  14. Pablo on July 14th, 2009 at 14:48

    QtR: I agree on that score. The sight of Obama picking a “home” church for his presidency (to say nothing of having joined Jeremiha Wright’s church as a political move in the early stages of his career), or of the Clinton’s bowing in prayer makes me want to gag. At least Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) is true to his open socialist orientation and admits to being an atheist (he has been re-elected a dozen times). If only were there a few more honest pols like him on the Hill!

  15. Ag on July 15th, 2009 at 06:03

    In that spirit I am compelled to ask a few questions myself. Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller? Why does it not have any responses or initiatives to counter the Obama administration’s projects on a variety of fronts? Why does it continue to cater to religious extremists, social bigots and media charlatans? Why does it allow Dick Cheney, of all people, to be the defender of the faith? Why is it mired in McCarthyite fear of “socialism” or “communism?” Why does it deny any wrong done by the Bush 43 administration, be it the constitutional subversions of the “war on terror,” the trillion dollar national debt, the national financial melt down or the erosion of US international prestige and power? Why does its de facto leaders openly call for Obama’s downfall, in an abject display of disloyal opposition? Why does it not see the need to undergo serious self-examination and rejuvination along new ideological lines given the abject failures of the Bush 43 administration and the electoral massacre suffered in 2008?

    Read Robert Altemeyer’s work on authoritarianism and you will have your answer (a short ebook is available on the net, but his best book is “The Authoritarian Specter”). IMHO you can’t understand contemporary left/right politics without having a grasp of his work, although it is fairly depressing, since there is not much that can be done about it.

    The Republican Party is now more or less the authoritarian party. Right wingers attempt to deny this, but the peer reviewed evidence is there.

  16. Uroskin on July 15th, 2009 at 12:31

    Why is it that the Republican Party is the party of moral hypocrites, racists and corporate thieves? What happened to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller?

    You’ll find the line from Lincoln to Rockefeller much longer and convoluted than the straightforward path the GOP took from Nixon/Agnew to Bush/Cheney

  17. Pablo on July 15th, 2009 at 22:24

    Uro: The line may have been convoluted but it was a genuine reflection of the majority Right debates of the times. As such it reflected the compendium of right-leaning ideas put into political practice. The current GOP is, well, dysfunctional if not fraticidal.

Leave a Reply

Name: (required)
Email: (required) (will not be published)
Website:
Comment: