Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy George Clooney

George Clooney has a terrible sense of timing. The Ides of March is a cynical movie for what I'm sure Clooney regards as a cynical time. His stance is understandable. The movie's corrosive pessimism - is there one person in the movie who retains an ounce of idealism by the end of it? - and bleak view of the internal workings of a Presidential primary campaign, reinforces the commonly held view that no one can be trusted, all politicians are corrupt and that the "mainstream media" is merely the opposite side of the same tarnished coin. It's a movie that the Tea Party should love.

The movie appears - here is the bad timing part - at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street is a romantic, inchoate and multi-faceted but spirited attempt to focus our attention on the deep problems of what political liberals used to write and talk about with frequency - the dirty little secret of economic class in America.

For a good discussion on the "essence" of Occupy Wall Street go to the Symposium in The New Republic at:

While tens of thousands of people are actively trying to sort their way towards an alternative economic program - hopefully one that is eventually coherently articulated and implemented - Clooney has thrown a dark, wet, suffocating blanket over any idea of creative political aspirations.

One of the central problems is that the movie is not really about politics at all. The Ides of March is really about the media. Or more precisely, about what an intelligent Hollywood liberal who comes from a media family (his father was a journalist) thinks his audience would embrace with respect to what politics and the media are "really about."

The film is bookended by the preparation for media events - a televised debate at the beginning of the film and a one-on-one interview at its end. Most of the internal machinations of the campaign directors are determined by what the evening news will say about their respective campaigns. You might be saying to yourself that "This sounds about right to me." If you are saying this, I suggest you volunteer for a political campaign. The candidates you meet will not be saints and they will tend to to bend towards the demands of the media juggernaut. But my sense is that their motivations are not far from those of non-candidates but with slightly and often more than slightly exaggerated egos.

You will also find people who actually believe in things - who fight to implement policy - who devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to getting things done - and who generally are subject to mostly unflattering portraits in the press - which is part of the job of the press in any democratic society I have to add. We all hope for a little "balance," but nobody makes anyone run for office. You basically put up your hand and say, "Ill give it a try."

The candidate that George Clooney plays in the Ides of March has few redemptive characteristics. He offers a good speech - if you think that giving platitudes a bad name is fine rhetoric. I found the character mostly smug and self-satisfied.

This raises the interesting sociological question of whether our society can actually "produce" candidates who go beyond the limits imposed by the structure (communications, financing, ideological constraints, class transformation and psychological conditioning) of society itself.

Why, for instance, can there never be another Eugene Debs that captures the genuine insurgent spirit of a particular kind of American radicalism? Debs only received six percent of the vote for his best Presidential campaign - the vast majority of Americans preferring to give their votes to candidates like William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson - but his influence went far beyond his vote totals. (For a sympathetic portrait of Debs and overall balanced view of the history of the American Left see Michael Kazin's new book, American Dreamers)

As Kazin points out - as does the book The Liberal Hour (about politics and legislative change in the 1960s), you need both dedicated political leaders and movements from below to generate significant political and economic progress.

Clooney doesn't examine these questions and it is perhaps unfair to expect him to. While apparently the play that the movie was based upon was written by a political operative of some kind, the Ides of March strikes me as an "inside look" at a high level campaign produced by someone who has never really been "inside." Imagine being used and trotted around by political campaigns, given "access" to candidates and asked to raise money but never being allowed into the meetings where the crucial decisions are being made. I'm not asking you to shed any tears for George, but this movie might be his poisoned love letter in return for all the favors.

Clooney has done a disservice to the idea that politics can make a difference for anyone other than the political candidates and consultants who make their careers and living through politics. His last "political" movie The American (see my blog below), was also without context - violence without purpose, love without connection. I hope his next movie is not an apocalyptic end-of-the-world drama.

Further Reading:

Michael Kazin - American Dreamers - How the Left Changed a Nation

G. Calvin MacKenzie & Robert Weisbrot - The Liberal Hour - Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s

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