Beware the Man on the White Horse

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November 10, 2008

It nearly happened in 2004 when I watched him speak at the Democratic National Convention. It nearly happened again when I watched him address tens of thousands of screaming supporters at the 2008 convention. It tempted me -- oh, temptation! -- during his performance at the debates. I really had to hold myself back when I saw the crowd in Times Square going wild upon hearing of his big win. But it was when Jesse Jackson appeared on the TV with tears in his eyes that I finally gave in. I couldn't help but rush for some tissues to dry my own flooded eyes, choked up and ecstatic in spite of myself over the election of the first black President of the US, racism finally ending, fundamental reform and Change finally coming to America, a new dawn rising...

OK, not really. Actually, I'm probably the only person I know who didn't worship at the altar of Obama this year. Instead I've learned to beware the man on the white horse.

Following this week's media coverage of Obama's election has been an exercise in resisting a triumph of sentimentality and emotional appeals over reason and the real issues at hand. But resistance, while not futile, proved somewhat testing. More than any political elections I've ever seen in my 25 years, this one boiled down to cults of personality -- one cult versus the other, bold speeches, heartrending appeals, blood, sweat and tears, glittering generalities, heroic mantras, more tears, inspiring words about change and bringing people together and the common good, even more inspiring life stories, an appeal to Hope, more tears...and not a hint of real substance to back all this up.

To be fair, Obama talks a good talk and ran a good campaign, but the only positive thing I can really say about him is that he might not launch a nuclear holocaust on Iran and provoke another 9/11. And that's a big might.

I don't like sentimentality in my politics. I'm a hard-nosed, rational man of the issues. And on the issues, neither of the two officially-approved candidates really proved that they "get it", whether it's increasing encroachments of state power, the root causes of the economic crisis (an unsustainable corporatist/state-capitalist system), imperialistic wars being fundamentally wrong no matter if it's a Democrat or Republican waging them, the perils of letting governments legislate morality and subsidize corporations and undermine communities in taking care of their own, etc. McCain of course has been selling out to the neocons for the better part of a decade, and Obama not only supported the $700 billion corporate bailout, he hasn't exactly been a firebrand against the White House and telecoms spying on Americans, he hasn't shown nearly the pioneering guts of his fellow Democrat Dennis Kucinich in opposing the war, and he shows no understanding of how government and central banking created this economic mess we're in. Ron Paul was the only major candidate talking intelligently on these issues, and we saw where that ended up.

Despite the facts, it's easy to see why so many would choose to send him to the White House. Having the neocons and their grubby poster-boy George W. Bush around for eight years wasn't fun at all. Bloody wars, corruption, attacks on our liberties, economic brinkmanship, a stream of lies and justifications and overall dishonesty, broken promises, staggering incompetence, and the most unpopular President in US history, a man whose mental capacities lead us to fear for the gene pool; all of these would lead someone to hope for a hero to deliver them from the mess. Apparently they think Obama is that hero. Commentators have been saying repeatedly that Obama's campaign changed the tone of political elections. And it's true that Obama posing as Mr. Nice Guy, an honest, straightforward man who eschews negativity in order to solve our problems and help us get along again, excited people after eight years of torture in the Fourth Circle of Hell.

But I tell you: beware the man on the white horse.

In times of crisis, uncertainty and strife, people don't often respond to "cool" rational appeals; they respond to "warm" emotional ones. The War on Terror, like the election, is another recent example of how these appeals -- sentimental mush, inspiring platitudes, imagery and unsubstantiated media hype -- can be used to win people over by appealing to fear, anxiety, a sense of desperation, yet-unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, and a missing sense of greater purpose. Reagan did it in 1980, FDR did it in 1932, Charles DeGaulle did it in 1958, Hugo Chavez did it in 1998, Lenin did it in 1917.  Then as now, in troubling times, we want someone or something to deliver us from our troubles and inspire us and bring justice to the downtrodden and lift up our hearts. We'll take anybody, we'll take anything, just as long as we feel that our Savior will come through for us. It doesn't matter what the facts are. Our hero could be a sell-out like McCain for all we care. Or, like Obama, our hero could offer vague generalities, poorly-conceived plans, inadequate solutions, and endless appeals to Hope (for what?), Change (how?) and "Yes we can!" (can do what?), despite his record lacking either a distinctive reformist streak or bold assaults on attacks on civil liberties and Wall Street's economic terrorism.

But I tell you: beware the man on the white horse.

Despite Obama's insistence that the government can't solve all our problems, the modern social-democratic State and its agents do sustain themselves by encouraging an almost religious zeal at times. To the more fervent believers, the State knows better than you what to eat, what medical decisions to make, what schools to go to, who to marry, how much money or energy you should consume, what TV shows your kids should watch, who to do business with, which foreigners you ought to dislike, and so on. Social problems? Just knock on doors, attend a few rallies, go to the polls one day and voila! -- all fixed! And watch with glee as our Patriot missiles blow up thousands of brown-skinned Terrorists to smithereens! Forget about decentralized, local, community-based methods of social organization, direct action to solve problems and address injustice, and the proven capacity of the market to lift more people out of poverty and ignorance than any primitive collectivist or unsustainable corporatist arrangement ever could. No, you'd be helpless without us!

But I tell you: beware the man on the white horse.

I don't have any heroes. I don't need any. And neither should you. If somebody can pose themselves as a hero and sell you a sense of salvation (half-baked though it be), then they own your mind and they own you, for you are in debt to them, and you are beholden to them. More than any aspect of the political, economic, or social system, it is this kind of psychological domination that the lover of liberty recognizes and opposes with every fiber of his being. The man on the white horse brings no real 'change'; he serves to distract your passions and lure you back into the fold so that you don't demand real, radical change.

The hype over Obama's campaign and election victory isn't just a mere triumph of style over substance; it shows how the State and its agents use sentimentality and vacuous emotional appeals to play on people's desperation and win back their hearts and minds, despite its demonstrable failures, inadequacies, and abuses. If the past eight years under Bush have showcased many of the Leviathan State 's shortcomings, the next four years will show how they try to compensate for them and win back people's unwitting fervor. And that makes me want to cry harder than Jesse Jackson and Oprah did at Grant Park on Tuesday night.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at