Through the Glasses Darkly

Through the Glasses Darkly

When the hero of John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live puts on a pair of weird sunglasses that he has stumbled upon in an abandoned church, he notices a billboard that once invited us to a Hawaii beach holiday now simply displays the words:

“MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” Ad copy on another billboard – this one for a new color TV – says, “DON’T THINK, CONSUME!”

The glasses, then, function as a device for the critique of ideology. In other words, they enable him to see the real message lying beneath the glossy, colorful surface.

What would we see if we were to observe the Republican presidential campaign through such glasses?The first thing would be a long series of contradictions and inconsistencies:

• Their call to reach across party lines – while waging the cultural war politics of “us” against “them.”

• Their warning that the candidates’ family life should be off limits – while parading their families on stage.

• Their promises of change – while offering the same old programs (lower taxes and less social welfare, a belligerent foreign policy, etc.).

• Their pledge to reduce state spending – while incessantly praising President Reagan. (Recall Reagan’s answer to those who worried about the exploding debt: “It is big enough to take care of itself.”)

• Their accusations that Democrats privilege style over substance – which they deliver at perfectly staged media events.

The next thing we would see is that these and other inconsistencies are not a weakness, but a source of strength for the Republican message. Republican strategists masterfully exploit the flaws of liberalism: Its patronizing “concern” for the poor that is combined with a thinly disguised indifference toward – if not outright contempt for – blue-collar workers, and its politically correct feminism that is usually combined with an underlying mistrust of women in power. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a hit on both counts, parading both her working-class husband and her femininity.

The earlier generations of women politicians (Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and even, up to a point, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton) were what can be referred to as “phallic” women. They acted as “iron ladies” who imitated and tried to outdo male authority, to be “more men than men themselves.”


They Live (1988)

They Live (1988)

IMDb | Amazon | Blu-Ray

So, back to Carpenter’s They Live. To get the true Republican message, one should take into account not only what is said but what is implied.

Where we hear the message of populist frustration over Washington gridlock and corruption, the glasses would show a condoning of the public’s refusal to understand: “We allow you NOT to understand – so have fun, vent your frustration! We will take care of business. We have enough behind-the-scenes experts who can fix things. In a way, it’s better for you not to know.” (Recall Vice President Dick Cheney’s hints at the dark side of power, as he successfully orchestrated an expansion of presidential executive power.)

And where the message is the promise of change, the glasses would show something like this: “Don’t worry, there will be no real change, we just want to change some small things to make sure that nothing will really change.” The rhetoric of change, of troubling Washington’s stagnant waters, is a permanent Republican staple. (Recall former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s populist anti-Washington rise to power in 1994.)

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on October 29th, 2008. (full text).]

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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