“Heroes, Villains, and Fools”

Bruce Wolpe, an American Democrat, writes in today’s Age (24-8-2011) about similarities between current American and Australian politics. At one stage he quotes Peggy Noonan, one of Ronald Reagan’s speech writers and now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It is worth quoting in full.

“The secret of Mr Obama is that he isn’t really very good at politics, and he isn’t very good at politics because he doesn’t really get people. —–He was good at summoning hope, but he’s not good at directing it and turning it into something concrete that answers a broad public desire. —- He is not a devil, an alien, a Socialist. He is a loser. And this in America, where nobody love a loser.”

Noonan is simply joining the army of American assessments, from all political persuasions, attempting to explain what went wrong with the Obama Administration. It’s not even particularly relevant here to remember she writes in yet another Murdoch paper. I am interested solely in her final comment “He is a loser. And this in America, where nobody loves a loser.”

This to me has been an increasingly fatal flaw for any American politician let alone a President because it taps into one of the most pervasive and pernicious middle class mores in that country. I learned this first over fifty years ago when I read, with increasing distaste, a book “Heroes,Villains and Fools” by Orrin Klapp. It said so much about three sets of internalised moral judgments of Americans about their fellow Americans. Each evoking powerful, deep emotions. Unfortunately I no longer have a copy of the book so I can only hint at what the author argues about the pervasive and dominating presence of these three classifications of people.

A hero can be found in so many ways and moods and actions: and in its diversity, each has one basis quality: being a winner, a success. And no further qualification is allowed. A hero can have no fault, no blemish. Hero-worship is the critical public quality.

The villain again comes in a wide range of dress and, again, seen unqualified beyond a strong sense of repulsion.

It was the classification of fool which was the book’s greatest surprise. I wonder now as I did then, is this stereotype particular to America? I sense it could well be. The fool is the loser; the person shallowly seen as ‘good’ or ‘decent’ but who in fact is a failure. Once again the judgment is powerfully driven; the villain is to be condemned, despised and dismissed as a complete nobody, a fool deluding himself and others by some superficial quality. A veneer which may have fooled for a moment, but which is now seen through, and the judgment is made even stronger for the momentary delusion.
No longer worth concern; nor his downfall to be pitied.

Just as the poor, the wretched, the weak disappears from all public view, so will an emperor without clothes be brushed aside.

The dominant American culture is a nasty one in this regard. It is fundamentalist in its judgments. There are no grades, attenuating circumstances. You are a hero, sitting in glory about the gods, and never to be seen wanting. Or you are a villain, deserving nothing less than destruction. Or you are a fool to be ignored, cast into the sea of the unseen.

Obama, momentarily before his presidency became political was a hero. If he had succeeded in any one of his big challenges he would have become, to many, a villain, and possibly to be assassinated. He was never strong enough to win any of the critical battles and to many who either hated him or loved him turned slowly but surely re-classing him a fool, a loser who, for the length of his presidency will be but a shadow to be dismissed.