Ch-ch-ch-changes

There are some good and meaty comments about the emptiness of Barack Obama’s change rhetoric at Comment is Free, where I crossposted my remarks from below, and also on Eamonn Fitzgerald’s blog. First, Eamonn:

The Austrian novelist Robert Musil began writing his masterpiece The Man without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) in 1921 and was still working on it when he died in 1942. The three-book work is set in a country called Kakania, a parody of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the story includes a patriotic movement called Parallel Action, which is devoted to the “redemptive idea”. The leaders of the movement evoke it constantly in the vaguest terms because they have no idea what it means or how it might be applied. One of the group’s most ridiculous figures is General Stumm, a man who has almost no experience with ideas. Despite this drawback, he is determined to discover the “redemptive idea” before anyone else, and with the utmost efficiency. Says Stumm: “It turns out that there are lots of great ideas, but only one of them can be the greatest — that’s only logical, isn’t it? — so it’s a matter of putting them in order.”

In his excellent essay “Exhuming Robert Musil”, Ted Gioia says that the protagonist Ulrich “… changes his ideas with the ease of an actor learning a new role. He is prone to making sweeping statements, such as: ‘In times to come, when more is known, the word ‘destiny’ will probably have acquired a statistical meaning.’ His eloquence and ability to turn a phrase are stunning, yet his ideas never cohere into a philosophy or a belief system. They are as ephemeral as a passing storm.”

Is the mantra of “change” the “redemptive idea” of our times? Jeff Jarvis now hates the word.

From Comment is Free, Ebert says:

The word means exactly nothing. Every tinpot workplace has a ‘change programme’ with a ‘change director’ and a ‘change manager’… everyone has to ‘embrace change’ and ‘show a commitment to change’. Nothing changes but the organisation often gets ‘restructured’, putting any real work back for six months while those who have still got jobs (which they have had to re-apply for) get used to the new structure. The word seems to have crept in since the fall of the Soviet Union to give the illusion that capitalism is ‘going forward’ (another empty useless expression).

Polygram says:

Obama is a fantastic example of the hollow man, the tabula rosa on which the campaign consultants can write whatever script they wish, and Obama, with no idea what the hell it means, will deliver it in just that kitsch and florid way so beloved in American campaign rhetoric.

Yesterday says:

I worked in a place where a ‘change director’ was appointed who had come from a deadbeat job at a bank. We called him the ‘small change director’. ‘Embracing change’ always made me think of Alcoholics Anonymous and a lot of the training techniques seem to have come from that body.

Christopherhawtree:

The word “change” is of course always on the lips of Gordon Brown. But the past decade has shown that “change” can simply mean misdirected busyness; apparent change is in fact stasis. Real change is not announced but happens as a result of more complex social and artistic forces than any such proclamations can engender.

Chewtoy:

If they’re not referring to the Buddhist and quantum theory notion that all matter is in constant flux, then surely they must mean by “change” that they’ll change to a totally different story once they get elected.

Edwardrice:

“What is most important in the age of Change is not change itself but continuity in change and change in continuity”
(The Collected Thoughts of Comrade Brown) – Private Eye

Giuseppeh:

t’s all about subconscious associations. By saying the word enough and having it on as many banners surrounding the candidate, each of them hope to become that brand.

Of course it would be great if we lived in an adult world in which issues were discussed, candidates gave us their specific points of view on each and every major issue facing our world and people listened and analysed.

Of course it would be great if the advertising men didn’t dominate the political stage as they dominate the commercial stage in our world, peddling people like honda cars.

But we live in this world and people do respond to ridiculously simple subconscious messages, people are like five-year-olds asking their mum for the latest transformer toy for christmas because they saw it in the adverts between a postman pat cartoon.

We live in this idiotic world, in which people are just going to get dissappointed later on, like the kid who gets bored with his new, flashy transformer toy after five minutes and then realises christmas doesn’t come every day.

  • http://www.stefsphotography.co.uk Stefano Buliani

    I don’t live in the US but have followed the last three elections with interest (starting from the first Bush jr).

    Being a programmer I do appreciate Obama’s approach to technology issues more than the part-ideas-part-cliché expressed by all the other candidates. (http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/11/26/qa-with-senator-barack-obama-on-key-technology-issues/)

    As far as rhetoric goes I can honestly say that I find each and every candidate absolutely appalling.
    Having listened to all their important speeches this is the only thing that comes to mind: “I have never heard such a tawdry epitaph to intelligence.”
    Well, except for Mr Berlusconi in Italy perhaps.

    Is Mr Obama really a pink tablet? I think what Polygram meant was “tabula rasa”.

  • Harry

    When reading these diatribes against “change,” one should remember Jeff has previously announced his support of Hillary. His rants against the use of “change” all translate to “Damn it! Obama’s whipping Hillary’s ass! This isn’t supposed to be happening!!” The wind has shifted against Hillary, and to Hillary supporters like Jeff it all seems so. . . . . . . unfair. Jeff’s post above is just a tantrum he’s throwing, much like Hillary’s little crying jag yesterday. Both will get over it in time.

    It’s true Obama is something of a hologram—-he looks real, but nothing’s really there. But he’s someone you can feel comfortable with, in contrast to Hillary (you get the strong feeling someone like Hillary inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like a Woman”). While Obama’s accomplishments are indeed modest and obscure, Hillary’s main accomplishments were essentially keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of Bill’s serial infidelities. Big wow. . . .

    While neither Hillary nor Obama deserve to be president, the Republican crew is even more depressing than those two. It’s going to be a long, cruel year!

  • Mike

    Obsessed much? Breath big fella…

  • http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/ Andy Oram

    Candidates have to spout a lot of rhetoric they disdain. All the candidates have worked hard in real government and positions and know the tough thinking and negotiating it takes to accomplish anything, so they must feel even more cynical than we do about the sound-bites the media and public demand from them.

    My informal take on Obama goes back to his days as an Alinsky-style community organizer. He seems to be a process-oriented guy, as opposed to program-oriented. Process is hard to sell, hard to describe before it happens, and hard to describe abstractly. So don’t blame Obama if his sound-bites sound empty.

    He’s not comfortable stating programs, and usually offers flawed ones (but who doesn’t?) when he has to. But remember, in politics, process is where it’s usually at. I believe he’d be good at process, and therefore a good president.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am probably going to cast my primary vote for Kucinich, but Obama has risen to be my top choice of the “electable” candidates.

    The focus on process over program does worry me a bit. The day Obama (maybe) takes the oath of office and sits down at his desk, he’ll be faced with program decisions. It’s quite likely that someone, somewhere in the world, will do something provocative to test the new president, and I’m not confident Obama will make the right decision. Particularly in the absence of time for a process-based approach.

  • Jeff McNeill

    Um, think you got the wrong candidate with this one. Obama has a plan and a set of policies. The candidate of “change” is ole Mitt. The changeable candidate is the one who shifts positions, the shifty candidate.

  • http://seanbyrnes.com Sean

    “Change” is another way to say “I’m going to be different”. I think the popularity of the word is directly related to the fact that we’re never happy with our politicians (until after the fact) and hence are always looking for something new. Maybe people just want to know SOMETHING will be different and it almost doesn’t matter what. That would be a sad commentary.

    I also find it interesting that people equate success in politics to experience. Experience in any profession has diminishing returns rather quickly and politics are no different. Personally, I’d prefer someone not stooped in the ways Washington works to someone with 20 years of US political experience.

  • http://www.planetabell.com John C Abell

    Missing the forest for the trees?

    Yes, “change agency” was ruined for everybody by corrupt consultants hired by even more corrupt clients to pretty-up programs intended to change nothing — sorry, make things worse.

    But dismissing change agency — in this election could be the agent is Obama, could be somebody else, could be nobody — because the word “change” has been overused and flagrantly co-opted (by … Hillary? Romney? Name-of-CEO-you-hate-here?) strikes me as spectacularly disingenuous.

  • http://blog-o-blog.com Zac Echola

    Every campaign has stupid cute talking points. Edwards has Two Americas, Obama has Hope, Clinton has Mammoths. But I really, really hate it when people get hung up on these slogans. It doesn’t surprise me that a large group of kneejerk blog commenters fall into the traps set by sloganeers, but to argue the slogans without actually looking at the platforms? Ha! That’s taking ‘indignant moron’ to whole new level. Clearly the candidates are more than their slogans:

    http://barackobama.com/issues

    http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/

    http://www.johnedwards.com/issues/

    Read!

    Please stop being such lazy armchair politicians, people. Ugh.

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