America in the dark
There was something decidedly symbolic about the darkness that descended last week across a broad swathe of the United States. Power outages on that scale and of a comparable duration are extremely rare even in Pakistan. In the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free such things are simply not supposed to happen. Not in the 21st century.
But they do. The long-term energy crisis in California - which qualifies as the world's sixth-largest economy - testifies to the shortcomings of advanced capitalism. The Enron scandal served as a reminder of where fervent worship of the profit motive, to the exclusion of more or less everything else, can lead. It also shone a bit of light on the ties that bind the present White House clique to some of the nation's unpleasant test corporations.
Fallout from the Enron collapse could have proved considerably more painful for the Bush administration had fate not intervened in the shape of the psychopaths who ploughed packed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That's when the darkness that had previously only been hinted at truly set in.
Since then, many of America's worst tendencies - ignorance, aggression, paranoia, xenophobia and racism, among others - have constantly been on display. Once the initial shock at the enormity of September 11 had worn off, the opposite qualities also began to emerge, climaxing in the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded the unprovoked and unwarranted attack on Iraq.
Although George W. Bush hasn't been embroiled in the sort of controversy that threatens to sink his co-conspirator on the other side of the Atlantic, but the lies he told about the threat posed by Iraq haven't gone unchallenged. The trouble is that when Bush pleads ignorance, most people tend to believe him. His aides, on the other hand, know perfectly well what they are doing and why they are doing it. A truth pill or two down the throat of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell would yield the details of a conspiracy that would make the Watergate era seem like an age of innocence.
There is little danger, however, of Dubya facing impeachment - a prospect that Richard Nixon pre-empted by resigning, while Bill Clinton was confronted with the process for completely frivolous reasons. Although leading a nation into all-out war for patently absurd reasons may be not just an impeachable but a treasonable offence, the post-9/11 darkness makes it a charge impossible to pursue through Congress.
It is extremely unlikely that any of the darkness will be relieved in the event of Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor of California on October 7.
The action star's candidacy has attracted a great deal of flak from both left and right in the couple of weeks since he ended months of speculation by announcing his decision to run.
Among other things, it is said that Schwarzenegger is inarticulate. That is perfectly true, and helps to explain why his starring roles involve a minimum of dialogue. As fellow Hollywood stalwart Robin Williams puts it, "Arnold Schwarzenegger has acted in plenty of movies but spoken less dialogue than any actor, except maybe Lassie." Gubernatorial responsibilities are, obviously, saying something more than "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby".
On the other hand, if the president of the US can be as poor a communicator as Dubya Bush, underdeveloped speech skills seem to be an unfair reason for denying Arnie his goal. It's also worth remembering that although Ronald Reagan - another Hollywood leading man who served as governor of California before his successful tilt at the presidency - was dubbed the Great Communicator by his acolytes, he tended to spout nonsense whenever he wasn't reading from a script.
His political inexperience, which led Schwarzenegger, in the first few days of his candidacy, to respond to awkward questions with "I don't want to go into that right now" or by pretending his earphones weren't working, simply suggests that his learning curve will have to be sharper than that of most other aspirants for high political office.
Nor should the fact that he is a film star with minimal acting prowess necessarily be a negative. It is perhaps inevitable that celebrities seeking public office attract above-average publicity and scrutiny. But actors - good, bad and indifferent - clearly have as much right as members of any other profession to contest elections. If anything, acting abilities should be considered a plus; after all, politicians are frequently called upon to memorize transcripts that belong in the realm of pure fiction.
Perhaps the problem is that it is invariably the relatively untalented actors who opt for this sort of change of career. Reagan was more or less at the end of his tether as a B-movie star when he switched to politics, banking on his reputation as a virulent anti-communist through the 1950s, particularly during his tenure as head of the actors' union. Schwarzenegger, too, hasn't lately been driving them crazy at the box office.
There may just be scope for one more sequel in the Terminator series, but beyond that it's hard to envisage Arnie's pulling power stretching to elderly roles. Then again, the reaction to poor talent seeking other avenues of guaranteeing a place in history may have something to do with the fact that skilled and ostensibly intelligent actors - Marlon Brando or Robert Redford, for example - almost never opt for politics.
It's not because they're apolitical or indifferent: Brando has over the years identified strongly with Native American and Afro-American causes, whereas Martin Sheen, who plays a liberal and erudite president of the US in the popular television series The West Wing, proved so effective as an anti-war activist earlier this year that the NBC was inundated with calls to sack him.
But when viewed in the context of a bunch of neo-fascists in Washington pretending to be neo-conservatives, the prospect of Schwarzenegger as the governor of California doesn't sound like such a big deal. Besides, somewhat to his credit, Arnie has infuriated the extreme right through what they regard as an unacceptably liberal stance on matters such as abortion, gay rights and (despite his generally trigger-happy screen persona) gun control. He also considered Clinton's impeachment an unnecessary embarrassment. And to top it all, he's married to John F. Kennedy's niece.
All this more than sufficed for the obnoxious but highly influential radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to dismiss Arnie as an unacceptable aspirant to Reagan's mantle. The likes of Limbaugh and his print-media co-ideologist Anne Coulter are evidently less disturbed by Arnie's reputation as something of a sexual predator.
Another skeleton in Schwarzenegger's cupboard is the fact that his father, an Austrian policeman, was a card-holding Nazi. However, possibly because he had a political career in mind, the actor paid the Simon Wiesenthal Center to investigate his father's role during the Nazi era, and no evidence emerged linking Schwarzenegger Sr. to atrocities. On the other hand, Arnie displayed few qualms about publicly embracing former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim even after it had emerged that the latter was a war criminal.
Schwarzenegger didn't have to go through the usual process of primaries because the upcoming poll is a special election, based on a provision in Californian law that allows a certain proportion of voters to "recall" an elected official in the event of his or her failure to come up to expectations.
The unfortunate incumbent in this case happens to be a colorless Democrat called Gray Davis who is renowned for his fund-raising abilities but has little else to his credit. He is accused of being primarily responsible for California's $38 billion deficit. That perception ought to have prevented his re-election last November, but his luck has evidently held. Until now.
There are upward of 500 candidates in the fray. They include pornographer Larry Flynt and several other minor celebrities, but no notable politicians - and no one comes close to Schwarzenegger in terms of image or name recognition. The person with the highest number of votes wins; there are no run-offs involved. If current opinion polls are anything to go by, the steroid-munching, iron-pumping former Mr. Universe should barely need to move a muscle in order to be catapulted into the governor's mansion.
But six weeks is, of course, a long time in politics, and a great deal could go wrong for Arnie before October 7. If elected, apart from being rigorously tested in the administrative realm, he'll face an uphill struggle in getting other politicians and bureaucrats to take him seriously. More ominously, there are suspicions that the Terminator has something more than the governorship of California in mind (although he can't run for the presidency by virtue of having been born Austrian). He once told in a magazine interview: "You have to create a need for yourself, build yourself up. While their empire goes on, slowly, without realizing it, build your own little fortress. And all of a sudden it's too late for them to do anything about it."
That sounds like a B-movie plot. Whatever it might mean, and whether or not Schwarzenegger wins on October 7, he clearly can't be expected to make Americans see the light. The question is: Who can? And if there's anyone out there capable of reversing the darkness, will she or he be kind enough to stand up and make themselves known well ahead of November 2004?
Topics: California, Enron, George W. Bush, Government And Politics
As English is my first language, by the will of Allah, I wish to speak it well. As for Arnold, I would imagine that he could correctly pronounce the name of Jehovah.
Hail YHWH! That's hail - with an 'EYE' sound.
But what sayest thou? I bid thee peace.