It’s always important to zoom out a bit for a little healthy dose of perspective and context. Art is about the teeny, tiny microfilaments to be examined in the technique, manipulation and delivery of story and image, but also about the macro sociopolitical spiciness art inspires us to examine. Ultimately if art, and in this case cinema, can’t speak to larger truths in the real world then what the hell is the point really? Don’t get me wrong, pure hedonistic entertainment is all good and well, but that’s what Judge Judy and Lindsay Lohan are for. We’ll get back to our ongoing chapter analysis Tuesday when we deep dive into the incredibly profound Chapter 4 where the tears start flowing for the first time. In the meantime lets take our shots of vertigo together and zoom out a little.
Contextualizing the world through the fictional reality of House of Cards
Frank Underwood, as we’ve come to understand, is emblematic of the tragedy of contemporary American politics. One of Frank’s central flaws is that he sees himself unbeholden to the whims of those he manipulates. Except there does seem to be blind spots in his thinking. For one his relationship with the press (personified by Zoe) will evolve into an antagonistic relationship of cat and mouse. The press is always after the good story, and the greatest story is one of downfall. Particularly the downfall of our leaders who we deem corrupt and acting in the interests of anything and everybody besides those they represent. That story is the one the press is really interested in and eventually it’s going to come back and bite Frank in the ass. Does he see it coming? Perhaps.
Another blind spot is Frank’s relationship with his corporate financiers, embodied by SANCORP and their publicist lackey Remy Danton). This is a blind spot that he may feel he can also manipulate. It’s important to contextualize the relationship between corporate America and politicians, because in doing so we can understand how the financial crisis of 2007/08 resulted in the fleecing of billions of taxpayer shekels.
In The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Nial Ferguson tells us that the relationship between massive conglomerates, foreign and domestic, with political representatives in Congress and The White House are more vital to understanding the post-Great Recession era than ever before. According to Ferguson, a transference has occurred in terms of where the vulnerability to the world’s financial system lies. It used to exist in tin-pot proto-democracies or neo-fascist autocracies in the Pacific Rim, Eastern Europe or in Sub-Continental Asia. Financial crisis on the ‘periphery’ used to create a relatively small ripple effect on the North American home front. But ever since the crash of 07/08, what’s apparent is that the epicenter of the world’s financial earthquakes will come from its economic cores: America and its political and economic allies in the West.
The credit crisis, the collapse of major financial institutions, fraud at the highest echelons of corporate and political power, the downgrading of the US credit rating, the ‘fiscal cliff’, the slow, creaking collapse of the European Union, chaos in Greece, Ireland, Spain and Italy and now the ‘End-of-World’ alien mother ship that is (whisper it) the Sequester. Politicians have been in bed with corporations for so long that the hens are coming home to roost. Meanwhile the periphery is laughing at us, and asking for their money back too.
Occasionally I find those of us on the left rather sanctimonious about our outrage vis-à-vis shadow governance by major corporations and lobbyists. Corporations are visibly embedded into North American political culture and they make no apologies while not feeling particularly keen to hide it. Often, like most things meaningful, its sub textual. Case in point, Beyonce singing the national anthem at the Inaugural. Beyonce, Oprah, Bono, Sean Penn or whichever celebrity you want to troll out is a living and breathing corporation standing to gain, contribute and lose millions. This is all about brand building and behind every brand in America is a monolith cashing a cheque. Sony, EMI, WMA, Pepsi, Disney, etc. Yes, I hate to burst your bubble but, even Oprah is to blame. Especially Oprah.
The inaugural isn’t the only political half-time show. Look at the Kennedy Centre honours, always giving a big to do about half-baked pop-culture icons like Led Zeppelin, Letterman, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman. These people are important in of themselves and for what they do, but important doesn’t mean crucial. Shouldn’t these honours be reserved for our high-caliber crucial contributors to society like scientists, composers, literary icons, thinkers, teachers, parents, writers, philosophers and tireless charitable workers and activists?
Throwing Natalia Makarova, vaunted ballet dancer, who’s name became a punch-line in the late night circuit, along side a rock band, a late night host and God knows who else speaks volumes about what is valued by the American public. Not only does it tell the world what we value most, it speaks volumes to the choosy double standards of the American left. Shouldn’t revered artists and thinkers without a brand and a corporation behind their name be given a space to sing, talk, and contribute to an event like the inauguration? Of course they should and occasionally they do. But they don’t because, surprise, politicians care about ratings too.
So the Frank/SANCORP relationship is a neat little analogy for who-rules-who and we shouldn’t consider it merely a tip of the hat from a narrative standpoint. SANCORP plays a big role by end of Season 1, but I can imagine a scenario in Season 2 where their interests clash heavily with Frank’s own. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of hell is unleashed by either side if and when that happens.
Re-centering on “context” for a moment, before we move on it’s important you watch this and pay attention not only to the content but to the implications it makes about how human beings perceive reality. This video is a great socio-psychological revelation with deep philosophical underpinnings, as well as a simple economic breakdown of the financial disparity in America:
Sequester me this, Sequester me that
The real-world implications of massive spending cuts aside, the Sequester rivals doomsday scenarios that accompanied the worst of the Y2K phenomenon years ago (what a bust that was). The sequester fascinates me because of one reason: Gamesmanship. Watching Frank navigate his way to passing Education Reform in HoC we get a glimpse into the politicking that festers behind the forming of the laws that govern our lives. No one involved really cares about Education Reform more than they do about what looks like Education Reform. The same can be said of the fiscal crisis that has given birth to the tweedle dee and tweedle dum of tax hikes and spending cuts. No boy really cares about deficit reduction in as much as what looks like deficit reduction. Of course when you’re playing the game of optics, the only currency that works is resounding and hyperbolic rhetoric to stir everyone into a apocalyptic frenzy. The denizens are not interested in the ‘now’, but they are looking ahead to what their votes, maneuverings, compromises and relative successes will gain them in the jostling for power and influence. It’s not just a bleeding heart liberal claim to suggest that politicians don’t really care about the masses; it’s also a real-politiknik’s chief fall back.
The education reform bill hijinks (a bunch of post-grads in a room for days drafting up a bill sounds about right) is emblematic of the sequester/fiscal cliff debacle. It’s about gamesmanship: Throw something together kids, no one outside of this room is going to read that ten-thousand page document anyway so just get it done! Sometimes I wonder how many articles, jargon, legal loopholes, swear words and sexual innuendoes are hidden in the monumental amount of paperwork it took to draft the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare).
It’s all a grand game of chicken to see who will blink first without really giving much credence to the possibility that no one will blink at all. And when the calamity arrives, everybody’s going to wonder why, with eyes wide open, no one saw it coming. The amusing bit is that for the longest time Obama was lambasted by the left for being another typical Democrat unwilling to go to the hard-nosed uncompromising lengths that his counterparts on the conservative right were willing to take. Boo-hoo, “this is why the left always loses,” has been the chief complaint by many liberals along with the claim that Democrats are actually a party only just less right of center than the Republicans are while not as willing to push the other side to the limit. Well now on the second occasion in as many months, with Obama not blinking, remaining steadfast on the fiscal cliff (a battle he sort of ‘won’ – whatever winning means, I didn’t get the prize in the mail) and now on the sequester. It seems Obama the practical and uncompromising pragmatist is just as unpopular as Obama the bleeding heart socialist. Oi!bama.
After the General Election campaigning and vote came to a merciful end, anyone hinting at early discussions about 2016 or even 2014 was laughed out of room. Election overdose, in truth, gave way soon enough to the fact everyone on Capitol Hill was indeed thinking about the next elections, including the White House. Seeing no room for real progress without deep electoral losses, this whole sequester business has evolved into a Democratic Party long con to leverage the damage the Republicans suffered during the election and to continue painting them as far right, self-serving and out of touch (even though the Democrats are equally as), in the lead up to a congressional election round that Democrats hope will see a Congress swept back into the same super-majority that brought Obama into power four years ago.
This gamesmanship and the push on immigration reform, to appease a powerful Latino voting base, especially in conservative Red States, and on Gun Control is all about winning 2014 in order to ‘unclog the pipes’ and enact some ‘real change’ in the final two years of the administration. Do Democrats really believe that they can turn Red States, like Texas, blue with immigration reform? Hey, crazier things have happened.
What House of Cards is trying to say is that no one, on the right or left (if such a dichotomy really exists on Capitol Hill) is that in the long run this is all jostling for a position before the inevitable: Either real, effective financial, social and electoral reform is going to be pursued or financial collapse, dilapidated infrastructure, an innovation and brain drain partnered with a near-complete foreign dependency made only greater by sporadic civil conflict. The thinking seems to be that everyone can see the Titanic heading unrelentingly on a collision course with the ice berg and, in either scenario (sink or swim), someone’s got to be at the top and it might as well be me.
State Rights and The Death of Unions
Union leaders, like the adroitly named Teacher’s Union leader Marty Spinella, aren’t any less susceptible to corruption and finding wiggle room for power and influence. I find the Spinella character interesting and timely only because of the Wisconsin scenario in 2011 when the Teachers Union went on strike and occupied the Madison Capitol building along with tens of thousands of other public union employees asking for their slice of the Wisconsin cheese. The glory days of the unions and the clout they used to carry are long gone; partly because the majority of union employees are now public workers (teachers, firemen, civil servants, etc.) whose fates are closely tied to collective bargaining rights and tax revenue allocations.
The collective bargaining issue is touched on when Frank sneaks it into the education reform bill and Spinella initiates strike activity because the article would weaken the union’s ability to negotiate with the government. He loses the battle eventually for reasons of political survival and relevancy but also because the unions don’t have much of a leg to stand on. And in many ways the fate of the unions is linked heavily to the fate of deteriorating state rights. The centralization of fiscal power and the ability to legislate divisive social issues (immigration, gun control, health care, the minimum wage) are slowly but surely slipping out of state control. The Tea Party, while it has a place on the broad national stage, began as a movement entrenched in state rights over things like gay marriage (California), marijuana laws, racial profiling (the “Sharia Belt”?), homeland security, driver’s licenses for immigrants (Arizona) and many other social matters. On the surface all of these look like debate over moral/religious values, but the cynical history junky and political realist in me knows that deep down this is really an economic matter. I’m reminded of that saying:
“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer to every question invariably comes down to one thing: Money.”
The economic, fiscal and social autonomy of the States in the union is not a new thing to American politics. In fact it’s been an ongoing sturm und drang for decades and ever since before the Civil War. In fact, the economic sanctity of state rights was the linchpin of why seven southern states seceded from the union and formed the Confederacy in the first place. That economic sanctity was tied very much, but not exclusively to, the slave trade, state voting rights, tax laws and well, let’s face it, “Southern Culture” for lack of a better term. We see similar patterns now as various states attempt a revolt against implementation of immigration laws and “Obamacare”. Open revolt is not new, but it’s taking a more radicalized tone especially as more radical elements like The Tea Party achieve national prominence.
People chuckle about on-line petitions filed with The White House by people wanting certain states to secede from the union. A hundred thousand here, fifty thousand there and it’s all easily brushed aside as the rumblings of a crazy minority. That might be true to an extent, but I don’t think we should be laughing these people off nor do I think we should pay them too much attention. What we should do is take the spark of descent seriously and reflect on what it means when hundreds of thousands of people, as small as that is as a percentage of the total population, want out of the American Dream.
Tying back to corporate influence, it makes sense that as the SANCORPs of the world wield control over governments, that the trade unions would see themselves dissipating and fighting for scraps. And it makes sense that the weakening of Unions, among other things, would contribute to the weakening of state rights because Unions are very much linked to municipal and district governance as well as to regionally centred economic cultures.
“You Have No Rights”: Factionalism, Radicalization and the Monopoly of Violence
Those who are fortunate enough to live in functioning democracies rarely zoom back and try to fathom the notion of ‘rights’. Rights, clearly, are given and afforded even though they are marketed by our leaders as inalienable and inherent. Philosophically, yes they a might be “god given”, but practically speaking they are actually formed, given, governed, amended and enforced through laws and physical violence. Nation States, and North Americans don’t often like to look on their countries as ‘nation states’ in terms of political philosophy, exchange maintenance, governance, infrastructure, defense, taxation, liberty, management and the facilitation of trade in exchange for the allegiance of its citizens. Part of that exchange, whether we like to believe it or not, includes submitting the monopoly of violence to the state through institutions we fund from our own pockets: police, FBI, CIA, army, secret service, etc.
Political philosopher and economist Max Weber is most famous for having defined monopoly of violence as the state’s ability to legitimately use physical force against its citizens to enforce its laws. We have given the mandate over our “rights” to institutions who would ensure that we have them. Where we often trip up is when those institutions go about taking our rights away under the guise of protecting them. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Many would term the great philosopher-comedian George Carlin a neo-libertarian, and there might be some truth to that though he would probably call himself an impassive observer, if such a contradiction exists, of the grand human experiment. In terms of “zooming out”, Carlin was watching all of us from his perch some place on the moon, looking down through binoculars, taking notes, shaking his head and laughing (or crying).
Carlin said it emphatically to us countless times: “You have no rights!” Rights are ideas, figments, constructs that don’t exist in the real world in the sense that a chair, Mount Everest or a cafe latte exist in the world. They’re like numbers, we use them to measure things and contextualize what we want and justify or delegitemize behaviour like taxes, marriage, rape, colonialism, war, torture, slavery, etc. We also use them to draw up more figments that don’t actually exist in the world like borders, races, nations, ‘ownership’ over water ways, land (promised or otherwise) and basic resources. All of these things are imaginary, not unlike Casper the friendly ghost.
Carlin said you can have no rights if they can be taken away. It’s worth quoting one particular excerpt from his last HBO Special, It’s Bad For Ya:
“Now if you think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Next time you’re at the computer, get on the Internet, go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field for Wikipedia, I want you to type in “Japanese Americans 1942″ and you’ll find out all about your precious fucking rights, Okay?
All right. You know about it. In 1942, there were 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing, law-abiding people who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. That’s all they did wrong. They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their peers no right to due process of any kind. The only right they had: “Right this way” into the internment camps! Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most, their government took them away!
And rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter. You see all, sooner or later. Sooner or later, the people in this country are gonna realize the government does not give a fuck about them! The government doesn’t care about you, or your children, or your rights, or your welfare or your safety. It simply does not give a fuck about you! It’s interested in its own power. That’s the only thing. Keeping it and expanding it wherever possible.”
It’s not alarmist or fear-mongering to say that rights can be taken away because of a Monopoly of Violence that we afford the State, and when a radicalizing force threatens that Monopoly of Violence, the state reacts to put down that force. That’s just simply contextualizing ourselves against the back drop of history’s ebbs and flows and against the rise and fall of empires. America is not immune from the machinations of history now or a hundred years from now. One only has to glance at the newspaper to see collapses knocking at the doors of the most complex and advanced capitalist democracies in Europe.
This brings me to gun control, something I support outright but am also cautious about because right-wing conservative nut jobs aside, there is something to be said for the ability to protect oneself and family should the state (federal or provincial) decide to act against you, oppress your right or perhaps not protect you at all. Or worse yet, disappear all together.
Many people, especially leftists like myself, take for granted the integrity and inscrutability of the state and in particular government. But as history has shown us time and gain, governments fail and states disintegrate and in the power vacuum lays a sea of blood and guts. I know, that sounds alarmist but really I’m approaching this from a philosophical point of view and through the lens of a Frank Underwoodian paradigm on how things really are. It’s tough to come to terms with the idea that the states legitimate use of force could be used to harm me, in the same way that it might be used to help me.
Gun control, for example, is as much about getting assault weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill, domestic extremists and just the down right angry, as much as it is about a government fearful of a radicalized opposition increasingly chattering about taking up arms against the state. This is happening in America and both Republicans and Democrats fear that their gamesmanship is spurring radicals, on both right and left, to get organized and get violent. This is what happens when a political culture lacking in sincerity, pragmatism and prudence is chock full of obstructionists and power-hungry corporate puppets. In other words, the Frank Underwoods of the world, who we continue to support, could easily be our undoing by the poisoned political culture they engender in us through the media who distort and reflect back warped ideals into our communities, towns and neighbourhoods. Not to say that we as citizens are passive recipients, we’re not and are just as culpable and responsible for the quickening spiral.
The radicalization of American politics and society began the second the neo-conservatives took power in 2001 under George W. Bush. Neo-conservatives are just economic and political hyperrealists, and that’s not apologizing for them but what I want to point out is that they aren’t radicals in the sense that the Tea Party are radicals. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and all their buddies were surely brutal and lied in order to enact a policy of regime change, but they weren’t radicals per se. Radicals want to undermine an existing system and change political culture all together.
Those unrelenting neo-cons ‘occupied’, to use lefty parlance, the Republican base and perhaps inadvertently helped radicalize a huge portion of religious conservatives. The war and fear mongering really helped to stir up a well of latent anger that manifested in elements like the Tea Party and their ilk campaigning against Obama and his “socialist masses.” You have to be pretty damn radically right of centre to view Obama and the Democratic platform as anywhere near socialist. Sometimes I wonder what worries me most, the nut jobs on the far right or the state of an educational system churning out people who don’t know what socialism actually looks like.
This radicalization has fractured and respectively factionalized the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats are split into left of centre social progressives who want to see the party stand their ground and grow some balls on the most important socio-economic issues of the day, and a slightly right to centre Democratic party, controlled mostly by corporate lobbyists, who are ready to compromise as long as the dollars keep rolling in. The Republicans meanwhile have had their neo-con leadership completely obliterated leaving behind a Tea Party faithful to fill the vacuum. Hello new-Republicanism: Rape apologists, Birthers, Christian doomsayers, Limbaugh-linguistics and Fox News. Suddenly, those who want to hold on to their AKs, kick out the immigrants, build walls around the borders, cut taxes, impeach a socialist president and play obstructionist politics have a voice.
House of Cards and a New Kind of Civil War
House of Cards, in terms of sociopolitical critique as well as a TV show telling a good story, picks up right about here. Factionalism and radical politics, as well as impotent progressive movements with economic disparity mixed with weakening state powers, clogged governing and corrupt fiscal institutions are a nice big healthy bag of bad. These are the same mix of problems that essentially lead to the first American Civil War, and there’s no reason to believe that a second American Civil War isn’t possible. There are certainly enough motivated, organized and armed people out there to spark a modicum amount of sporadic or widespread civil conflict.
That said, HoC also highlights the difference between other volatile political scenarios around the world and the American system. The American political system, as incredibly screwed up as it is now, is the most robust in history. Somehow, the checks and balances against state and federal legislative and executive powers seem to keep everyone on their toes and with their balls in a vice. Peter Russo says it to his kid: “Everyone’s got a boss, sweetheart.” Not to mention, there’s too much money at stake for that top 1% running everything and everyone. America is that unbreakable bank that’s, dare I say it, “too big to fail” and in part that is a fundamental part of its uniqueness as a nation state. America and Western Liberal Democracies as a whole are the anomalies in the world and in history. This is the grand experiment in the laboratory of human civilization and there’s no guarantee that it is or will keep working, but it seems to be the best thing we’ve got in a world that is so incredibly and simultaneously beautiful, unjust, wondrous and dark. The irony in that being America’s own military, political and economic blunders, hypocrisies, double standards and contributions (or lack thereof) to the multitude of deep injustices around the world. On the international front America has struggled and failed to live up to its vaunted ideals, which it serves as the bar against which the democracies are compared.
Foreign policy aside, perhaps the beauty of American democracy is made more apparent by its current paralysis and vitriolic infighting. The fact that civil conflict hasn’t arisen in the past five to ten years (the prerequisites are certainly there) is actually a bit of a miracle and perhaps speaks to the fortitude of its institutions, people and promise. Where else in the world can a divided nation, as divided and multitudinous as America is, fight its “civil wars” in the halls of governance? I’m not saying paralysis in government is a good thing, it’s not, and I’m not saying that civil conflict can’t be equal parts disastrous and a precursor to real change. The American Civil War was bloody and destructive but it resulted in a new country and in many ways a better country than the one that had existed. Creation breeds destruction and vise versa. Depending on the context you use, the current American congressional paralysis reflects the possibilities Democracy presents us, illuminates how far we have left to go to perfect this ‘best of the worst’ socio-economic system and through the grand tragedy of politics allow us to change the course of human existence for the better.