Bruce Miroff makes one of my favorite arguments about the presidency in political science literature in "The Presidential Spectacle" (only available in print, unfortunately). In that piece he described the fundamental dilemma of the modern presidency as its dual nature; the institution requires substance but the public demands style. He uses the great analogy of boxing and pro wrestling. Doing one's job as president is like boxing, a contest of strength, strategy, and will. Passing legislation or making military decisions, for example, are actions with uncertain outcomes. Whether they succeed or fail depends on how good he is. Winning public support, on the other hand, is pro wrestling – it's all about style, gestures, and ridiculously simple morality plays with a clearly identifiable villain and a predetermined outcome. Who wins or loses does not depend on skill. It's about mugging for the camera and making the right gestures.

The invasion of Grenada is the classic example of such "presidential spectacle." We are the Good Guys; the godless Commie Menace is the Bad Guy. Cue the footage of American military might kicking ass and getting home in time for supper. Good guys win, bad guys lose…an outcome that is not only identical to every WWF storyline but one that was never in doubt. The first Gulf War, the War on Drugs, the invasion of Panama, and so on would all be good examples as well. Presidents need this type of song-and-dance routine to reinforce what Americans believe about themselves, just as the wrestling crowd is expected to see itself in the (white, mulleted, profane, "All-American" hillbilly) Good Guy and revel in his trouncing of the (black, Mexican, Muslim, or effeminate) Bad Guy.

It was interesting to see how the right would react to Obama caving in on Afghanistan and agreeing to send 30,000 troops (instead of the 40,000 they asked for – ooh, take that!). You knew they needed to find something to bitch about even though the right got what it wanted…open-ended and escalating commitment. For a while it appeared that the best they could do was whining about "dithering" and taking too long to make the decision. That is a lame complaint, albeit not without merit. The appearance of indecisiveness is always punished in opinion polls. Fortunately Krauthammer came along and said what I knew they were all thinking; it was a simple matter of waiting for someone to say it.

We know that the kind of spectacles I described earlier are popular – an American president striding around in a flight suit and declaring to one and all that America just kicked the Bad Guy's ass. We also have quite a problem with blurring the line between entertainment and war. There is an unreasonably large number of Americans who love war. They get off on it. They watch The Military Channel eight hours per day and believe the appropriate response to everything is nuke those motherfuckers (or at least carpet-bomb them). It is entertainment for them, and it bolsters their lousy self-image and latent self-loathing to picture America as some sort of Charles Bronson / Rambo figure strutting around beating nations who don't Do As We Say with his enormous penis.

That's really what Krauthammer is getting at, what he felt was the fundamental problem with Obama's speech: the President was so dispassionate. Where was the sophomoric bravado, the manly chest-pounding, the cockiness, that America Fuck Yeah swagger that all the doughy, impotent Bush voters need in order to get off? Why didn't Obama look excited about war? Why didn't he don a flight suit and declare "We're comin' to kick your ass"? Why didn't he jump on the podium, stare straight into the camera, and challenge Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik to a cage match at this year's Summer Slam?

It's sad enough that they derive so much pleasure from watching gun camera footage and endless cable TV shows about tanks and bombers blowing shit up (not to mention the endless gun pornography). But to watch the President substantially escalate our commitment to a quagmire – to basically throw 30,000 more people into the meat grinder for no apparent purpose – and then whine about how he didn't look excited enough about it is…well, it's sick. I lack a better or less controversial word for it. Whether they need the image of America-as-Rambo to compensate for their own shortcomings or they simply get a big woody every time they think of war, this portion of the electorate wants Stone Cold Steve Austin as President. Rather than demanding to see more war swagger from Obama they should demand to see a psychiatrist.

30 thoughts on “BOXING vs. WRESTLING”

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    If this were a forum argle, I'd give you rep for that comment. "LADIES AND GENTLMEN…THE PRESIDENT OF UHMERICA!!!"

  • Yeah, I'm glad somebody brought up Idiocracy.

    So, if we know that the President has to choke-slam some issue once in a while for public approval purposes, why not work with that? I'm not talking about decisions of life & death. But if we know that this is a reality, we need to work with it. The right-wing pundits will bitch no matter what, so fuck them. But if the people need a show, give 'em one once in a while.

  • It must be very strange to be Charles Krauthammer. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone but himself to notice. He is like a great street artist or florist who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile. Or paying him large amounts of money to discuss the importance of war boners. In print and on Fox.

  • "Rather than demanding to see more war swagger from Obama they should demand to see a psychiatrist."

    Their healthcare plan wouldn't cover it, nor would they want it to….because that's SOCAILISM!!!!!!!!!!

  • "..they should demand to see a psychiatrist."

    Isn't Mr. Krauthammer nominally a psychiatrist? If so, then it is done.

  • American men are socialized to use violence to solve problems, any problem, even their own feelings of inadequacy. Check out video games. toys, etc. in your local Walmart aimed at little boys this Christmas. Until this changes we will always have a ready made chest thumping cave man consciousness for people like Cheney and the US military machine to exploit. The other half of humanity that is not socialized for violence as the solution to everything, women, are effectively blocked from having major influence. Men in power who show the slightest inclination to reason rather than emotion (acceptable male emotions or rage, revenge, domination, etc) are immediately tarred with the insults-of-all-insults, being unmanly, which is of course being effeminate. Nothing worse than being a girl.

  • The one I feel sorry for is the pilot of the plane that made the carrier landing if they were dumb enough to let aWol anywhere near the controls!!

    The boxing-wrestling reference is a good one, altho at times it looks like Obama is bringing a knife to a gunfight. If Congress is the WWF or WWE as it is now known as, we don't have enough 'good guys' and way too many 'bad guys'!! And a whole bunch of hangers-on doing very little other than muddying the waters.

  • There is much truth to the fact that the advent of television destroyed healthy political discourse. One need look no further than the rows of pictures of past presidents. When TV became popular, presidents began to smile in their pictures and clearly appeared more narcissistic. Vanity and spell check destroyed this country.

  • But Chucks K-Ham is a psychiatrist. The man in the white lab coat is actually the first madman. What they need is electro-shocks and a straight jacket, not therapy.

    It's no use, really; this militaristic cancer will keep eating at the country's soul. The nations of Western Europe didn't learn to unlove war by going into therapy. They did so only after engaging in mass carnage twice. America might cure itself of addiction to war porn if only enough immigrants flow in to counterbalance politically the belligeret mouth-breathers and their enablers.

  • Television and its mass media descendants youtube and the various game consoles, have achieved over the last 60 years in American society what every absolute monarch, dictatorship, and oligarchy have dreamed about in the past- a compliant workforce that never really challenges the authority of the elites but instead turns its violence on itself or the officially approved Other. There is factional infighting between the elites themselves, but the whole system is never really questioned.
    Aldous Huxley once wrote a letter to George Orwell after recieving a copy of 1984. While Huxley acknowledged that the stark vision of a Stalinesque dictatorship might be in humanity's future, he still thought that a ubercapitalist state, in which people were conditioned by drugs and psychohypnosis to be docile consumers and workers, was more likely, particularly in the indutrialized states. The elite's " lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience."

  • Undesirable Element says:

    Da Moose: You're probably half right. The other half can be attributed to the fact that exposure times for cameras used to be a lot longer. Smiling for fifteen minutes simply wasn't practical.

    There's probably also some shift in what people expect from their presidents. A stolid and serious demeanor probably indicated gravitas and intelligence. Now such behavior comes off as callousness or unfriendliness.

  • When Forrest Gump was in theatres, people went crazy for the book of his sayings. Readers told me over and over that he was deep, pure of heart, and noble. No. He was too mentally limited to grasp moral complexity, and his admirers were fantasizing about not having to think so hard. All I could do was recommend "Being There" and "Sling Blade."

    Mind you, these were the bourgeois liberal idiots, who think all humans are innately sweet and moral until greed corrupts us — not the poor redneck variety, who played "Okie From Muskogee" until "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" came out. But both groups crave the sweet relief from having to make hard choices, navigate moral grey areas, and discern the simple from the simplistic.

    It's so much more soothing not to have to make hard choices that folks will oversimplify problems, or indulge in transference (hello, Birthers!) in order to return to the comforting cocoon of certainty. "I don't need to know the law. I just need to know what's Right."

    Ignorance is bliss. Awareness is a painful burden. Avoiding adult-level complexity to return to the safety of the womb is regression. Real loss (of jobs, shelter, food, health, safety) makes us feel uncertain and fearful, and the threat of it keeps us frantic. People want to feel confidence again. The facts aren't comforting, so we need a con man instead of a cheerleader.

  • It's like Juvenal said over two thousand years ago: all you need to rule the people are bread and circuses. Huxley was right about the future, not Orwell. The people simply don't care anymore about politics and substantive policy discussions only the pursuit of the next hedonistic moment. Our Founding Fathers would be ashamed of these people who claim to be such patriots.

    "Their healthcare plan wouldn't cover it, nor would they want it to….because that's SOCAILISM!!!!!!!!!!"

    Devilham: I would strongly suggest that you crack a book or two before expressing you opinion about much of anything because you clearly have no idea what "Socialism" is. It's a precise term of art with a precise meaning in political theory; it's when the proletariat rises up in the final stages of Capitalism when inequality get too much for them to bear and seizes the means of production in order to redistribute the wealth equally to everybody. Something isn't "Socialist" merely because the government does it.

    This is what offends me most about the idiots on the Right; the sheer arrogance they strut around with as if they are geniuses that already know everything without having to spend any time learning and grappling with complex issues. They can't be bothered with little things like facts and data because they innately know the truth with a certainty that make you wonder if Moses himself brought them their talking points down from Sinai on stone tablets. Obama and the Democrats need to sack up and quite ceding precious political capital to these nut jobs.

  • soonerlawyer, I would suggest that you spend a moment or two on the Intertoobs and gain a fuller understanding of this novel concept the kids are calling "sarcasm" before slagging another commenter.

  • we need a con man instead of a cheerleader.

    Reagan was both. At once our 2nd worst and most beloved president. Tells you most of what you need to know.

    Soonerlawyer –

    I think you missed devilham's point.


  • It seems to me that we might be a bit ahead of ourselves in deriding Obama for his support for further troops in Afghanistan… I absolutely detest war and find it hard to understand that humans have not evolved to a point in which war is unnecessary. But one thing I think most of us can agree on: we do not have as much information as Obama and his national security team on this issue. I don't see Obama as the type to just swing his balls around and start firing missles willy-nilly. In any case, it can only be characterized as hyperbolic the suggesting that we are pouring 30,000 troops into the "meat-grinder". Will some troops die? Of course they will. And what will happen if we abandon ship? If someone can make a reasonable case that doing so would not result in an unknown total of human suffering and loss comparable to staying in Afghanistan I would be willing to change my position. But saving our soldiers at the expense of many more innocent civilians in Pakistan/Afghanistan seems wrong to me. Perhaps I am completely off-base. I would like to think Obama has some reason for this action… He seems so… well… reasonable.

  • Yeah – Obama seems reasonable, and he's definitely intelligent, and an adult, which is novel in itself.

    And he's doing what he said he would do while campaigning, so it's not caving, by any stretch.

    But, Rob, your request is impossible. Nobody knows what will have a worse outcome. This is the awful Bush legacy (#1 worst, in case there was any doubt.) We are now in multiple situations at home and abroad where the only choices are between bad alternatives.

    JzB the we-are-so-fucked trombonist

  • But one thing I think most of us can agree on: we do not have as much information as Obama and his national security team on this issue.

    The problem with that notion though is that it would preclude civilian opposition to almost every military action. Bush had more info than we had access to re: Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had more intel on Vietnam, but it didn't make their decisions correct.

    In any case, it can only be characterized as hyperbolic the suggesting that we are pouring 30,000 troops into the "meat-grinder". … If someone can make a reasonable case that doing so would not result in an unknown total of human suffering and loss comparable to staying in Afghanistan I would be willing to change my position.

    More of a POV issue I think. There have been 1536 deaths in the coalition forces for 2009 so far, the worst year yet. That's fatalities only, who knows how many injuries, etc. Plus another 1500+ Afghan civilian casualties from Jan to August (as difficult as it is to get accurate numbers for civilians).
    I think your statement could be flipped around to say "If someone can make a reasonable case that escalation would not result in an unknown total of human suffering and loss comparable to withdrawal in Afghanistan I would be willing to change my position" and it would be equally valid an analysis.

  • OneMadClown:
    You make a good point about the "flippability" of the argument. Nevertheless, if both arguments are valid, does this not indicate that we have no reason to have *any* strong opinion? The fact that the argument can be flipped only demonstrates our lack of data. I would think that Obama has much more data to work with than the outside observer. He has demonstrated his intelligence and willingness to use diplomacy and statesmanship to the extent possible and has come to the conclusion that we cannot leave Afghanistan yet. I would have accepted anyone on this blog's opinion before George Bush's – but the bar is simply higher with Barack. Unless a truly compelling argument can be made, I don't think it makes sense for me to question his decision.

  • BTW, I stand by my characterization of the over-used "meat-grinder" analogy as hyperbolic. Would you rather jump into a meat grinder, or have chance of being one of the 29,000+ troops that won't die? In any case, I think Ed would even agree that it was hyperbolic – it was probably his intention.

  • Maybe the "intertoob" can teach me how to read minds too.

    See, I managed to detect your sarcasm there, and thus avoided recommending a list of online resources to help in your psychic development.

  • Rob —
    I understand your points and don't begrudge your position, we just don't happen to agree. I come down firmly on the side of always questioning authority, including the one I voted for. I'm uncomfortable with this escalation based on the analysis I read from the sources that I trust, and my own personal beliefs re: what is and isn't possible through military action, etc.

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