Film, News & Commentary

Razer: beware of false gods and American presidents

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On-demand television has not only transformed the market for drama of reasonable quality but it has filled my navel with chip dust. This past weekend, I glanced south of the breasts that had been serving as a food tray and saw the belly button that now functioned as a kind of pre-emptive sewer. I wasn’t the world’s only citizen sufficiently privileged to give this past weekend to a binge on the just-released House of Cards. And, I doubt that I was the only one whose own lethargy gave her cause for revulsion.
If you’ve not seen or heard word of this Netflix Whitehouse drama, then you clearly have no great interest in either television or unhealthy snacks. Featuring the unctuous charm of a Carolinian Kevin Spacey as President and the malevolent grace of a First Lady played by Robin Wright, this show has become a must-watch. And less because it is very good, as it really only was in its first season which borrowed liberally from its 1990 British inspiration. But, more because it feeds us the comforting fiction that politicians are evil.
As anyone who has spent any time in the press gallery will tell you, western politicians are not as plainly evil as they are on TV. This is not to say that the policies they oversee do not result in death and indignity. It is to say that Spacey’s homicidal, selfish, narcissistic Frank Underwood is not compelling because he’s realistic. He’s compelling because he’s a fake.
Underwood is the underside to Martin Sheen’s equally false Commander in Chief. The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet was a compassionate liberal of an integrity and optimistic vision so immense he made FDR look like an insurance salesman. Bartlet was an act of pure idealised bullshit set against Aaron Sorkin’s triumphal trough of American lies. But, he gave us comfort just as Underwood does.
It is a foolish luxury to believe in pure evil just as it is to believe in pure good. As much as progressives like to demonise Abbott and the Right is given to calling Shorten a union marionette, the truth of these men is much more boring. And can be read in their policies and not in their political backstories. The measure of a politician is not his fondness for tail, like Underwood, or his ability to conceal a neurological disorder, like Bartlet. Actually, it’s not even his tendency to hurl (spoiler) ambitious girl reporters under a train. (Although, you know, I would prefer my leaders to refrain from vengeance killing.)  The measure of a politician is his policies.
Actually, Bartlet’s policies were kind of shit. They were ostentatiously liberal, as in his support for allowing gay personnel in the military, but ultimately ineffective. The guy never ratified universal healthcare or initiated a truly progressive tax system. As a policy maker, Bartlet stood somewhere to the right of fellow fictional democrat Underwood who, at the very least, has developed a (questionable) labour policy this season. But. He was GOOD. And, apparently, personal goodness is far more important, in the real as well as the fictional realms, than decent policy.
And so is evil. This is why critics of Abbott set upon his infamous “sexist” wink or his sloppy decision to knight a Prince consort with much more force than the terms of his cuts to crucial services for people with little financial or social capital and his favours to people with loads. Abbott’s intrinsic evil should not be a matter for discussion. His spending derives not from poor character but from a poor theoretical tradition that starts with Adam Smith. If there is a problem with Abbott, it is not that he is not a nice man but that he believes that the market is benevolent. And, all the while, millions of Australians are goosed by the Invisible Hand.
Still. It’s fun to think that bad policies have their origin in bad character and good policies, despite even the fictional President Bartlet’s dearth of them, originate from good. Good policy is derived from evidence and good thinking and bad policy is derived from wilful stupidity. And it is wilful stupidity that drives me to watch House of Cards and cram at least two of my orifices with chili-flavoured chips.
To enjoy our political drama through the personae of Underwood and Bartlet is just an extension of what we might do anyway. We do not assess politicians for their judicious spending of revenue — their primary task — but for their perceived good and evil. And, really, as more “realistic” political shows like the very good comedy Veep and the even better The Thick of It demonstrate more ably, politicians are neither good nor evil. They are simply conduits for ideas and revenues.
The popular semi-progressive idea that Malcolm Turnbull would be a better Prime Minister than Abbott derives from this belief in Great Men. And, certainly, he would be more palatable to watch as I cram my face and my navel with chips than the fumbling Abbott. Ultimately, though, his perceived goodness will not translate to civic good; the guy’s a neoliberal through-and-through.
To believe that individual goodness or individual evil can influence policy is as ludicrous as believing, like Smith, that the market can fix everything. The market has no morals and the morals of politicians who must manage it are not, or should not be, the question. The question in a liberal democracy is “How good are you with a calculator and some basic economic principles of middle-out growth?”. Instead, we ask, “What kind of man is he?”
The idea we have of liberty that we bring to our viewing of political fiction and political fact is broken. We think that we can see it in instances of personal good or evil. But, really, we may as well be gazing at our navels.

25 responses to “Razer: beware of false gods and American presidents

  1. Probably a review of a TV series isn’t the place for this kind of discussion, but: you appear to believe that all of politics is just economics, and therefore that the only questions we need ask of our politicians are about what they will do with our money. But it should be obvious that not all political questions are like this. For example, it is important to know about our politicians whether they are the kind of people who will use fear to divide the community for their own political gain – and just knowing a person’s economic philosophy won’t tell you that.

    1. But, good people can divide the community with economic policy that has bad consequences and bad people can unite it with economic policy that has good consequences. And, really it is the job of government to collect and distribute revenue so to say that I am limiting discussion to “just economics” is to say that I am talking about the primary business of government.
      And this is reflected very much in two immensely popular shows listed above.

        1. The thing is, most politicians genuinely believe that they are both right and compassionate. You don’t sell a nonsense like “stop the boats” without believing it yourself. Many Coalition members, and let us not forget some of those in the ALP, believe that off-shore processing and other deterrents are a compassionate solution.
          Please don’t think that neocons aren’t absolutely full of compassion. That’s not their problem. It is their belief that the market resolves problems that is the problem. It is not poor personal character or a lack of compassion but poor thought.

          1. You don’t sell a nonsense like :stop the boats”….. So, according to you, Helen, we should have continued the ludicrous ALP policy that it was impossible to stop the boats, so we shouldn’t try? How many more dead “economic refugees” would you like to have on your hands? How many more thousand kids in detention? There would appear to be something wrong with your thinking, but I am sure you feel that your compassion justifies everything

      1. I think this reply rather misses the point, which is (a) that however important economics may be, there are some genuinely non-economic issues in politics; and (b) that good or bad character is a useful shorthand for predicting what politicians will or won’t do. The willingness of Abbott and Morrison to demonise asylum seekers and the Muslim community in Australia has nothing to do with their convictions about the benevolence of markets, and everything to do with their indecency as human beings.

  2. Malcolm as PM would comfort people that all is okay again which would give an increase of confidence I’m consumer spending of .01324% quarterly
    This was so refreshing to read, even without having watched House of Cards

    1. Thanks, Sue. If you do have a spare weekend, season one is pretty good. The critique of NGOs is interesting. You may think the British original is better but I couldn’t possibly comment!

  3. Come on Hellen. What a let down from the cracker last week. Look forward to your wit entertaining me for the afternoon but have to pass on this one.
    Morry D.

  4. The main point is spot on; reducing politics to the morality or immorality of politicians destroys the possibility of making sense of it – let alone making it better. A similar point could be made for attempts to reduce the vast issues raised by wikleaks to the arrogance and (uncharged) possible crimes of its founder.
    But there’s no need to smear Adam Smith by placing Abbott next to him. Does the following sound like something Abbott has taken to heart?
    “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favor of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters.”

  5. You couldn’t help yourself could you? you’re meant to be reviewing House of Cards, or American presidents, then you bring back to Abbott. Then whilst lecturing us about moral grey areas you slip inxoerably into diatribe with :
    “for people with little financial or social capital and his favours to people with loads. Abbott’s intrinsic evil should not be a matter for discussion. His spending derives not from poor character but from a poor theoretical tradition that starts with Adam Smith. If there is a problem with Abbott, it is not that he is not a nice man but that he believes that the market is benevolent. And, all the while, millions of Australians are goosed by the Invisible Hand.”
    Did you need to wipe away the slaver after that was finished?
    This really needed something a bit more thoughtful than “Tony Abbott is bad.” Aaron Sorkin is a terrible writer – that’s not particularly insightful. Frank Underwood is a classic villain that all of us are secretly rooting for. Sure. House of Cards is incredibly over the top.
    There is so little review here that it would best be clarified as “Yet Another Opinion Piece about Tony Abbott” than in any way be considered a review of House of Cards.

    1. The point was, it doesn’t matter whether Abbott has a bad character, it’s his bad deeds as head of government that matter. A good illustration of the point Razer was making about the character of politicians. If you can’t handle the truth about Abbott, a truth even members of his government have been forced to accept, that’s your problem.

  6. House of Cards is popular because it makes out politicians are just like we suspect they are. I have a love/hate relationship with the series – love the BBQ guy, hate everyone else. Politicians all believe they are right. Power is everything. Blah Blah Blah. In reality most pollies are less notable than John Howard’s sneakers. Better off spending your time watching Sarah Beeny’s lastest excellent series on renovating a castle. At least there’s design there.

  7. Wait a minute. Smith didn’t actually say that. And he did believe in regulation. The neocons like to say he’s a libertarian, but he was a good scot rationalist, not a goony, post-Christian conservative looking for a godless ultimate.
    Actually it’s so hard to be an effective pol. It’s much easier to be a musical or financial genius. And they are far more plentiful. Everyday someone wants to dump a fundamental function of society and replace it with something beautiful and weird. It happens in all areas of our bizarre modern lives – except politics. No one thinks creatively about politics. The field is left to the venal, the dull and the moralists. Policy? There is no policy. It’s all polling. And no one screams ” let’s dump democracy and govern ourselves in electronicly realised cyber tribes of conceptual sovereignty and self-realised self-enforced laws” and that’s very sad. There are no politics geeks inventing new social covenants, just lots of people complaining about and not discussing the contradiction of economy and governance. Helen is right politicians aren’t good or evil. They aren’t much of anything. And voters aren’t either.

    1. Im inventing a new way of governance. Its called mytwocents and will be an app. I hope to get it up and running then have app “candidates” run for election. Then all votes in parliament will be determined by votes on the app for members in that electorate. If you want to support the app development it is on

  8. Finished another Helen article and don’t know what to post coz I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. Why do they keep coming to my inbox. I’m clearly too stupid to understand them and rarely watch the shows commented about. As for Sue, Malcolm as PM???? Good luck with that. Bill seems to have all the backing he needs and Penny would roll them both. You’d be better posing the question on the CMFEU website..

  9. I heard elsewhere that one of the problems with this show was that it would be very difficult if not impossible to bring down a President as depicted in this televisual feast. The rebuttal to this was ‘yeah but, nothing on TV is real away’. I haven’t seen this show but I did see the original and part of the charm came from the gloss of authenticity that the Westminster system gave to what was a quite bizarre and convoluted plot line. Urqhart’s pieces to the audience contrasted with the gentile dastardliness that we all knows lurk in the heart of George Brandis. He just lacks the intellect that Francis had.

  10. Gee Im certainly not a critic or writer but can read and appreciate most written stuff…love your work Ms Razer !

  11. Just started watching season 3 yesterday, I loathe Frank Underwood and his missus and hope for nothing but the worse for them both.
    No real Poli is as smart as Frank Underwood is made out to be, the scheming is so devious that it requires a team of writers to put it together.
    I agree with HR, we need a pretty smart, pretty pragmatic, sensible political class that are not bound to anything other than common sense and a general sense of goodwill. This would be excruciatingly boring TV.

  12. “[Abbott’s] spending derives not from poor character but from a poor theoretical tradition that starts with Adam Smith.”
    This demonstrates profound ignorance of the work of Smith. Yes, Smith wanted to create wealth by harnessing the market. But he also wanted to share that wealth around. Eg in Wealth of Nations he says “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” Reading Smith also reveals that he was very impatient with the capitalist class, hated extreme poverty and was very much open to policies that would correct power imbalances.

  13. B Both the BBC original and the US versions of House of Cards are in fact the way that politicians are viewed and are surprised when they meet the politician in person. Julia Gillard was depicted as the lying witch with some disgusting depictions of her persona from Restaurant menus to cartoons- but in person she is a very likeable person who is open and self-effacing – nothing like the portrait painted in the press.
    The BBC version makes more of a play of the press rather than just the hapless Zoe Barnes – but takes in the role of a media baron resembling Murdoch and his character assassination of Labour Leader Neil Kinnock which would have been fresh in the minds of many in the early 1990’s with the now infamous Sun headline – We Won It — rivalling the Daily Telegraph’s “Kick this Mob Out” of 2013.
    The interesting thing that the both Urquhart and Underwood were loved and trusted by their PM and President respectively while being slowly and methodically politically and personally assassinated by their trusted friend and mentor. The roles of Stamper (perhaps not a Credlin) in fact Credlin could be a useful addition to the last season as a replacement for Stamper having met a “fitting end” after his obsession with Rachel.
    The popularity of such shows does demonstrate to the electorate that they are really a nuisance to the games that politicians play. It also demonstrates how far removed politicians are from the realities of everyday life and business and which increasingly the plutocrats are able to exploit with the evolution of the Dollarocracy

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