Politics and Rashomon

By now you all probably know that Obama pulled out of public campaign financing:

Stories are enormously important and so far I’ve heard two stories about this.

Story 1: Obama, seeing a strategic opportunity to humiliate his opponent and raise unparalleled dollar$, which he claims he will need to survive the blistering attacks which destroyed Gore and Kerry, renounces public funding.

Story 2: Obama, seeing a way to break with politics as usual and enliven his populist grassroots support, renounces public financing.

I say there are elements of the truth, of what “really happened”, in both stories. Obama has thus far proved to be extremely good at managing his image, and he’s done well with this potentially volatile campaign finance thing. NYTimes columnist David Brooks wrote very astutely that the Obama video, “made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Theresa’s final steps to sainthood.”

Now the role of the political press, no less than the candidates themselves, is to fit complex issues into easily digestible narratives. The genre of these narratives usually varies along with the medium — compare talk radio political analysis with op-ed pages and you’ll see vastly different storytelling strategies at work. But the goal is always the same: tell a story that people will understand and believe.

Brooks likens BHO to a split personality sociopath, which is much more common as a Hollywood trope than as a real psychological condition. It was immortalized in Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and later found many more incarnations in Hollywood film.

Now this whole good/evil split personality thing may be a good way to tell a gripping story, but it is way too simplistic to encapsulate this kind of politics. If, like Brooks, I wanted to use what is essentially a cinematic metaphor to explain the situation, I’d turn to Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film in which a murder is retold from different perspectives and nobody can figure out what really happened.

Both Story 1 and Story 2, if repeated enough times, will become the truth. As the Commoner points out in Rashomon, “we all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”

I’m no Kurosawa scholar, but I can point to a few facts: Japanese movies of the 1950’s tended to attack more difficult topics, using more puzzling and engrossing storytelling techniques than their Hollywood contemporaries. Plus Japan in 1950 was still reeling from the insanity of WWII. Appropriately, then, most all of Kurosawa’s films from this period blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, dwelling instead on how it’s really impossible to get to the root of things, on how human existence is ultimately futile.

Rashomon is set in 12th century feudal Japan, the classic Samurai movie setting, a time when the island was divided into many warlord states with complex inter-related power relationships. You can’t trust anyone, samurai have all sworn loyalty to their masters and yet everyone has a price, real power is largely hidden. Today’s political landscape is a lot like this!

Obama calls the public financing system “broken”, which the NYtimes editorial says is “only half true.” He calls his system of getting funding “public” even though its made up of private donations. But the “public” system which is in place allows for donations from corporate interests and so-called 527 “shadow groups,” so how can it be considered “public”? Who knows what the “real” story is?

The Brooks article definitely called my attention to the fact that by refusing to play by the rules, Obama has outed himself as a political trickster. But then that’s a good thing! (especially if you’re trying to survive in feudal Japan.) Like I said, he has shown an amazing capacity for managing his image so far. So it’s encouraging that unlike Gore or Kerry, Obama may be able to weave a compelling counter-narrative for himself when the general election rolls around and the smear ads really start to fly.

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One Response to “Politics and Rashomon”

  1. David Says:

    I agree that the “split-personality” thing is overdone. I mean, God forbid someone have a multi-faceted personality. God forbid someone see virtue in two conflicting opinions!

    I remember we were drinking free PBR’s one night when you wondered aloud something I think we both have thought for a long time, basically the strangeness of seeing someone with a tattoo, committing some thought permanently to their body, when we can’t stop our minds from changing constantly. I think there’s a similar phenomenon in politics; it’s so strange to think that anyone could make an honest living in a profession where you get absolutely lambasted for changing your mind slightly.

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