Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Obama But Were Afraid to Ask Mr. Freedom
By Marc James Léger
Accumulation on a world scale; the world capitalist system; the development of underdevelopment; imperialism and dependency, or the structure of dependence; poverty and imperialism: the repertory is well-known in economics, political science, history, and sociology… Nevertheless the cultural implications of such phrases and concepts are discernible – despite their oft-debated and far from settled nature – and, alas, they are undeniably depressing to even the most untutored eye.
– Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
“Well, I think that the promotion of freedom and democracy needs to be a central part of our foreign policy. It is who we are. It is one of our best exports, if it is not exported simply down the barrel of a gun.” These are the words spoken by Barack Obama to a Washington Post reporter in January, 2009, a few weeks following his election as the first Black President of the United States.i In the same statement he praised George W. Bush’s sincerity about democracy and human rights. One year into his term, Obama in fact oversaw the killing of more civilians than Bush did in his first year in office, thereby proving the Democrats’ “security credentials” by increasing defense spending (which represents about one quarter of the US GDP and now three quarters of total global defense spending) and violating Pakistani sovereignty as part of the Afghan surge.ii At the close of the first term of the Obama administration, it is just as evident as it was with Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Sr. that the decline of the labour movement in the 1960s has signaled the end of political liberalism in US government policy, with working class consciousness being reorganized to support a pro-business agenda, which in many respects is directly connected to military incursions abroad.iii Since 2001, this has meant support for the “war on terror,” leading, throughout the Bush years, to strained relations with the international community. Given the deference shown to Wall Street in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and the complete indifference shown toward the Occupy movement, the plans for the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan, the pursuit of conflict in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, the covert collaboration with Al Qaeda in the fanning of anti-Shiite sectarian conflict in Syria and Lebanon, the persistent threats against Iran and China, the drawing of kill lists that target even US citizens, the killing of thousands of civilians through drone warfare, the desecration of the body of Osama Bin Laden at sea, the authorization of indefinite military detention, the torture of whistleblower Bradley Manning and the efforts to extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Obama’s 2012 re-election promises can be taken as the biggest put on ever delivered since William Klein’s Mr. Freedom: “You want peace. I want peace.” In the following I examine the reception of the DVD release in 2008 of Klein’s 1969 film Mr. Freedom as a means to gauge the deception that has been the Obama administration and why a second term won’t make much of a difference for those who cling to the liberal illusions of democratic materialism.
It came as a bit of a surprise to me that one of the most optimistic early endorsements of Obama came from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose two short essays, “Use Your Illusions” and “Why Cynics are Wrong” circulated widely in the blogosphere in November of 2008. In these pieces, Žižek reiterated Noam Chomsky’s view that we should support Obama but without illusions, adding his own rationale that Obama’s election represents a moment of enthusiasm that is part of the “the universal freedom of humanity.” Obama remarked on this himself in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which he invoked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. as foundational to his achievement. The true battle, Žižek added, as though aware of the gap that sustains the illusion of Obama as “something completely different,” begins after the election victory and in the context of 9/11 and the trillion-dollar bailout. “The danger,” he wrote, “is thus that the predominant narrative of the meltdown won’t be the one that awakens us from a dream, but the one that will enable us to continue to dream. And it is here that we should start to worry: not only about the economic consequences of the meltdown, but about the obvious temptation to reinvigorate the ‘war on terror’ and US interventionism in order to keep the economy running.”iv In many ways, despite Obama’s initial appeal as the “most loved man on the planet,” the worse has happened and we have indeed continued with the predominant narrative. As Žižek predicted elsewhere, Obama became the “great conservative president,” perpetuating Bush’s authoritarian rule and doing the kinds of things that a right-wing representative would perhaps have had more difficulty achieving. Obama’s Health Care bill shamefully delivered the population to the health insurance industry and big Pharma, and the US played an embarrassing role in Copenhagen and subsequent environment summits. The kind of “decaffeinated” politics that Žižek argues makes this possible among populations in the industrialized Western countries and elsewhere is the “post-politics” of today’s liberal capitalism – a politics, it should be said, which has recently had disastrous outcomes in Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the absence of a universalizing political project, and with the hegemony of the view (even amongst progressive leftists) that democratic capitalism with a human face is the least worst option, what we have as a consequence is the predominance of market competition that is buttressed by an obscene technocratic managerialism and combined with populism.v
In December of 2009 Obama announced that the US would be sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan at a cost of roughly $100 billion annually. This decision garnered many comparisons with Lyndon Johnson’s decision to maintain the conflict in Vietnam, which came to a head in 1968 with the Tet offensive. However different the two situations, the similarities allow us to make another historical comparison, which is the cultural response to Obama. Whereas in the 1960s, cultural protest was conducted against the background of the Chinese cultural revolution, Communist Party directives and massive student protests following, among other things, American civil rights, today’s progressive cultural activism is organized against the somewhat shallow background of anti-globalization protest and the NGO-dominated World Social Forums. If Tom Wolfe could once report with dismay on the efforts of New York socialites to support the civil liberties of the revolutionary Black Panthers, the situation came full circle when people like Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, former members of the Weather Underground, threw a Chicago party for the celebrity candidate. It’s no great surprise, then, that in 2008 the New Yorker dared to depict Obama as a Muslim terrorist and Michelle Obama as a Black Panther since there is nothing in the cartoon that would allow us to consider why it is that even to this day there is no shortage of new recruits for the Taliban.
The possibility of seeing Obama as unpatriotic is not only a stock Republican talking point, but also a “symptomal torsion” that allows us to consider the possibility of thinking unpatriotically in terms of critical cultural articulation. One of the most trenchant critiques of US foreign policy as a Ubuesque farce is William Klein’s 1969 film, Mr. Freedom, a comical spoof of American superheroes in which the character Freedom is sent to investigate the assassination of one of his acolytes by French communists. A pawn in the employ of Freedom Inc., Freedom sets off like a wind-up automaton to rescue the French from Sino-Soviet influence. The film was actually made in the midst of the student-led strikes in Paris and Klein did not hesitate to include documentary footage of these events to contrast (albeit confusedly) with the nihilistic rioting of Freedom’s Coca-Cola cronies.
Like most cultural production that reveals to us something of our ideological makeup, there is an altogether uncanny contemporaneity to Klein’s Mr. Freedom. Much of the same could be said for his photography and his other films. Commenting on the interest in Klein’s 1950s photographic work in 1981, Max Kozloff remarked: “This poet of the epoch of McCarthy and the bomb is given a long delayed revival during even the more mercenary age of Reagan. And the lesson that the artist has to teach us is as explicit as ever.”vi In the introduction to her book on Klein, Claire Clouzot made a similar statement that the rediscovery of his films is a vital need for our times.vii Interestingly, these assertions, made more than ten and almost thirty years ago, correspond with comments that were made more recently. Richard Woodward of the New York Times wrote in 2003 that “recent events have conspired to give fresh relevance to some of Klein’s films…, especially Mr. Freedom, his cartoonish satire of American foreign policy during Vietnam and the Cold War.” Michael Atkinson wrote in IFC.com in 2008 that
Like a missing-link hominid stepping out of the jungle, famous photographer William Klein emerges on 21st century DVD as the great bullgoose art film-era satirist we never knew we had. (…) The movies in the new Criterion Eclipse set are a revelation (arguably, they’re the most astute left-wing mockeries of their day), but more than that, they appear to be timeless, and their blitzkrieg critiques are just as pertinent now as they were then. Perhaps more so, since the brainless sociopathologies that Klein attacks have only grown more powerful and pervasive in the intervening decades, and precious few Western filmmakers today have the nerve to satirize the culture that feeds them. (…) Mr. Freedom is the discovery of the moment, if only because of its relentless scabrous rip through the Bush administration mindset (as well as its [Karl] Rovian reasoning, press conference rhetoric and homicidal policies) even more accurately than it characterizes the American public personality during the ‘Nam years.
Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revised his 1989 critique of Mr. Freedom in 2008 with the following:
Could it be that almost 40 years after its original, unheralded release, Klein’s movie has finally found its audience – meaning that we’ve finally caught up with it? (…) Maybe it took a George W. Bush – a full, real-life embodiment of Klein’s ridiculous antihero – to drive home the satiric point.
James Rich of DVD Talk wrote in May 2008:
The anti-French rhetoric spouted by the Freedoms is again, eerily familiar. Forty years later, and the right-wing pundits are still saying the same thing, questioning France’s fortitude and taking all the credit for carrying Europe in both World Wars. It’s scary that progress has been so poor in all this time that a farcical film this old can still be so right on the money. (…) Given the current political climate and the popularity of superhero movies, Klein’s candy-coated dissent should finally go down as the director always intended.
On this, a few words should be allowed for Klein himself. In recent interviews, Klein makes the links between his 60s and 70s films and the contemporary conjuncture. In a 2003 interview he makes a typically sardonic comment: “Nixon’s election was great for the film. When Carter came in, I thought it would be obsolete. But now we have Bush. Bush is exactly Mr. Freedom.” In a 2008 interview he stated more generally:
I was a complete anarchist. I couldn’t stand any kind of political party, on the left or otherwise. So I was really open to anything – the Muslims, the Black Panthers, and so on. I mean, I took them as illustrations of what was going on in America. I wasn’t a Black Muslim, I wasn’t a Black Panther. A lot of people say to me, ‘Why don’t you live in America?,’ and I say, ‘If I lived in America I’d be dead by now.’ If I saw Cheney and Bush on TV, and Nixon and Westmoreland and all those people, I’d have a heart attack every morning. I can’t stand that sort of shit!
The interviewer responds: “It’s right out of Mr. Freedom.” Klein says: “It’s exactly what’s happening. (…) I see Freedom saying, ‘Everything I destroyed I’ll build up better than before, God Bless You.’ (…) Well that’s the way I think. Bush – can you say anything good about him? What can you say?”viii
Lastly, Jay Bagler of the Daily Planet, a straggler in all these reviews, adds a contemporary note:
It’s disturbing how prescient the Vietnam-era Mr. Freedom seems in the wake of the Bush Administration’s 21st century hubris – and it’s still relevant even in the Obama era. In Mr. Freedom’s opening scene, the hero breaks into an African American family’s dining room, delivers a thundering lecture on the American Way, and opens fire apropos of nothing but the color of the family’s skin. This weekend, I stopped at a Wisconsin gas station that was selling oversized stickers: ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT HUNTING PERMIT – NO LIMIT. Freedom, it seems, is still armed and dangerous.
After all this, one inevitably wishes to know more about the filmmaker himself. Klein is not only notable for his early photographic work, which invites comparisons with Robert Frank, but for his original effort at making the first Pop art film (Broadway by Light, 1958), and for his brilliant documentaries and feature films that have been the object of both government censorship and rediscovery through film societies and cultural institutions. What makes mining the Klein archive especially rewarding is not only the artwork but also something of the author’s political vigilance, with statements like: “If an election was ripped off like Bush did in Florida, in one hour a million people would march in Paris.”ix Klein’s early biography is also a pleasure to discover if one wants to find some tendentious signs of a creative talent: a fan of Daumier and Charlie Chaplin who interviewed Groucho Marx, Gypsy Rose Lee and Sinclair Lewis for the school newspaper; a reader of smutty bestsellers in drugstores; a guy who argued with friends about Gauguin; an insider who criticized his relatives in the Hollywood film industry for thinking only about money; a dreamer who moved to Paris to become an artist. From the start, politics was one of the things that Klein abhorred, and when he later produced photographic book projects or documentary films, the sociological always gave way to personal, visual or poetic emphasis. “Politics came late in my life,” he has said, “with the US intervention in Vietnam. After almost forty years, the demon of politics got me. I moved away from classical cinema to put my camera in the service of those who didn’t have any say.”x This is noticed especially in the difference between his satirical new wave films Who Are You Polly Maggoo (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969), and such projects as Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1964/74), Loin du ViêtNam (1967), Grands soirs et petits matins (1968), and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970). Before making films, Klein worked as a photographer for Vogue magazine but he hated the business. He used its resources to produce funky, confrontational, beatnik photographs of New York society that were eventually published in Europe thanks to the help of Chris Marker, who threatened his employer, the publisher Seuil, that he would quit if they did not support Klein’s images. The New York book was presented according to the brash newspaper headline aesthetics of the New York Daily News: LIFE IS GOOD & GOOD FOR YOU IN NEW YORK WILLIAM KLEIN TRANCE WITENESS REVELS. Marker introduced Klein to Alain Resnais and other left bank artists who were fascinated with American culture. They encouraged Klein to make films. In 1956 he travelled to Italy to work on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and in his company he met Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Moravia, who wrote texts for Klein’s book of images of Rome. He later worked as art director on Louis Malle’s Raymond Queneau film, Zazie dans le Métro. After shooting footage of Muhammad Ali and filming Malcolm X at his house, Klein made a television documentary of the French electoral system and the discontent that people expressed with regard to politicians. The French Minister of Information and other government representatives would not allow the film to be aired and this experience of censorship is indirectly documented in Polly Maggoo. Almost contemporaneous with Mr. Freedom is Klein’s “May ‘68” film, Grands soirs et petits matins, which was made while the film industry went on strike. In both its making and in its subject matter, the films is concerned with the question of how to organize revolutionary cinema. Students from the Sorbonne who did not trust television crews asked Klein and his wife Jeanne Florin to form the Cinéma Sorbonne. Not released until 1978, Grands soirs et petits matins is a brilliant document of the joys and stresses of the student activists as they engage the whole of French society in occupations and radicalization. It’s also a brilliant work of realism, a sober counterpoint to the worldless aestheticism of Philippe Garrel’s Les amants réguliers.
Filmed before and during the events of May ‘68 in Paris, but not allowed a French release until after all the dust settled, Mr. Freedom is the product of Klein’s nonaligned critique of conformity at home and abuses abroad. The main character, a US Sheriff played by John Abbey (whose career was stunted by this artistic sacrifice), is a combination of Superman and James Bond. He is sent to Paris by Freedom Inc. to liberate the French from the influence of Moscow (Moujik Man) and Beijing (Red China Man, an enormous balloon puppet). A double agent, played by Delphine Seyrig, acts as both cheerleader for the narcissistic brute and femme fatale, allowing the forces of Anti-Freedom to invade his headquarters before the end of the film. The two main ideological weapons of the film are cheap special effects and colourful costumes – not all that far off from the protest strategies of today’s alterglobalization activists. The top floors in the Freedom Building, in which Freedom gets his marching orders, represent various multinational corporations: Unilever, United Fruit, Standard Oil, General Motors, Aramco, Shell. The top floor is Freedom Inc., the address of universal capitalist ideology in its contingent, American form. After getting his feet wet with Marie Madeleine, at the American “supermarket” Embassy, and with Super French Man and his Ministers, Freedom confronts Moujik Man and Red China Man at the Saint-Martin Métro Station. Moujik Man gets into a fight with Red China Man about whether or not one should negotiate with imperialism. “You know he’s crazy,” he says, “He’s capable of anything.” “If you think you can reason with him, you’re the crazy one,” says Red China Man. “Sssh! He understands,” Moujik Man replies. “He understands nothing,” says Red China Man, “He will never understand. As long as Freedom is there we will never have peace. It’s him or it’s us.” Christ Man chimes in but to no effect. Freedom fumbles his way out of the situation by accidentally backing into an exit sign, which knocks him unconscious. Believing he was the victim of an assassination attempt, Freedom decides to destroy France. One of his aids, Dick Discount (aka Dick Sensass) warns him that Anti-Freedomism is on the rise, with hundreds of thousands of protesters chanting “Freedom Go Home!” and warning that the working class will kick his ass. Before his penultimate defeat, Freedom makes a televised speech: “Thank you, you’ve been terrific! I’m pleased to announce that we’ve destroyed half the country. I hope you now understand that aggression doesn’t pay. You want peace, I want peace. Some don’t want peace. As long as they resist us, our security is threatened and our honor is tarnished. Negotiate. Help me, I’ll help you. Amen!”xi
Among the ironies of the film, Klein collapses the thinkable and the unthinkable in the form of Freedom’s biggest weapon, which appears at first like an atom bomb-type device. In one of the closing scenes, Freedom’s “The Big One – Absolute Weapon” is placed above the dying Dick Discount as the latter explains the impotence of the Freedom forces in the face of what is, allegorically rendered, the declining rates of profit themselves. Freedom is then blown up as the camera zooms out to reveal the remains of the gas factory at Saint-Denis. These last moments of the film render deftly the false choices that stand in as the wages of freedom. Insofar as Mr. Freedom could be said to be the “most anti-American movie ever made” (Rosenbaum), it signals to us today that the forces of Anti-Freedom should not be left in the hands of Obama and the like.
In his recent book, The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey accounts for how it is that the wealthy in the US have accumulated unprecedented amounts of surplus capital, taking the entire country back to nineteenth-century levels of economic inequality.xii Because of the financialization of the economy, more people are unemployed and are having a difficult time making ends meet. Even middle-class households with double incomes are unable to sustain their way of life. Harvey says that in 2009 one third of the capital equipment in the US stood idle, contributing nothing to the creation of wealth. The financial aristocracy is presently very much worried about falling rates of profit but what it has done to solve the problem is find ways to steal from the majority rather than work to create responsible forms of sustainable growth. Through its manipulation of the state, this dominant class is systematically destroying most of the public institutions that liberals and socialists have built throughout the twentieth century. While the over-inflated rhetoric of presidents like Obama is easy enough to see through, and easy enough to compare to a character like Mr. Freedom, the contemporary relevance of the film should also make us reflect on the forces of Anti-Freedom. What have been and what will be effective forces of resistance to global capitalism also weighs in the balance.
i Barack Obama cited in “Elections Aren’t Democracy,” The Washington Post (January 19, 2009), available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/up-dyn/content/article/2009/01/18/AR2009011801490.html.
ii See the interview with journalist Allan Nairn on Democracy Now, January 6, 2010.
_ See Robert Brenner, “Structure vs Conjuncture: The 2006 Elections and the Rightward Shift,” New Left Review #43 (January-February 2007) 33-59, Tariq Ali, “Afghanistan: Mirage of the Good War,” New Left Review #50 (March-April 2008) 5-22 and Mike Davis, “Obama at Manassas,” New Left Review #56 (March-April 2009) 5-40.
iv Slavoj Žižek, “Use Your Illusions,” London Review of Books (November 14, 2008).
v Slavoj Žižek, “The Future of Europe,” Lecture delivered at the Bled Forum on Europe Association, March 7, 2009.
vi Max Kozloff, “William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties,” Artforum (May 1981) 41.
vii Claire Clouzot, William Klein Films (Paris: Marval, 1998) 5.
viii Jared Rapfogel, “Mister Freedom: An Interview with William Klein,” Cineaste (September 22, 2008).
ix William Klein, “Afterword,” in Paris + Klein (Paris: Marval, 2003) Afterword 2.
x Klein cited in Clouzot, William Klein Films, 11.
xi For a transcript of the film, see Mister Freedom (Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1970).
xii David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).