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December 06, 2013

The MacGuffinization of American Politics

In a movie or book, "The MacGuffin" is the thing the hero wants.

Usually the villain wants it too, and their conflict over who will end up with The MacGuffin forms the basic spine of the story.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is, of course, the Lost Ark. Indy wants it; the Nazis have it. This basic conflict over simple possession animates a two hour long movie.

Alfred Hitchcock noted -- counterintuitively, when you first hear this -- that the specifics of the MacGuffin don't really matter at all to a movie. He pointed out that the audience doesn't care at all about the MacGuffin. The hero in the movie itself cares, but the audience doesn't.

In one Hitchcock film, the MacGuffin was some smuggled uranium hidden in vintage wine bottles. But Hitchcock noted it didn't matter if it was uranium in wine bottles, or a fragment of a diplomatic dispatch from the Nazi high command, or a hidden murder weapon, or photographs proving a Senator's affair.

The Lost Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark could have easily been replaced with some missing Shankara Stones from a Thuggee temple, or the Holy Grail. In fact, that's exactly what they changed the MacGuffin to in the sequels.

No audience member really cared if the Nazis wound up with the Ark of the Covenant. For one thing, the audience walked into the theater knowing, as a matter of real-world historical fact, that Adolf Hitler had not ever possessed a holy artifact of unspeakable power, and that, even if had possessed such a thing secretly, it availed him not at all, because he shot himself through the temple in a bunker as the Allied forces closed in around him in 1945.

But we cared about Indy. He was a character we liked, a character that sparked our imaginations; whether he was looting a South American burial mound (illegally, by the way!) or blowing off his students by sneaking out a back window during office hours (poor work ethic, incidentally), we rooted for him to win.

A MacGuffin only has one requirement: That it be important-sounding, so that the audience understands he hero isn't engaged in some trivial matter, but that the Stakes Are High. (Woody Allen inverted this rule in his parody espionage film What's Up Tiger Lily?, where the MacGuffin was a top-secret recipe for chicken salad.)

But an important sounding MacGuffin is just another way to increase the audience's emotional attachment to the Hero, not to the idea of possessing the MacGuffin.

And that, of course, explains all you need to know about the abnormal political situation we find ourselves in, and the Cult of Barack Obama.

For Obama's fanbois, this is not politics. This isn't even America, not really, not anymore.

This is a movie. And Barack Obama is the Hero. And the Republicans are the Villains. And policy questions -- and Obama's myriad failures as an executive -- are simply incidental. They are MacGuffins only, of no importance whatsoever, except to the extent they provide opportunities for Drama as the Hero fights in favor of them.


Watching Chris Matthews interview Obama, I was struck by just how uninterested in policy questions Matthews (and his panel) were, and how almost every question seemed to be, at heart, about Obama's emotional response to difficulties-- not about policy itself, but about Obama's Hero's Journey in navigating the plot of President Barack Obama: The Movie.

As with a MacGuffin in the movie, only the Hero's emotional response to the MacGuffin matters.

Again and again, Matthews and his panel focused not on weighty questions of state, but on what toll these important-sounding MacGuffins took upon the Star of the Picture, Barack Obama.

Matthews was not terribly interested in hearing about the problems with Obamacare, or how Obama planned to address them.

But he was very interested in learning how Obama was coping with the challenges.

Matthews didn't care all that much about disputes over the budget. But he was keenly interested in Obama's thoughts on his opponents in such struggles.

Chris Matthews' called Obama's last answer the most important in the interview, and his entire panel agreed it was simply amazing.

That last question was about Obama's -- the Hero's -- travails.

Wrapping up the interview, Matthews ended the night with a question about whether going into politics is really worth it, especially considering that the great majority of students in the audience expressed interest in some day joining the congressional ranks.

"It continues to be a way to serve that I think can be noble. It's hard. It can be frustrating. You have got to have a thick skin," Obama said. "But I tell you, the satisfaction you get when you've passed a law or you've taken an executive action and somebody comes up to you and says you know what, my kid's alive because you passed that health care bill. Because he was uninsured, he got insurance, got a check up and we caught a tumor in time [...] So for those young people who don't mind a little gray hair, it's something that I not only recommend, but I'd welcome."

Matthews' panel gushed over Obama's answer here. And why shouldn't they? Usually the Hero offers a self-reflective but somewhat grim speech as he sits in the belly of the beast, at his lowest point in his journey. It's this speech that lets the audience know the Hero may be down, but he's not yet out.

And the audience for President Barack Obama: The Movie just loved it:

HOWARD FINEMAN: i would like to say that you and the students here from AU got a once in a lifetime opportunity to see in person a president talking about what its like to be president, while hes actually president. Now, hes gone from Superman to Sisyphus. Hes talking about rolling a boulder up the hill. He has a much more mature view, but he has a moral view. I thought he made the moral case for Obamacare, for you folks to consider Obamacare as a measure of community in America. Thats what motivates Barack Obama. He knows its tough

CHRIS MATTHEWS: And he lifted up. He lifted up when he talked about

FINEMAN: The last 15 minutes of this interview were extraordinary. Ive never seen anything like it, where a president kind of unburdened himself to you about why hes in the ball game. And I thought he made a very compelling case for his own decency, whatever the screw-ups were managerially, and they were real.

Note what they're not talking about: America. Policy. The economy. Obamacare. Actual live political controversies and possible programmatic responses to the difficulties we face (many of which Obama has caused himself, or made worse).

No, American politics is now merely a MacGuffin, an important-sounding but ultimately inconsequential and disposable plot device for holding interest in the Hero's Journey.

Ultimately the only thing that matters is the Hero itself. It doesn't matter why the Hero Barack Obama wants the Lost Ark of Sensible Gun Control, or the Shankara Stones of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or the Democratic Holy Grail of Affordable Health Care. These are very minor details and only matter to the extent the Hero exerts himself to achieve them.

The viewers of this film don't really care about these things, but only Obama's frustration at being denied them, or his joy in attaining them.

"This is a big f***ing deal," his incompetent Comic Sidekick said as he signed Obamacare into law. What the "this" was didn't matter then, as it scarcely matters now.

What counted was that the Hero had won.

Politics is now a MacGuffin in American politics, at least for the frothing fanbois of the Hero Barack Obama.

It doesn't matter what his goals actually are -- it only matters that he succeeds in those quests, whatever they might be.

And this isn't a new phenomenon, either. Since the beginning of this movie, the fanbois have cared very little for MacGuffins (notice they don't care how many thousands of Americans have died in Afghanistan), but have been intensely interested in the Hero's emotional response to it all.

You root for the Hero to win because you like the Hero -- not because you're particularly invested in the Hero's actual goals. And you despise the Villains simply because they're standing in the way of the Hero's triumph.

Chris Matthews sums up, neatly, his only genuine interest in American politics for the past five years:

We have real people in this country with real power and status who have used that status of power to hurt the country so they could hurt the president.

Only the Hero matters. The MacGuffin never does.

The Hero is our hopes and dreams. And the Hero has come to us; he has come amongst us.


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posted by Ace at 02:46 PM

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