Yesterday the New York Times reported that 1% of the population of the United States is in prison, while the rate for black men between 20-34 is over 10%.
There is one very simple reason why intellectuals of all stripes find themselves seduced by the United States of America: it only exists as an idea. It was invented by intellectuals, and ever since has relied on a mixture of intellectual and symbolic sustenance to be kept alive. Some times things tip too far in the direction of iconic symbolism and away from intellectualism, but they can be tipped back the other way again as well. No wonder that Jonathan Freedland cannot help gushing with adoration for this political project. As he correctly observes, despite all its obvious flaws, its democratic system cannot help but bring some fundamental questions about America's self-identity to public consciousness. Founded sixty years before Karl Marx stood Western philosophy on its head, America is a glorious testimony to the Platonic primacy of ideas over things.
Barack Obama is a wonderful example of this project feeding itself further conceptual food. His message of healing, unifying, over-coming and changing is perfectly pitched and has a rare authenticity about it. I for one believe that he will heal, unify, over-come and change. There is no need for cynicism on this occasion.
But it also has to be recognised that, in the context of this sort of ideational-symbolic project, the question about the actual unity of America is neither here nor there. The incarceration levels and the inability to stay out of other nations' territories are not symptoms of a politics that has gone wrong or a society that has pulled itself apart. They are structural necessities of a society that never took reality seriously in the first place, and therefore relies on the boundaries of its fantasy being aggressively policed. (Who polices it, incidentally, is relatively insignificant. Outside of the political arena occupied by Airforce One and Camp David bomber jackets, security is guaranteed by anonymous security contractors, mercenaries and technological penitentiary institutions that are empty of any political gravitas.)
Whether 'America' is divided (as it now feels itself to be) or united (as it could become under Obama), it will remain a society in which hope, symbols and ideas are not just privileged over violence, necessity and materiality, but operating in an entirely parallel sphere from them. The fact that one in every nine young black men has to be locked up in order to keep the show running is about as relevant to your average US voter as backstage mechanics are to the average theater-goer.
It's true that many of us, myself included, regularly feel a little jealous at the sincerity and weightiness of American democracy in action. It is a marvelous thing to behold. As President, Obama would heal everything and nothing. He would renew the sense of possibility, hope and unity that is so awe-inspiring, and in doing so, he would keep the American project safely confined within the ontological limits of possibility, hope and symbolic unity. As for that other division - splitting politics from violence, ideas from reality, hope from hopelessness - there is little that American democracy can do about that, given that it is built into its DNA.