simulacra. The important thing is not what they are, or what they do, or promise to do: we choose to elect or reject them because of what they mean, what they represent and reflect. Barack Obama is a classic example of this, entering the White House as a physical embodiment of hope, change and a vague aspiration towards a post-racial America that aspired to redemption from the past few centuries of slavery and prejudice. The persistent criticism levelled against him since he won the 2008 election – and not just by his political opponents – is that he has remained content to be rather than do, to offer a succession of plausibly hopey-changey soundbites in place of coherent policy and action. His Nobel Peace Prize was effectively awarded for Not Being Another Old White Guy. As was said of Lord Kitchener, at least he made a good poster.
But then, in the past couple of weeks, Obama started to do things, or so it seemed. His first act was provoked by the claims from Donald Trump that he had not been born in the United States and as such was not eligible to be President; Trump’s campaign was of course a continuation of the so-called birther movement, that had been making similar insinuations since before Obama had been elected. Again, he was criticised for his inaction: if he really had been born in the USA, why didn’t he just come up with the relevant slip of paper? In fact, Obama was playing a political version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope against George Foreman in 1974, soaking up the punishment in the knowledge that he was in possession of the killer punch. Or was it? After all, the die-hard birthers will continue to insist that the certificate Obama produced is a fake. And even those of us who are not members of the deranged wing-nut community have to admit that the certificate is just another simulacrum, a paper representation of an event that came and went nearly 50 years ago, and as such can never be regained.All that paper became irrelevant when Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, provided you didn’t believe that he’d died four or nine years ago, or that he had never existed at all. Many of those that chose to take the news at face value began USA!USA!USA!-ing in Times Square, but the story soon turned out to be about yet more simulacra, as the White House pondered whether we’d be allowed to see images of the body. Of course, any such image would inevitably have been dismissed as a fake – there had already been a bad fake doing the rounds, just to test the waters – while at the same time being dismissed as triumphalism on the part of Americans. The closest we could get to reality was a shot of Obama and his team watching the action taking place in Abbottabad, but it subsequently transpired that this was a fake as well, or a dramatic reconstruction, whichever is the closest. And in any case, even if we were to see a convincing, authenticated representation of Osama’s body, by the time we saw it the alleged subject of the picture would have been feeding the fauna in the Indian Ocean for several hours, just another event beyond the scope of representation, beyond any notion of truth or reality.