The United States has a new regime! The accessories included with our new emperor are a diamond smile, civility, firm back rubs and relentless rhetoric of moderation and unity. Biden has already flexed his power in several ways that encourage those on the left — action to end federal contracts with private prisons, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline permit, lifting the near-ban on refugee resettlement. I believe joy should be a cornerstone of the movement, and am all for celebrating each and every win we get. However, I am finding the mainstream media embrace of Biden as a savior figure to be terribly troubling.
Last week, a winsome, patriotic portrait of Biden graced the cover of GQ in Britain. Inside the magazine, they printed mock-ups of the new president in various trendy outfits, looking charming and magnetic in every picture. The sub-headline of the article is, “The 46th POTUS is more than the saviour of the Union... He’s a true-blue style icon too.” While other mainstream media coverage of Biden is not quite so sycophantic, much of it is fawning. I understand the relief that many feel now that Biden’s vicious, sinister, sadistic predecessor has left the White House. It goes without saying that Biden has a more sociable temperament than Trump. But the obsessive focus in mainstream political discourse on personality during the past five years has perilous consequences. Not only does it result in a sweeping free pass for Biden, defanging those who would try to hold him accountable to the dictates of justice and equity, but on a much deeper level it shifts our attention from the power structures at play in governance to the individuals who happen to hold a given seat in government at a given time. The focus on whether we prefer a friendly emperor or a cruel emperor detracts from whether we should have an empire in the first place.
Religious, theological and spiritual institutions (such as churches) are complicit in this problem by focusing so much energy on personal moral decision-making, and so little on equipping people with the skills to analyze and critique the broader social and political environments in which those decisions are made. Ultimately, it is not surprising that institutions like the media and religious bodies emphasize the role of the individual and deflect the role of the collective. One of the hallmarks of institutions is they are driven by self-preservation, and they protect their own interests by highlighting personalities and obscuring structures.
As those on the left grapple with the question of “where do we go from here,” may we refuse to be placated by the imagery of a cordial oppression and redouble our efforts on shifting how power and resources are distributed in our society. No matter what the tailors may tell us about how fine the emperor looks in his new couture, may we be wise and brave enough to declare it when the emperor has no clothes.
Rev. Helmiere convenes Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Feb. 10-16, 2021 issue.