Anthony Barnett on What’s Changed

Credit Anthony Barnett with making the link between the Barack Obama campaign and Will Smith’s box-office smash, “I Am Legend.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Barnett here (28 minutes, 13 MB MP3)

anthony barnettopenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett

In the movie it’s the lean and gorgeous family-minded, brown-eyed man (the scientist Robert Neville, played by Smith) who’s “the last human” in New York and maybe on earth. He’s immune from the virus that has turned the rest of us into zombies, and he’s in a mad dash to share whatever it is that’s protecting him with a colony of survivors. “I can help you,” he shouts in the last self-sacrificing moments of the film. “Let me save you.”

On our polluted political playing field it’s the Hollywood-handsome Senator from Illinois who stands alone — the slim, still mysterious stranger who’s come to rescue us, who said in his Iowa victory speech “in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” See Gary Kamiya‘s fine piece today in Salon.

In the film we’re told that the killer virus was a human accident, the work of a dotty, donnish English lady who thought she’d compounded a universal cure for cancer. Anthony Barnett’s distillation of the filmic-political parable is: “In short, the world is saved from Mrs Thatcher by Barack Obama.”

There are church-state resonances here: “God didn’t do this, we did,” says Dr. Neville, in the weedy ruins of Manhattan. And there’s a gender riddle: how is that in both versions the plausible savior is a youngish African-American man, while his fumbling foil is a very smart woman contriving to do good?

Suffice it to say we have one of those delicious convergences or “visual rhymes” to remind us that no event, and surely no trend, stands alone in this mediated world. And further that there are depths and resonances of the Obama boom that haven’t been measured yet. Anthony Barnett’s reading after Iowa and a family night at the movies was: “He is not just a potential president, he alone has the combination of skills to save mankind. Every single seat sold for “I Am Legend” makes Obama more electable and puts Hilary on the wrong side of the great plague.”

I’ll engage Anthony Barnett in conversation tomorrow (Wednesday) not as a film critic and not as an expert particularly on American politics, but as an off-shore wiseman — “a torchlight procession of one,” as a friend describes him — on most of the grander question we care about. I hope we’ll get this chance often again. Anthony Barnett is a model of thinking and doing: writer, editor, reformer and entrepreneurial radical from the Labour Club at Cambridge in the Sixties and the New Left Review in the Eighties, a hold-out from Tony Blair’s New Labor movement in the Nineties, and then founding editor (months before 9.11) of the compendious site openDemocracy. Here’s the bouquet that friends tossed at him on his 65th birthday last November. When I met Anthony Barnett in Greece last July, I noted here that he speaks with that experienced, curious, post-imperial English voice that we waited for and never heard on the way to Iraq.

I want to ask him for the Big Picture — at least a big picture frame — for 2008.

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