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.

Related Content

  • Sutter

    I don’t have anything bright to say, but I like the idea of posting these before the conversation if and when possible, to facilitate pre-conversation comments and therefore dialogue between the community and the guest. I hope that continues. Keep up the great work!

  • Yeah for posting before the show!

    So, I’m in the slow transition between Richardson and Obama, and I was drawn to Obama specifically because of his Iowa speech. What I’m wondering is how exactly Obama’s cure works.

    Other than rhetoric, what can we do to unpollute our system?

  • nother


    My friend Allyson and I drove to N.H. to see Senator Obama make his victory/concession speech – I wanted to get a sense of the man outside of that box we call TV. I came away with the realization that this is not a Barack Obama candidacy this is a Barack/Michelle candidacy.

    Both Allyson and I were awestruck by the grace and power of Michelle She literally glided across that stage. When Barack came out and stood with his arms raised in unison with ours, Michelle came up to his side and wrapped her arms around his waist as his stayed extended out to us…as if we were connecting to Michelle through the body of Barack. All of us unified in that moment of shared intimacy – an all-inclusive intimacy that knows no bounds.

    I thought of the words about his wife from his Iowa victory speech:

    “I think it makes sense for me to thank the love of my life, the rock of the Obama family, the closer on the campaign trail.”

    And I realized he meant every word, he truly loves Michelle (and needs her), and wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a leader that knew how to love a person, not just a people (and thus power)? Can it be any other way?

    Beyond that, I came away feeling better about America with the realization that woman are finally moving onto their half of the yin and yang scale. Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton are claiming their rightful role in self-determination of political life – not just family life.

    Which brings me to the website Open Democracy, I was first attracted to the 50.50 initiative because as they write:

    “a global debate without the female half of humanity is neither global nor democratic.”

    There are a number of great podcasts and articles created by woman. One of the podcasts that stood out for me is “empowering women in the middle east” where a woman named Hibaaq Osman stresses that “dignity” is the key. And at one point she asks what is the difference between the fundamentalist in her country forcing her to wear a headscarf and the French government forbidding her to wear one?

    It is striking that with all the rhetoric the Bush administration spouts about bringing Democracy to the Middle East, we never here them demand gender equality.

    Forget the Bushies anyway…the enlightenment of gender equality will not come from rhetoric, only example…and the more Michelle, Elizabeth, and Hillary shine, the more the woman of the middle east will see the light…and follow it.

  • Potter

    Well said Nother and thank you for your impressions of Michelle Obama. I only caught her once on a clip a few months ago and she sounded shrill so yours make a really big difference to me.

    We have been supporting Edwards but I don’t think he is campaigning effectively- obviously. So I might say ( a la Emmett O’Connell) that we are kind of between the reality/possibility of Obama moving forward and Edwards receding and getting used to the idea. Josh Marshall posted (yesterday on his TPM site) a video compilation of Hillary clips from the last few days that is worth looking at even if you are adamantly against her just to allay your worst fears a bit.

    Here it is: Five Days in New Hampshire

    After that I thought and wrote to my “blogmeister” who forwarded this to me: “very touching and assuring about her competency, strength and her ability to be warm and real in moments like this. Who knows what she would be like as president though. I am very troubled by what I see from Bill Clinton these days and I don’t think I want to have him at the White House again. Not that I hated him before. But when the clips were over all I could see was “Clintons again” and that is where we have been.”


    Also check “I had Lunch with Obama Today”

    Finally – I was listening the other night to John McCain’s “victory speech” in New Hampshire and I do declare I have never been so uninspired!

    (disclosure- I have not listened to this yet)

  • nother

    Thanks Potter, I will check out those links.

    It was popular to say that Bill Clinton was the first black president because he was actually in touch with their perspective. With that logic, I would say that Barack Obama would be the first female president – Michelle would demand it.

  • nother

    I love the site Open Democracy, so it’s great to hear a conversation with Mr. Barnett. I hope you don’t mind though, I’m going to be a contrarian to his contrarianism.

    Mr. Barnett talks about America’s standing in the world and he makes a convincing case that things have changed – economically.

    When I listen to pundits speak at length of America’s economic standing amongst the powerful nations I’m reminded of sport writers talking at length about who should be the highest paid pitcher in baseball. It’s fun to talk about for a few minutes but it doesn’t really affect anything. Whether America is the number one, two, or eight on the economic ladder, most people I know will probably have the same standard of living.

    Americans on the street care about the same thing they always cared about on the ground: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Change (and these aren’t clichés) in:

    Life – Healthcare,

    Liberty – from infringed civil rights,

    Happiness – for not just Anglo-Saxons over 50.

    Mr. Barnett says that America cannot default back to before Bush, but he is only thinking economically, not morally. As soon as Obama puts his hand on that bible, this country would get grit under our nails as we climb back up to the moral highground. Little black children in Africa will see something very different in the mirror. Middle Eastern moderates will have a reason to believe once again as they look west.

    Mr. Barnett talks about American political leadership becoming part of the entertainment industry. One only need see the House of Commons to see some entertainment in politics.

    America still embodies true Democracy because we are actually willing to struggle with these questions. How close is the UK to a black president? How close is France, Germany, or China, to a black president. China’s homogenous reality can only take them so far.

    Barack Obama is not “counting on a miricle” – he is the miricle.

  • nother

    The goalposts have been pushed 20 yards in…Hillary will move them back 10 yards. The next Republican regime will move them 20 more yards in, and the next clintonite Democrat will politely bring them 10 yards back.

    Senator Obama’s hope is to pick up those freak’n goal posts and plant them where they belong, thus giving us ALL a level field..

    “We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”

    – Barack Obama in N.H. on Tuesday.

    (When he said that last word, I had a tear in my eye and a fist in the air)

  • Chelsea

    To further the “visual rhymes” what does anyone make of President David Palmer on the TV show 24? He’s tough on terrorism!

  • Great interview. I just listened to it again. This just reminds me of how important it is to “think outside the box” in Geo-politics, as well as every day life. A fresh perspective is very welcome.