“The notion that, you know, somehow we’re not making progress [in Iraq] I — I just don’t subscribe to. I mean, we’re having elections.” — George W. Bush

I would call this a fetish, a handy term that comes from anthropology, where it describes “any object of irrational or superstitious devotion.” Karl Marx adapted it as he puzzled over the oddity of capitalist economies, in which people often have more intense relations with things they buy than with humans they know (commodity fetishism). Freud applied it to sexual proclivity: for obsession with a part, like a foot or shoe, rather than the whole to which it belongs. George Bush has an elections fetish.

He often repeats the term in an empty, adoring, fetishistic way. He grows almost tumescent just saying the words: “People are voting. . . . It’s exciting times for the Iraqi people. . . . The fact that they’re voting in itself is successful.”

He also tends to use the part, elections, for a grander whole: freedom or democracy, as if elections are democracy, full stop. And note that he said “we’re,” not “they’re,” having elections.

“Irrationally reverenced” is part of the Concise Oxford‘s definition of a fetish. What’s irrational in the Bush reverence for Iraq’s election? Well, the vote is being imposed after an unprovoked invasion and under an occupation that is onerous and humiliating — a set of contradictions that seem evident to almost every Iraqi passerby interviewed by a Western journalist who slips out of his barricaded hotel. It will occur under a virtual lockdown: traffic banned, airport closed, a three-day curfew. Iraqis will vote for 111 different lists, but few candidates are named, out of fear.

The election’s promoters, the occupying powers, tortured detainees (the latest photos show UK troops making naked Iraqis simulate oral and anal sex). Jittery soldiers kill families whose cars approach checkpoints. Fallujah lies waste, its 300,000 people living as refugees. You have to really focus on voting and nothing else, to get giddy about this election.

What else is irrational in the fetish? It’s capricious. It doesn’t attach to all elections, just some. (Her shoe but not others.) In 1984, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua held an election that was validated by 400 observers from 40 countries, but the U.S. rejected its legitimacy. In 1990, the country elected a party supported by the U.S., and it accepted the result. In Algeria in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (’nuff said) won a clear victory, but the army cancelled the result. No objection from the U.S. For that matter, Yasser Arafat was probably the most genuinely elected Arab leader in his time, but the U.S. said he had to go. Riddle me that.

The British Colonial Office had a great term for this approach to elections in the Arab world: indirect rule. Margaret MacMillan quotes an official in her book Paris 1919: “What we want is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves, something that won’t cost very much . . . but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.” Sounds exactly like what the U.S. got in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai, whom they first approved and then got elected. Same deal with Ayad Allawi in Iraq: Appoint him prime minister, then make sure he’s elected.

They’ve now decided Belarus, for some reason, is democratically objectionable, while their ally Uzbekistan, where an opposition leader was boiled alive for insisting on his religious rights, is not on the same list. But a fetish would hardly be a fetish if it weren’t fickle.

The notion of fetishes suits our era of archaic religious clashes: Islam versus Christianity and Judaism etc. The Bible’s second commandment, after all, forbids graven images, i.e., fetishes. But I confess I actually thought about it after Stephen Harper’s latest warning over same-sex marriage: that it might lead to polygamy. If polygamy, I thought, what will we need to panic about next — idolatry? But say this at least for the Bible: While it is dead set against fetishes, it nowhere prohibits polygamy.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.