The political rise and the ensuing precipitous free fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger
certainly demand a definitive written account explaining how a semiarticulate
Austrian bodybuilder reinvented himself into governor of America’s most populous

Unfortunately, Gary Indiana’s Schwarzenegger Syndrome doesn’t fit the bill. There are plenty of hints scattered through the short but disjointed 140-page narrative that Indiana’s analysis is going to be somehow less than fulfilling in understanding the Governator’s trajectory. We could start with the full-page-size photo of the author posing in spiked blond hair and a black feather boa. Or end when he attempts to explain the banality of American politics by referring to Mary McCarthy, Herbert Marcuse, Renata Adler, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Franz Fanon, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal, Edward Said, Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Alexander Kluge, Angela Davis and Hannah Arendt — all in the same sentence!

In between, we don’t learn anything new about Schwarzenegger — or how he got elected, or what it really meant or didn’t mean — because Indiana, primarily a novelist, does no independent reporting and very little new thinking.

What we get instead is a jagged, half-cooked rant in which the “contempt” mentioned in the book’s subtitle turns out to be the author’s contempt for . . . just about everything. Contempt for the American political system and for those fools who actually vote. Contempt, therefore, for elections as well. Contempt for the wealthy who game the system and for the poor who play along. Contempt for the owners of the mass media and contempt for ordinary reporters. It’s all so cynical and hopeless and rigged, why not wrap yourself in a boa and pitch a temper tantrum?

Among Indiana’s gale-strength huffings, we do, however, pick up some curious notions, the sort of faintly paranoiac conclusions that have slowly wormed their way into the oppositional discourse of the last handful of years. Indiana makes no bones about this, saying, “It had been normal to feel paranoid since the election of 2000. Even more normal since 9/11.” Though the downing of the Twin Towers wasn’t really that bad, we learn. It was just a more graphically compelling image of worse things we Americans do to others. The attack that killed 3,000 people was just “our own Reichstag Fire.” And Osama? Clearly a Little Leaguer compared to Jerry Falwell. In the days after 9/11, “Islamic fundamentalists,” Indiana says, “weren’t nearly as scary as the fundamentalist Christians who were running the United States.”

It takes two to tango, Indiana reports, and therefore the manipulated bear as much blame as the manipulators. “When Americans wake from the thanatological transports the thrill of the tango instills in its most overtly aggressive partner, perhaps the United States will stop repeating the same brutal dance I have witnessed throughout my lifetime, and its citizens will see the full ugliness of this spectacle rather than a display of peacock-like patriotic splendor,” Indiana writes. “But we will have to learn to distinguish a Hollywood movie from reality first, and learn the bitter lesson we have taught the rest of the world.”

Oh yeah, back to Schwarzenegger. I think Indiana’s central point, if there
is one, is buried somewhere in that last paragraph. Americans are besmitten and
half-drunk with celebrities, and it’s really kind of depressing that they should
vote for folks like Arnold thinking he’s really like one of the characters in
his movies instead of the self-serving, ambitious, conniving, duplicitous titty-grabber
that he really is. Got that? That shocking revelation now once again reproduced
in black and white, we can move on.

Indiana’s at his best when he sticks to what he knows — some purplish analyses of the fictions entwined in Schwarzenegger’s various films. “He has never been an actor playing a character; in Schwarzenegger’s roles, the character plays him,” he writes. “The fictional Schwarzenegger hero incarnates the body-builder-turned-actor-turned-governor’s reductive view of politics, morality and social relations, enacts his messianic fantasies, dramatizes his fierce and almost robotic preoccupations with winning and getting his way.”

The author is at his worst when he fumblingly tries to explain the real-life politics of it all. Indiana retreads the tired trope that the 2003 recall election was some sort of circus, fueled magically by Congressman Darrel Issa’s injection of $1.7 million into the petition campaign, and that the whole show was one more contemptible manipulation of the hoi polloi. (And maybe even another conspiracy — this time to save the privatized power market.)

It seems to have made little impression on the author that California voters actually showed tremendous maturity in the recall. Nearly 100 percent of the electorate said they were paying attention to the campaigns. More debates than ever before in a similar election were held and offered a wider ideological choice than anyone can remember (from Tom McClintock on the paleo-right, through Arnold and Cruz Bustamante in the establishment center, to Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo on the greenish left). Meanwhile, the carnival candidates like Gary Coleman and Mary-the-porn-star were duly ignored and played no palpable role in the contest.

Money is a powerful influence in American politics, but cash alone can’t get people to vote. Just ask Al Checchi and Mike Huffington how far they got with $75 million — if you can find them. The people of California signed those recall petitions and voted en masse not because Issa dribbled in less than $2 million but because they were fed up with politics-as-usual and wanted to give an out-of-the-box character like Arnold a shot. What was there to lose?

Indiana reported mostly what was going on in his own head instead of trying to figure out what Californians were thinking. Yes, the media are cynical, and as the trivial substitutes for the substantive, celebrity fuses with politics (hate to pick on it, but doesn’t that supremacy of celebrity surface right there when Indiana’s boa-covered pic takes up the entire back cover?). But understanding Schwarzenegger has nothing to do with Albert Speer, or Rudy Giuliani as “Il Duce,” or iconic mythical heroes of “men with breasts.” Nor does Angela Davis or Jean-Paul Sartre really figure in very much.

There are much simpler explanations for what has transpired in California. An
electorate thoroughly disgusted by the corrupt politics of both parties found
itself slightly amused and guardedly optimistic that a wild card like Arnold could
use his celebrity to make things a little better in a state that had seemed to
lose its way. The voters elected him, gave him a one-year probation period, and
when he began to fail, they started turning against him and now threaten his political
future. Seems like good collective common sense to me. And in the meantime, no
one was sent to Dachau.

THE SCHWARZENEGGER SYNDROME: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt | By GARY INDIANA | The New Press | 140 pages | $19.95 hardcover

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