Saturday, March 22, 2008

On Obama: Those Who Hear Only Empty Optimism Aren’t Listening

An interesting article from Jonathan Raban in The London Review of Books. More thoughts below the quotes.

Here is the key quote:

In a recent issue of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, an Obama sceptic, complained that his positions on foreign policy and national security had ‘a certain homeopathic quality’, more calculated to appeal to his ‘legions of the blissful’ than to meet the needs of an ‘era of conflict, not an era of conciliation’. ‘I understand,’ he wrote, ‘that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.’

I think Wieseltier raises the right point, but gets it the wrong way round. For a tragic sense of life is exactly what has marked Obama’s candidacy from the beginning. His powerful memoir, Dreams from My Father, written in his early thirties, is shot through with that sense: its gravely intelligent, death-haunted tone, beautifully controlled throughout the book, is that of an old voice, not a young one – and the voice of the book is of a piece with the plangent, melancholy baritone to be heard on the campaign trail.

Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama aren’t listening. His routine stump speech is built on the premise that America has become estranged from its own essential character; a country unhinged from its constitution, feared and disliked across the globe, engaged in a dumb and unjust war, its tax system skewed to help the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer, its economy in ‘shambles’, its politics ‘broken’. ‘Lonely’ is a favourite word, as he conjures a people grown lonely in themselves and lonely as a nation in the larger society of the world. (Obama himself is clearly on intimate terms with loneliness: Dreams from My Father is the story of a born outsider negotiating a succession of social and cultural frontiers; it takes the form of a lifelong quest for family and community, and ends, like a Victorian novel, with a wedding.)

The light in Obama’s rhetoric – the chants of ‘Yes, we can’ or his woo-woo line, lifted from Maria Shriver’s endorsement speech, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ – is in direct proportion to the darkness, and he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared to do. He courts his listeners, not as legions of the blissful, but as legions of the alienated, adrift in a country no longer recognisable as their own, and challenges them to emulate slaves in their struggle for emancipation, impoverished European immigrants seeking a new life on a far continent, and soldiers of the ‘greatest generation’ who volunteered to fight Fascism and Nazism. The extravagance of these similes is jarring – especially when they’re spoken by a writer as subtle and careful as Obama is on the printed page – but they serve to make the double point that America is in a desperate predicament and that only a great wave of communitarian action can salvage it.

I agree completely. And here's another quote that explains both his appeal as a speaker and his skill as a listener and thinker:

Always by necessity a chameleon, Obama picked up in Chicago the style and rhythms of the black charismatic preacher, just as he’d picked up vernacular Indonesian when he was a child in Jakarta. He can now instantly turn a basketball stadium, a high school gym or a university auditorium into the pumping heart of a black church, with uninitiated whites taking their cue from him (‘Yes, we can,’ he murmurs into the mike, to signal that a hallelujah would not be out of order) and from the blacks in the audience who’ve been doing this on Sundays all their lives. For the suburban white kids, it’s a novel transportation into an exuberant community of souls. No wonder the French class was a wash-out.

But his rallies, galling as they must be to the Clinton campaign, convey a misleading impression of his political skills. Better to eavesdrop on him, via unedited video on the internet, at dinner with four constituents in a DC restaurant or answering questions from the editorial board of a local newspaper. What strikes one first is his gravity and intentness as a listener and observer: a negative capability so unusual in a politician that, when one watches these clips, it’s hard to remember that he’s running for office and not chairing a seminar in a department of public policy. When his turn comes to speak, he is at first hesitant, a man of many ums and ers, but as he articulates his answer you realise that he has wholly assimilated the question, inspected it from a distance and seen around its corners, as well as having taken on board both the character and the motive of his questioner. The campaign trail is the last place where one expects to see an original intellect at work in real time, pausing to think, rephrase, acknowledge an implicit contradiction, in such even tones and with such warmth and sombre humour.

Bush the second famously claimed in the 2000 election campaign to be a "uniter, not a divider." Too bad that phrase has fallen on hard times as a result of Bush being the most divisive president in recent history -- Obama is a uniter in the truest sense of the word.

Some may fear his communitarian instincts, but Obama is also incredibly thoughtful and educated. He may be the best (and only) example of a healthy worldcentric politician. While Bill Clinton had a remarkable grasp of the systems element in politics and how to manipulate it, Obama has a remarkable grasp of the human element in politics and how necessary it is to generate hope and a commitment to change, from the interior of the population. Yet Obama also knows how the system works, allowing him to work with a more integrated understanding of situations.

I've been trying to avoid the word integral, but that is my sense of Obama -- someone who works with aperspectival thinking and understands that the only way to make sense of chaos is to generate meaning. Some may not approve of the meaning he seeks to generate, but compared to the other options, he is the most advanced mind in the game.

I think he has also recognized one other crucial element in the electorate this time around, which the others seem to have missed: Americans want to be moved by the words of their leaders, what Meta Wagner calls A Return to Rhetoric:

Obama is both heralded and criticized for the degree to which his appeal rests on his rhetoric. But an important point is overlooked in these reactions. Obama’s speeches not only encourage people to aspire to their better selves, they’ve also made people aware of a hidden yearning. Long past the days of the eloquent Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, Americans have rediscovered the desire to be absorbed by words, stirred by words, even awed by words, again. That, in itself, is proof that our better selves exist.

Obama wants to touch those "better selves," what Lincoln called our "better angels." As the article in the LRB points out above, he has mastered the art of the Hallelujah element in Black churches -- but what they don't mention is that in doing so, he instills in his listeners a desire to be a part of the change. In its own way, this is evangelical politics.

Obama gets that many, if not most, Americans are disenchanted with politics, alienated and even angry. He has the ability to reshape that sense of angst into a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, and a sense of involvement. And again, as the LBR article suggests, this would not be possible if his words were just "empty optimism." He may be young, but he has an old soul, one that though privileged by some standards, has still been through a lot.

My teen years were not that different than his. No father, seeking escape in drug use, involvement with "sketchy" people. And like him, I changed all of that and went to college, got excellent grades and have become a better person for having gone through those hard lessons.

We need a leader who hasn't been squeaky clean his/her whole life -- who did inhale, who has been down and depressed and lost, who is a fully rounded human being. I am much more willing to follow someone who has been through the shit than I am some "silver spoon" politician.

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