The Spectacle of Obama

by zunguzungu

Soon enough, I bet, we’ll have a well established vocabulary of thoughts with which to think about Barack Obama. As he becomes president, we’ll start to get a sense for his style, his failings, and his strengths. We’ll take for granted what now seems so novel: the idea of a president whose relationship to self-righteous stupidity is not that of an organic life form to oxygen. And we’ll no longer see the vacuum that now seems so evident, the empty not yet possibility of a game changing election.

When I was listening to his first press conference, I could only take in what he said and write it down on a blank slate in my mind, like an ethnographer using a tape recorder for a language he doesn’t know yet. I know that what seems new now will turn into the banal and the disappointing eventually, but when you haven’t yet figured out how to see, you look without comprehending. Trying to get a sense for the dynamics of that press conference was like looking out at my students on the first day and trying to figure out which one’s are going to make the class worth teaching. Or when you start watching a complex movie cold, and you have so little initial understanding of its cinematic language that you can only take in the tastes and textures without comprehension, digesting without chewing. We’ll learn to chew, I suppose, but right now I don’t have the knack. And he doesn’t either, I suppose; when he took the question about what kind of dog he’s going to get for the kids, his reference to “a mutt, like me” could have been charming or it could have fallen flat, and the sly, dry seriousness with which he treated that unserious question could have been professorial and condescending or it could show the kind of paternal patience that has made him such an interesting hit with kids. Who knows? Time and experience will give us the patterns we’ll use to trace deviations, variations, innovations, and stagnations, but right now all we’ve got is the knowledge that this is a new nation, albeit in some sense we don’t yet have a sense for.

A few days ago, Rob McDougall wrote about “hearing America’s music” and I linked to that essay because he said a great many things very well. But I’m unsure how to take his assertion (from Greil Marcus) that betrayal of idealistic promises is “the engine of American history” and that while the arc of the universe might tend towards justice, the idea of a “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. These are ideas worth thinking through, and I haven’t, yet.

But it occurs to me that there’s another kind of music we need to attune ourselves to, a kind for which “America,” understood in these terms, is a poor word. Neither is “black,” or “Democrat,” or “Progressive,” or “FDR.” It’s a performance that’s going on right now, and even if Obama is the guy on stage with the mike, we’re the audience, we bought the ticket, and he’s feeling his way through his first performances with a very careful ear to how we’re responding, and with a hope that we’ll buy the cd too, and maybe a t-shirt. As Sepoy nicely put it, the thing about a community organizer is learning how to listen, and while W has taught us not to expect that from a chief executive, Obama has been the most deft and careful listener of this election cycle. It’s a huge part of what got him elected; he always seemed to know exactly how to pitch his words and especially his silences to greatest effect, and he could do that first of all because he knows how to listen. And while he listens for his own reasons, and with his own calculations, the catastrophe that was Bush II had everything to do with an unwillingness and inability to adapt to or even acknowledge the political terrain he was driving along. Riding in an SUV can give you an exaggerated sense of your own power, and can make you a very careless driver; Obama, on the other hand, rides a bike. Doesn’t mean we’ll go anywhere new, of course, but another word for not-yet-disappointed is hope, and I’m hoping.

Right now, we know so little about what kind of an era has just begun, so I’m grasping at straws, divining from tea leaves, and trying to guess from the cover what kind of novel it’s going to be. And one of the most fascinating things about the guy’s style, for me, is what a natural hit he is with children, his ability to be a father figure who listens in a way that makes you want to listen back. John McCain, after all, was always a very different kind of pater. You might feel a certain fidelity to him, a certain desire to like him or a sympathy with his failings, but it didn’t mean you felt the need to agree with him. You understood him in ways he never understood you, and while understanding breeds sympathy, it does not necessarily breed respect. With McCain it didn’t. We watched his concession speech with a certain sympathy, but no forgiveness. He is who he is: a cranky old Grandpa Simpson who you don’t bother to argue with because experience has taught you the hopelessness of it, and because he won’t be around long enough for it to matter.

With Obama, I think, the real potential is that he might really be what he seems to be, might actually be a president who listens. There’s nothing in his background that would lead us to expect him to be another FDR, after all, but no one expected FDR to be FDR either. Instead, I focus on listening because it helps outline what seems to me to be a very basic problem with “democracy” when it ceases to be an idealism and becomes something more like a practice, a problem which gets elided when we fetishize the idea of representation. After all, what is democratic representation? The problem, as the Federalists and Anti-federalists understood much better than we do, is that government for the people, by the people, and of the people makes a much better slogan than it does a political theory. If we think that the people should both be governed by their representatives and govern their representatives, then we’re having our cake and eating it too. It cannot logically be both the responsibility of the government to make their policy conform to the pre-existing will of the governed and also to force the governed to conform to a pre-existing policy, a problem which a great deal of American constitutional practice hinges on. Who gets the power to coerce if everyone is supposed to have it? Who can govern if the people who are to be governed are supposed to govern themselves?

In practice, that problem tends to get resolved by some combination of procedure and amnesia; the founders set up broad limitations on exactly how and where the governed could be overruled and coerced, and the people tend to forget that, in fact, they don’t rule. There’s a great deal we could learn from those old constitutional debates, especially if we take the anti-federalists seriously; a post-Progressive era obsession with government that works has left us particularly tone deaf to the virtues of the kinds of obstructions and road blocks that are built into the system we’ve inherited. Letting people rule themselves is, as libertarians point out, something you can partly achieve by not coercing them with violent state power. And Americans have been (as H.G. Wells pointed out) people who conspicuously lack a “sense of the state”; in contrast to despotic European kingdoms, we have enjoyed saying to ourselves, we are a nation, not a state, a polis without a center. We are, as Sarah Palin might put in its most reducto ad absurdist form, a nation of mavericks.

There’s a measure of self-serving fiction in that; while you can achieve a lot by preventing the government from exercising its full power, people aren’t “free” just because it isn’t the government that’s oppressing them. And when it’s things like poverty, insecurity, and fear (in both their most spectacular and most banal manifestations) that prevent people from “governing” themselves, a platform like “smaller government” is just an abdication of responsibility, an unwillingness to even admit that the problem isn’t government. There are moments — and this, I think, is one of them — when “government” is pretty much the best hope we’ve got, if not the best in any ideal sense. The center does tend to hold, and we should take advantage of that. But checks and balances don’t teach us how to do so, how to ensure that the people we subject ourselves to are worthy of that trust. And, in practice, we simply can’t have it both ways; if we need, eventually, to entrust someone with the power to tell us what to do, you have, eventually, to address the problem of how to know what kind of person to give that power to. If there’s going to be a Federal Reserve, and there is for the foreseeable future, we need to think about how it can be used in a better way than it has for the last two decades. Hearing someone like Greenspan essentially say “My bad, guys” is an opening. And Obama hasn’t proven to be transformative yet, but he’s moved the democratic party to the left on almost every issue that matters — maybe not much, maybe not permanently — but he has. Who would have though that anyone could make a progressive tax policy a centerpiece of their campaign and win? People who emphasize that he ran on a tax cut miss something important; he traded a tax cut for an implicit acceptance of the legitimacy, the fairness, of income redistribution. And he won.

But the point of all this, if there is one, is that “democracy,” firmly in quotes, is not a problem we solve by procedure or by amnesia. Neither fetishizing the constitution as the solution to every problem nor pretending there is no problem will get us any traction on the larger question, which is (for me) not what we should be doing but how we should go about doing it. The former will always be foreclosed and circumscribed by circumstance; people make the world they live in but they do not make it as they choose. And, in any case, we more or less agree on the sorts of things that need to happen, even people who might seem to have nothing in common. Where we truly disagree is on the latter, the question of how we engage with those limitations and how we draw out potentials where they exist, how, in short, we deal with the fact that we can only govern ourselves by being governed by others.

My very limited answer to that paradox is to subject to scrutiny some of the metaphors by which the American political idiom is haunted: a vocabulary of the king and his subjects (updated, in this century, to the totalitarian despot and his zombie followers) and an obsession with revolution. Thomas Paine, frankly, set in motion a great number of ideas and sentiments that have since come to be tools for reactionary retrenchment, and falling in love with revolution too often turns into a dis-inclination to deal with process, tradeoffs, or the slowness of progress. But most of all, what Paine made most unavailable (or rather, was the first to do so) was the use of familial metaphors for thinking about the work of the state. For Paine, the proper democratic subject was a person who had dethroned his father, a broad and categorical rejection of the King’s claim to paternalistic authority that he mounted for very good reasons. But rejecting a bad father is not the same thing as rejecting all fathers, and an amnesiac insistence on the American state as no state at all has left the American liberal political tradition really, really, leery of even considering good metaphors for the state. So while the right happily goes about using veiled misogyny and an enthusiasm for violence (as George Lakoff has observed) to tar the liberal approach to statecraft as a womanish “nanny-state” weakness and to extol the virtues of the Republican big-daddy with a six gun, the left has nothing to say; there is no good familial metaphor available. Yet there are, after all, ways to think about parenthood (just like patriotism) that aren’t inherently reactionary, and despite a conservative tendency to define both in terms of power and exclusionary identity, thinking of patriotism as a kind of family relationship is a much more promising idea than our political tradition is usually willing to embrace.

Here’s Lakoff, way back in 2003:

…the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible…The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people.

So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones – those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant – and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, “spoil” people by giving them things they haven’t earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.

Lakoff is a smart guy, and I think he puts his fingers on some interesting issues there, but democrats have had a total inability to get past that conservative narrative. Part of it, I think, is a disinclination to take a parental metaphor for the state as seriously as does Lakoff. Democrats / progressives tend to be just as vexed by the “self-made American” narrative, and just as disinclined to think of themselves as children of the state. But I go back to Obama’s appeal to children, which is perhaps more anecdotal than reliable, but which seems to me to rhyme with something more generally appealing about him: his style is that of a parent who listens. John McCain has practically been defined by his disinclination to listen (berating Obama for not having a history of intra-party dissent), and George Bush was willing to flush his party down the tubes rather than admit personal fallibility, but if Obama is what he seems he might be, he offers the hope of a political process that works, not because there is no power imbalance involved, but because it gets deployed for reasons more like love than hate. Or even if he isn’t, he makes such a thing thinkable in a way it has not been. And that will have consequences, maybe big, maybe small.

But the best metaphor, or at least the one I’m most interested in right now, is that of a musician and audience. And in that vein, I hear America’s music not as a single song we either listen to or don’t, not as an ideal that constantly fails to obtain, but a single longstanding tradition of call and response, a communally understood set of idioms we develop over long experience and struggle, and which we perform even if we’re not performers. In his wonderful Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Lawrence Levine writes that “spirituals both during and after slavery were the product of an improvisational communal consciousness. They were note, as some observers thought, totally new creations, but were forged out of many pre-existing bits of old songs mixed together with snatches of new tunes and lyrics and fit into a fairly traditional but never wholly static metrical pattern. They were…simultaneously the result of individual and mass creativity…In 1845 a traveler observed that the only permanent elements in Negro song were the music and the chorus.” I like this as metaphor because I think an obsession with self-made Americanism has left even progressives deeply distrustful of community process, especially when so many Americans are, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply reactionary bigots. Left and right alike prefer to view their enemies as people not worth listening to, and perceive progress in terms of the extent to which our political opponents can be ignored. But as Levine showed (and his later work uses this early work on slave songs to provide a model for reading American pop culture broadly), musical performance doesn’t have to be an opiate for the masses, a culture industry indoctrinating people, or a vehicle for propaganda. It can be, in fact, the language through which difference is expressed and resolved, conflicts represented and transcended, and through that ever-changing plasticity of form, not a single song but many, and through that heterogeneity, a pluribus can be come a very particular kind of unum.

As Tom Paine was first among many in teaching us to ignore, one cannot have a representative government without that kind of attitude; the problem of factions is not solvable if you presume the “people” as a single mass, or put your faith too strongly in a single static constitutional text. But a “family” is a set of metaphors by which we understand both dissent and continuity, and it might not be a bad thing to think about that. Obama’s “race” speech, after all, did exactly that, using “family” as the metaphor for thinking about a country defined by one part’s rejection of the other part:

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

That’s powerful. In a family, you learn to talk to each other even when you disagree. And in folk traditions, too, you learn to sing together even if you don’t know the same songs. So instead of thinking of “America” as a dream deferred or an ideal always in the making — a question framed by an either/or — I’m interested in what it seems to me the spectacle of Obama makes possible, a sense of progress as defined by oppositional dialog. Who knows what that will turn out to look like; who knows how exactly we’ll be disappointed. But a new verse seems to be starting and I hope we can find new words.