Friday, May 30, 2008

My two cents

I fancy myself as not liking politics, but perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I do. At any rate, before too much time goes by, I thought as a responsible citizen and voter enjoying the great rights of free speech, I may as well contribute to the discussions on Barack Obama.

I can lay claim to at least having heard of him before quite a few other people happened to do. A good five or six years ago and more, signs with his odd-looking name popped up on lawns in my old suburban Chicago neighborhood. Since the neighborhood is "changing," as we put it politely, I assumed he was a local politician running for local or at most state office, possibly even running cynically on the strength of an impressively African-sounding name.

And of course he was running, on a name that happened to be his own, and of course in time he won, election to the United States Senate no less. My family and I watched his speech after his senate victory that night and, I will say this though I suppose to some good souls it will make me look a troglodyte, I have not willingly listened to or read anything written by Barack Obama since.

That night he talked, and he talked, and he talked, to adoring supporters in a hotel ballroom, as all winning candidates do. He was locquacious and poised, joyous, obviously. I don't remember what he said. But as the speech went on, we turned to each other in the privacy of our living room and began to laugh.

If this were a short story, now would be the time for the narrator to make clear that the laughter was the nervous, frightened laughter of two bigots appalled at fresh proofs that the world was changing. But we're not bigots. It was the laughter of two intelligent people amazed that this talking man, now elected to a seat of great power, could not hear himself, could not slow down, stop, listen to himself talk endlessly and endlessly about himself, and himself, and then about himself.

I joked at his expense. "And I remember!" I preached in sweeping gestures to the television, "one day, when I was only a boy of ten, that I saw ... a cat outside a polling place. And the cat was black and white. And I knew, when I saw that cat ... that my grandmother was right. And that one day racism and prejudice would end ...." And my husband laughed and I went out to the kitchen to get something to eat.

A bigoted troglodyte, taking refuge in laughter at an appallingly changed and threatening world? I don't think so. Rather, a voter, disgusted at the explosive, complacent inanity of a man who was now my United States Senator. And, later, virtually God, deified by the media. A few years ago I visited out-of-state cousins who are probably more often Democratic voters than I am. "What do you think of Barack Obama?" one asked excitedly. To her, he was new material.

I looked at her. "Oh, you mean God?" I said. Everyone laughed, even though my response came out ruder than I meant it to. I meant it to sound bantering. "Honestly, whenever we see him on television," I explained, "we just say 'Oh look, there's God.' And we change the channel." Everyone laughed some more, and that was the end of that little out-of-state conversation. I did not mean to quash it -- I don't think I did -- but there is no pleasant way of saying, "I don't think of him because he's hysterically overexposed and not interesting enough to think about." The corollary thought is so obviously What's your problem?

The only interesting thing about him is the way he is adored, especially by the media, of course. You could be illiterate and know he is adored simply by the frequency with which his picture, always a flattering one, has appeared on the front pages of newspapers and magazines since that first victory speech in Illinois. And what is even more interesting about him, this spring, is the way he has been forgiven. The God who is forgiven -- what an intoxicating and mysterious package to elect to the presidency.

Forgiven what? The revelations about the absurd and vicious church that he belonged to for twenty years, about its racist pastor and its creed and Obama's happy support of both, should have ended his career. With those revelations, I thought the empty man had been filled in. So this is what he thinks. So this is why he says nothing of substance. The very idea of a man's simply asking to become commander in chief of an integrated armed forces -- supposing that were a job separate from the presidency -- in wartime, while wallowing in a toxic anti-American spiritual bath, should have been perfectly incredible. That the position of commander in chief is bound up with the presidency and that he is going on seeking it and has been forgiven and given more air time and allowed to seek it, would seem to past generations a symptom of wide-ranging social insanity. In past generations, this would have made the Democratic party a disgrace. The candidate would have been a disgrace. He still is.

But something in the society has changed. Previously, I like to think, upon these revelations his opponents would have refused to debate with him, his staff would have quit; all would have said, whatever the nation's problems, a candidate with any respect for the electorate or himself does not start his race rigidly intellectually loathing the country. And yet now all such past understandings are no matter. Hillary Clinton -- who should have joined the Republican party on the spot, become John McCain's running mate, and left the Democrats with their God -- cannot shun Obama for fear, probably, of herself seeming narrow-minded. He goes on, joyous and talking, and winning.

Something has changed, some definition of what constitutes respect for the electorate. Yes, yes, I know the nation and its policies and history are open to criticism and debate, and patriotism does not mean a mindless, pop-eyed salute and a growled "Love it or leave it." But, facts like Obama's church and his friends and, yes, his wife's inability to feel proud of her country until it embraced God, all paint Barack Obama into a corner where he clearly wanted to be until perhaps he realized that the whole nation does not necessarily always enjoy life in this corner, nor pay much attention to it from day to day. But forgiveness for his, shall we say, gaffes has also come from this corner, and that is why his career is not over.

The one truth that Obama's candidacy has proven about American society is that the statistics are right: one fourth of all Americans hold a college degree. That must be true. That's why he has been forgiven, and has continued to collect endorsements from other politicians -- itself a disgraceful thing -- and more importantly to win primaries. He is familiar. A brief shock -- "controversial pastor," etc. -- but no, we know him. A generation or two ago, we would not have, not because of his skin color but because a generation or two ago, one fourth of us did not graduate college. Now we do. He's your professor, and mine. We've heard, from freshman year, the things that Obama heard in his corner, things he was not revolted by, things avowed by his pastor and his friends and his wife. America the cesspool, the corrupt, the enslaver, the brutalizer of nations, the vast capitalist arena where dog eats dog and the children go to bed hungry and oil refineries block the sun. Oh, we might have been a little uncomfortable with this at first, because if we looked out the window in college we could see the sun shining after all, but the professor was there to assure us he was right, he had books, and our uncomfortableness was a normal and necessary response to profound challenge. We grow, and growth is painful. Right? Remember?

Why else, indeed, does Barack appeal so much to the young? Already naturally righteous, most of them are also students. They hear every day from polished, well-spoken men the things that have echoed in Barack's corner for years. He may be the most exciting and yet familiar adult in their lives. Electing your prof to the White House, and he's young and black. Way cool.

His supporters of any age may argue with me, at this point, that I've freely admitted to not paying any attention to his words or ideas, but have only accused him of being unfit for office because he listened for a very long time to a man whose sulfurous and peurile attitudes he has already repudiated in no uncertain terms. Yes, I plead guilty. I ignored Barack Obama from the night of his senate victory speech because I couldn't believe how shallow he was, and I stupidly reasoned that after his six-year term, we would hear no more of him. Carol Moseley Braun was another photogenic, black first-time Senator from Illinois who made a lot of gaffes and then disappeared after six years. Somehow, no one marked her for the presidency. No one made her God.

I've written of what I deign to call "interesting" things. Another interesting thing to contemplate is what might happen if Barack Obama loses the election in November. He may lose, and he may even lose big. Three quarters of the American population are still not college graduates, and may not find Obama challenging but familiar. For all we know, John McCain may enjoy a Reagan- or even only a Nixon-size victory. If that should happen, I fear we are going to have some stunned and angry worshipers in that corner, clawing themselves in despair at the way people will vote.

No comments:

Post a Comment