Sunday, February 17, 2008

What for Brains?

You know I'm a faithful reader of Fr. Frank's Sunday sermon, and today is no exception. I would feel better about this piece if I had Obama Fever. But I just can't catch it.

I do like him better than Hillary, who has always struck me as an institutional manipulator whose main goal is her own advantage. Not that this makes her worse than Bill Clinton or most other politicians for that matter in a country as trapped as ours by old ideologies and thus more or less unable to have new social ideas and look for political innovators. But I agree with Sean Gonsalves, who wrote about Hillary, what record? What has she done besides broker a lot of forgettable-to-rotten deals on stuff like enabling the Iraq invasion? That's a non-rhetorical question.

But Obama. I notice that Fr. Frank used to praise him by damning Hillary. Today he's moved on to praising him by damning McCain. He points out how the Republicans are a party of old and wealthy white men who don't represent or resemble America. And . . . ah, so what? That has been true since General Grant, and in the modern period since Ronald Reagan. Reagan turned 70 a month after he was inaugurated. MacCain will turn 72 before election day 2008, but lucky for him 72 is the new 62 - he looks a lot better than Reagan at the same age, leading member of the meat-and-martinis generation. The point is that the Republicans have represented the interests of a tiny white minority since for decades, and this hasn't stopped them from controlling three out of three branches of government for most of that time. We need a better reason for thinking that Obama can actually win.

There's the post-boomer belief that they are post-racism: Gonsalves believes this about his people. I don't. I haven't seen a massive movement about white Thirtysometimes to put their kids in majority-Latino public schools for the good of society. What is true is that crude racism toward Obama will sink the Republicans in a second - even comments about how "articulate" he is will be turned into instant CNN crawlers.

What is also still true is that Obama won't be able to Act Black. He'll have to get mad only in that weird resonant TV-preacher way, full of high-minded moral indignation. If he falls off that wagon it will be a huge deal and lots of fun to watch the media tie itself in knots trying to talk about his blackness without actually using the words.

The Change Candidate wasn't in #1 most-emailed position in the NYT today though. That position went to a piece called "Dumb and Dumber," about how Americans don't actually know anything. Well TV Americans, anyway, one of whom thought Budapest was the capital of the country called "Europe." It's tempting to see Obama, who says only what other Democrats have already said, is the candidate of the Dumb Generation(s), who will inherit America and do an even better job than the Meat-and-Martini generation of running the country into the ground.

But there's also the "hope" thing. Obama comes along at a time when leaders have never in recent times been more removed from the majority, more ignorant of it, and more unaccountable. Something about Obama's fervor and commitment makes it seem like he can cross the chasm. I think that's what people really loved about Kennedy's Camelot - he came from a family of bootleggers, but he wasn't a dreary, overstuffed crook. He seemed to have ideals. He wasn't just handsome enough to be a romantic lead, but had enough idealism to be romantic about politics and therefore make politics seem like it was part of people's lives again - of their hopes. He helped people take romanticism seriously. Obama seems to be doing the same thing.

Obama has something else going for him. The president is always the national father, and Hillary threatens that cultural function. Of course the president has always also been the white father, so it looks at first like Obama would be at as much of a disadvantage as Hillary. But "presidentialism," as the American Studies scholar Dana Nelson puts it, involves a deep masculinity function. George Lakoff, the Democratic commentator on campaign language and categories, identifies Democrats with the nurturing parent, which he contrasts with the Republican's strong father. Obama has the air of idealism, but whites, especially white men, will automatically attribute to him a suppressed rage that they will identify with strength. Hope in Obama comes from the sense that his race, ironically, will allow him to appear to be the first strong-nurturer the democrats have had since JFK.

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