Friday, November 07, 2008

Barack the President

Sorry, I couldn't resist just one more play on that stupid "Joe the Plumber" meme.

Anyway, yes. America is officially the hippest country on earth. Now if we can only do something about all of these damned problems...

Alas, my post-election thoughts remain mostly scattered (unlike last time, when anger and grief compelled me to make an orderly list). At least I can admit that I cried a few times on Tuesday and Wednesday. Sappy, I know. Not that I was surprised -- I've been surreptitiously convinced that this was in the bag for about a month -- rather, the mistiness was generated by the sheer, incontrovertible fact of the thing.

Obviously, now the hard part begins. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who noticed that while the country went apeshit Tuesday night, Obama himself appeared more somber than ever. (Didn't catch it? Check out this behind-the-scenes Flickr set, especially the part where the reports of victory start coming in. The dude doesn't even crack a smile.) The actual business of governance (I suspect) is going to make the triathlon that was the campaign look like a fun run.

* * * * *

In any case, can I dare to hope, for the record, that we begin to see a new kind of political discourse emerge (even if only in parallel to what already exists) as a result of this election? That wasn't explicitly on anybody's platform, I know (how could it have been?), but we shouldn't forget the deleterious role played by the media in recent years -- which I think boils down to the Fourth Estate's seemingly endless fascination with narrative for its own sake.

One of the things that caught my attention about the Obama operation, from the very beginning, was that it seemed to eschew this phenomenon. One example: as it got better at winning elections, the campaign developed a remarkable capacity for confounding the professional chattering class. Again and again, the people who framed politics for a living failed to find the right frame for Obama. And whatever was really going on behind the scenes, the President-elect and his staff made that failure seem inevitable, gently demonstrating that while the folks on the Tee Vee (or wherever) were, in principle, playing an important role, at the same time they were just guessing too.

The Obsidian Wings blogger Publius hinted at his own experience with this sort of thing in the wake of Obama's infomercial:

Remind me to stop doubting the Obama campaign. I can't seem to stop it -- the doubt comes [start melody] regularrrr like seeeeeasons. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and each day publius doth worry about something stupid. Today's worry was that the ad was overkill, that it was unnecessary, etc. It literally bothered me all day long.

But then I watched it -- and I honestly thought it was great, and even sincerely moving at times (I'm basically a sucker for stories about his mother). Like everything else they do, it was pitch perfect. It wasn't focusing on Obama (as I feared it would), but upon the struggles of working families and how an Obama administration would address them. I didn't hear the word McCain once.

So I'm done doubting. I'm done saying Axelrod needs to do this or that. My measly pundit powers pale in comparison. I'm like a rope on the Goodyear Blimp.

How I wish more high-profile public commentators -- in the blogosphere, sure, but especially on cable news and talk radio -- would own this kind of self-criticism (or even develop this kind of self-awareness), regardless of their political affiliations. Instead, so many of them have seemed less motivated by an interest in actual facts than by a desire to have us view them as fact checkers (for instance). At times watching the news this election season was like watching a political version of To Catch a Predator, where the subtext was always the host's fascination with him or herself.

For that matter, at times watching the news this election season was (shudder) like watching a campaign reporter watching porn (and worse: being implicated in that watching):

It occurred to me, as I sat there watching, that jacking off in a hotel room was not unlike the larger experience of campaign reporting. You watch two performers. You kind of like it when one of them gets humiliated. You know they’re professionals, so you don’t feel much sympathy for them. You wish you could participate, but instead you watch with a hidden envy and feel vaguely ashamed for watching. You think you could probably do as good a job or better. You sometimes get a glimpse, intentionally or not, of society’s hidden desires and fears. You watch the porn week after week, the scenes almost always the same, none of them too memorable. The best ones get sent around the Internet.

The bottom line was that savvy voters had to learn how to distinguish between the news and the story that was being told about the news, because there was often a very wide gap between the two. Of course, this is not an argument that the media should stop scrutinizing politicians -- far from it. But scrutiny should be thoughtful and rigorous, driven by a desire for truth. Whatever else I saw on the air this election season, I didn't see a whole lot of anything I could recognize as truth. Not without digging through layers and layers of mediation first.

So, maybe this is sappy too, but what about media change we can believe in? No more hankering for conflict that needs to be resolved. (If the conflict is there, fine. But don't amp up something silly just because you need a story.) And while we're at it: no more theme songs. No more forced neologisms or ready-made catchphrases (tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse). No more branding or logos. No more discussing ratings on-air. No more photogenic, snarky hosts. No more simply repackaging shit that I can already see on YouTube. No more freaking holographs.


Okay, okay, maybe I'm just burned out. Maybe there is a place for all of that stuff. But not, I beg of you, at the expense of straight news. Sweet christ on a cracker, is Jim Lehrer the only one doing (more or less) straight news these days?

* * * * *

And what about this idea: maybe, with an Obama presidency, we can actually reboot America as a meritocracy?

Let's face it, most of the politicians who have come down the pike in my lifetime have been mediocre in that sad and stereotypically American way. With a few notable exceptions, there was an underlying ethical laziness, based at least in part on an underlying physical / material / psychic comfort (not to stray too far into psychohistory, but I have always found it interesting that some of our best presidents have lacked certain of these comforts -- e.g., FDR was paralyzed, Lincoln suffered from depression). Whatever good they did, the balance was usually tilted toward power in the end.

Watching from the safety of the sidelines through the 80s, 90s, and double aughts, I was of course fully versed in the political apathy of my generation. My running internal commentary was typically along the lines of the idea that shit, I could do better than that... but why on earth would I want to? It was a dead-end cynicism born out of more than just a recognition of deep corruption -- it came from a sense that the system existed primarily to perpetuate itself. Talent and intellect were nice but ultimately didn't matter because there was no real payoff -- material or otherwise -- for possessing those qualities.

With Obama, for the first time I feel like I'm witnessing a balanced politician, whose intellect, integrity and interest in "the public good" seems to match his huge ambitions and his (let's face it) highly political nature. Watching him work is strangely humbling, yet at the same time he's the first politician who has -- for me, anyway -- actually made the idea of participating in politics appealing. It isn't really about him, in other words -- it's about the new pathways and synapses that are opening up as a result of this election. That impulse to participate, which I would bet is pretty pronounced in most of the Americans who voted for Obama, gives the lie to the paranoid right-wing view of him as a smooth-talking demagogue (a paranoid view that, by the way, completely confuses servitude with service). And real change is only going to happen if that impulse is realized.

Perhaps the McCain campaign recognized these things too and tried to exploit them to populist effect by elevating everyman bumpkins like Palin and "Joe the Plumber" to national prominence. If so, they missed the point. Democracy, while best suited to a bottom-up model of grass-roots type organizing -- something Obama has stressed from the beginning -- shouldn't be about simply allowing the lowest common denominator to ride roughshod over the national agenda. The price for participation? Excellence.

Which, of course, reminds me of this Zappa quote from the late 80s:

You celebrate mediocrity, you get mediocrity. People who could have achieved more won't, because they know that all they have to do is be "that" and they too can sell millions and make millions and have people love them because they're merely mediocre. Few people who do anything excellent are ever heard of. You know why? Because excellence, pure excellence, terrifies the fuck out of Americans because they have been bred to appreciate the success of the mediocre. People don't like to be reminded that lurking somewhere there are people who can do some shit that you can't do. They can think a way you can't think, they can dance a way you can't dance. They are excellent. You aren't excellent. Most Americans aren't excellent, they're only OK. And so to keep them happy as a labor force, you say, "OK, let's take this mediocre chump," and we say, "He is terrific!" All the other mediocre chumps say, "Yeah, that's right and that gives me hope, because one day as mediocre and chumpish as I am I can..." It's smart labor relations. An MBA decision. That is the orientation of most entertainment, politics, and religion. So considering how firmly entrenched all that is right now, you think it's going to turn around? Not without a genetic mutation it's not!

Let's hope the national mutation is here at long last.

[This last pic: footsteps seen at the PDX Obama headquarters.]


docker said...

Thanks for the link to Obama's Flickr Page - do you think he keeps it up by himself? He does smile a few times, even when he isn't posing.

Also - did you see the interesting list of his favorite music in his profile?

I sure hope he's a good president.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey David, thanks for the comment!

I doubt he keeps the page going himself, though I'm quite sure he had something to do with getting the campaign involved in new media in general.

I love how he (or his amanuensis) gets specific about his preferences. With Bach, he likes the cello suites. With Shakespeare, he likes the tragedies (but not the history plays?).

Incidentally, I have long suspected that there might be a corollary between people who listen to good music and people who would make good presidents. That's just my bias, though. I guess we'll find out soon if it's true...

Joey Your Local Backpacker said...

I feel inspired to say the least. I'm so sick of politicians gettin high paying jobs for doing ZILCH! To the point of Meritocracy, I'm just getting angry that I face getting layed-off and I do my dam job ya digg.
Good article.

Joey Your Local Backpacker said...

I feel inspired to say the least. I'm so sick of politicians gettin high paying jobs for doing ZILCH! To the point of Meritocracy, I'm just getting angry that I face getting layed-off and I do my dam job ya digg.
Good article.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Many thanks for your comment, Joey...