We aren’t always – perhaps seldom – the best we can be. Fortunately, we have our moments. And, well, generally, we aren’t racists, bigots, sexists; we aren’t roaring masses lynching, beheading, stoning. We feel jealousy but aren’t driven by ravenous coveting; we can be irrational but save such excesses for football.
Obama has demonstrated in the last couple of weeks who he thinks we are. But he doesn’t know us.
“But President Barack Obama wasn’t in a mood to hear them out. He stopped the conversation and offered a blunt reminder of the public’s reaction to such explanations. “Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen. The public isn’t buying that.”
“My administration,” the president added, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” (Politico)
Never mind, of course, that it was he as much as anyone (more than anyone except his coherts in Congress) who encouraged pitchforks. He misunderstands our anger. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have needed to resort to multiplying his petition-signers by three. He doesn’t understand (or perhaps know about) the tea parties – not violent, done with apparent good cheer & quiet resolution, anger perhaps but not greed, not putting out a hand. And these demonstrations are directed, it seems, not at wealthy businessmen but rather at Congress. (Their feckless choices are likely to devalue our houses, our retirement – we figure we might have been personally duped if we put our money into Madoff’s hands, but we didn’t have much choice in terms of Freddie and Fannie.) Nor is the anger irrational, the demonstraters will reasonably and ruefully admit they elected these idiots.
Obama seems to think we are a banana republic, an African tribe, European serfs – he may see history but not our history. We aren’t easily brought to mob rule. He is counting on the power of what we know to be a common human passion, covetousness, but which Americans have long restrained because an economic and political system like ours trains its power in a more productive and less aggressive form. We aren’t without this vice – we are, of course, human and subject to sin. But we have pity for those driven by a passion we see as temptation – one arising from our own flawed nature, leading to our own unhappiness. We are not likely to see in it righteous anger. (And, of course, we are right.)
He seems to have defined us by Face in the Crowd, All the King’s Men. We see these, feel, ruefully, that there is a truth in them. But, still he sees them as more true, apparently, than the letters between Adams and Jefferson, the voice of Lincoln. He assumes our history is as he sees it, as, say, Chomsky would see it; he goes to Europe and apologizes for us. And has a president before demonstrated such a remarkable lack of proportionality (let alone history)? I assume he believes that we would be liked better by those who share religious beliefs with the Bosnians, the Kuwaitis, the Iraqis, the Afghans if we had not taken the steps we did or by the Germans and French if we hadn’t underwritten NATO. Perhaps. But while rewriting history to make a politician look better is a given and rewriting present history to place the blame on one’s predecessor may be somewhat common in a politicized atmosphere, I’m not at all sure rewriting history to make one’s own country look bad is useful. And I’m pretty sure it is not a leadership that stimulates the best in us.
Last weekend I heard Adam Gopnik speaking of the brilliance of Obama’s speech on religion. I printed it out, thinking I’d perhaps listened to it with a prejudiced, conservative ear. Well, I suspect I had. Nonetheless, a speech that speaks of his grandmother, then ailing, and her racism is not a speech that speaks of the best in us. That Gopnik sees it in terms of the grandeur of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is baffling to me. But it also demonstrates what people like Gopnik think of their fellow Americans.
It showed us how Obama looks at history, looks at his people, looks at their potential. I’ve often remarked here about the usefulness of heroes – they show us the best that we can be. Villains, well, they are cautionary tales as well. But how do we react when it is our leader who demonstrates contempt for us, who believes he is all that stands between the bankers and our pitchforks?
Sometimes, in certain people’s fantasies, we see what they think we are. I have been wanting to put up a long post on narrative, and here is a rough draft of one of its core anecdotes:
Lately, I was talking to one of my husband’s friends – speaking of the narratives that the post-traumatic stress victims made as psychiatrists drew from them the moments that overwhelmed and then helped the victims piece together their memories of what came before and what came after. The human desire for narrative is one of the oldest of all our desires, the desire to make sense of our experiences. And the sense that such people make of their most terrrifying memories is true – the fragments that overwhelm them have served to obliterate for those horrible moments that they relive them the narrative of how and why – what came before and what came after. But my husband’s colleague shouted at me, deeply disturbed, how dare you, he said, how dare you make television narratives of these people’s ragged and fragmented lives. It is you who are at fault, you who force upon these people meanings when there is none.
Of course, my use of televised narratives in all sorts of discussions often disturbs those with more high art definitions of meaning. This tendency opens me to such condescension. But I do it purposely (as well as compulsively.) Television is but another form in which that great long tradition finds expression – that tradition that began long before the written word. Narrative is entertainment, it is a way to communicate indirectly much more richly than rules or laws can do, it is a way to make sense of our experience. Of course, even in my life wasted watching television, I would not think first of television narratives, but I wouldn’t disown them either – they express our natural tendency. And in that moment, I felt hit at gut level – this rather sweet man with his courtly manner, hid a certain condescension, if well and politley. He thought our lives – those of others – “ragged” – their stories fragmented. Like most of us, I suspect he lives with a certain cognitive dissonance. He speaks of Camus & Sisyphus; he may well think he believes it. But I have my doubts he really thinks his own life lies in such pieces. In gentle and entertaining ways he develops profuse and interesting narratives that justify his own actions or wisdom or even virtue. He isn’t self-righteous, I might hasten to admit, but certainly the subtext of each narrative is an argument for his actions or his perspective – no more and I suspect no less than mine are about my own “rightness.”
The nineteenth century romantics often returned to the vision of ourselves in our beloved’s eyes – the better self, whole in that eye, better than we were. The heroine’s eye measured the hero and straightened him, gave him the backbone he needed. In others’ remarks we see how we look in their eyes. We come to what the media thought in the long, long campaign that led Obama to office – and what he thinks, as well. How often did we hear of the danger to Obama – that he was likely to be assassinated because he was African-American? While we must face an ugly history that included lynchings, most countries have histories of internal murders. We were irritated when an AP reporter filed a story that threats to Obama were heard at a Palin rally, but no other person was found who had heard it. Those people (the “other,” those who liked Palin, those who weren’t Democrats, those who weren’t, well, reporters) were hicks, vicious, violent, hateful. Of course, the long eight years of Bush derangement might have suggested there was a lot of projection out there. I suspect that is part of the protectiveness, the anger some of us feel when Palin is criticized. She isn’t perfect, but we see in their pretentiousness, in their vulgarity, in their dishonesty how they see us. Those in flyover territory, those “breeders,” those women – whatever our similarity may be, we find we don’t like those comments all that much. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be storming the cities with pitchforks. We just want to switch the channel, to turn out the jerks at the next election