Instapunk’s description of Obama reminds me of a tendency we all have – to become what others find attractive. That can be charming. But sometimes it is a device at once to distance ourselves from others and to ingratiate ourselves with them. One of my son-in-law’s friends was an air force brat. In their early years, he said, their moves every few months were harder on his brother , who actually cared about the new friends he made each year. He said, with some bravado we expect, that moving was fine with him – it usually happened about the time people were getting fed up with him, had figured him out. Such children learn to adjust, learn to pick up on what others want, learn charm.
However, without a sense of place or family or faith – all those institutions that give our sense of identity some structure as we mature – it is hard to define ourselves. Emerson may imply we can do this through an assertion of the self – but he also emphasizes the acceptance of where we are, who we are. He certainly could not forget he was a Bostonian Emerson. We are less surprised, perhaps, at the American Taliban’s choice when we see his family’s amorphous nature. Surely, that was a chilly incubator for a sense of self. And cliches are often true: if we are unwilling to stand for anything, we are, indeed, likely to fall for anything. Not surprisingly the rather brilliant friend has a drinking problem, a series of feckless relationships, and has squandered many of his natural gifts. My acquaintance with such people has always been a mixed bag – early on in the relationship they offer up some part of their diffuse backgrounds that matches with mine. I think, ah, yes, they understand. And then I begin to realize that what they offered was a moment in which they “tried on” that temporary identity, connected to little else in their experience, to little else of who they are. What we shared was not central to their identity – but, then, what was? I have been warmed by charm too often not to recognize it as a good – it does, indeed, make life more pleasant. And I appreciate those who have this gift. Indeed, we are flattered at their performance – they’ve cared enough to figure out what makes us tick.
Nonetheless, I am reminded of a line overheard by another friend as a college student tried to ingratiate himself with his attractive date: “I agree with you, how about you.” Which may take another form in Obama’s “All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn”; Mickey Kaus simplifies:
This seems to be the General Rule of Obama–if it’s going to damage him, he condemns it! And rejects and denounces. Vehemently! The Rule would seem to apply to all past and future controversial statements–his campaign could get that sentence printed up on little laminated cards and hand them out to reporters, or include them after the statements of all Obama surrogates, like those fine-print ‘void where prohibited’ waivers. “Condemned if controversial.”
Yes, indeed, he agrees with us – how about us?
If you don’t buy Instapunk’s analysis (and I’m not sure I do), we are left with other interpretations no more attractive. That is, that Obama believes in the hatred (and just plain wacky theories) Wright (and Ayres) spews; he has cheerfully married into such a church, donated $20,000 last year (money that signals commitment and certainly a larger gift to charity than the last Democratic contenders), and most importantly implied to his children by his words, actions and their baptisms that this is a man whom they should revere as a spiritual mentor.
He is (1) Jerzy Kozinski’s Chance, of Being There, (2) a Manchurian candidate whose background his party has little understood, or 3) his beliefs and repudiations are just part of an election cycle and will be forgotten tomorrow – he represents the thinking of the democratic party and will become a president with policies little different than those of another, less charming, Democratic standard bearer.
Update: In an article from a little more than a year ago (January 21, 2007) in the Chicago Tribune about Wright, Obama is quoted as saying Wright “helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated.” The article goes on, “What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice,” Obama said. “He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics.” Another article, NYTimes Apr 30, points out that Obama bought the church’s tapes to develop his own oratorical skills. The sceptical beliefs of his youth and the firm conversion of his adulthood were in plain sight from the beginning – most, I suspect, skimmed through such articles or found it somewhat touching that he came to a religious belief as he found himself. Of course, what that belief was and what he found – was it the empty suit of rhetorical skills and a large congregation that would vote for him or the actual beliefs themselves – seemed less important when he wasn’t so close to being president.