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February 15, 2008

Hope Is Not a Blank Slate

I like the relationships. Each character has his own story. Of course, the puppy is a bit too much, but you have to overlook that. The way he's holding her, it's almost... filthy. He's about to kiss her and she's pulling away. The way his leg is smashed up against her. Look how he's painted the blouse, sort of translucent, you can make out her breast, and it's sort of touching him...

It's really pretty torrid, don't you think? And of course you have the onlookers peeking out like they're all shocked. They wish. I must admit, when I see a painting like this, I get emotionally...

- Harris K. Telemacher
L.A. Story

Watching the producers of the trance-like video Yes I Can struggle to articulate what makes them so hopeful about the candidacy of Barack Obama, I was reminded of a favorite film from the 1990s. I heard a lot of talk about hope, change, and inspiration; about emotion and belief.

What I did not hear was an answer to the question: “What policies of Senator Obama’s do you support?” Listening to the video, my mind drifted back to that long ago film. What made L.A. Story so memorable was the delightful juxtaposition of Shakespearean allusions, Steve Martin's comedic skills and the screenplay's deft parodies of southern Californians. In one scene, sAnDEe the gum-chewing spokesmodel, a character who would be right at home on Will I am’s video, (i kId yOu kNOt) contemplates the wonders of the Pacific Ocean as she twirls in dizzy circles along the Malibu beachfront: "Have you every wondered why all the water doesn't just... fly up into the sky?", she asks spacily. But perhaps my favorite scene occurs in the modern art museum. Harris Telemacher, a TV weatherman, has worn those ridiculous sneakers with the concealed plastic wheels in the soles into the museum so he and a friend can film each other gliding around when the guards aren't looking. He runs into a woman he is attracted to in front of an enormous abstract painting and, to impress her, begins reading all sorts of torrid sexual innuendo into an amorphous red blob of paint on the canvas in front of them. It's a perfect metaphor for a city full of confused people trying way too hard to conjure something impressive out of thin air.

Charles Krauthammer highlights the almost mesmerized fervor of Obama’s followers. They aren't persuaded by force of logic or reason. His rhetoric appeals not to the mind, but to the emotions. His followers are exhorted to suspend disbelief; to want what he's selling with their hearts, not their minds. It is a call to faith. Accept, and you have taken the noble path. Do other than what he asks and you have given in to cynicism and despair:

There's no better path to success than getting people to buy a free commodity. Like the genius who figured out how to get people to pay for water: bottle it (Aquafina was revealed to be nothing more than reprocessed tap water) and charge more than they pay for gasoline. Or consider how Google found a way to sell dictionary nouns-- boat, shoe, clock -- by charging advertisers zillions to be listed whenever the word is searched.

And now, in the most amazing trick of all, a silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope. To get it, you need only give him your vote. Barack Obama is getting millions.

This kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia. Which is why the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a "salvational fervor" and "idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria."

"We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest."

Listening to the video, one hears the same few phrases repeated over and over:

"I want change."

"Yes, we can."
"We are one nation."
"Nothing can stand in our way."

It's an effective device. But what, pray tell, do they believe they can change? That's really the question, isn't it?

Barack Obama seems to be a walking Rorschach test. No wonder his followers have a blank look in their eyes. They're trying to figure out what they see in that amorphous blob of paint on the canvas in front of them.

It looks, vaguely, like hope. And everybody needs hope.
Don't they?

You have to admit, for a political candidate this amounts to nearly perfect product positioning. What reasonable, decent opponent would dare to stand in the way of Hope, Progress, or Change? What monster would have the heart to obstruct the unification of America? Who in his right mind would want to oppose "Us"?

Only one of "Them".

Clever, that. The great man, the Unifier, tells us only Cynics refuse to believe. Only Unbelievers stand between "Us" and Hope. And no one likes a cynic, do they?

One of the most fascinating notions raised by the current presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."

No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.

I realized that when I read this e-mail from a friend, a passionate Obama supporter who's a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement: "Who are you supporting for prez? You know my feelings -- and my son has been working 16-hr days for him up in NH. Kind of like his 60s . . ."

I realized it again when I saw the online ad produced by Sen. John McCain's campaign, arguing that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't deserve the presidency because she earmarked one-millionth of the federal budget ($1 million) for a museum commemorating the rock festival Woodstock.

I realized it, too, when Bill Clinton accused Obama of leaving the role of Lyndon B. Johnson out of the civil rights story, and when Sen. John Kerry announced his endorsement of Obama with a quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and both set off a strange bout of opinion-journalism shadowboxing over which camp, Clinton's or Obama's, better grasped the historical legacy of the civil rights movement.

I realize it anew just about every day of this presidential campaign -- most recently when a bevy of Kennedys stood behind Obama last week and spoke of reviving the spirit of Camelot, and when the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks responded by making fine distinctions between "the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties" -- the "early-60s," which he took Obama to represent -- and the "late-60s," defined "by drug use and self-indulgence," of which the Clintons are the supposed avatars.

The fact is, the '60s are still with us, and will remain so for the imaginable future. We are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to tell." When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close.

Born myself in 1969 to pre-baby boomer parents, I'm a historian of America's divisions who spent the age of George W. Bush reading more newspapers written when Johnson and Richard Nixon were president than current ones. And I recently had a fascinating experience scouring archives for photos of the 1960s to illustrate the book I've just finished based on that research. It was frustrating -- and telling.

The pictures people take and save, as opposed to the ones they never take or the ones they discard, say a lot about how they understand their own times. And in our archives as much as in our mind's eye, we still record the '60s in hazy cliches -- in the stereotype of the idealistic youngster who came through the counterculture and protest movements, then settled down to comfortable bourgeois domesticity.

What's missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing populist rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, who, referring to an idealistic protester who had lain down in front of Johnson's limousine, promised that if he were elected, "the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the last one they'll ever lay down in front of because their day is over!" That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent in the polls.

It's easy to find hundreds of pictures of the national student strike that followed Nixon's announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Plenty of pictures of the riots at Kent State that ended with four students shot dead by National Guardsmen. None I could find, however, of the counter-demonstrations by Kent, Ohio, townies -- and even Kent State parents. Flashing four fingers and chanting "The score is four/And next time more," they argued that the kids had it coming.

The '60s were a trauma -- two sets of contending Americans, each believing they were fighting for the future of civilization, but whose left- and right-wing visions of redemption were opposite and irreconcilable. They were a trauma the way the war of brother against brother between 1861 and 1865 was a trauma and the way the Great Depression was a trauma. Tens of millions of Americans hated tens of millions of other Americans, sometimes murderously so. The effects of such traumas linger in a society for generations.

What Obama's lofty words gloss over is that there were good reasons for our ideological disagreements in the 1960s, and there are good reasons for our differences now. "Hope", however artfully packaged, is not going to erase our disagreements. But you have to admire the artistry of Obama's rhetoric. It is all very neatly done: a bumper sticker campaign for a Party that excels at turning complex issues into pithy bon mots.

It's not divisive... at least openly. Nothing nasty is ever said. It's just that to oppose Barack Obama is to oppose everything good and decent in life: hope, unity, progress.

Unlike those who called for Donald Rumsfeld's head when they claimed he was demonizing his intellectual opponents, conservatives must defend Senator Obama's right to say what he pleases. But we would be wise to counter his free speech with a few searching questions of our own. It is disturbing to see so many Americans jumping on a bandwagon that seems to involve suspending their critical thinking facilities. That is their choice and it one we cannot, and should not, make for them.

But the surpassing weightlessness of "Yes We Can", while ideal for consensus building, lacks a certain ...what's the word in the original French? specificity when used as a foundation for public policy issues. What conservatives and liberals alike must trust in is the essential common sense of the American people: that the longer he talks, the more likely it becomes that some of his followers will wake from their long sleep and begin to ask questions:

I know this is going to sound strange, but it's not you, Barack, it's me. Really it always was me, but now it's really, really about me. I don't know when we started to feel weird supporting you, but: My friend Hanna thinks it started with that "Yes We Can," video. I mean, last week I was totally crying watching it. Now just thinking about how choked up I got gives me the creeps.

"Yes we can... do what, Senator Obama?" He seems suspiciously vague upon that point. Is it, perchance, because neither liberals nor conservatives agree upon the specifics? They say the devil is in the details.

It's easy to poll registered voters with throwaway questions like "Is Osama bin Laden a threat to America?" and get 90% agreement." But such consensus is illusory because the real question is not whether bin Laden is a threat. The real question - the one which divides us - is what do we do about that threat? Oddly enough, that type of question is rarely asked in polls.

Liberals and conservatives in this country are not going to agree on major policy issues any time soon. We disagree for good reasons. We need not come to blows over our differences, but neither should we sweep them under the rug. Conflict, debate, and the ability to disagree openly and honestly, properly handled, are constructive rather than destructive qualities. They are profoundly American activities and in the final analysis this may be the most frightening thing about Barack Obama: his very likeability, because it is at the core dishonest. Obama is the perfect date; a social chameleon promising us smooth sailing; telling us exactly what we want to hear, but ultimately revealing far too little of himself and his plan for overcoming something which cannot be overcome: our fundamental disagreement on substantive policy issues.

Hope, if it is ever to be anything more than a huckster's trick, must be based on something real. It must be based on the truth, not on little white lies told to make us feel better about things we had rather not face. The kind of hope promised by Barack Obama is not empowering. On the contrary; it encourages us to avoid reality and duck confrontations, to purchase peace at the price of our principles:

Encouraged to tell so many white lies and hearing so many others, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes, literally, a daily occurrence. They learn that honesty only creates conflict, and dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict....

In the thesaurus, the antonym of honesty is lying, and the opposite of arguing is agreeing. But in the minds of teenagers, that’s not how it works. Really, to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying.

That's right. A fighting man can be an honest man; but an agreeable man is a liar.

A society that desires agreement and concession is a dishonest society, a civilization of liars. More, it is a society of people who don't respect each other.

America, in the end, can tolerate civil disagreement. We have tolerated robust debate and dissention for over two centuries. What it cannot tolerate, is dishonesty.

Hope lies in facing up to our differences, not in pretending they do not exist.

Update: Fainting for Obama and the ultimate in self-referential politics: the cult of Obama gets its own blog:

"We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
- Obama, Super Tuesday.

"... a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany ... and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Obama" - Barack Obama Lebanon, New Hampshire.
January 7, 2008.


Sometimes the comedy just writes itself.

Posted by Cassandra at February 15, 2008 08:10 PM

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Well, that about sums it up nicely. Heh!

Every time I run across an Obama supporter I ask one question, "What are his policies?" I get a blank DUH look and then they get ticked. How DARE I question Hope, Love Peace and the Whole Carnival Ride? Just call me contrary I reckon.

When I was a kid my Papa used to buy some things from a guy that travelled the Parishes selling goods from an old wagon. He was what back then was called a "Tinker". In actuality he was a Gypsy and made some of the finest knives I've ever seen. He used to sharpen things for my dad and hang around a day or so to help fix things up. For pay of course but the help was needed. The guy always seemed to roll around when he was needed the most and I remember how much Papa looked forward to seeing him. The guy could make or fix anything!

One day another guy showed up. Driving a new panel truck he had more goods to buy and look at then a department store. All sorts of flashy shiny things. Papa bought a couple of necessities instead of waiting for the Tinker. The guy had big wheeels to sharpen things but no ability to make or modify anything. He also had all kinds of medicines that could cure everything from colic to blindness just by drinking a dose a day. The thing that stuck out in my mind about the guy was just how sharp he was. Looks and tongue. He was a pretty exciting fella to a backwoods bayou rat of a kid that wasn't used to guys like that. Let alone what a new truck looked like. Anyhoo, the guy left promising to come back every couple of weeks. Everything my dad bought from him broke within a couple of days and the medicine my Mom bought gave her the colic. The edges he put on the tools lasted about a day as they were honed way too sharp and flat. Papa was about fit to be tied as cash money was a hard thing to come by back in those days and the services and goods he bought were useless. Mom called the guy an "empty shirt" and Papa said the guy could "sell ice to Eskimos". It was my first introduction to a snake oil salesman. We never saw the guy again.

We abandoned the tried and true in hopes of the quick and easy. Packaged in a clean shirt, shiny truck, and with all the suave promises in the heavens.

Obama sounds and looks real familiar to me!

Posted by: JHD at February 16, 2008 06:41 AM

That's the first time I've ever heard a Tinker referred to as "tried and true."

"Then she picked up the fryin' pan
and she began to knock;
for to let the servants know, me lad,
that I was at me work."

And indeed he was. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 16, 2008 08:57 AM

Who gives a tinker's damn about policy wonk stuff Obama is going to change things. Don't you get it? Change.

Posted by: Obama Hottie at February 16, 2008 10:06 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/16/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention updated throughout the day…so check back often.

Posted by: David M at February 16, 2008 10:39 AM

Another great post, Cassie.

JHD, I loved your story so much I posted it over at The Flight Deck.

Posted by: FbL at February 16, 2008 11:54 AM

Hey Fuzzy! Grim knows what I'm talking about. Tinkers ranged from PA tp TX back in the day. Didn't have much truck with town folks.

My Granddad used to tell me stories about meeting up with Tinkers back when he and his dad did a circuit doctor route through the countryside around Atlanta in the old horse and buggy days. One week a month they'd service the outlying communities like Tucker, Stone Mountain, Duluth, Chamblee et al. They met up with and traded with Tinkers all along the way. Same ones every time. I believe they were territorial but Lord only knows how big a territory that might be.

And trade they would. Papa raised a lot of quail because he trained bird dogs. Tinker loved them. That and we always had the truck garden. Sometimes no cash would trade hands at all. I used to trade the Tinker my cured snake skins for some things but you could get cash money in town only a short cotton car ride away. I still have the Tinkermade knife Papa traded for. Thing is about as big as a sword. Heh! Actually it is almost identical to a big Bowie.

Don't know if it's true or not but my Granddad said Tinkers were trading in the States before Savannah was founded. Interesting looking people that's for sure. Almost Basque/Chinese type of look. Heckova' good people to those that they took a liking to. Pretty dangerous to mess with if it came to a pinch too. There's a story about how our particular Tinker saved my Granddad's bacon from a drunk one time but it's pretty gory. That was when Granddad was a justice of the peace. Shot the guy six times and he still took my Granddad down but the Tinker showed up right about then and that was that. The details are rather messy.

I bet our Tinker had to have been 100 years old. Seemed so to a youngster anyhoo. He was old when I first met him and he just never seemed to change. I always thought of him as just part of the earth. He showed me a couple of tricks to hold color in curing rattlesnake skins. Didn't talk much and he had the most perfect white teeth I had ever seen.

Oh well, twas a galaxy far, far away! And way off topic too! ;-)

Posted by: JHD at February 16, 2008 01:49 PM

"I don't know when we started to feel weird supporting you, but: My friend Hanna thinks it started with that "Yes We Can," video. I mean, last week I was totally crying watching it. Now just thinking about how choked up I got gives me the creeps."

That gave me a case of deja vu. I finally realized it summed up my feelings about John Lennon's "Imagine."

Posted by: Suds46 at February 16, 2008 05:21 PM

My peers said that Obama will get assassinated by the same rich white boys that killed Lincoln and JFK, cause once you elect a real President into office, the throwbacks will become fearful and attempt to kill him, like they did Bhutto.

This just goes to show you two things.

One, the world is a screwed up and irrational place, and that's pretty obvious after observing it for awhile.

Two, individuals are irrational as hell too and that's why the world is screwed up. Or suffice it to say that humanity is fallible and that's the price for the knowledge of good and evil.

Synova described the paradox in her way thus

Go read the link for her explanation of why a former Navy enlisted from the 80s, is against gun laws but for giving the government and police more guns, but against the government because he thinks it is corrupt and salvageable only by the Democrats, but is against Iraq as a Bush money making machine, but likes putting the military into the streets ala martial law to protect black folks who he thinks should be disarmed by the Democrats because... well you get the picture I hope.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at February 16, 2008 10:27 PM

for her explanation of why a

Actually, that should read as "how come a person that.... could exist and not break America's system"

Posted by: Ymarsakar at February 16, 2008 10:32 PM

This is the song that Obama reminds me of.


Barack Obama, Superstar.

Who are you, what kind of change are you are talking about?

Barack Obama, Superstar,

Who are you, what kind of change are you are talking about?

Barack Obama, Superstar

Who are you, what kind of change are you talking about?

Adoph Hitler could really rally those masses, and Olde Joe Stalin could make them walk barefoot through broken glasses, And Ho Chin Minn, he could bring the crowd in, and that Po Pot he know how his words could make them hot...

Now do you believe?

Now Marshall Applewhite made them think that they were going to go to Heaven on a comet, and David Koresh he sent his faithful on a path to Armageddon. And of course we all know about olde Jim Jones. His people did what he told em and that Kool-aid got overflowin...

Now do you believe? (the mesmerized crowd shouts back Yes we Believe) Now do you believe?(louder) Yes, we believe! Hallelujah now get that sister some water (the front row of women then faints).

Barack Obama, Superstar,

Who are you, what kind of change are you are talking about?

Barack Obama, Superstar

Who are you, what kind of change are you talking about?

Now do you see yourself as as Che's Second comin... Or maybe you set yourself up on a path even higher. Perhaps you do see yourself as the new Messiah, start a new religion with you as its idol.

Do you believe?

Cults of personalities well they very rarely end well and with yours it could set the earth a trembling... For when you come unglued as all cult leaders in the end do, you could push that nuclear button and set the earth afire..

Barack Obama, Superstar,

Who are you, what kind of change are you are talking about?

Barack Obama, Superstar!

Who are you, what kind of change are you talking about?

Posted by: Steve at February 16, 2008 10:58 PM

Who gives a tinker's damn about policy wonk stuff Obama is going to change things. Don't you get it? Change.


Change and Hope are what The Obamessiah stands for, and that's why Little Timmy and I are 10,000% behind him! Why, we can't *wait* to see what all that change and hope really stand for! We're sure he'll get around to telling us... umm...err...sooner or later....

Anyway, that's all beside the point. We've just *got* to keep the Chill Wind of the Hating Haters of Hate from goosing brave patriots like Keith Olbermann while they speak truth to power on Iranian TV. I think it's a shame he has to leave the country to get his message out. It just goes to show you that we're truly living in a Police State!

Posted by: Susan SaranWrap at February 18, 2008 10:30 AM

> It's an effective device. But what, pray tell, do they believe they can change? That's really the question, isn't it?

Their answer is "Anything but this!".

Being utterly clueless, they have no idea whatsoever how much WORSE things can be...

If I didn't have to suffer with them, I'd be quite pleased when it hits, and Obama shows us all just how good Jimmy Carter *actually* was.

Anyone else want to move to New Zealand besides me?

Posted by: obloodyhell at February 19, 2008 01:55 AM

What's that yellow looking graphic? To me, it l
looks like something you'd see on a bag of emergency rice rations delivered to a destitute country.


Posted by: 'Uigi at February 20, 2008 08:35 PM