Detached from America, absorbed with himself Getty Images / U.S. President Barack Obama rallies supporters at Cleveland State University this week.
Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010
'Don't hate me because I'm rational," read one sign at last weekend's Jon Stewart/ Stephen Colbert Washington rally, organized to mock Tea Party anger in the run-up to yesterday's mid-term elections. It would be witty if it held meaning, but the message is only self-congratulatory posturing. As if it were impossible to be both rational and angry together.
But the sign-bearer can be forgiven. He took his cue from his guru. Barack Obama personifies exactly that message, and for some time made it look dignified to the easily gulled. Will he change to avert disaster in 2012? I don't think so. His refusal to engage emotionally with anyone but himself is who he is. Or rather who he decided to be.
Concerning anger, Obama recounts a telling anecdote in his memoir Dreams from my Father. When a high school friend of Obama's was arrested for possession of drugs, Obama's mother sternly demanded assurance her son was not involved. Obama writes that he gave her "a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry." He says he had found this "tactic" to be effective, because people "were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved -- such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry all the time."
Award full marks to Obama for candour and self-awareness, for his whole pre-presidential career is neatly summed up in "courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves." (The "sudden moves" came post-election.) But what he is telling us is disconcerting: that his air of unflappable reason, the quality most admired by his fans, doesn't spring from character, but is rather a facade, consciously constructed on the back of his racial identity with a view to amassing political capital.
Irony, whose hallmark is emotional detachment, is effective as a selectively deployed literary device to convey home truths forcefully. When it is a holistic real-life posture attached to trivial and existential issues alike, as we saw in the Colbert/Stewart counter-rally (one sign read "Feelin' ok about things" -- only a fool would, really), it is a sign of solipsism and intellectual drift.
In his short, incisive 2008 book about Obama, A Bound Man (ironically subtitled, Why We are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win), conservative writer Shelby Steele seeks to explain Obama's shortcomings as a leader. The book expands on his thesis that ambitious American blacks in all fields -- politics, the arts, business -- must choose whether they will be "challengers" or "bargainers."
Challengers, like musician Miles Davis, black activist Al Sharpton and Obama's famous pastor Jeremiah Wright are strategically race-obsessed: They charge whites with inherent racism and extort white support for black entitlements through guilt mongering. Bargainers, like Louis Armstrong, Oprah and Barack Obama, are strategically race-neutral: They offer whites "the gift of innocence" -- that is, bargainers agree not to hold America's racist history against whites, if whites agree not to hold the bargainer's race against him. Both postures, Steele says, inhibit true individualism.
Obama is "a bound man" like Prometheus, Steele believes, because he is so locked into the "totalitarian[ism]" of racial correctness that he has never actually developed a real vision for America. His whole life has been dedicated to constructing a "mask" that will reassure whites and endear him to them. It was, Steele says, "masking, not convictions, that brought Barack Obama forward in American life."
Thus, the anger of the anti-Obama faction is fuelled by the well-founded suspicion that their president is emotionally detached from America and devoted only to himself. They don't see a leader with a vision. They see an egoist using America as his personal laboratory for grand projects that a first black president is duty-bound to achieve. Even if they are accomplished at America's expense.
Just as Obama's studied calmness is a racially-based form of masking, the coy, self-flattering brand of post-modern irony in evidence at the Colbert/ Stewart rally is a form of intellectual masking. Unlike anger, irony is not a natural human expression. Political anger erupts spontaneously from the gut when convictions are insulted. Irony is always consciously constructed in the brain. In second-rate minds, its purpose is to showcase the ironist's superior "knowingness" even as it masks his conviction deficit.
Signs may smirk, but the joke's on the anti-anger crowd. As Post writer Jonathan Kay, who attended the rally, concluded: "Irony and humour are great for making people laugh, and as an outlet for political disaffection -- but they are no match for anger and earnestness when it comes to getting out the vote." And lo, so it came to pass.