Friday, January 23, 2009

The Force is strong in this one ...

My friend Mandy posted on Facebook the other day a link to images of a Barack Obama action figure, produced by a Japanese company. The pictures showed the figure in a variety of presidential poses: behind a lectern answering questions, delivering a speech, standing in a determined and heroic stance, and so on. And then, brandishing a machine gun. And then, standing ninja-like with a pair of samurai swords. And finally, as you see above, doing battle with Dick Cheney. I mean, Darth Vader. (No, I actually mean Dick Cheney).

Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to be made into an action figure, but he’s certainly the first that children in countries other than the U.S. would be eager to own, or be delighted to be given as a gift. His international appeal is genuinely unprecedented; he’s the first president to be a bigger celebrity than the musicians playing at his inauguration. (This, it occurred to me when I watched U2 perform, will be a monkey wrench in Bono’s usual strategy of lending his celebrity to politicians in exchange for action on Africa. Obama stock won’t go up just because he’s staged a photo op with Bono. On the other hand, people might take Bono more seriously if they think Obama likes him).

The new president’s celebrity has been a sticking-point for many people, but I tend to think that this uneasiness says more about the connotations “celebrity” has for us these days than anything else. The overexposure of such wastes of skin as Paris Hilton unfortunately tars all celebrity with the same brush. And the general contempt in which politicians as a group are held makes the popularity of Barack Obama at the very least unsettling and leads in some cases to egregious comparisons with the cult of personality surrounding such figures as Hitler or Mao.

For all of Obama’s personal appeal, however, I tend to see this overwhelming adulation not as adulation per se. Rather, I think what we’re seeing when Obama is greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering people when he visits France or Germany or elsewhere is the sudden and unexpected return of love for America. There are two Americas, one loathed and feared outside the U.S., and one that inspires fascination and hope, best summed up in Bill Clinton’s great line in his speech endorsing Obama: “People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” I tend to see each version of America antithetical manifestations of American Exceptionalism. The first, "example of our power," is the insular, nativist my-country-right-or-wrong, “America is great because it’s America” tautology (most recently exemplified by Sarah Palin’s characterization of “real America”); the second, "the power of our example," is the America defined as a unique set of possibilities, as potential for hope and growth and life undreamed-of elsewhere in the world. Barack Obama’s remarkable personal story exemplifies the latter, and people around the world see in him the idea of the United States that has captivated the world since 1776.

I wanted to post sooner after the inauguration, but it’s taken me this long for my thoughts to settle into something cohesive. I watched the ceremony at Bitters, Memorial’s grad pub. I had been planning to go home to watch, but decided that this was something better experienced in the company of others. And as I looked around the standing-room-only pub, everyone raptly listening to Obama’s speech, the thought that leapt to mind was that we looked like nothing other than people gathered around, not a television set, but a radio. True, most had their eyes on the screen; but the overall impression was not of watching, but listening.

This for me is emblematic of Obama’s promise: since Tuesday, I have read more columns, op-ed pieces, and blog posts parsing the speech—more attention paid to its substance and significance of a his words—than I have ever seen devoted to a political speech before. Granted, a large part of the attention paid the inaugural speech derives from the high expectations Obama’s past oratory has raised; but never in my lifetime have I seen so many people pay attention to a politician’s words. Rather, the cynical default—which, generally speaking, has been richly earned—has been that it is a waste of time listening to politicians, because at best they’re merely saying what people want to hear, and at worst are lying through their teeth.

The sea-change with Obama is that it’s not so much that he’s saying things people want to hear (although he is and people do); the difference is that he’s not saying what he does because people want to hear it, and we’ve arrived at a point where a plurality of people want to hear the things he says.

It is a subtle but seismic distinction, and one the places a premium on listening. Listening is something that has been absent from political discourse, and not just for the last eight years. The Bush Administration possessed the ideological equivalence of tone-deafness, but they can’t shoulder all the blame, or even most of it. Political discourse at some point became an exercise in people talking past each other—evinced most glaringly in the world of punditry, where volume trumps content and bullying trumps argument.

The image of people gathered around the radio put me in mind of FDR’s “Fireside Chats,” the radio addresses he delivered to reassure the American people during the dark days of the Depression and the Second World War. You can read them here. And I do recommend reading them: besides being interesting in their own right, they are remarkable for what they did. Roosevelt paid his audience the tribute of assuming them to be intelligent and thoughtful, and he did not condescend or talk down. The “chats” effectively kept the American people in the loop in difficult times, informed them of what the government was doing and why, and engendered a sense of collective purpose. And what’s more, people wanted to listen to them.

Perhaps I’m still a bit starry-eyed, and looking at this past election too idealistically. Perhaps—though I certainly do not expect the Obama administration to accomplish all (or even most) of what it is expected to do, and we can already see the inertia of Washington exerting its gravitational pull. But as someone whose entire career is all about language, and the written and spoken word, there is no down side to the prospect of listening becoming again a central aspect of our political and social discourse.

Now, if we can just get our Canadian politicians to get that memo.


mberenis said...
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airfair crew said...

After reading FDR's speeches, get your hands on the book "Team of Rivals:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is said to be one of Obama's favourite books and part of the inspiration for the impressive team he is gathering around himself.

mary said...

Yes! One of the most exciting things for me is finally having a president I WANT to listen to without fear of feeling repulsion or anger. I don't expect him to work miracles to fix all our ills, but I trust his intentions.

And I thought his inauguration speech was everything it needed to be: a call for a better way of doing business.

Matt F. said...

Great post, Chris.