Some years ago a friend of mine moved from Philadelphia out to the Bay Area. A mutual friend of ours had died in tragic circumstances several months before at the age of 21 and my friend, who we will call KC, felt he had to get away from Philly. In the seventies, before gentrification and the exploding, prohibitive cost of housing kicked in, the Bay Area was a destination for black artist types, something like Paris must have been in the forties, fifties and early sixties.
KC, who is a poet, said he felt the difference between Philly and the Bay Area almost immediately. In Philly, if you weren't ready to fight when you left the house in the morning, it was probably best not to leave the house. In California, KC said, everyone was nice, or at least they were back then. The only problem was that sometimes they were too nice. He mentioned some young white people he had met who wanted him to be their black friend. Sometimes, he said, they seemed to want an excuse to shake his hand or even... touch him, and as you can imagine, it was weirding him out a little.
I can't help noticing that since the Iowa caucuses, white America seems to want Barack Obama to be their black friend. I made this observation to my wife as we were watching the Democratic debate from New Hampshire Saturday night. She agreed but asked, "what's wrong with that?" And I had to admit, there's nothing really wrong with it, but it is weirding me out a little.
The problem with Barack Obama's candidacy is not necessarily Barack Obama. Watching the debate the other night it struck me both how far Obama's come in the course of the campaign as well as how unique and talented a politician he is. Apart from any policy or ideological considerations, Obama clearly appeared to be the most Presidential of the four candidates on the podium. Even besides the stentorian voice, it's an unquantifiable thing Obama's got. I think it was Norman Mailer in his famous "Superman goes to the Supermarket" piece about JFK who brought back the old Max Weber term "charisma" to describe Kennedy, and it certainly fits Obama as well.
You can see why people got so excited about Obama after his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and how that excitement has sort of fed on itself ever since.
I get it, but I just can't get with it. God knows I'd prefer not to be a player hater, but it appears fate has fingered me for that role.
Which is to say that from where I sit, no matter how talented Obama is -- and how smart David Axelrod and Obama's handlers are -- Obama is almost by definition a media candidate. The genius of Obama's candidacy is supposed to be that Obama is not just talking about change, but symbolizing it. Obama is actually supposed to be the change everybody else is talking about. But to me, this is not really politics; this is a PR campaign.
Since Obama announced, the pundits have been talking about the "rock star" quotient Obama brings to the table, but Obama is not the politician as a rock star, Obama is the pop star as a politician. Obama is not here to entertain or edify us; he's here to be consumed, like the wine and the wafer. "Change" is Obama's "brand." It really doesn't matter what kind of change he's talking about.
When viewed in this context, Barack Obama, no matter what his actual politics are, can be seen to be the very antithesis of a "change candidate." Obama is the ultimate cog in the corporate system's machine, like a widget or an iPhone; a stylish accoutrement of consumption.
Since Obama is not actually running as a politician but as a pop Star, it might be instructive to compare him to the other current favorite, deep pop star, on college campuses and post collegiate scenes around the country. That would be the late reggae superstar, Bob Marley.
Recently, a college student stunned me with the remark that Bob Marley could be elected President of the United States on the strength of the youth vote if he was running today. After recovering myself, I replied that one, Marley was born in Jamaica, disqualifying him from ever being President of the US, and that two, he is dead, further disqualifying him.
I also offered my opinion that the reason Marley is so popular among youth is precisely because he is dead, because kids can make an icon of Marley, independent of who he actually he was and what he represented. Nevertheless the conversation got me thinking.
As it happens I think the thing I liked best about Marley when he was alive was his ability to symbolize the change he was singing about. Yes, the very thing that Obama is attempting. The differences are that one, Marley wasn't running for president, and two he was attempting to negotiate the inherent conflict between being a pop star and an agent of change, not pretending it didn't exist. And finally, there was the content of Marley's songs themselves. Here's the first verse of "Babylon System":
We refuse to be what you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That's the way it's going to be.
You can't educate us, for no equal opportunity
Talkin' bout my freedom, talkin' bout my freedom,
People, freedom and liberty
If there was ever a more stark expression of both the black cultural nationalist and the anti-colonial mindset, I haven't heard it. Even in death, Bob Marley cannot be consumed whole by the Babylon System he both reviled and was attracted to.
Barack Obama on the other hand, has more in common with Michael Jordan than Martin Luther King and from my point of view that's a real shame. Obama is as naturally gifted a politician as we've seen in this country in a long time, and while his instincts may be suspect, I suspect his intelligence is not.
Hillary Clinton's not right about much, but she is right about the problem with Obama; he is too inexperienced to be president. You could make the case that John Kennedy was about Obama's age when he ran for president, but Kennedy had already been in the Senate for eight years and the House for six years when he was elected. He had also clearly been planning a run for the presidency since at least the mid Fifties, and at the '56 Democratic Convention, had launched an unsuccessful campaign to get himself on the ticket as Adlai Stevenson's Vice Presidential running mate.
Obama by contrast, was not planning on running until he was more or less shanghaied into it by popular demand, a year and half ago. It's almost absurd that Obama's running and that's why he has to run this kind of pop campaign, reminiscent of the title character in VS Naipaul's first novel, "The Mystic Masseur." Obama simply doesn't have another choice.
At this point the best argument for Obama is one he's not making, that he's all that stands between Hillary Clinton and the nomination. I still wouldn't waste my vote on Obama in a primary (though I would of course vote for him in a general) but it's a pretty good argument.
For one night in New Hampshire though, the argument was different, and not in a way anyone would have predicted. Like the women of New Hampshire I found myself rooting for Hillary, but not for the same reason. I was hoping Hillary would stop Obama; women in New Hampshire, incredibly enough, voted for Hillary because they felt sorry for her. For one night, sisterhood was indeed powerful. I'm not a Hillary hater so much as I am a Clinton hater, but you can't help thinking that's a beautiful thing -- as long as it stays in New Hampshire.
The truth about Hillary, as Obama said, is she's not so bad. Hillary is obviously very smart and capable. It's the company she keeps that's the problem. If Hillary were not running explicitly (though my guess is the Clintonites have learned their tactical lesson in this regard) as an agent of the Clinton restoration, she might be able to see what's happened in this country over the past twenty five years with fresh eyes. She might be able to take an honest look at the role of the Clinton administration in bringing to us to this desperate pass, instead blaming it all on Bush. She might be able to see things as her supposed hero Eleanor Roosevelt would have.
For now though, John Edwards is right, and Hillary is wrong. Hillary claims she is doer, not a talker, but what we see from the Clintons is that they talk like populists and do like corporate democrats. As Edwards says, no matter what the corporate Democrats say to get elected, once in power there's not a dime's worth of difference between them and the corporate Republicans.
All the pundits of course tell us that Edwards is finished, and frankly on Tuesday morning, I kind of thought so myself. I thought Obama was going to take New Hampshire and sweep to the nomination. Ironically, now Obama needs Edwards in the race to keep all the hard core, white working class Democrats from going to Clinton. And Edwards probably should stay in the race, to deny Hillary the nomination if nothing else, even while hoping for lightning to strike with his own candidacy.
Whatever the case, it's hard to say what will happen the rest of this political season. Already there is a witchy feeling to this year that reminds me somehow of 1968, and not necessarily in a good way.
All the candidates of both parties seem to be presupposing that the status quo; economic, social, political, even environmental will maintain from now through the election. I'm not sure of much, but I'm pretty sure that the status quo is not going to make 'til spring, let alone fall, and that the politics of the moment are going to radically shift because of it.
There is the sense that we are at the end of something, and perhaps about to experience the violent pangs attendant at the birth of something new. One thing we know about this year already; lightening will strike. Anything could happen.