He Came From Nowhere
Barack Obama isn’t so much Black or even half-Black as he is a Mirror, on which a nation, once great but now in the throes of an unprecedented identity crisis, sees the reflection of its diverse, divergent desires. Until two years ago, he was a global non-entity; a name often confused with its (then) more familiar if somewhat notorious homonym, Osama (after the Al Qaeda leader, Mr. Bin Laden).
Yet it is precisely this fact- of his discreet, even dignified, obscurity- which paradoxically enough accounts for Mr. Obama’s meteoric metamorphosis as the world’s most recognizable, talked-about Face: ever an artful politician, he pulled off electoral history’s greatest coup by turning what appeared to be his most debilitating weakness into his greatest strength: capitalizing on his Obscurity, he suddenly became all things to all people.
His infinitely more famous rivals- Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, to name two more unfortunate ones- simply didn’t have that sort of advantage. Having been in public life for decades- in Mr. McCain’s case, for almost as long as Mr. Obama’s earthly life- their every action and every utterance had been dissected, discussed, debated, deified and demonized to death; more to the point, most people had already formed their variegated Opinions of them and those that didn’t probably couldn’t care less. Mr. Obama- and his excellent campaign team- had the astuteness to make the most of this. He began by making those who didn’t- couldn’t- care, care.
Like Karl Rowe (George W. Bush’s wizard of a mentor), who based his protégé’s victories by tapping into America’s hitherto untapped and instinctually conservative exurbias, Mr. Obama’s team reached out to an entirely new demographic: the hitherto politically nonchalant but temperamentally liberal Generation Y; the sort of chaps who hang out at Starbuck’s and inhabit fast-mushrooming social networking websites like Facebook; the kind that are desperately looking for a Purpose, any purpose. Mr. Obama gave them a Purpose: he- Mr. Obama- was it.
And The Money Kept Rollin’ In
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain meanwhile were busily wooing the Establishment with its tempting $2500-a-plate fund-raisers. In retrospect, that wasn’t very clever: America, after all, is a land that thrives on Las Vegas, and Vegas is a place that thrives on slot-machines, which account for more than 70% of its takings, and not on high-rollers (who in any case prefer to head for Monte Carlo and now increasingly to Macau). That, I guess, is the Cardinal Rule of how the world works: Ignore the little people who persistently, patiently put coins into insatiable slots, and you’ve no business left; get the slot-machines ringing, and the high-rollers follow. In the Gamble that is Politics, Mr. Obama went straight to the slot-machines, and- there’s no better way to put this- he hit the jackpot, big-time.
Every time he needed money- and rest assured, he needed loads of it to establish a campaign machine to rival that of the formidable Clintonistas as well as the GOP’s (Grand Old Party is how the Republican Party is more commonly known)- he simply went to the tens of millions of mostly youthful members logged on to his webpage on Facebook, and lo and behold, the money kept rolling in: by donating a few dollars each, they suddenly found involvement, purpose and hope; and the trickle of online dollars almost magically transformed itself into a flood of several millions. But that wasn’t all: Mr. Obama also ensured that their participation didn’t end with the dollar; like some post-modern Messiah, he urged his minions to go out, commune at homely gatherings, and spread the Word deploying the very latest media modern technology has to offer.
And that brings me to the single most important aspect of Mr. Obama’s campaign: before everything else- even before the untapped demographic and the money- there was the Word, which set everything in motion. Actually, there were Two Words. Change and Hope, Hope and Change. At first, they sound awfully clichéd. We’ve heard politicians of all persuasions utter them countless times before; their etymology is primordial, buried deep into our species’ collective unconscious as a palliative to fear and fossilization. Yet, when Mr. Obama uttered them- and this wasn’t a very uncommon occurrence, to say the least- it struck a cord in those mysterious places that set butterflies magically aflutter in our bellies.
Poetry aside, it is important, I think, to understand just why that happened. Here, we must perforce employ the tools bequeathed to us by Jacques Derrida and examine three things: what was said and why (content and context); who said it (author); and what was meant and how the meaning thereof was perceived by those who heard it (or to use Quentin Skinner’s terminology, the ‘intended illocutionary force’).
Osama begat Obama
To first understand the significance of the content, we must necessarily look to the context. This was provided most obviously by the Bush Years, marked as they were by a spiraling descent into war, penury and global ridicule. This was an era (hopefully now ending) permeated by what I’ve elsewhere called Osama-phobia after the chief cause- the sine qua non- of President Bush’s abject but involuntary reversal from his first campaign’s big-on-morals-and-small-on-government stance. Fear, or more precisely, the fear of Fear, fed into- and authored- every decision he took. (His Vice President, the much more hated and aloof Dick Cheney, didn’t do anything to assuage these fears.) The two parameters of American Supremacy alluded to by Henry Kissinger in his monumental treatise on Diplomacy- military might and economic prowess- were both put to severe test by the quagmire of the double-invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq, and a widening and ultimately insurmountable Deficit- the typically American habit of spending more than they earn- that has brought about a global recession.
In the memorable words of the Eagle’s song, Iraq, in effect, became Mr. Bush’s Hotel California: You can checkout any time you like, But you can never leave! Despite his rather premature “Mission Accomplished” glee, the war in Iraq procrastinated indefinitely. From the start, the Invasion of Iraq was doomed: his justification for the invasion- that Saddam Hussein, the then Tirkiti despot of Iraq, possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which he hoped perhaps to use against America in league with Al Qaeda- turned out to be, to put it mildly, untrue; his method of conducting that invasion- against the express wishes of the international community- ended up alienating even America’s closest friends (with the notable exception of Britain’s Tony Blair, who inturn ended up losing his own chair); and his hope that the invasion would somehow usher in an era of democracy in the Middle East wasn’t quite realized to the extent that he had expected.
In the Case of Jefferson v Hamilton
But despite all this, Mr. Bush’s worst enemy wasn’t Osama bin Laden, the Taliban or even Saddam Hussein: it was the American People themselves. No wartime American President with the possible exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt has for long enjoyed his fellow-citizens’- and the Congress’- unflinching support: despite their rather militaristic national anthem, Americans have never been comfortable with the sight of body-bags of slain soldiers wrapped in star-spangled banners arriving home. At heart, they remain Jeffersonians (after Thomas Jefferson), content to be an island (albeit a rather large one!) blissfully unaware of what’s happening beyond their shores and hoping that they wouldn’t need a government to govern them at all. Let us not forget that when Mr. Bush first emerged on the scene, he too was something of a Jeffersonian in the ideals he so passionately espoused.
But he too, like most Americans, was confronted with a distinctly Hamiltonian reality (after Alexander Hamilton): the almost instinctual need of the American Establishment- Noam Chomsky’s military-industrial complex- to look for new enemies when old ones are gone, as epitomized in the ironically self-fulfilling prophecy of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Order. In this sense atleast, Huntington gave a fresh, new lease of life to Hamilton. And what a lease that was! President Bush, the quintessential Jeffersonian, became a die-hard disciple of Hamilton in what was to be his life’s second epiphany (the first one took him from Booze to the Bible). Of course, it would be wrong to put all the blame on the Establishmentarian Inertia of Washington: Mr. Bin Laden, in all fairness, deserves much of the credit for Mr. Bush’s conversion.
His attack on the Twin Towers (9/11) only amplified Mr. Bush’s innate sense of Christian morality: his world was suddenly divided into black & white, good & the axis of evil, and under the circumstances, Crusade was the logical outcome of Jihad. Morality breeds decisiveness; lack of it makes one indecisive. This is America’s lesson gleaned from its last two Presidents, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton. I’ve often wondered what Mr. Clinton would’ve done had he been President on 9/11. Sure, he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, WMDs or no WMDs (remember his dilly-dallying on Kosovo, Congo and the rest); he would certainly have ruled out going it alone, without the backing of the world community (God knows, Mr. Hussein counted on that!); he might not even have considered an outright invasion of Afghanistan, toying first with Diplomacy or being content with the destruction of Mr. Bin Laden’s person. But the question that begs to be answered is this: would Al Qaeda be as thoroughly destroyed as it is now; and would 9/11 have been the last terrorist attack on American soil?
As far as the Bush Legacy is concerned, I believe in two things: one, that it was Mr. Bush’s pandering to his Jeffersonian instincts that ultimately led to his failure in Iraq. He wanted to invade Iraq, destroy Saddam and get out as quickly as possible with a minimum of force and cost; the idea that nations don’t just build themselves after being invaded and destroyed didn’t quite cross his Jeffersonian mind (apparently he forgot all about post-second world war Western Europe and Japan, both of which required prolonged infusions of American money, manpower and foresight to rebuild themselves). The success of the Surge in Iraq- today’s provincial elections have brought true democracy to the Middle East for the first time in history, and Mr. Bush should be given due credit for it- shows that the middle-of-the-road approach is at fault. Had Mr. Bush not been bullied by public opinion and his own mindset to limit the costs to America in the first instance, his country wouldn’t have ended up spending so much- in terms of blood, sweat, toil and money- in Iraq, and thousands of innocent lives might’ve been saved. In short, if he is to be blamed, it should be for doing too little; not too much. Secondly, I also believe that it is too early to pronounce judgment on the Bush Legacy: History will have to wait for things to settle down in Iraq before arriving at any sort of decision; hopefully, it will look more kindly upon the Bush Years than our own generation. (To see what I mean, take a look at HBO's award-winning mini-series on John Adams, America's mostly-forgotten and much-misunderstood second President.)
No Specifics Please, We're American
But I’m getting ahead of myself: it is precisely from the as-yet-unsettled dust of the Bush Years that an obscure entity like Mr. Obama has emerged to take on the world; the Present, and not History, is responsible for that. Hope and Change- the Two Words- stand for everything the Bush Years did not; they are, in a way, the anti-thesis of everything those Years have come symbolize today. They’re also, interestingly enough, the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD)- that indescribable abstract- which binds together today’s America. Looking back at the rhetoric of his campaign- both before and after the Primaries- it appears that Mr. Obama said very little indeed: he said that things were bad and that change was needed (without elaborating on the how of it); he said that America needed to get out of Iraq soon (again, without letting us in on the how and when); he said that he was for the New (but not against the Old); he said that the poor deserved to be taken care of by the state and the rich didn’t have to be taxed needlessly to do that (not letting us in on the secret of just where he was going to get the money from to do that); and he said that there was Despair everywhere, and he was the Hope that would drive it away (again, not telling just how he hoped to do that). In short, he said Everything without saying Anything.
It was this artful avoidance of the pitfalls of getting into the specifics of things- something which his rivals simply couldn’t resist in their desire to show that they knew it all- that made Mr. Obama’s Words so appealing to so many not just in America but around the world. The Color of his skin also helped. In electing their first Black President, America belied its earlier Image as a Hypocritical Hegemon that systematically excluded its non-White population from everyday governance while pretending to be the very Beacon of Liberty. Till the very fag end of campaigning, my father, so used to this Image, believed in all sincerity that “they would never elect a Black man as President.” But they did precisely that- and in doing so, they busted the myth that President Lincoln even after waging war on his own people for the sake of ending slavery couldn’t. And who better than a President Obama- half-black, half-white, half-Muslim, half-Christian, half-African, all-American- to send out the Message that America has Changed; or to use Mr. Obama’s own historic words, “Change Has Come to America.”
A Napoleon in America?
Truth be told, after the nine angst-ridden years of Osama-phobia, America- and the world- has quite simply been swept off its feet by Obama-mania. Mr. Obama likes to compare himself with his illustrious forbearer, Abraham Lincoln. Like him, President Lincoln, who hadn’t won a single election before, was a relative non-entity amidst more celebrated personages such as Stephen Douglas; and like Mr. Obama, he owed his victory chiefly to his charismatic powers of oratory. But while his rise was most certainly unexpected, it was by no stretch of imagination heroic. (The heroism part was to come much later, when the outcome of the Civil War against the Confederacy became apparent.) It did not for instance signal the fruition of centuries of anti-racist struggle as Mr. Obama’s has done for many. Fear- and not Hope- marked President Lincoln’s first Inauguration.
In all probability, future-day historians would find more fascinating similarities between our Age and that of Napoleon after the 18th Brumaire: Bonaparte’s rise not only marked the ending of Jacobin Terreur- and momentarily, the Ancien Regime (which was to reassert itself one last time at the historic Vienna Congress of 1815)- but also ushered in an era of Hope throughout the Western World, prompting among others the composer Beethoven to compose & dedicate his majestically beautiful ‘Eroica’ symphony to ‘Napoleon Bonaparte, the Child of Revolution’.
It was only much later that the by-now completely deaf composer regretted his dedication: by then, the Child of Revolution had crowned himself Emperor, invaded much of Europe and installed his siblings as kings and queens: the Ancien Regime was back in full swing. I’m sure that President Obama would do nothing of the sort, and the comparison is totally undeserved. But then again, come to think of it, who could’ve thought that Mr. Bush would do the things he did?
After all, being all things to all people is no easy task. As Mr. Obama knows only too well, you inevitably end up disappointing someone: “One thing you can be sure of,” he told his fellow-diners at the Congress on the day of his Inauguration, “I will make mistakes.”
Let’s hope they are few and far in-between. America- and the world- can’t afford too many.
Godspeed, Mr. Obama!
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
He Came From Nowhere