A meme has been replicating itself in cyberspace concerning President Obama. It is said that he has a mysterious ability to get his enemies to self-destruct. I have been thinking about this for a bit, and I believe I can throw some light on this strange power. But first, a trip down memory lane.
When I was a boy, I listened faithfully to a radio show called "The Shadow." The central character was a gentleman crime fighter named Lamont Cranston who, it was said, had acquired, during his travels in the Orient, the "strange power to cloud men's minds" and thereby render himself invisible. [Obi Wan Kenobe, in the original Star Wars movie, has a similar power, as he reveals when he and Luke go to town to hire a freighter to take them to Alderan. Am I recalling this correctly?] Each episode of The Shadow would begin with a sepulchral-voiced announcer intoning, "Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men? The Shadow knows." The always indispensable Wikipedia tells me that in the earliest years of the radio show, before I began to listen, Lamont Cranston was actually played by a young Orson Wells.
Now, to Obama. I begin with a crucial observation about the character of the political climate in the United States in the last twenty years or so. For a variety of reasons, some of which I have discussed here in the past, a sizable fragment of the American electorate has become viscerally convinced that no Democrat, regardless of the election results, is or could be a legitimate President of the United States. These are people who feel very deeply that the America they think they grew up in has been lost, and that they are being ruled, dominated, betrayed by foreigners, aliens, people who are "not American." They thought this about Bill Clinton, about John Kerry, about Hilary Clinton, about Joe Biden, and about anyone else who might put himself or herself forward as a candidate of the Democratic Party. The election to the Presidency of a Black man with a strange name who had spent part of his youth growing up in the Far East simply confirmed their worst fears, and has driven them clinically insane.
One of the consequences of this development, coupled with the new world of multi-media and cable television, has been a transformation of what passes for a public conversation in this country. The standard image of that public conversation now, replicated daily, is of angry talking heads in matching screens, shouting at one another, talking over one another, wrestling verbally for control of a few seconds of airtime. I respond to this in the way that many people do, I imagine, by feeling as though I am being assaulted. The talking heads all seem to be pushing air at me, as though by the sheer force of their voices they could reach out of the screen, grab me by the throat, and force me to accede to their point of view.
Now, good old Marshal McLuhan, the Canadian literary and cultural critic, had it basically right when he said "the medium is the message." [Or, as Aristotle would have put it, had he seen television, form dominates content.] It does not matter that in these shouting matches one person is saying reasonable, albeit debatable, things and the other is saying things that are just batshit crazy. The format defines the situation as one of rhetorical equality. As one of the speakers raises his or her voice, the other responds in an effort not to be drowned out, and no matter how hard we try when we are watching, it is impossible not to feel, at some level, that they are equivalent.
What happens when one side won't play? Call the two parties the shouter and the debater. What is the effect when the debater will not become a shouter, will not raise his or her voice, push air, make more and more un-nuanced assertions to balance the un-nuanced assertions from the shouter? Refuses to get angry? There is an interesting and complex effect. First of all, the partisans of the shouter see the shouter as winning the encounter, and so they cheer to the echo. The shouter, frustrated by the seemingly wimpy, flaccid, unresponsiveness of the debater, and emboldened by the cheers of the fans, makes more and more outrageous statements, almost taunting the debater, seeing what he or she can get away with. The debater remains calm, quiet, reasonable, refusing to interrupt, to respond angrily, to become accusatory. The debater's supporters become frustrated at their champion's failure to give as good as he is getting, and they demand that he take the fight to the enemy, even, in their frustration, threatening to find another champion. The debater remains poised, unflappable, unmoved by these demands from his supporters. Meanwhile, as the shouter grows louder, more extreme, more uncompromising, the rather large group of lookers-on who are partisans of neither side become uncomfortable with the sheer assaultive noise of the shouter, and feel increasingly comfortable with the debater. It would be a mistake to suppose that the debater has won them over by the logic of his arguments. They aren't listening that carefully. They simply feel more comfortable with him.
This, I suggest is most -- but not yet all -- of what is going on right now in the public arena of American politics. But everything is complicated by the fact that Barack Obama is Black. Deeply rooted in the very being of White America is the image of the angry Black man, the menacing Black man, the mugger, the rebellious slave, the rapist, The Other. However much White America may congratulate itself on the extraordinary generosity and liberality of its open-mindedness in electing a Black man to the Presidency, that dark, frightening image remains. If the Republicans ever succeed in making Obama angry, they win. It won't matter what he is angry about, or how justified his anger. He will become The Angry Black Man, and they will win.
Does Obama understand this? Can Geico save you fifteen percent or more on your car insurance? [Local reference, for my overseas readers.] Of course he understands it. Every Black man in American understands this, whether he chooses to talk about it or not, and regardless of how he deals with it.
These ruminations are prompted by Rick Perry's veiled threat to lynch Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. It was an unconscionable statement, made by Perry deliberately for effect, and it triggered an eruption of outrage. Obama happened to be giving a one-on-one television interview, and was asked about it. His reply was pitch perfect. "He has only been running for president for a few days. I think we ought to cut him some slack." It reminded me of a televised moment, during the 2008 campaign. Obama was speaking to a large outdoor audience somewhere, and he brought up some of the attacks that had been directed at him. With a grace that would have done credit to Cary Grant, he lightly brushed an invisible speck of lint from the shoulder of his suit jacket. The crowd roared. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen a candidate do.
Now, none of this has anything to do with actual policies. But purely at the level of style, I think it is a profound mistake to criticize Obama for not throwing his base some rhetorical red meat. I repeat: if he gets angry, they win.