Wednesday, 14 January 2009

damned bureaucrats!

Up, Down.

Barack Obama, Spiderman, SpideyAtong ArjokThinking about the relationships between administration & religious vision. On the administrative, let's just call it 'bureaucratic' side there is: the Vatican; the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice: supreme administrative body of the Bahá’í faith (and sole recipient of infallible divind guidance) as well as The Bahá’í International Community and so forth; the Episcopal General Convention; the General Council Office of the United Church of Canada; indeed, the whole diocese / bishop / parish / vestry / congregation hierarchy. I don't know enough about Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu etc. structures to comment - a Buddhist friend of mine tells me it is the same there at least.

All of this fol-de-rol compared (and contrasted) with whatever it is that transpires between the diety and the believer, be it in a formal worship service or private 'prayer.'

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
     Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii.

We could discuss which of Bahai or United Church of Canada is the 'younger.' They are both relative teenagers in the religion biz. And both are driven by their bureaucracies. Sad ... that is, when I run my mind back over recent epiphanies around The Good Samaritan and concrete human networks, augmented by Ivan Illich's thoughts on the subject.

None of this having much to do with Barack Obama actually, beyond the obvious, but Rex Murphy's rantings seem to fit in:

The incredible shrinking Obama, Rex Murphy, September 20, 2008.
He's not God, but he's America, Rex Murphy, December 27, 2008.
Obamamania: Pass the defibrillator, Rex Murphy, January 3, 2009.

The incredible shrinking Obama, Rex Murphy, September 20, 2008.

How's Barack Obama's narrative going?

Journalists used to tell stories, now they plumb narratives. Narrative is a pretentious borrowing from the abstraction-clotted world of academic criticism, where texts are interrogated, authors are dead and high-toned fatuousness is king. I'll see your postmodern and raise you a meta.

Mr. Obama's campaign, however, has renewed narrative's trendy fizz. It is the very Perrier water (or is it San Pellegrino now?) of the better campaign reportage. Take no hike up Pundit Mountain without it. From the moment, the Obama surge took forceful shape, everyone - reporters, the scholars of blogland, the partisan howler monkeys of cable-news cage matches - has chattered on about Mr. Obama's narrative.

Trouble is, most of the story of the campaign isn't so much coming from the candidate himself as it is created by all those who, most in worshipful terms, have talked, written and reported on or about him. The Obama campaign is one great text generator, the grand fable of his fans.

In one sense, this is not surprising. He has a quicksilver quality. Even after two autobiographies, Mr. Obama remains something of a floating, uncrowded presence. His story (and he is so impressively self-aware as to have made the most acute comment on it) is temptingly open-ended, very much a page to be written on. He himself has written, most memorably: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

That is as bold a statement as it is an insightful one. Bold, because it is a remarkable confession from a presidential hopeful. Insightful, because it matches the facts. There are not many personalities so fluid or vague on which an attempt to "project" a storyline would take hold. Imagine, for example, projecting a "rewrite" of Donald Rumsfeld. There's too much of Mr. Rumsfeld already there to offer hospitality to new material.

Mr. Obama, however, has a kind of welcoming emptiness. Eager acolyte or stern observer, both find it difficult not to add, or project, the most flattering, even jubilant, fill-ins. The Obama candidacy, in its rocket-blast phase when he outsoared Hillary Clinton, drained the dictionaries of every superlative. The great "O" had them swooning in the stands. Why?

True, Oprah had passed her potent wand over him, but even the afternoon regent of a thousand therapies has stays on her sorcery. Mainly, his was very much a candidacy constructed by those who were drawn to him. If there was any meaning to that fortune-cookie poeticism that "we are the ones we have been waiting for," it was that his campaign was a feedback loop. People saw what they came to see. Mr. Obama was the slate; the crowds brought their own chalk.

This is the nature of Mr. Obama's particular kind of charisma. People project their best wishes on him, they fill in the blank of a very attractive and plausible outline. His is not, emphatically, a charisma of deeds. For what has he done, save run for president? He is an accommodating vessel - cool, smart, biracial and "unfinished." This is the Gatsby quality of him that others have noted. Like Gatsby, he is a receptacle of others' glamorous invention.

People see in him, or wish to see, the last great ideal of the American polity fulfilled, a final and full racial accommodation. That should he be elected president, America will have achieved, by his singular persona, the perfect emblematic demonstration of having exorcised at last the great stain of its racially riven origins.

Mr. Obama's charisma is, in this sense, external, something extended to the candidate. And it follows that that which is given may equally be taken away. The sparkle has, in fact, dimmed. He travels now in a lower orbit, closer to Earth - which is to say, he grows more mundane. The great word "hope" sounds less frequently now. He picks a running mate thick with the dust and rancour of many long years in Washington.

His acceptance speech in the Olympic-style stadium could not gather the inspirational energy of his earlier arias. Of late, the flash supernova of U.S. politics is seen "competing" with a second-on-the-ticket female governor of a remote state. There's more than a gap between the "audacity of hope" and "lipstick on a pig." The mouth that spoke the first phrase should not be capable of the second.

He has shrunk into a combative partisan. He crowds his own screen, leaves less space for projection. Others are not writing his narrative now - he's inscribing his own.

A candidacy that leached so much of its energy and drive from the imagination of others, Gatsby-like, is shedding its gift. The narrative stage is over. It's all tactics from here on in.

He's not God, but he's America, Rex Murphy, December 27, 2008.

Time magazine has genuflected to the obvious and named Barack Obama its person of the year. Which is a good thing. Time can be spotty in its choices, either gruesomely correct - as when it named the Planet (incense to the Gaia crowd) - or unwholesomely sycophantic - when it stuck You (that's you, smart reader) on the cover.

Seeing Mr. Obama, I thought: Could have been worse. I guess the chaise longue will have to wait for a quieter time. But, this year, the magazine couldn't have gone anywhere else. A fair portion of the American press may have jettisoned every pretense of standard reporting on Mr. Obama, hardly to be distinguished in the tone of commentary from preteen girls "Oh-my-God-ing" in the presence of the latest boy band.

Time has gushed with the best of them. In November, in yet another cover story on The One, it rated Mr. Obama above the sons of kings and even, oh my, above Christ himself: "Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But a few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope ..."

I shed a tear on reading that. Brought back the molasses knobs of my youth, great glucose bombs that would fell a moose with their sheer sweetness. Yet, the excesses of Time, and the distinct strain of pure idolatry that has infested great swaths of the North American press, don't change the consideration that Barack Obama was the story of 2008.

He swiped the Democratic nomination from the Clintons, who, until Mr. Obama appeared on the scene, had that trinket so much in their possession that the contest for the top spot was marked down purely as a ritual. It was Hillary's, and that was all there was to it. And then from out of the murky backwaters of Chicago politics came a little-known black politician with the exotic name of Barack Hussein Obama, who glided with balletic insouciance past the shark's teeth, muscle and cunning of Clinton Inc.

He should be person of the year, of the decade, just for that. But it might also be useful to hold in mind, while the hymns to The One as he approaches inauguration day increase in volume and fervour, that that's all he's done. His Senate record is an empty suitcase. His national achievement is - outside the nomination - precisely nil. Sarah Palin's résumé is objectively much more substantial.

Hillary was right when she jibed that Mr. Obama was just one speech - the address he gave to the Democratic convention that loosed John Kerry on the American electorate. Off the platform, he's a great "um-er" and "ah-er" who stumbles with a sentence in a manner that hails to mind the image of George Bush on one of the latter's many desperate safaris to link a cowering subject to its about-to-be mauled predicate.

If Mr. Obama were a standard politician, the empty résumé would have done him in. But this is precisely the point about Mr. Obama, that he has blasted free of that category. Recall that string of losses he endured toward the end of the eternal primary campaign. Hillary was beating him state after state after state. And yet it hardly seemed to matter. Any other politician would have worn that serial trouncing like a wound. Mr. Obama walked on stage after each successive loss as though he'd just woken up from a comforting nap. The composure he sometimes displays, as many have noted, is almost unearthly: He possesses a centred confidence so strong that it almost deflects reality.

The Obama persona confounds politics as we have known it for at least a generation. His person summons the wish that politics be better. There was not a little intuitive genius in founding his campaign on the most frequently abused concept in politics: hope. That there is a profound desire for improvement in the conduct of public life in America is too obvious to need statement. (The same is true in our country. Oh lord, how true.)

On some days, U.S. politics appears to be a frightful compound of graft, mismanagement, incompetence, cronyism, sexual misconduct, mediocrity, avarice and feral partisanship. The people who love America fear for her, not from apprehension over her enemies, but from despair over her putative leaders.

Barack Obama, by some gift of personality, sent out a flash of inspiration that called the exiled strain of idealism back into U.S. politics. It was not so much that he made politics exciting as that he gave some warrant for the thought it could be worthy.

He is not Lincoln. He is not, despite Time's saccharine innuendo, better than the guy from the manger. But he's the one who's given the process of politics a second chance in our time. Person of the year. Easily.

Obamamania: Pass the defibrillator, Rex Murphy, January 3, 2009.

'It is now 16 or 17 years since I saw the Queen of France ... and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision."

That's Edmund Burke reflecting on the fate of Marie Antoinette. He was, as we should say today, a fan. "I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in; glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour, and joy."

The prose has a touch of that Chris Matthews "thrill up my leg" quality, although of course infinitely more refined than anything produced to date, either above or below, the host of Hardball's knee: "I thought 10,000 swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone ..."

Prophetic Burke. He was right about the age of chivalry. But the age of powdered encomium, what we would call the "puff piece," is still very much with us.

Celebrity reportage, witlessness in full genuflection to tackiness, has exploded the meanings of flattery and self-abasement. Entertainment reporters, as they deliriously regard themselves, are high-paid oxymorons. They all but lick the shoes of those they cover, and even that exemption is, I'm fairly confident, not total.

Till very recently, the worship of celebrities was more or less confined to high-gloss, low-IQ entertainment magazines and their TV equivalents. But with the advent of Barack Obama - and I should insist, not at his prompting - it has done a worrisome crossover. In the year blessedly past, we had a column in the San Francisco Chronicle that makes even Burke's ode seem hesitant, ambiguous even.

The columnist wrote, gasped, thrilled, vibrated that Mr. Obama was "... that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health-care plans ... but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve." Rhapsody is too timid a word.

Mr. Obama, the column reveals, is a Lightworker, a new-age messianic superpresence. The heading over this prostration, er, column was: "Is Obama an enlightened being?" Call Steven Spielberg. E.T. is back.

There have been other descriptions of Mr. Obama during the primaries and the election that have been almost as dementedly ardent.

Normally, the press stands apart from mass adulation. Not so with Mr. Obama. A recent report in The Washington Post read like a mash note from a teenager. The article had a picture of the Lightworker, shirtless, and commented: "... he was photographed looking like the paradigm of a new kind of presidential fitness, one geared less toward preventing heart attacks than winning swimsuit competitions." I beg to differ. Pass the defibrillator, now.

The reporter/disciple was, however, just warming up. Next he galloped off into territory left unexplored even in chicklit: "The sun glinted off chiselled pectorals sculpted during four weightlifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games."

If this guy gives up the politics beat, there are a hundred massage parlours out there thirsty for this kind of copy. This is The Washington Post, remember. Has the financial crisis tipped the collective media mind into entertainment reporting mode?

Very little of this, I repeat, is Mr. Obama's fault. (Although that famous line of his on winning the nomination as "the moment when the rise of the seas began to slow and the planet began to heal" was an unhappy toe-dip into the waters of absurd self-inflation.) But if the mainstream press offers "the sun glinted off chiselled pectorals," let's stop calling it news. This is Baywatch punditry.

Not worth a mention? On the contrary. There swirls around the figure or persona of Mr. Obama a set of expectations radically disconnected from rationality. He cannot possibly match the fantasies he inspires in some. It's worth wondering whether eight years of equal but opposite irrationality - the hysterically negative coverage of George W. Bush - has produced its own counter-response. Or whether that strand of new-age therapeutics, the Dr. Phil/Oprah "self-realization" claptrap, has warped U.S. politics into a kind of abysmal "healing workshop." That would certainly account for some Americans thinking they've elected a Lightworker rather than a president.

The press should be trimming these fantasies, not constructing them. But it's easier to sigh than to analyze. So on inauguration day, don't be surprised if you read a story that begins (alas, poor Burke) ... "and surely never lighted on this orb, which he hardly seemed to touch ..."


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