Yellanjello’s sense of possibility; or, Barack Obama is an analogical lexicon doubler

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Think Obama is raising “false hopes”? You’re just lazy intellectually.

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My recent post in support of electing Mike Huckabee president of the United States prompted a number of questions about my attitudes toward the Democratic candidates, most of whom I would support in a general election before suporting Huckabee. I’m split between Barack Obama and John Edwards. (Hillary I find neither savory nor objectionable; Richardson is teddy bear.) Point-for-point, Edwards’s positions are more in line with mine, and I have greater confidence that he’d try to fight the fights he says he’ll fight than I do that Obama will do the same. Nonetheless, I’m leaning heavily toward Obama for two reasons. I’m worried that Edwards’s reputation as a hothead could impede his effectiveness, first; second, and far more important, an Obama presidency has the potential to alter preconceptions and biases we have about ourselves, one another, and the world—the potential to kickstart a genuine revolution in social welfare. John Edwards will fight the good fight, no doubt, harder than Obama will. But Phenomenon Barack Obama, Obama as pluralist intellectual and political inspiration, will persist, and work to make progressive change, for decades after President Barack Obama had left office.

President Edwards wouldn’t be so lucky, I think. His passion and forthrightness are his best qualities, but they can easily turn or be made into “Dean Screams.” We should pause here to remember that Dean Scream was itself, deliberately or inadvertently, a manufactured event. It did not, strictly speaking, happen: Dean was speaking to a raucous audience for whom his excessive volume was not only appropriate but required. The crews filming him, though, elected to edit out nearly all background noise—applause, screams, cheers—so all we hear and see is Dean gesticulating and shouting to a seemingly empty room. This point is essential: Dean’s nutjobiness was entirely fabricated, a fact that was made public shortly after he gave his speech, yet we continue reference it as though it were an actual political event whose dynamics we can somehow use to understand current and future political events. The Dean Scream is not an actual event, and readings of recent and future situations that utilize it as though it were enact the absurdity of our politics, using a known lie as an interpretive dominant, using a known lie as as the avenue for getting at the truth of whatever today’s debacle happens to be. Lies can be useful for getting at truth, but only if we aggressively highlight their dishonesty while using them. To talk in earnest about the pseudo-events like this one as an instance of a politician gone mad is flatly absurd. It is to adopt acceptance of dishonesty as a premise—which is precisely what we call disingenuousness—before any discussion of politics, much less any discussion less of policy, has even begun. The Dean Scream is an especially visible version of this phenomenon, but the acceptance and eventually assumption of dishonesty we find at its core animates all political interaction in our contemporary discourse. After decades we have inured ourselves to all this—not to the dishonesty, which we do not encounter directly—how could honest people such as we stand for such a thing?—but to the disingenuousness that shields the dishonesty from an open and vigorous interrogation. Because much of President Edwards’s time would be taken up with taking on corporations with telecommunications ties, people who could influence his public appearance with a few well-placed emails, an Edwards administration could be one long Dean Scream, a one-term national delusion.

So I see a dispirited President Edwards at his desk, one year since since he began his attempt to begin to attempt such a vigorous interrogation, his throat dry and cracking, a palliative of hot tea with lemon and honey in one hand, Times opinion page in the other, grimacing, wincing, tearing up even as he comes to David Brooks, who praises him for his ardent dedication to the country’s lower economic quartiles, but describes him with words like “bellicose” and “truculent” for his habit of calling politicians and corporations on their bullshit and not backing down when the spin machines that are set up to protect his targets retaliate. This is only likely to happen if President Edwards were to push as hard as he says he’d push, but if I thought he would prove a paper tiger I wouldn’t be considering him in the first place. I feel for this President Edwards, but ultimately my vote must be based on whose election I think will most effectively remake the country into something I want to see it become. And while I don’t doubt his conviction to attempting to begin a genuine upheaval, I do doubt his potential to be effective. In our reductive political discourse, words become definitions and rallying banners—think of how both parties’ candidates’ use of “change” has evolved in the past few weeks—and words like “bellicose,” don’t go look good banners that are supposed to inspire people. Words like “change” and what our media chooses to do with them have far more electoral influence than that policy, that hallmark of banality. Who really wants to read those proposal thingys? Nobody, or not enough somebodys, so in electing John Edwards, we might easily up a with president who, for all his trying, changes little more than the White House upholstery, and is, rightfully, pissed as hell at everyone.

My second and primary reason for preferring Obama to Edwards is less speculative: he would be not only the first black president, but the first intellectual president since Kennedy or even Wison, and both his color and his intellect would have profound psychological implications for our national consciousness. Those two firsts, black and smart in a way that is likely to energize other intellectuals, are symbolically important on their own, but think about their resonance together: an intellectual president who’s also black? Think about that being on TV every day for four to eight years, what that would do stochastically but undeniably to the sense of possibility for someone like little seven-year-old Yellanjello, resident of slum-stricken East St. Louis, Illinois. (An actual person; her twin is Oranjello. The girls’ mother likes jello). Now think about the parallel effect an Obama presidency would have on us, on you intellectuals, artists, and public servants, etc.; on all segments of society whose standards for success, have at least in theory, very little to do with money. Presidents who are lawyers (and MBAs) inspire lawyers and MBAs—by which I mean that the country more or less believes that the economy improves under their stewardship. Analogously, Obama’s election has the potential to kickstart a gradual but undeniably impactful revolution in American intellectual life, a revolution he would steward, if only symbolically. Not only would a serious thinker be thinking about and making the serious decisions we need intelligent people to be making—not only will have better decisions being made—but the serious thinker will be black.

Our misguided taboos about talking about race in this country perversely prevent us from trumpeting how important Obama can be as a symbol—as though to say his blackness could be a boon to him would be to take away credit from him personally; as though that would be a sort of affirmative action, which, at least in this form, we are all, disadvantaged whites and condescended-to minorities alike, supposed to despise. How often people stop themselves from making comments about intelligence or acumen or skill to or about people of color for fear of being misunderstood and thought some shade of bigot! That implicit prohibition right there, that injunction to shut up about race, is one tangible effect of our country’s last 40 or so years under the sway of groups organized around common victimhood (a tradition with its clearest origins in second-wave and subsequent feminisms): even implying that the victim has benefited in any way from that which marks him as a victim (his race, his religion, his sexual preference, et al.) is tantamount, in our culture, to discrimination at best and racism at worst. Victimhood in these scenarios becomes synonymous with minorityhood. It’s hard, though, to think of the president of the United States as a victim of anyone other than maybe Helen Thomas. Instead of cow-towing to the victim wings of minority movements—or more likely while cow-towing to them—a President Obama could show, simply by going to work each morning, that the persisting centrality of victimhood is repressive and undesirable. He could, just by going to work, do much to set “black culture” on the path toward something like Bill Cosby’s reductive but astute and influential idea of what it should be: a segment of society like many others, where each child feels he has a number of life options that do not involve crime or violence. He could even be president of the United States. That possibility-broadening alone would radically shift the way majorities view minorities, the ways minorities view themselves, with one almost certain trend characterizing that change: a movement away from victimhood and rights rhetoric; a genuine a transcendence of social categories—because now “transcendence” isn’t just a word, it’s a face, a big, smooth black one with elephant ears and a goofy grin staring out the tube at Yellanjello and her racist neighbor Jim Bob alike, daring them to accept received wisdom about race when evidence so strongly denying it is, well, staring them right in the face.

Now multiply that moment—when it clicks in Yellanjello’s and Jim Bob’s heads that maybe, just maybe, they were wrong about everything—out over eight years, during which 100 million new kids will have grown up with a black intellectual president. Maybe Yellanjello by then is in in community college rather than sweeping hair off the floor at her cousin’s friend’s salon for six dollars an hour, and Jim Bob, well, Jim Bob’s still a racist prick, but how can he tell his son with a straight face black people are inferior, that they’re in any way a detriment to “our” country, when the wildly smart and successful chief executive of our country is a black man? Jim Bob may still tell his son that, but the chances his son will believe it are far slimmer than if Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, or John McCain had been president over those past eight years. A ubiquitous President Obama—even if all he did was to hold up the presidential curtain up a bit better than it’s currently being held up—would through his mere existence force our prejudices into the national consciousness; he could make racism disappear by making the moral conflicts it poses it impossible to avoid. And, especially if he’s only slightly better at the job than our current employee, he has to potential to make racism poitively un-American. He would also be poised effect a long-due reunion of the liberal intelligensia with what has become of the working class. Disadvantaged Americans and disillusioned American intellectuals us are two groups that have been shunned, albeit in different ways, by our farce of a politics. A President Obama could bring these groups if not necessarily together then into concert, engaging and even enjoining the disillusioned to solve our collective dilemmas of disadvantage.

Yellanjello’s little brain as she’s watching the TV: that’s where this all starts, and Obama’s potential affect on it offers such promise in my eyes that Edwards’s appeal withers for reasons that have very little to do with Edwards. Like every other mental construct, Yellanjello’s sense of possibility is formed analogically. She compares what, how and where she is with what, how and where others are; she intuits similarities and distinctions, she reassess her situation, and she progress with her own models of interaction forged from the experiences of many. Impossibility, at a basic cognitive level, can be described as the inability to make an analogy that sticks to what we want it to stick to, the inability to make an analogy that allows us to move forward. Electing Barack Obama, whose bright caramel skin looks something like the end result of a successful “Let’s all have sex till we’re the same color” campaign, would instantly double our national analogical lexicon. Anybody can be anything, because, damn, our president is everything. The psychological effect of that doubling would be incalculable. In fifty years—if not eight—the United States would be an entirely different country.

“If it’s true,” PBS’s Gwen Ifill asked Obama Monday night, “that people can look at you and say he’s naive, then do you understand what Senator Clinton means when she says that you are raising false hopes?”

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Oh, that I completely reject. I mean this notion of false hopes—I, I reject the entire premise. I think this crystallizes what this campaign is about. I mean there’s so many people who are telling us what we can’t do…. [That] the politics always has to be mean and nasty and personally destructive, that, you know, the poor will always be with us […] You know, I mean…that’s not being realistic. That’s just being lazy intellectually.

Everybody put on your thinking caps.

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