November 3rd, 2008

How Charlie Might Have Got His Groove Back (After Eight Years of Waiting To Exhale)

I sat down today to write something short about the election for this journal. As it developed, though, I started to see it would be a better fit for Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, for which I have written far too little in recent years. So I reshaped it for that setting and, wonder of wonders, was able to post it successfully as an editorial, which I invite you to read at your harried leisure.

After I was done, I felt a strange sense of relief. And then I realized, with the sudden clarity that comes with wiping fog from a window, that it was actually my depression over the state of this country that had led, counter-productively, to my struggles to come up with material for the publication I've cared about more than anything else in my intellectual existence. More specifically, it was in attempting to write something about parenting and the 2004 Presidential election -- a piece that, while still not finished, now runs some 25,000 words -- that I felt my voice suddenly paralyzed.

While it's true that I've managed to write pieces for other publications in the interim, each assignment has been excruciatingly difficult for me. The words, which used to come so easily, have been absurdly hard for me to extract, like small objects at the bottom of a glass jar into which my fingers don't quite reach far enough. Even writing here has grown to be a chore, more often than not.

Who knows whether my sudden productivity today heralds a change for the better or not. I suspect that the results of tomorrow's Presidential election will factor significantly in how I feel about myself and the world in the months to come. What I do know, though, is that it felt good to find my groove this afternoon, however briefly.

Political Morphology: Part I of III

In 1992, the last time a Democrat was elected President of the United States after years of Republican control of the White House, the hottest special effect in filmmaking was called "morphing", the use of high-end computer graphics to make one item seamlessly transform into another. Terminator 2: Judgement Day represented its biggest box-office success. But it was in Michael Jackson's music video for "Black or White," debuted that same year in a relentlessly hyped network television premiere, that the technology's political implications were most starkly illuminated. The image of one face dissolving into another, blurring racial distinctions to the point where they appeared irrelevant, showcased the promise of a brave new world in which surfaces, their mutability made clear, no longer mattered.

When Time magazine published a special issue the following year in which similar technology was self-consciously deployed, not to dazzle us with a series of metamorphoses, but to help us imagine the end to which they might be leading, the logic behind the Michael Jackson video -- as well as the singer's own career, many would add -- was laid bare with breathtaking clarity:

Although this vision of technological miscegenation does not undo prejudices surrounding the literal sort, it certainly calls their basis into question. As my friend Ron Alcalay ably argued in his discussion of the "Black or White" video in a 1995 piece for Bad Subjects, the reminder that color is only skin deep that such morphing and merging conveys might itself appear to be superficial. But that doesn't mean that it is insignificant. "This is not bad, this is not dangerous; in fact, it's lots of fun, perhaps even therapeutic for a bigot who might ordinarily change the channel when images of racial others invade her home."

At the same time, it's hard not see the apparent breakthroughs that went hand in hand with the 1992 Presidential campaign and the early days of Bill Clinton's Presidency as a prelude to 1994. The backlash against his Administration and the hopes it unleashed, which was led by right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, was surely a backlash against the promise of morphing as well. The outrage they stoked over Clinton's initial pledge to redress the plight of gays in the military and his wife's attempt to develop a universal heathcare initiative was an outrage built on the foundation of several years of university-centered conservative resistance to "political correctness" and cultural theories that promoted fluidity, hybridity and heterogeneity in contrast to the fixities of yore. Nor was it a surprise that conservative complaints about excessive tolerance in popular culture -- think of Dan Qualye's attack on the character Murphy Brown's desire to have a child without having a husband -- translated into a critique of the Democrats' excessive permissiveness, whether in cultural or financial matters.

Political Morphology: Part II of III

The minute I saw the 2006 Time cover below, I thought of the magazine's 1993 cover -- see my preceding entry -- featuring a computer-generated person composed of several different ethnicities' characteristic features. I don't know whether the folks at Time were consciously seeking to refer to the earlier cover or the contents of the issue it graced, but they certainly seem to have been thinking along the same lines:

Like most Americans, when I first saw the title of the cover story I thought, "President is a long shot. But next President? Please." But once I had dug the 1993 cover out of my archives for the purposes of comparison, I found myself rethinking the rapidity of my initial reaction. After all, if Time was presenting Obama as a computer generated composite à la the multicultural simulation -- notice the similarity between her expression and Obama's, as well as the way their eyes look -- perhaps they were onto something.

The rave notices garnered by Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention had already suggested that he was a politician with an exceptionally bright future. And they had also moved more skeptical individuals like myself to wonder whether the packaging wasn't being put before the package. Still I was impressed, as I wrote in an entry at the time:

I taped the Democratic National Convention for proto-Tivo viewing today. Hearing from several progressive sources -- some of whom are good friends -- that Barack Obama's keynote address kicked serious ass, I cued it up this morning for me and Kim to watch before she went to work. Skylar was antsy and made the watching difficult, but we still got through it.

It was a good speech and good to see a person of color on stage. All the advance praise, though, had me wanting something a bit less safe. I suppose he was asked to be as centrist as possible, though, so I shouldn't fault him on that score. He's clearly going to be a big deal in American politics. He certainly has the vita and teaching experience for it. And the lines about "blue" and "red" states were as powerful as advertised:

John Kerry believes in America. And he knows that it's not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.

If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child.

If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent.

If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- it is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.

It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: "E pluribus unum," out of many, one.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?
After Kim went to take her shower, Skylar asked me why he was talking about "blue states" and "red states," which necessitated coming up with a five-year-old-friendly description of both the federalist electoral college system and what happened during the 2000 Presidential election.

"Was Arizona a blue state?," Skylar asked.

"No, it was a red state. We're hoping it will be a blue state this year. But George W. Bush has a good chance of winning again," I replied. "California and New York will probably be blue states, though. And Texas will be a red state, because Bush is from Texas and lots of people -- but not all of them -- like him there."

From there we moved on to a discussion of the convention whereby people say, "I don't like George W. Bush," when they really mean that they don't like what he has done as President. I then taught her the word "policy."

As I tried to capture the essence of Obama's speech for her, I realized that it did have the virtues of simplicity and optimism that resonate with five-year-olds. And, as I suggested in my recent entry about the Olympics, that's definitely a good thing. Whether we should worry that most grown-ups in the United States understand little more about politics than Skylar has already learned in 2004 is another question.

I do think the nation would be better off if voters realized that they were acting on the basis of a five-year-old's grasp of the issues, rather than pretending to themselves and others that they have a "mature" understanding of them. And that goes for the civics-deprived pundits on Fox News too.
I suppose that many of the complaints that have been made about the diffuse quality of Obama's rhetoric can be traced back to his preference for imagery that a five-year-old can comprehend. One of the things I have learned as a parent is that small children are a lot more abstract than their grown-up counterparts. For the most part, the maturation process, if you can call it that, involves learning to second guess our impulse to draw sweeping conclusions, even when it's precisely those sort of conclusions that need to be drawn.

Political Morphology: Part III of III

I had already been considering an entry on the connection I had perceived between the 1993 Time cover featuring the computer-generated multicultural woman's face and the 2006 Time one that presented Barack Obama as if he were her relative. Then I saw this on the newsstand:

Now surely this wasn't an accident, the fact that this latest cover played off the presentation of the two I discussed in my previous entries this evening. Indeed, the split, not only down Obama's face, but also in the Time logo itself powerfully recalled the video for Michael Jackson's "Black or White" I mention in my entry on the 1993 cover.

It's intriguing, then to see that the seamless morphing of that cover, not to mention its implicit correlate in the 2006 one featuring Obama, has been replaced by a visually stark divide, even if the purpose of the story it sells is to discount the notion that race is playing a huge factor in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Here, the implication is not that the future will be neither black or white, but that it will force people to choose. For my part, I see that as a considerably more conservative point of view than the one indicated in the 1993 cover. What remains to be seen is whether voters tomorrow will see the world the way this cover suggests, in an explicitly high-contrast manner, or whether they will instead let their hearts direct their vision, discerning a world in which the content of one's character always trumps the color of one's skin.