Monday, July 28, 2008

Precious Little

The spousal unit regularly reads Col. W. Patrick Lang's blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis. He's an interesting fish, one of the few readable (and true) conservatives out there. He recently posted this on his blog. He starts with a substantial quote of a recent David Brooks column, then says (my emphasis throughout):

Brooks has put his finger on one of the issues that Americans have with the man.

Obama is clearly Europe's man in the contest to become president of the United States next year, but the sale is not made to those who will elect the president. I think it is likely that Obama will be elected but the outcome is still in doubt.

The soaring rhetoric of such speeches and the appeals to the better angels of our natures move people who are already within the percentage of the population who favor the idea of Barack Obama. John Kennedy's speeches moved many in 1960, but nothing like all. His false claims of a "missile gap" with the Soviets had as much to do with his election as his exhortation to become one of "freedom's frontiersmen." His wife and children were appealing, but by '63 he was thought by many Americans to be a remarkably ineffective president. At the same time, his picture was to be seen on the walls of shacks and mud huts around the world. Would he have been re-elected in 1964? This is an open question. Khrushchev thought him a posturing, empty suit. From that came much mischief. He forced the Soviet Army out of Cuba? Yes, but would they have been there if the Soviet leadership had not thought him weak and a dreamer?

There is something hollow about Obama's candidacy, something that gives citizens a chance to think him less rather than more. He should be far, far ahead of McCain in the polls. The Republican Party is a wounded beast. McCain increasingly looks like a declining, mean old man. Obama should be at least ten points ahead in national polls. Yes. Yes. I know we don't elect presidents on a national basis.

William Jennings Bryan was an orator at the soaring level of Barack Obama. His "cross of gold" speech still lives in legend, but he was never elected president.

The soaring rhetoric - that has not changed in any substantive way since it was first served up shiny and new over a year ago. The relentlesss avoidance of anything that could actually rally Democrats, such as being rid of the corrupt and failed policies of the Republican Party since Reagan. Or a whole-hearted embrace of universal health insurance. Or a line in the sand on privacy rights.

As we saw in the primary, the flight from substance was also a flight from support. The longer the campaign went on, the less there was to present, the more he had to be hidden away - from debates, from primaries, from reality. Even now his blogger defenders are reduced to bleating "Racist! Racist!" when the vacuity of the candidate is identified and criticized. His votes went down. His donations went down. His polls went down. Even now, he does not dare allow an actual convention vote be taken lest he lose.

The deep problem of the Obama campaign, the one that has been there from the start and continues to slowly, steadily bleed away support, is there has never been a presence, only an absence, a "not-Hillary", the candidate defined by what he isn't, most crucially in his partisan commitments.

Some people think I call Obama "The Precious" simply as mockery, as in "Oh, isn't he so precious!" It works, but the term came from the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. The Precious is the name a raving, depraved, insane Hobbit gives to this thing that has no center and exists only to drive its possessors mad with a lust for power. The Precious allows itself to be carried about, pretending to serve, until it sees something better, at which point it abandons its current master for one that will take it further. It glitters and enchants, whispering promises of dominion:
Boromir got up and walked about impatiently. 'So you go on,' he cried. 'Gandalf, Elrond - all these folks have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-Hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!'

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benvolent and wise.

This scene was what came to mind when I listened to otherwise rational people rave on about Obama's incredible "transformative" powers without explaining exactly how such powers were to be mustered, in whose hands this power would be placed and for what purpose. Only a Stevensonian wet dream of making everyone be good, eat sensibly, and fulfill their awesome potential. We would all be the fantasies of our own idealized selves if only we would take up The Precious Gift, The One, and believe.

But those who resisted the inwards turn towards a fantasized, perfected self (and the comcomitant forcible perfection of the world in which the perfected self exists) have done so through very practical thinking, focusing on unsexy bread and butter issues like insurance and mortgages. These are the kinds of things that gave Hillary's campaign more substance and appeal the longer it went on. No one in the Obama campaign seems to take this fact seriously, writing Hillary's support growth off as "racists" voting against Obama. Instead, we are handed more exhortations to be our fantasy. In the face of The Precious, it is not easy to resist:

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

What Tolkien showed in LotR, and why I've dubbed Obama The Precious, is the seductive danger of believing our own fantasies of socio-political perfection figured as personal virtue writ large. We like being called to the "better angels of our nature" because very few of us want to be less than that. Accusations of racism wound deeply and can shame a person against their better judgement because it strikes directly at this internal self-image. If you very much do not want to be this reviled thing - a racist, a bigot, a stupid hick - then you cannot help but respond by reaching for the better angel within. But how can you ever make present what cannot be proved? When we project our not-so-peachy angels onto others and revile them for the crime latent in our own hearts, then you've got trouble. To identify voting for a specific person as the the only valid test of someone's deepest convictions is to become Boromir demanding to be given the Ring.

As I have asked repeatedly, what is Obama for such that a good life-long liberal like me should give him my vote? I do not need to be convinced that McCain is hideous. He is. Don't vote for him. But Obama is the incredible shrinking candidate. Without the foil of Hillary (and the primary was all about Hillary), what substance there was has vanished. I was fired up fighting for my girl. I'm hardly able to rise above my ennui to criticize The Precious and his Gollumish followers, the once reasonable people obssessively stroking the object of their desire and muttering imprecations about those who have wronged them, bedding down to dreams of revenge.

There is a hollow, fragile shell contending with a blustering old fart. Obama offered up a shiny vision of Stevensonian dominion that is steadily devolving into an internal war on the core of the party. A Media Darling beloved of the Village! Shall we not use the power of the Enemy aganist them? We are true of heart and cannot be tempted into evil, if only you miserable bitches would shut up already about health care and privacy, OK? And it only looks evil, it's not really evil, it's just what we have to do to win...

The campaign is hollow, a pretty bauble without substance, and there is precious little they can do about it.



Anonymous said...

According to Digby and others, calling Obama "presumptuous" is a racist dogwhistle.

Calling him "The Precious" can hardly be less.

I hope you are back more-or-less on a regular basis. You have been sorely missed.

Join us at the Confluence.

Bob Harrison said...

After one of many witch hunts at work looking for trouble makers and people with "low morale," one of my friends made a transcendent observation: that he was not in charge of his own morale, that was a function of the organization.

Likewise, I am not in charge of my transformation. If Obama is transformative, a uniter, then when will he transform me? I'm so far left , I circle the spectrum and agree with right wing kooks sometimes. I am waiting. Make me want to vote FOR you.

R. S. Martin said...


Excellent post. I don't know what's happened to education in this country. When I was growing up, we were taught in school to be skeptical of charismatics whose main selling point was their soaring rhetoric and speaking ability. Hitler was pointed to as the extreme example of how awful things could get by following such types. After dealing with some of the more overzealous Obama supporters, I feel like they should be made to watch Triumph of the Will; perhaps it would wake some of them up enough to realize that what a politician says is unimportant, it's what they do.

Those interested in more on the Digby issue should read my Sunday post, "Obama, Racism...and Digby. It's cross-posted as a diary at Alegre's Corner. It's not acknowledged, but it probably inspired myiq2xu's piece at Riverdaughter referenced above. It at least preceded myiq2xu's post. Digby saw it and e-mailed me to reply. She has no intention of stopping these specious racism accusations.

gendergappers said...

I received the following e-mail and now I find you have given the perfect answer to it in "Precious Little".

COMMENT: "i normally have contacted you to congratulate you on a column well done.

"lately i'm wondering why you are denigrating my second choice for prez, after Hillary, of course, and do want to elect McCain -- the only other viable choice for prez.

"for what else could you think you were accomplishing???" [name ommitted]

Thanks Anglachel.

Falstaff said...

You're welcome as the flowers in May...

People really didn't get the reference? After half a century of global readership, not to mention a couple billion dollars in cinematic imagery?

Anyway, very nice analogy -- Obama as the Ring, and all of us as the Fellowship. Too bad Howard, Donna and Nancy ain't no Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. But I think there's a very interesting implication to your thought that tends to cut against -- or at least deepen/darken in some powerful ways -- your general trope of Jacksonian vs. Stevensonian wings of the Democratic Party.

It's this: The Stevensonians are, as you've been persuasively arguing, the anti-power types. (I've been writing about this myself -- -- until, like you, I became too disspirited by the play once they dragged the compelling figure offstage and began lauding Fortinbras as a transcendent leader.) However, the analogy to the Ring implies a decided eagerness for Power... only it's vague, mythic, inchoate, personalized -- rather than concrete, operationalized, purposeful, conscious. By that analogy, these people aren't Stevensonians so much as they are (as you note) of the William Jennings Bryan ilk -- less Creative Class critic-types than lusters after something Bigger than ordinary political power... something too big to be stated.

A few years ago, I had a thoughtstream on LOTR, prompted by the (ultimately disappointing) movies, but really about the books. This isn't an appropriate venue to blather on about that. I would just note that the deeper, more mysterious level of what the Ring embodies isn't political -- either Stevensonian, or Jacksonian, or any -onian. It's the seductive lure of Romantic Epic -- to whose siren call Tolkein himself had succumbed, and in which (I speculate) he had enfolded his sons -- reading to them riddles in the dark -- but whose (literal) dictatorship he ultimately felt he had to destroy.

The curious thing about the Ring, in other words, is how vague the sense of its drug/power/cosmic experience actually is. What does it feel like to be Sauron? Tolkein gives us no clue. A fog surrounds the heart of that darkness. And that may be related to the reason we keep rereading LOTR – and probably why Tolkein kept writing it, producing endless appendices, languages, histories, bestiaries, systems of plants and topography and sociology, obsessively imagining and articulating a whole world... worlds within and before worlds, the road not just going ever on and on, but branching out into uncounted other roads, each leading to more and more magic, more and more places where never sun has shone.

Indeed, one might look at LOTR as a 12-step program of self-cleansing. Having become an addict to Romantic epic, to the seductive promise of a journey into Imaginative Power (leaving home and social life behind and exploring the pathways, dark and bright, of your mind and heart), he saw the need to get past that, to kill it off, to let his children get back to the real world -- and to retire himself from the Middle Earth of literature to the Undying (and unreadable) Lands of The Silmarillion.

The purpose of The Lord of the Rings was simultaneously to extend and to finish what he’d started – to kick The Hobbit. Like Bilbo and Gandalf, Tolkein came to understand that what he had found, what he had become addicted to in The Hobbit was evil, and had to be destroyed.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s heartbreakingly beautiful, epic song of farewell to his sons could never name or acknowledge what the Ring is – any more than Tolkein himself could really acknowledge or write the desire of the authorial Dark Lord who forged it. In The Hobbit, that lord doesn’t exist. The world does not seem to be in danger of anyone’s hegemony – the “Necromancer” is a footnote, not a global threat, and certainly not identified with the narrator of the tale. In The Lord of the Rings, he’s been given a local habitation (Mordor), a name (Sauron) and a book title.

Unknown said...

"[Those] who resisted the inwards turn towards a fantasized, perfected self (and the comcomitant forcible perfection of the world in which the perfected self exists) ... "

Great characterization. the precious and his followers are caught up in a narcissist hall of mirrors; and a fantasized, perfected self is what narcissism is all about. The danger with such people is, of course, the forcible perfection of the world, and the devaluing of that same world when it refuses to be perfected.

Unknown said...

God that must have felt good writing!! Big LOL after reading the first line of the the last paragraph.

Alright, I won't vote for McCain.

Pol C: I agree, there is a big problem. Rhetoric is no longer taught! I referenced "Triumph of the Will" in a recent post on my new blog "Change We Can Believe In"

HenryFTP said...

There is precious little the Obama campaign wants to do about the hollowness. I think you are underestimating the popular appeal of the "fantasies of our own idealized selves" as you so well put it.

Despite the media and cultural narratives to the contrary, rank and file Democrats have been very practical-minded about presidential nomination campaigns since the 1972 crusade against the Vietnam War. In recent memory we've seen this in Gore being preferred to Bradley and Kerry being preferred to Dean. The great insight of the Obama strategy was to focus intensely on the caucus states and the National Media Primary, where the charismatic approach could sweep him ahead, and to use the Party's highly meticulous delegate apportionment formulae to stem the backwash of defeats in primary states where Mondale's rallying cry of "Where's the beef?" triggered the hard-nosed skepticism of Democratic voters that turned back the Stevensonian and mediagenic challenge of Gary Hart in '84.

If Obama could not bring himself to put more substance into his campaign when his "aura of inevitability" was taking a beating in the Ohio and Pennsylvania primary contests, he will be even less likely to do so in the general election campaign. His target audience will be, as it has always been, potential voters who do not (or do not want to)connect their idealized selves with the unglamorous and never tidy work of practical politics.

As Hillary was the useful foil in the primary campaign, so will George W. Bush be the useful foil for the general election, the means by which Obama can define himself without being pinned down. Hollowness is not a bug, it's a feature of Obama's campaign -- Bush has deprived people of hope, so how surprising is it that people (literally everywhere) thirst for "change"?

"Seductive" this certainly seems to be, at least to the so-called "leadership" of the Democratic Party. "Dangerous", I'm not so sure, because I think the charismatic appeal will wear badly, as Kennedy's was wearing to no small degree before he was murdered. The more significant danger I see is that the popular disappointment which surges forth as Obama's charisma fades will enable the radical right wing to regain power -- goodness knows our "leadership" is oblivious to this danger.

show me said...

Wow! Pieces like this are worth the wait! I have not read LOTR since a few sleepless few weeks in college but I think I got the reference from the start. I don't know what he seeks exactly but the Democratic leadership who lifted him up certainly are seeking the power of the ring. Judging by their track record since taking over leadership in congress I don't think they are thinking of the American people. More wanting to secure their places among the global elite.

Am I being paranoid to worry about this quest for self perfection or the perfect world carries with it the hint of facism?

My biggest worry mirrors Henreyftp's only I worry that our country is approaching a perfect storm that is going to take us down so far we won't be able to recover. It would have been really hard but with Hillary we had a chance.

With the Precious we are left with the vaucus MoveOn..campaign.

Anonymous said...

Galadriel said of the ring

'And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! '
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'

So of all the people who wanted ultimate power, she had a sense of the meaning of its power; knew what it might mean to possess it and yet she declined, tho it was offered to her freely . Perhaps she knew because she had already had in her possession her own ring of power , and had been wielding it for some time . But Galadriel was more ancient and preceded the existence of any of the rings , and she wielded the power of a Goddess and took part in creation , and had accomplishments that were already part of the existing world . Her own inherent power was not connected to any " precious "

Of course I am comparing Galadriel to Hillary and her ancient inherent power the divine feminine , which has been superceded by patriarchal power in this culture.

I made this quite some time ago
feel free to use it for any purpose you like :)