My post about the election received a lot of traffic and I want to thank everyone who linked it hither and yon. It got mentioned at Daily Kos, and “inspired” an 80-comment thread at Crooked Timber. (Oh, and now Metafilter too.) Note scare quotes–some ad hominem attacks aside, the bulk of the discussion there had maybe not so much to do with what I wrote. Which is fine; grateful as I am to Kieran Healy for the post at CT, I think one effect of abridging my post by taking out all the jokes was to make it even more treacly and earnest than I’d intended. The most brutally effective abridging of my piece (and you will hear no argument from me that it didn’t need abridging) was Moacir at Daily Kos, who saw that you could cut out everything except the opening Simpsons quote and still make exactly the same point.
Anyway, I’ve said enough on this subject at this point. Here’s a collage of things I read this past week that made me nod my head and say “yes,” or at least “I hope so.” You may notice that some of these contradict things I wrote last week, and/or each other. What of it? Don’t make me quote Walt Whitman at you again. If nothing else, these are data points for me later on how it felt and what I was thinking the week of November 4, 2008.
Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl:
Moacir, at Daily Kos:
For [Chris] Matthews, it’s worth celebrating that the US has elected an African-American. This feeling has anecdotally permeated all of my encounters with Obama supporters since Ohio was called. There’s a lot of “it shows a lot that in 40 years” and the like that I hear from, generally, white yuppie types–including both baby boomers and young hipsters. There’s a lot of self-congratulation, like, “See? We proved we’re not racist! And for our second trick, we’re going to make Crash Best Picture!” But, look, the point wasn’t to make some kind of gesture about race with this election. The point was to stop the GOP brand of corrupt misgovernance (which is why I think it’s important to realize how full of FAIL Bush’s reëlection was). The fact that at the same time we managed to break some kind of color line is, not to be too dismissive of the true happiness that people are feeling, sort of just a bonus. We need a good President. Obama’s racial makeup is neither a necessary nor a sufficient component of his chance at being that. Do I think it helps? Sure. Is it enough? Does anyone think that?
Sepoy, at Chapati Mystery:
Rebirth is a cornerstone of American mythology. To many, this election is a rebirth of the nation … There is an overwhelming sentiment that by electing Barack Obama, America has somehow redeemed itself from Iraq. That we will now have a fresh, new start. Except the craters from the bombs remain. Hundreds of thousands are still dead in Iraq. Tons are being killed daily from drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is no rebirth, gentle readers. This is no fresh start.
Running parallel to this effluvia of American triumphalism is the despair of some others on the Left. They rightfully point out that Obama seeks to continue the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan – in fact, to fortify our efforts there. Sure. Obama was never opposed to all wars–he was only opposed to the Iraq War. I have previously said much on this–and you are welcome to go read it again. But, perhaps a larger sigh of despair came about with the announcements of Emanuel and Shah. But do these associations necessarily translate into the end of Palestinian hopes or the equivalence of Hindutva policies from the W.H.? I, at least, don’t think so. Why? I return, again and again, to these two images:
This man is a child of the global south who worked as a community organizer on the southside of Chicago. And the foremost skill of being a community organizer–I was told the other night–is to “listen”, to not assert your own agendas, your own pre-conceived notions onto others. That this lesson is an integral part of Obama’s intellectual composition is apparent from reading Audacity of Hope. I see no reason to doubt that this capacity will remain a function of his administration.
I care about the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I care about a foreign policy that engages with that region. To me, the fact of advisory hawks is not a deterrent. I do not believe that the Hussein White House will be enthralled to a small clique of inspired chickenhawks. I honestly believe that there will be space for dialogue and persuasion, come January.
The question is, how will we participate in this dialogue. How will we–the community–make the Community Organizer-in-Chief listen to us. I hope we can rise to the challenge.
Rachel Leow, at A Historian’s Craft:
When I think of the American election and the way it was won, I am endlessly struck by the fact that such a great war was won with such small battles. In the most literal, immediate sense, one can see this on any election map of America, with its states dotted here red and there blue. One can zoom further into the map and see that each state, each city, each town, perhaps even each house, is divided up into its own red and blue mosaic patterns, right down to the individual Republican and Democrat. The battle for America, won yesterday by Barack Obama, was won out of individual differences — sometimes a matter of razor thin percentage points — consolidated by majority at the voter’s level, the constituency level, the state level, the national level. … To me, Obama’s presidency — the first black presidency in the history of the United States — was won at this micro level of the individual, generation to generation to the present, battling against his or her very self: against old prejudices, against hardened consensus, against apathy, against history. To me, the victory is symbolic: their small battles and victory from the grassroots reflects the nature of the larger war itself. We can’t be overwhelmed enough by what this victory means historically.
Aaron at Zunguzungu:
[T]he best metaphor, or at least the one I’m most interested in right now, is that of a musician and audience. And in that vein, I hear America’s music not as a single song we either listen to or don’t, not as an ideal that constantly fails to obtain, but a single longstanding tradition of call and response, a communally understood set of idioms we develop over long experience and struggle, and which we perform even if we’re not performers. In his wonderful Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Lawrence Levine writes that “spirituals both during and after slavery were the product of an improvisational communal consciousness. They were not, as some observers thought, totally new creations, but were forged out of many pre-existing bits of old songs mixed together with snatches of new tunes and lyrics and fit into a fairly traditional but never wholly static metrical pattern. They were…simultaneously the result of individual and mass creativity…In 1845 a traveler observed that the only permanent elements in Negro song were the music and the chorus.” I like this as metaphor because I think an obsession with self-made Americanism has left even progressives deeply distrustful of community process, especially when so many Americans are, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply reactionary bigots. Left and right alike prefer to view their enemies as people not worth listening to, and perceive progress in terms of the extent to which our political opponents can be ignored. But as Levine showed (and his later work uses this early work on slave songs to provide a model for reading American pop culture broadly), musical performance doesn’t have to be an opiate for the masses, a culture industry indoctrinating people, or a vehicle for propaganda. It can be, in fact, the language through which difference is expressed and resolved, conflicts represented and transcended, and through that ever-changing plasticity of form, not a single song but many, and through that heterogeneity, a pluribus can be come a very particular kind of unum.
Thomas Sugrue, in the Boston Globe:
Campaigns in the 40-year period leading up to the election of Barack Obama hinged on the great question that Americans, both left and right, raised in the aftermath of the 1960s protests: “What side are you on?” Post-1960s politics fostered polarization: the “silent majority” versus raucous minorities, the Christian nation versus its libertine detractors, hard-working middle Americans versus welfare cheats, small-town gun owners versus latte-sipping urbanites, red states versus blue states. This year, John McCain attempted once again to turn the election into a plebiscite on the 1960s, from his first general election ad on the “Summer of Love,” which contrasted McCain’s military service and love of country with beaded and bearded protesters on the home front, to his campaign’s attempt to brand Obama a socialist and pal of ’60s fringe radicals like Bill Ayers of the Weathermen.
In 2008, however, the return to cultural warfare failed. Barack Obama distanced himself from the 1960s, reminding voters that he was but a child in Hawaii when America exploded in conflict. The activists who protested in the streets in the 1960s and the “silent majority” who railed against them are aging out. Their passions are mostly irrelevant to many younger people who grew up, like Obama, in the world that the 1960s made, a place where cultural differences were a source of pride, not conflict. … Generation Obama has its own issues: global warming, worldwide epidemics, the threat of terrorism, and the collapse of the financial markets, to name a few. McCain’s evocations of small-town values, of dissent and the silent majority and campus radicalism, left those problems unaddressed. Obama’s rhetoric of unity – of common purpose and common cause – threw the dated politics of division and resentment into the dustbin of history. The cultural warriors, fighting over law and order, God, guns, and family values, will not be silent during the Obama administration, but they are increasingly relics of the past.
David Kaiser, at History Unfolding:
We now obviously have a President who wants to go beyond sound bites, who understands the complexity of issues, and who shows promise of enjoying both the solution and the explanation of our problems. Meanwhile, we also have a new United States. Barack Obama owes his victory almost entirely to Americans under 45. Those between 30 and 45 (the bulk of Generation X, who are now between 27 and 47) gave him an exit poll margin of 52-46, almost exactly his overall total. Those 18-29 (Millennials are now approximately 6-26) voted for him by a margin of more than two to one, 66 to 32 per cent. Those 45-64—essentially Boomers (who are 48-65)—characteristically split right down the middle, with Obama winning 50-49. Silents and GIs 65 and over gave McCain a 54-45 edge. Those figures should send chills down the spine of every Republican consultant.
… Strauss and Howe always stressed that their 80-year cycle was above all a natural process, governed by the rhythm of life and death. A half-century ago, Boris Pasternak made a similar point at the climax of his classic Dr. Zhivago, when his hero, his own life in tatters, reflected in the wake of the Russian Revolution on the nature of historical change.
He reflected again that he conceived of history … not in the accepted way but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man’s wart. But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed, it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in its leafy maze. This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants. The forest does not change its place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change. Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless. And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselessly changing history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations.
Phil Nugent, at The Phil Nugent Experience:
The least felicitous commentary I’ve seen on the election so far–the “Leave Sarah alone!” stuff at least being good for a good, rude guffaw–has to be the stuff about how, by embracing the better man, America finally turned its back on its natural inclination to smother its babies in the crib. This is horseshit. Even with noodle-headed “progressives” turning their backs on Gore, Bush was only able to get close enough to actually winning the 2000 election to have his dad’s Supreme Court appointees steal it for him. And Bush, with all the advantages of the incumbent, just scraped by to claim his actual win four years later. The second-best good guffaw of the week has to be watching the same characters who nodded lustily at Bush’s claim to have won enough “political capitol” to roll back the New Deal now turn up insisting that Obama’s decisive, landslide win shouldn’t be mistaken for any sort of mandate.
It was a mandate, for, at the very least, the chance to be governed by a thoughtful, self-made man who won a democratic election over the chance to have some useless little milk-fed dauphin bulldoze his way into his daddy’s old job and start telling the Founding Fathers what’s what. The core of this victory, and the reasons for the reaction to it, can be found not in a comparison of Obama’s skin color to that of Bush’s but in a comparison of all those cheering, weeping people gathering spontaneously in the cities versus the image of bellowing frat boys and assorted overage louts being bused into Dade County to shut down the recount by brute force. One man’s triumph represents everything we’re told, when growing up, that this country stands for; the other’s represents meanness, thuggery, and the impulse to cancel democracy itself if you don’t like the probable outcome, and to accuse the other person of dishonest behavior when you’ve been caught with your hand in his pocket. ….
Everyone knows that the moment of elation will pass, no matter how cute that new White House puppy turns out to be. … People who think that Obama is golden heaven-sent perfection will be slower to turn on him than the dumbest people who voted for Clinton, but when they do notice that he is, inevitably, acting like a politician, it could get almost as ugly as their indignation will be stupid. Just as Clinton did much of the best work of his term simply cleaning up the mess than Reagan and Bush the Elder had left him, Obama will have his hands full just trying to repair the damage that Bush has done, and eight years will scarcely be enough for him to make a dent in it. That’s no cause not to be damned happy that the repairs will at least begin. … The important thing is that there is no level on which Obama’s victory doesn’t signal a national spirit of repudiation of what we’ve been putting up with these last eight insane years.
Election cartogram, scaled for population and shaded for voter percentages, by Mark Newman:
Douglas Rushkoff, at his eponymous blog:
Though I share in the jubilation at Obama’s election, I find I’m also a bit guarded. Holding back, as if afraid to get “fooled again” by the promise of new leadership. … I’ve got the nagging sense that too many of us are still hoping and waiting for what Obama’s going to do. As if the president somehow enacts policies or spends money in a way that makes everything better. This is not what a president does. Yes, there are certainly public works programs Obama can promote, to rebuild highways or develop alternative energy technologies while giving jobs to more Americans. These are potentially great top-down stimuli for a failed economy and neglected infrastructure – but they do not rebuild a society ravaged by runaway deregulated capitalism and military misadventure.
That part is up to us. And in this sense, we must take Obama at his word: the moment is now, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The election of Obama is itself a cue. It’s a cue that America can elect a smart, capable, and caring person as its leader. That we are capable of transcending the logic of short-term self-interest, fear, and even racism. And if we are capable of doing this, it means we are better than we act most of the time. This moment is the bang of the starter’s pistol – an awakening, an opportunity.
When there’s a big blackout in New York, especially during the summer, some people take it as a “cue” to start looting. It’s not that the blackout itself makes it significantly to break down store fronts; it’s not that the police are so very busy with the blackout. The lights going out is a cue to behave differently – to release the hidden potential for vandalism and long-repressed rage.
Likewise, the election of a black man to the presidency is a cue that something has changed. … There’s a thoughtful, progressive and black president-elect on the cover of the New York Post. The cognitive dissonance this generates is an opportunity to reprogram. It’s what advertisers and social programmers try to do in pretty much every communication they make. It’s as big a disconnect and reconnect as 9-11 was, only constructive instead of destructive. A narrative is broken; another is born. But this new narrative is not the story of how we are led by some new person. It’s the story of how we lead ourselves. It’s about how we accept the cue to act.
I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he is has already been vanquished by his foes. In the name of hard talk and pragmatism, realistic expectations and balanced judgments, rolling up our sleeves and keen to fix the leaks in the roof and the flood in the basement, we are refusing ourselves the joy of inhabiting what David Gregory called the transcendent, for it is too close to the language of official religion to be acceptable or satisfying for too long.
Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control.
Grant Morrison, in an interview about All-Star Superman that does not reference the election at all:
In today’s media climate, designed to foster the fear our leaders like us to feel because it makes us easier to push around, in a world where limp, wimpy men are forced to talk tough and act “badass” even though we all know they’re shitting it inside, in a world where the measure of our moral strength has come to lie in the extremity of the images we’re able to look at and stomach, in a world, I’m reliably told, that’s going to the dogs, the real mischief, the real punk rock rebellion, is a snarling, ‘fuck you’ positivity and optimism. Violent optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary is the Alpha form of outrage these days. It really freaks people out.