Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Identifying Obama, Finding America and political emotion

The phrase "The American Story", if offered as the title on a blank sheet each of us was to fill with a story might produce a decidedly motley collection. The myth that somehow there is one even vaguely unified American story is apt to find uncritical expression in some glowing pean penned over at Townhall.com. The grit, disappointment and glints of glory would more likely mingle in individual works cobbled up in a diary at Daily Kos.

You see, America, you never had one story. Or even one America. [Yes, I was for Edwards, *sigh*] You have had and enforced race, gender, class, religious and ethnic distinctions all through the history of your "one nation". The greatest political excitement, the buzz that lasts for decades, seems to occur when actual blends of the formerly segregated traits emerge in one candidate who can elicit an emotional connection with some portion of the main political stream. We did not get excited about Kennedy in spite of his Catholicism but because he enlarged our sense of what was tolerated and who could succeed in this nation. How deep and heartfelt that need for inclusiveness is among the non-bigots!

Obama is closer to an embodiment of "The American Story" if one is ever to be written, than any national candidate I am aware of.

The tenuous illusion of superiority based on no merit but accidents of birth in to one identity, be it racial or some other pretext for categorical thinking, is so frail it must be protected by instant ferocity and guarded by constant suspicion. You hardly have to read between the lines at Townhall.com to see that ignorance and fear at work. We are still the same creatures we have always been. That season when our nation, scarred by its civil rights struggles fixed so much hope on Jack Kennedy was as well the season when truly vile race and religious hatreds and anti-communist hysteria all surfaced and slunk around trying to swift-boat JFK.

So, America, you finally get a real American story, a candidate embodying the true and complete opposite of that illusion that purity of identity equals superiority and what do you do? You start looking, looking everywhere for stones to toss, for labels like "elitist" under which to hide raw ugly hatreds you dare not own up to.

I write this post as if there were one America to be addressed and do so out of profound hope. Having to pick ONE president definitely forces the issue and exposes the fallacies of our glib notions of national unity...but also challenges us to strive for that unity. The work is not easy and it is for conservatives, be they Democrats or Republicans, rather unfamiliar effort.

In spite of all the verbal gears you know are turning out there in your cortex, down in your limbic system politics is very much linked to and run by identity:" who am i, who are they, are they with me or against me"...that brutally simple and unexamined kind of thinking. I wish I could specify some meditation, some passage to be read or anything that would give the fearful among our voters [most of whom do not read blogs like mine] a glimpse of the irrationality that passes for political thinking. I should by now tire of saying this and you of reading it but just for emphasis: Emotion blends with reason largely outside our awareness. Reason is the tool and emotion the user. Emotion fires in ancient circuits laid out when dwell-times to reach a decision that exceeded a fraction of a second were punished with extinction. At the cost of nuance and deliberation, we have gross amplifiers of small discriminations built in to speed up decision. We work this way an know it not.

I offer two illustrations of the emotions at work in our political processing, for whatever they are worth.

Via casual but long standing acquaintance, I know several educated and successful persons who generally vote for Democrats and have mostly well targeted criticism for the failures of the Bush administration. Formative experiences for this particular set of people include religious persecution and being driven out of or unable to return to assorted middle eastern countries. Back when I was still wondering if Edwards was the candidate who best represented my values, emails were circulating among these expatriates repeating the false but mesmerizing rumors that Obama was a Muslim. Even now, in polite conversation with these people, they will offer some immovable doubt about whether Obama would sell Israel down the river. And that fear is followed by the speculation that McCain would be preferable to Obama. Hillary playing the Clingon-in-chief clearly speaks to these fears. Facts simply can't stand in the way of fears. In those very same conversations I hear reference to Obama being too long associated with Rev. Wright to credibly distance himself from Wright's inflammatory positions. Go figure.

I will confess now my own exercises that reveal to me my preferences among the choice of projected personalities of our candidates. My little meditation involves imagining having a conversation with or imagining what I would say to each candidate. I find myself trying to respectfully pose harsh questions to McCain, alternately enthused and annoyed and exploring certain inconsistencies with Clinton and most relaxed and fascinated with Obama. Its all just projection and mental exercise but if you relax and let your mind go, you can learn something about yourself. [By the way, with Dubya, I find the exercise of projecting engagement in conversation stalls when I need to explain the meanings of much of my vocabulary;-]

I suspect that exercise of mine is not so much a way to make a decision about feelings of allegiance as it is a way to find out via comfort level what decision your unconscious has already made. That doesn't really matter from an operational perspective since either would allow you to become more engaged in politics.


Rainbow Demon said...

Great article.
I must confess, Edwards was also my first choice from the pack. The Clinton Show in PA yesterday was quite a disappointment - but we go on... Thanks for sharing your insight.


GreenSmile said...

Hey, RD, good to hear from you.

Lets just hope Hillary Clingon doesn't take the party down with her.

Rainbow Demon said...

My fingers hurt from the crossing, GS... Still we hope.

If the Obama campaign can silently distance themselves from the kitchen sinks being thrown at them and concentrate on McCain; I think a bigger margin against McCain is the answer to the super delegate fight.

GreenSmile said...

yep, focus on McCain. It would have the effect of giving Obama ample place to push his positives instead of clintons negatives...that would help.