More Than a Mile High With Barack Obama
I'm doing my bit to get Barack Obama elected -- enough of a bit to earn a seat high up in the upper deck of Invesco Field at Mile High, where I watched the candidate accept his party's nomination for president.
The convention planners didn't make it easy. There were endless lines to get in and endless human logjams to get out. There was terrible stadium food all day at terribly inflated prices, because the security checks kept us from bringing in our own food, though they certainly weren't thorough enough to prevent anyone bent on evildoing from bringing in a bomb. The elaborate security gauntlet was just one more in a day full of reminders that politics is theater. Politics has always been theater, of course, among other things. But we are steadily moving toward the day when politics is nothing but theater.
Not that I had reason to complain. I was there for the theater. I had not come to learn new ideas or be persuaded by logical arguments. I already knew the safe, moderate, liberal positions the Democrats were staking out. I knew they are only small steps toward the kind of change this country really needs. I had done all my thinking and decided that small steps forward are much better than a huge step backward. That's why I am doing my bit to get Obama elected, with no illusions.
No, I was not at the great event for intellectual enrichment. I was there for the theatrical pleasure of witnessing a live performance by a truly great political orator. I got a little bit of what I came for -- yet not nearly enough of it. After an eloquent beginning, Obama moved into a well delivered but essentially quite conventional rhetorical style: attack the political enemy, then offer a laundry list of "if I am elected" promises.
Maybe at a convention one should expect the conventional. But I had come for the unconventional, the experience of being swept away by the kind of stirring words we have not heard in this country since MLK was with us. I finally began to get what I came for when Obama quoted that "young preacher from Georgia": "'We cannot walk alone,' the preacher cried. 'And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.'" When Obama continued, "America, we cannot turn back" I saw his own soaring oratory coming and I settled in to enjoy the emotional ride.
But no sooner had he shifted into high gear than it all suddenly ended. The only fireworks I got were the literal ones shooting into the sky above the stadium. Why were the verbal pyrotechnics so brief and muted? The pundits and talking heads know, because they are the main audience Obama was addressing. Had he given the kind of stirring speech I came for, their assessment would have been nearly unanimous: All glitter and no substance. Now, they all agreed, his "workmanlike" speech (Obama's own term for it) had avoided that dreaded verdict.
So the Republicans, tutored by Karl Rove, have done it again. They have turned their opponent's greatest asset into a liability. They have convinced the pundits that the crucial swing voters mistrust inspiring rhetoric. According to the pundits' Rovian story, those swing voters reject Obama's rhetoric as superficial and fear that it's meant to manipulate the unsuspecting masses toward nefarious liberal ends. Simply by repeating that story often enough, the pundits have made it come true. Apparently Obama now sees his own oratorical gift as a potential liability.
Which raises some questions: If we are heading toward a politics of pure theater, what kind of theater will it be? Who will get to decide? Who will get to write, produce, and direct our electoral spectaculars?
Being more than a mile high on Thursday night I got a pretty clear view of some answers. The future will hold less and less of a place for the thoughtful individual who chooses words carefully and articulates them with eloquence and passion. The very idea that words can blend intellectual sophistication with genuine human emotion, which was once the heart of political rhetoric, will gradually disappear. Our political words will come more and more from the talking heads who give us slick soundbites and superficial one-liners that generate more heat than light.
If, that is, there are any words at all. Because the mile-high spectacle, even though set against the backdrop of a fake Greek temple, made it stunningly clear that no political leader can ever again hope to play God. Even Obama must bow down in utter subservience to the real God of politics present and future: the almighty visual image mediated by the omnipotent television camera. If any human can hope to play God, it's the people behind the camera. But they know best of all that the medium rules, and they merely serve its technical commandments.
That's hardly an original insight. MLK was still alive when we all learned the mantra: The medium is the message. Only a bit later, when the radicalism of the '60s turned to the self-realization of the '70s, we added the corollary: The medium is the massage. The Obama campaign is assiduously massaging the tender sensitivities of the punditry and the "ordinary Americans" whose views those pundits claim to understand.
Those "ordinary Americans," perhaps more invented than represented by the pundits, are an incredibly demanding audience. They insist that the leading man (and perhaps some time soon woman) must be tough as nails (hence Obama's attack on McCain) yet highly sensitive to their needs (hence his laundry list of promises). He must be very specific in his plans for the future without boring us with specifics. He must affirm that America is unquestionably good in the present while insisting it must be transformed to make it better in the future. He must prove that he is wise enough to navigate every political storm while being ordinary enough to be "one of us." He must stand out from the crowd without every rising above the crowd.
That last rule is especially impossible to obey when the candidate is not Caucasian, as we've discovered this year. To be "one of us," when "us" is defined as white, he must be proud of his own heritage while acting as if he had no racial heritage. He must not evade the racial issue yet he must not make race an issue. And he must make us feel good and happy with his warm smile, yet without laughing or even smiling too much.
On top of all that, we now know that the candidate must speak words that are eloquent but not too eloquent, inspiring but not too inspiring. He must rely on words to get his message across yet be sure that, above all, he creates an enjoyable television show. Which brings us back to the increasingly fundamental law of American politics: The medium is the massage, and the medium is television, which is all about pictures. Words are secondary, disposable, and often not necessary at all.
Political conventions themselves make the point. The big screen, which began as merely an optional technological gimmick providing backdrop to the real show of spoken words, has become an absolutely necessary part of, and often the center of, the show. The now-mandatory biopic preceding the acceptance speech is produced with as much care as the speech itself. Indeed the Obama team, faced with the pundits' demand that their candidate "define himself for ordinary Americans," relied mainly on a well-produced biopic to do the job.
When the biopic ended, leaving me waiting eagerly to see who would introduce the candidate, I was stunned to see a seamless segue between the TV show's heart-tugging ending and the unexpected appearance of the candidate himself. The task of pronouncing those treasured words, "Ladies and gentleman, I give you the next president of the United States" was once among the most coveted role in national politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who played the role in 1924 and 1928, did it so well that he guaranteed his own nomination in 1932. But now a TV show does it. And theatrically it worked wonderfully well; yet one more task once done by humans that can now be done just fine by machines.
Which left me thinking how appropriate it was that I pondered all this while I was more than a mile high. Perhaps I should have been eight miles high. Because the legacy of the 1960s hovered over Invesco Field in so many ways. It was more than the minimal connection between Obama and that era, which the McCain campaign is vastly overstating. It was more than the fleeting reference to the preacher from Georgia who did so much (though unwittingly) to foster the counterculture "the sixties."
It was the deep and genuine concern among nearly all the 84,000 gathered there to see us turn away from a soulless, individualistic, inhumane corporate society to a one-to-one caring for the real being of real people -- the kind of caring that actually did flourish in the counterculture, in spite of the haze of psychedelic smoke hanging over that culture but even more because of that haze.
The smoke was hardly necessary. The totally "straight" MLK's eloquent pleas for a more humane America demonstrated that. So did the organizing genius of Saul Alinsky, which Obama learned two decades later on the streets of Chicago and is now using, another two decades later, with so much success. For many, though, the smoke and the high did open up the kind of direct I-Thou communication with another person that seemed so lacking between Lucy and Ricky or even Wally and the Beaver, and seems so lacking again in our Reagan-Bushite era of infotainment.
Yet the smoke was a two-edged sword, because it also unleashed an unprecedented wave of psychedelic creativity that now washes up every minute on the shores of hundreds of TV stations, most notably in the great art form of our time: the television commercial. And the same people who produce the best commercials, mesmerizing us with their endless cascades of masterful semi-hallucinatory imagery, also run the political campaigns of every candidate who can pay their sky-high prices.
That's why politics is so immersed in money. That's why politicians are so beholden to the corporate fat cats. The sixties revealed the irresistible power of psychedelic imagery. When the military-industrial complex supplied the technology that could digitize that imagery and broadcast it to the masses, the future of American politics was set. It moves, and perhaps must move, inexorably toward the kind of media spectacle the Democrats gave us in Invesco Field at Mile High and the Republicans will do their best to match in St. Paul.
Tracing both the form and the content of the Obama campaign back to the counterculture of the sixties points to a lesson for progressive politics. We often stumble over a seemingly inescapable paradox. We want political policies that will meet the real needs of real people and open up more genuine, caring person-to-person relationships. Yet to achieve those goals we need political power. To get that power we have to prevail over those who now have power in the electoral arena.
And it's hard to see how to do that on any large scale -- certainly on a national scale -- without using the same dazzling yet dehumanizing technology they use so successfully. Even the real successes of the netroots reveal the limits of alternative technology. The rapid turning of the netroots away from online words to online video indicate clearly which technological game we have to play to be political winners.
Can we achieve truly humanizing ends using means that can so easily be dehumanizing? The answer lies hidden in that haze of sixties' smoke. It's a pretty thick haze, thick enough to lead us to plenty of false starts and dead ends. But somewhere in there is the memory of a culture that found the dazzle of psychedelic imagery really helping people connect with the honest truth of other people, care more deeply about their needs, and dedicate themselves to a politics that would meet those needs.
Why was the synergy of psychedelia and human caring easier to find forty years ago than it is today? There is no single or simple answer. The few people who are exploring this question in serious depth come up with lots of different answers. The one thing they agree on is that the question is vitally important. It reminds us that the synergy is possible. There are plenty of Americans alive today who knows it's possible because they lived it.
Some still live it now as they move toward older age, and they encourage younger generations to do the same. The challenge is to turn those individual experiences once again into a radical political-cultural movement. That might give our leaders permission to offer us thoughtful words spoken with passionate eloquence -- the kind of words that once, delivered by that famous young preacher from Georgia, changed our lives forever and helped pave the way for an African-American to enter the White House. That's a challenge worth exploring for years to come.
Meanwhile, today, I'll be doing my bit to help get Barack Obama reach the White House by using the oldest, most traditional political method of all: simply talking, person-to-person. I'll be knocking on my neighbors' doors along with tens of thousands of other volunteers, guided by campaign staffers trained in community organizing techniques. I'll be giving my neighbors campaign leaflets and striking up conversations about the candidates -- if my neighbors are willing to get up off their couches and take their eyes off the TV just long enough to answer the door.