Music Features

Obsessions and Lamentations #6 - Obama Edition

Bill Moyers was on the radio this week, brooding on Barack Obama’s successful Presidential bid, recalling the words the great scholar of myths, Joseph Campbell once said to him. “If you want to change the world”, he insisted, “change the metaphor.” I think that’s what we did here on Tuesday – we supplanted a bumbling, arrogant and cynical group of schoolyard bullies with a powerful symbol. And so this moment belongs as much in the realm of poetry as it does in the concrete world of American politics. Yes, the campaign was a masterful display of disciplined strategy and messaging, but its success fits neatly into the narrative arc of this country’s story. Alexis de Toqueville, who got nearly everything right almost two centuries ago, said that our greatest strength lies in our ability to repair our faults. Amazing, considering this was decades before the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement. But once again we have rejected the natural human tendency towards conservatism and stasis, the part of us that sees a rapidly changing world and wants to scream, “Stop the train, I wanna get off!!” No, now was one of those rare moments when the body politic, so engorged with the status quo, vomits it back onto the street, swearing it will never touch that drink again. The hapless President, the scheming Veep, the Rovian mudwrestling, the redneck racism, the ineffectual government, the sins of Empire, all of that and more were finally just too much for the American public to countenance any longer. Every time the old soldier and the hockey mom appealed to our basest reptilian instincts you could hear the country responding, “No, this is not how our story ends.” 

And the economic crisis brings the possibility of the end into sharp relief, with the failure of the very last institution that seemed to be humming along nicely when everything else was corrupted. Oh well, the feeling was, the government can’t do anything right anymore and top 40 radio sucks, but at least Wall Street had its shit together. As long as they kept the dollars flowing our way, maybe the country wouldn’t devolve into the third world anytime soon, and as long as we could buy snowmobiles, let them take their billion dollar cut off the top. But now it turns it out even those guys were in way over their heads, and so the American people took the only tool out of the box we still partially remember how to use, the vote, and we used it to write a better story. A story where the good guys, not the guttersnipes, win in the end; where not only is the future not grim, but actually may hold a little promise; and where the nation’s original sin is purged first with blood, then with pens, and finally with hearts and minds. That story is not over, but we sat for the first major test of our inherent racism and passed with flying colors. Because after all, this was not the government telling people not to discriminate, it was the people themselves who took matters into their own hands. We became “free artists of ourselves”, in Hegel’s phrase, deciding, like the dying Edmund in King Lear, that we didn’t like how we were acting and so changed ourselves, before it was too late.
Which is why we chose a different metaphor; one that complemented our mythology rather than destroying it. This is why I cried Tuesday night as I watched the young girl at the all-black Spellman College down on her knees with her head in her hands. It's one thing to watch someone get a new home on network television and be vaguely moved, but it’s quite another to see justice laid at someone’s feet. And I also cried watching Jesse Jackson try to control his emotions and fail utterly, even being a man raised as a Jew who remembers well his dismissal of New York City as “Hymietown”. For a moment, that was all behind us and I think he knew it better than anyone. And I was reminded again, no matter how much my government and my culture may piss me off, I still love this fucking place. The “People” in “We, the People”, were different yesterday and will be different tomorrow, and you can say all you want about the hubris of American exceptionalism, but this truly sets us apart. Out of many, One. Goddamnit.