Sons against Fathers…
History and Providence…
The Mass Mind…
In his True Doctrine, the second-century Middle Platonist philosopher Celsus paints a dreary portrait of an age swarming with prophets, soothsayers, sibyls, mantics, clairvoyants, wonder-workers, faith healers, saints, and redeemers. Our own age seems no less fecund with prophets and messiahs, save that they are of the more acceptable, post-religious, political type.
My own skepticism in the matter of political messiahs is founded in a messianism of a rather different sort. Here I stand firmly with Jesus, who rebuffed the demands of Jewish zealots for a political leader of a new Davidic golden age of peace, prosperity, equality, and justice, with the wisdom recorded in Luke: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Christianity sanely rejects the illusion of a terrestrial, socio-political Paradise; the last century should have persuaded even the post-Christian mind that those who promise one usually deliver a socio-political Hell. Nonetheless, our appetite for political messiahs remains curiously undiminished.
Over the course of my lifetime, I have tallied up the collective swoons of significant segments of the population for (in roughly chronological order): Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
As the list suggests, political messiahs run the moral gamut (they are only human, after all). But a few common characteristics distinguish them from the generality of mankind. They typically promise radical, epoch-retiring, world-regenerating change, preliminary to the establishment of a new order of equality and social justice. They promise to effect that change by means of an ever-expanding State. And their gospel of change is exuberantly hailed by the multitudes. I can hear them, at this very moment, hailing the advent of Barack (change we can believe in) Obama.
Obamamaniacs exhibit all of the symptoms of the primitive unconsciousness that has bred previous epidemics of political messianism. Obama’s rhetoric, puerile and vapid even by the standards of politicians, has been called “majestic” and “inspirational”. Though more Nestorian than Churchillian at its best, and at its worst, painfully embarrassing, his “oratory” has moved otherwise intelligent observers to gush that in it the soaring cadences of Demosthenes can be heard.
Obama’s most inspirational mantras (“We are the ones we have been waiting for”) are so rankly Narcissistic as to suggest that he suffers from a full-blown messiah-complex. Today, even Christians cringe when reminded of Jesus’ immodest words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”; and the citizens of North Korea have always secretly laughed at their Dear Leader’s pathological self-inflation. Able to swallow, and keep down, Obama’s vainglorious first-person-plural rodomontade, his supporters have evidently progressed to the most advanced stages of the personality cult.
On the campaign trail, the crowds that have come out to strew palm-branches in his path are enormous. He has, it is said, re-mobilized American youth (as if political youth movements have been ever benign). He is lauded, above all, for appealing to voters across party and ideological lines. When I heard that Christopher Buckley, the famous son of the founder of modern American conservatism, had announced his defection to Obama, I was reminded of the warnings issued by Christ and other revolutionaries, that the New Doctrine will divide brother against brother, husband against wife, and father against son. Obama’s surrogates have moved well beyond such warnings to explicit threats; as Erica Jong has admonished, an Obama defeat would lead to “blood in the streets” and precipitate “a second American Civil War”.
On election night, people all across the globe gathered in the hundreds of thousands to watch the returns and celebrate Obama’s inevitable victory. In downtown Toronto, whose denizens are nomally either indifferent to or contemptuous of American politics, the devout assembled sua sponte before a huge open-air monitor to count down the minutes to the new age. Thereupon they partied throughout the night, as though it were New Year’s Eve or VE Day. In Europe, above all, the reflexive anti-Americanism of both the masses and the intellectual elites was simply swallowed up in a tidal wave of Obamamania. The world, like Michelle, had finally found a reason to be proud of America.
I write in the very early days of the aera nova, but already the word “historic” has supplanted “like” and “ya know” as the most common filler in English usage. Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech, his first cabinet appointment, and his first post-election visit to the White House were all pronounced “historic”. The only development that wasn’t so called was the genuinely historic, four-day free-fall in the stock market that began at 9:30 on the morning after the final results were in. But then, no one wanted reality to intrude upon the political “good news”.
For generations, scholars and clinicians in various fields have anatomized the peculiar state of mind into which the individual rational intellect lapses when it has become dissolved into the psyche of the group, whether in primitive tribal rituals or modern political mass movements. As Jung has described it:
Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies. That is to say, a sort of collective possession results which rapidly develops into a psychic epidemic.
Since Jung wrote these words long before the Internet and CNN, he could hardly have imagined how widely and rapidly such psychic infections as Obamamania can spread.
Even in the antediluvian days of newspapers and network T.V., the speed with which the mass mind was able to propagate was impressive. The Kennedy phenomenon was a seminal case in point. I was hardly ten at the time, but I remember parents, relatives, and pre-pubescent friends—none of whom had ever taken much interest in, or knew much about, U.S. politics—suddenly singing the praises of this new American knight-errant, and becoming giddy with cosmic optimism. It helped that Kennedy was rich, young, and handsome. It helped, above all, that he was perceived as a sophisticated liberal foil to the reactionary, red-baiting Nixon. But ultimately political ideas had little to do with it. (It was Kennedy, after all, who proved to be the anti-communist hawk, and Nixon the appeaser.) Kennedy was merely thrust forward by the collective spirit of the times, which no mere individual can resist. Sages everywhere were proclaiming him a wunderkind and political saviour. Who were my humble, suburban parents to disagree? Never has Dr. Johnson’s comment been more apposite, that popular opinion is “not founded in reason, but caught by contagion”.
Fittingly, the only way to describe the Kennedy phenomenon was in the language of mythology, and the myth of Camelot proved to be paradoxically apposite, especially in ways its propagandists could hardly understand. The primitive messianic yearnings of the early Sixties found expression in the legend of Arthur’s resurrection, return from Avalon, and parousia in Cornwall, where he would once and for all liberate the native Christian Britons from the pagan Saxon yoke. In Kennedy’s time, Americans were already beginning to yearn for a messiah who would liberate them, on the contrary, from their own native moral, religious, and political traditions (for what else do the current orthodoxies of alienism and multiculturalism signify?), and perhaps with the advent of Obama, the soteriology of post-Sixties liberalism will finally be accomplished. Unfortunately, Kennedy re-actualized the more sordid details of the Arthurian archetype, in whose possession he and his worshipers found themselves. As Malory tells it, the decline of Camelot’s power and prestige, and Arthur’s eventual defeat and death at the hands of a traitorous assassin, were the inevitable results of the dark adulterous passions raging within the Arthurian court. So far gone in their adoration were Americans, that the Kennedy clan’s sexual libertinism only made them more attractive.
Is Obama, like Kennedy, the harbinger of a new revolutionary age? His extreme leftist ideology and evident scorn for the political and cultural traditions of the American republic—Obama clearly shares his wife’s opinion that the day he entered the campaign was the first day in history on which America had anything to be proud of–suggest so. But, as another in the series of post-Sixties revolutionaries, Obama is really an ossified conservative. The “change we can believe in” is the change Americans have all believed in–through both Democrat and Republican administrations–since LBJ’s Great Society: ever-larger and more intrusive government, higher spending, higher taxes, more regulation, more social welfare, more hostility toward the rich, more racial huckstering, and less freedom of individual thought and action. This kind of “change”, propelled by its own inertial momentum, has taken place regardless of who has happened to be in power, and during the Obama epoch, the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to “change”–if at a slightly accelerated pace–toward an ever more suffocating statism. No doubt Obama’s administration will be “transformational” (to use Colin Powell’s measured descriptor), but only by comparison to the by-now-long-forgotten model of minimal government and maximal freedom fondly imagined by the Framers.
For these and other reasons, the euphoric mentality of Obama’s supporters is far more fascinating than the mind of the man himself. What has propelled this junior senator from relative obscurity to rock-star celebrity and political redeemer status is such a few short years?
History, apparently. Christopher Buckley has written that an Obama presidency is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for”. Buckley says this with the insouciance of one who thinks that history and eternal providence are the same thing. Time, as Plato writes, may be “the mobile image of eternity”, but if history were merely a temporal transcript of providence, there would be no need for politicians preaching change. We’d all be contented quietists, and we’d never again have to listen to those nauseating public service announcements reminding us of our civic duty to get out and vote.
Buckley’s appeal to the benign wisdom of history is but a grandiloquent way of saying that an Obama presidency is what the mood of the moment happens to be calling for. His is an especially curious and precipitous surrender to a transient Zeitgeist, as it comes from one whose magazine’s original mission statement was “to stand athwart the tracks of history yelling stop”, and whose longstanding cause was the defeat of communism, a mass movement whose time had come, if ever there was one. But then, as Buckley forthrightly puts it, he has decided to “jump aboard the Obama bandwagon”. So much for a conservatism that was once constitutionally averse to the tyranny of fashion, the collective milieu, and the group-think it incubates.
The entire Obama campaign has, in fact, amounted to a thinly veiled warning to Americans not to swim against the currents of historical destiny. Jong’s threat that a McCain victory would lead to America’s second Civil War may have come from a world-class nutter, but she certainly understands the effectiveness of the moral shakedown tactics that have made Obamamaniacs of us all: vote for Obama, and stand on the side of racial fairness, progress, and the future; vote against him, and declare yourself with America’s sordid racist past. It’s a very old merchandising technique: Chaucer’s shifty fourteenth-century Pardoner used it habitually at the end of his sermons, when he warned that no one who had committed mortal sin (murder, sacrilege, etc.) would be eligible to purchase his precious pardons. Naturally, when he unfurled his bag of factory-made relics and forged indulgences, sales were brisk. No one in the congregation dared to remain seated, since to do so would be to incriminate oneself of a heinous crime. Thus the Pardoner enriched himself with cash, as Obama does with votes, by appealing to people’s moral vanity.
But the proximate cause of Obamamania, and the most obvious answer to the question, is the one that continually fails to resonate. The media’s homo-erotic infatuation with like-minded ideologues is now the only love that dare not speak its name. In annual surveys conducted since the late Sixties, the percentage of registered Democrats in the various branches of the media has never been lower than 95, and an overwhelming majority of these call the extreme left wing of the Democratic party home.
When members of the media gaze upon the face of Obama, they see their own beloved countenance reflected back at them. As has been fruitlessly pointed out by his opponents, Obama boasts the most impeccable left-wing voting record in either the House or Senate. His yearning for a national health care system; his “redistributionist” demagoguery; his credulous acceptance of the junk-scientific orthodoxies of climate change; his vow to repeal free trade and “re-think” globalism (i.e., to restore an ancient and discredited protectionist regime); his zeal to “re”-regulate Wall Street; to raise income taxes on the rich, as well as corporate and capital gains taxes; to reintroduce closed-shop unioninsm and abolish the secret ballot for union certification and strike votes; his enthusiasm for fetal stem-cell research and rejection of even the most modest restrictions on a wholly unfettered abortion trade (he voted against the bill to ban partial-birth abortions); and of course, his opposition to the war in Iraq, have created, for the left-wing media, the perfect ideological storm.
Obama’s extraordinary popularity serves to remind us yet again of the scandalous fact that, year after year, the media remains monolithically supportive of the same one of the two major political parties. Try to imagine the outcry if 95% of the current members of the Fourth Estate identified themselves as far-right, born-again-Christian, gun-toting, God-addicted Republicans. The world’s leading intellectuals would now be intoning threnodies on the hijacking of the U.S. political process, the death of its democracy, and the imminent theocratization of its government; and they’d be absolutely right. It is unsurprising that the Left, which never fails to decry the power of advertising to manipulate consumers with Svengalian efficacy and Pavlovian predictability, never fails to dismiss as a “myth” the ability of a uniformly left-wing media to influence voters and skew the results of elections. But I still can’t comprehend how ordinary Americans, having been justly contemptuous of the democratic pretensions of the former Soviet Union, could be so complacent about living in a country with a one-party press.
It has been observed that, with the passing of monarchy, tyranny, and dictatorship, despotism has merely assumed the benign, democratic guise of Public Opinion. Given human psychological frailties, Public Opinion is quite capable of achieving near uniformity on its own. In a T.V.- and Hollywood-addled, twenty-four-hour-news-cycle, Oprahfied age, uniformity of thought is virtually assured. The coalescence and propagation of a single political and cultural orthodoxy is arguably the greatest threat to that personal liberty upon which the very possibility of moral action depends, and the most destructive form of terrorism that we currently face: one that terrorizes not merely the body but the mind and soul. The helpful enforcers of that orthodoxy are everywhere: sitting on government human rights tribunals, writing academic speech codes, offering sensitivity training in the workplace. An ideologically divided media would long ago have blown the whistle on this intellectual and moral enormity. One that subscribes to the same narrow orthodoxy merely sounds the trumpets and beats the drums.
In the absence of a partisan media that has trumpeted his virtues and downplayed his vices, Obama’s political ascendancy is unthinkable. Every Sunday for twenty years, Obama attended services at the church of a race-baiting, White-hating, conspiracy-obsessed “Reverend”, whose twisted world-view makes that of Sharpton or Farrakhan seem almost reasonable by comparison. Obama so esteemed him that he asked the Reverend Wright to preside at his wedding. Indeed, throughout his political career, he praised Wright publicly as his philosophical mentor. Having continued to do so until two months ago, Obama’s latter-day repudiation of him was manifestly calculated and insincere. The media, nonetheless, colluded in the risible pretense that Obama is now and has always been scornful of Wright’s toxic ideology. Like Obama’s longstanding chumminess with Ayers, the press dismissed the story as “ancient history”. It duly evaporated after a few days, or rather transmuted into one about the McCain campaign’s desperate tactics amid the long history of Republican dirty tricks (cf. Nixon). How quickly, do you think, would the press have exonerated him, after it had been revealed that McCain, or any other Republican candidate, had faithfully attended services at the church of a Neo-Nazi White supremacist?
Which brings me to the last, but no less troubling, reason for the Obama phenomenon. It has been said, ad nauseam, that Obama’s candidacy is “not about race”—that it transcends race–, even as we have been reminded, ad nauseam, of Obama’s African roots, and of the urgent but hitherto refractory moral imperative of placing an African-American in the White House, so as to bring to a happy conclusion the protracted tragedy of American racism, and finally qualify the guilt-laden American people for absolution from their country’s “original sin”. Obama is indeed the twenty-first century’s Pardoner. Voting for him will finally absolve a populace that has been mired in sin for centuries, and alleviate the unbearable burden of white liberal guilt.
Not about race? Tell me another one. For once I agree with Hilary, who has discovered, to her feminist chagrin, that in American politics race is a far more potent asset than gender.
The idea that Obama would have been no less successful and adored had he been as White as John Kerry is amusing enough; but his campaign’s assurance that he has transcended the politics of race is a howler. One does not need to be as fundamentalist an apostle of Black victimology as Jesse Jackson, Alvin Sharpton, or the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to be a racial huckster. I am glad that Obama has repudiated Wright, even if he did so for reasons of pure political expediency. But I am now waiting to hear our recent convert promise to repeal the poisonous and counter-productive policy of affirmative action. Or to counsel Blacks to stop blaming Whitey for the epidemics of crime, unemployment, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and other social pathologies that have ravaged their inner cities. Perhaps he will, someday. But I doubt it. A number of impressive American Black intellectuals and celebrities—Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Roy Innis, Alan Keyes, Clarence Thomas, and Bill Cosby, to name a few—have been preaching this rather more difficult gospel of change before deaf ears for decades. Keyes has even run for President. When one of them gets elected, I will be convinced that America has truly transcended race.
I wish President-elect Obama well. I hope he lives up to his promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq (although I suspect he won’t have done so any more quickly than a McCain administration; more probably, he’ll merely shift them eastward, into Afghanistan). I wish, above all, that Obama would end America’s adolescent infatuation with a foreign policy driven by “humanitarian” concerns (i.e., regime change, nation building, exporting democracy around the world, and the rest of it). With the fall of the Soviet Empire, this seems to have become America’s new raison d’etre, beginning, I might add, not with George Dubya and the neo-cons, but with Clinton’s intervention in Yugoslavia.
But toward Obama’s success or failure, my attitude is ultimately one of Boethian indifference. If he succeeds, I will congratulate him. If his presidency is a disaster, it might at least make people a little less susceptible to mass-minded enthusiasms. I believe in providence, not history.