When my daugher Lydia was a little girl, she succumbed to the charms of Santa Claus. What healthy child hasn’t? But it wasn’t long before Lydia realized that grownups didn’t believe in the man at the North Pole. Unbidden, Lydia shared her verdict with her parents. “Some people believe there is a Santa Claus,” she explained, “and some people don’t. I choose to believe because it’s more fun.”
It wasn’t long before Lydia was exposed to the magic of mass marketing in the cuddly form of a little doll named Rainbow Brite. Rainbow Brite shared a magical land with a vast array of cute little horses (each sold separately) and two ineffectual antagonists named Lurky and Murky.
Once again, Lydia felt moved to share her personal philosophy. “I like Rainbow Brite better than Jesus,” she informed us, “because she’s more interesting.”
Barack Obama has been in a funk ever since his big speech at the Democratic convention in Denver. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wonders if the once-charismatic candidate is “too cool to fight.” Obama does fine on the stump, Cohen says, but when he appears in a more intimate setting, like across the desk from George Stephanopoulos, the pugulist becomes the professor. In interviews, Obama occasionaly looks “sad as a lonely little wrinkled balloon” as Paul Simon put it in one of his wistful songs.
Cohen isn’t alone. “Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama’s coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats,” the Times Thomas Friedman asserts, “because Obama has gone from cool to cold.”
They chattering classes have this one right. I listened to Keith Olbermann’s interview with Obama the other night and found my mind wandering. Obama was cool, likeable, observant, cautious, and dull.
Fear is a big part of the problem. Obama knows that anything he says can and will be used against him in the next McCain attack ad.
But it goes deeper than that. Obama has been hoping that the recitation of undeniable truths will confirm his date with destiny. John McCain endorses economic and military policies that have reduced a once-proud nation to an international laughing stock. Ergo, no one should vote for McCain unless they like economic stagnation and national humiliation.
The mainstream media is amazed by the blatant untruths the McCain-Palin ticket has been repeating ad nauseam on the stump. Sarah claims she said “thanks but no thanks” to “that bridge to nowhere” when the record shows she was for it before she was against it. John McCain says Barack Obama would raise taxes on the middle class when everybody paying attention knows it ain’t so.
“I mean, you can’t just make stuff up,” Obama tells the crowd. “You can’t just recreate yourself. You can’t just reinvent yourself. The American people aren’t stupid.”
Which takes us back to Ron Suskind’s famous quote from an unnamed Bush operative: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ . . . ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
This is the genius of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove: they realize that, yes, you can make stuff up . . . so long as you are telling people what they want to hear.
Lydia chose to believe in Santa Claus because it felt good. She (briefly) preferred Rainbow Brite to Jesus for the same reason. Jesus, like most progressive candidates, was all about hard (and very adult) realities. Rainbow Brite was about flash, dazzle; the Queen of Cute.
Sister Sarah isn’t saying much these days (apart from repeating questionable assertions from her boffo acceptance speech), but that just adds to her appeal. Flip between cable news stations and you are sucked into an endless loop of Sarah waving to the crowd, Sarah hugging McCain’s neck, Sarah beaming in front of the microphone. The woman is incandescent. She’s fire in a bottle. She has more raw appeal than all the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders put together. Even the telegenic Obama can’t compete with this.
“But what about all that crazy stuff she believes?” liberals bleat plaintively. “She’s a creationist, and she speaks in tongues (or hangs around with tongue-speakers–which is just as bad), and she doesn’t believe in global warming and she calls the war in Iraq a divine enterprise. That’s just crazy talk, right?”
So the reality-based community believes. Unfortunately, as Barack Obama is coming to realize, the reality-based folks no longer call the tune in America.
Obama’s right, the American people aren’t stupid. But we are a nation of myth-makers and once a myth is made it takes decades to unmake it.
Prior to WWII, America was in isolationist mode. We didn’t like what Hitler and his legions were doing in Europe, but it wasn’t our problem. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed . . . permanently. Before long, John Wayne was gracing the silver screen as a courageous, tobacco-chewing, tough-talking American marine. My generation of males grew up playing with GI Joe (I was an exception–my father hated guns and macho militarism).
People ask why conservative voters love John McCain so much when they despised John Kerry. Weren’t both Johns decorated war heroes?
True, but the Democratic John came home disillusioned with the men who led the march to war; the Republican John came home “in love with America,” convinced that, had we only kept our hearts in the fight, we could have left Viet Nam in victory and honor.
That’s the kind of John Wayne American we have learned to love. Which is why American politicians treat the military with the sort of respect and deference Sarah Palin’s handlers are currently demanding from the press. That’s why a call to arms from the Commander in Chief, no matter how foolhardy, receives overwhelming support from the electorate. This time, we tell ourselves, it’s going to work. We are an empire and that means we can create reality in our own image.
Mythological thinking spreads disaster in the real world; but it’s magic on the stump.
Sarah Palin is an evangelical Christian. So am I. I don’t speak in tongues, but I have prayed to receive “the gift” (ever hopeful that my prayer would go unanswered). I don’t believe you can find a coherent “Rapture” theology in the Bible, but I have preached to those who do. I understand Sarah Palin’s world too well to despise it.
Evangelical Christians aren’t stupid, but no group in history has ever been told what they want to hear more than evangelicals. For a time, evangelical opinion leaders like C.S. Lewis tried to live in peace with the reality-based community. We believed in creationism and evolution. We prayed that the missions movement would usher in the kingdom of God, but in a polite, this-worldly sort of way.
Then we realized that we didn’t have to play footsy with the smart-ass secularists. Hell, we could just make stuff up.
If people have a hard time adapting Genesis to Darwin, just toss out Darwin. If the folks in the pews are perplexed by the ancient world of science, tell them the planet was birthed six thousand years ago (ten thousand at the outside).
If people have trouble condemning gays for doing what comes naturally, tell them that homosexually is just a perverted “lifestyle” choice.
If the faithful don’t want to give up their gas-guzzlers, tell them global warming is a liberal hoax.
If the congregation seems uncomfortable with the cheek-turning pacifism of Jesus tell them to turn in their Bible’s to the book of Revelation. There, the Good Shepherd appears as the cosmic avenger, sword dripping with pagan blood.
And what if folks seem uncomfortable with a Jesus who welcomes home the Prodigal Son, forgives the thief on the cross and hangs out with tax collectors and prostitutes? Simple, you give them a Dirty Harry Jesus toting a 44 magnum. If Jesus is going to toss his enemies into the Lake of Fire at the end of the millennium, who can blame us for locking up poor people. Civil rights and civil liberties are reserved for law abiding people (unless we’re talking white collar crime).
When half of adult America can’t define the term “due process” (it’s true) the phrase looses its meaning.
I am not saying that all McCain-Palin supporters think this way. Most don’t. But the reality-based community must understand that general elections are now determined by white evangelicals who have been told for several generations that reality is whatever feels good. The theology proclaimed from Megachurch pulpits has been carefully market-tested. Most Republicans aren’t comfortable with this reality; but so long as it keeps them in power they can’t argue.
So what’s a guy like Obama to do?
Obscurantism is a fact of life in America and no politician can change that in one election cycle. So don’t try. Cut loose. Enjoy yourself. Go with your gut, laugh, smile and don’t give in to despair. Trade in the quizzical smirk for the hearty belly laugh. Hammer the issues, but know that’s not enough. American’s like John Wayne, but they also like Jimmy Stewart. Tell us your dreams and visions. Let your idealism show. Tell us about the America you believe in. That’s what got you this far, and that’s what will take you home.