Four more years

Means, ends & inner narratives in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Barack Obama was mocked by Republicans when, late in the campaign just ended, he blamed his struggle to dominate Mitt Romney on his failure to provide Americans with a compelling narrative. I couldn’t help but agree. And yet I wonder if even a writer as talented as Obama can do anything more than animate his partisans’ own existing narratives. Romney’s narrative was widely exposed, commented upon, and derided as a farrago of outright lies, lesser evasions, and gross distortions. But he almost defeated Obama. I really wonder: What’s the moral of this story? Revisiting my post, below, written just before Obama’s 2008 victory, I find it deals with this same question of means, ends, and inner narratives.

• • •

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is still guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped his depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, journalism, narrative

16 responses to “Four more years

  1. Thanks for re-publishing your original essay, Richard. It was very thoughtful and well-considered. And I hope, as you obviously do too, that we find a common narrative in this country which will take us through the next four years. Your state was key and crucial in this process, Richard, though everyone was important; while it’s true that other states for Obama which came up farther west might’ve made the difference equally, when the victory from Ohio came up on the screen, people all over the country began to realize, quickly or slowly, that it was all over but the shouting. I only hope that the process finds a lot of mavens and commentators as well-prepared as you are.

    • Thank you for your eloquent reply, Victoria. I felt better about Ohio last night, a state that had seemed full of such hatred for Obama. On my street, the one Obama sign was torn down, and neighboring yards bristled with Romney-Ryan posters, including one that said “Sorry yet? If you aren’t, you haven’t been paying attention.” It was a test to walk past that sign without tearing it down myself. But Ohio came through, and I think the victory margin for Obama will be much higher in ten days when the provisional ballots are tallied.

  2. Todd

    Your posts are always insightful, Richard. The GOP has lost its way, in bitterness and pandering to a radical religious right as dangerous as any jihadist.

  3. I think you’re right to point out that politics, for most Americans, comes down to narrative. On nights like last night, I sometimes feel frustrated that I can’t call my family in cheerful celebration like so many of my peers do, because politically-speaking I don’t share my parents’ narrative. But if I spend some time thinking on it, I understand their narratives. I see the rural Appalachian world they’ve spent their whole lives in; I see the community where I grew up struggling with a seemingly-stagnant economy; and I can identify the story which leads them to their view of the American political landscape.

    I particularly love this observation: “I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned.” And, in the face of the partisan coverage I see everywhere from Facebook to cable news–I thank you for the reminder. For many I diverge from politically, our definitions of worthiness still overlap significantly, and it’s useful to remember that I can–and often do–deeply respect those who have different political narratives when I focus on our shared sense of what deserves our public or private admiration.

    • Thanks, Mandyln. The Obama sign in the picture with this post is from our farm in Appalachian Ohio. Most if not all of our neighbors were McCain supporters, and my wife’s decision to post the sign made me a little uncomfortable. My hired man, who lived across the road, a good guy, always voted Republican. I’d tried to get him to see the light, that he was voting against his self interests, and his cheerful forbearance of my lobbying was itself kind of shaming to me. But we were passionate and emotional, more than this time, though we hoped fervently for Obama’s reelection. Anyway, much to my surprise, no one molested our sign.

      Now living in town, we could not put up a sign because of my wife’s job, and we felt rather hostilely surrounded by the Romney-Ryan signs inthe yards all around. I felt so grateful to one couple, whom I’m sure are Republicans, who refrained from putting up a sign. We have never talked politics but I am sure they know we are liberals. I will always believe, but never know, that they didn’t erect a sign at least partly because they knew we couldn’t.

  4. It will be interesting (and consequential) to see in which direction the Republican narrative moves. Will it be “We must face the handwriting that is all over the wall?” or “This proves that we need to move further to the right and be more conservative?” It’s quite likely a toss-up.

    • It seems like I’ve been hearing more of “we were not conservative enough” and versions of hatred toward Obama. But just like this election, which surprised so many, maybe we don’t tend to hear from moderates.

  5. “I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected”.

    Thankyou for this post which I found most interesting… The President, whoever he or she may be holds a lot – not just for Americans, but in its relations with other parts of the world. As an outsider to American politics, living far away in Australia, I cannot help but be aware that the election of the American President, a matter for Americans to decide, affects us all deeply. We see, here, constantly, reflections of American culture and politics as it ripples across the Pacific. And yet, we can but observe, and hope that the Americans get it right, that they will listen carefully to each narrative before making their decision… and most of all get out there and vote for it. It is the way in which each taps into the ‘social unconscious’ that is critical.

    • Great to get this perspective, Christine. I really wonder what other nations make of our politics. Though I was charmed in China, two winters ago, by how popular Obama seemed—probably the message of his skin color, our ideals made flesh.

  6. Elizabeth

    The most difficult feelings I’ve wrestled with as an adult is how utterly opposed I am to my parents’ conservative Republican positions, and despite being nearly fifty years old, it hasn’t gotten easier. While elated that Obama won, it saddens me that I can’t share this elation (narrative, story, etc.) with them — probably ever. Thank you for your careful, thoughtful and quite unique articulation of what, for me, remains a sort of moiling mass.

    • I hear you, Christine. Few things are as painful. Hence “do not discuss politics or religion” with friends—or, apparently for many of us, with family. I think the reasons for affiliation are very deep, as I say, and lie in different responses to the world, but like the differences between men and women, large as they are, they’re ultimately small compared with what we share.

  7. I read somewhere that wars are fought over story – that is, the right to for one tribe (nation/country/religion) to assert their view of the world over others. We’ve seen this happen over and over again in history and now, with the crumbling of a neutral Fourth Estate (serious newsmen like Cronkite), the war over narrative is more obvious than ever. It’s an important thing to remember, especially as writers, that story matters. Always has. Always will.

  8. paulettealden

    How brilliantly written this is, Richard. I’m so glad you reposted it, apropos as it is again today. Wonderful opening lines. Politics and narratives aside, it makes me marvel at how many posts you’ve written, all high quality apparently. You amaze me!

  9. Paulette voiced my thoughts exactly, Richard. I don’t think I read this post in 2008 because I only started following you in 2009. To use your own metaphors: your blog is “fragrant with the compost of human misery” and never cringes from exposing the sinister gaps between our minds and our practices. You bring us a journalist’s precision and guts. But you also turn those guts into cello strings and play them. Here’s a poem about that earthly, ethereal connection from Mennonite poet Jean Janzen:

    Chicken Guts
    By Jean Janzen.

    After the sticky steam of plums
    and the fuzz of peaches, we caught chickens
    in the yard, stewing hens for canning.
    Dad with a hatchet on the old elm stump
    and I in the cellar scraping grit out of gizzards.
    All in a sort of ritual dance: the chop,
    the boiling body-dip for defeathering, the swing
    through the singe of fire. Then, disembowel, dismember.
    All for the grand finale behind glass—a chorus line
    of chicken legs caught in the kick, like a photo.
    This is not about death, or violence to animals,
    not even about sex. It’s about those intestines
    I stripped into the bucket. About how they
    could have been saved, stretched across a hollow,
    and made to sing. It’s about my cousin Eugene
    who plucks and saws the gut of his cello until
    something throbs in our own. And it’s about dance,
    not the scratch and kick of the chicken’s life,
    but the deep stomp that awakens the bottom
    of the lake, the dance I want to do among
    the festival of wild grass and flowers back
    in my hometown. I want to lean low,
    to paint my face with mulberry juice
    and stay up all night. I want to put my ear
    against the belly of the earth to hear
    it rumble, to hear it sigh.

  10. Thank you for your comments, Shirley, and for this wonderful poem. I love the rhythms in it, especially “Dad with a hatchet on the old elm stump” and the deeply personal immortal truth in “And it’s about dance,
    not the scratch and kick of the chicken’s life,/ but the deep stomp that awakens the bottom/of the lake, the dance I want to do among/
    the festival of wild grass and flowers back/
    in my hometown.”

    Also, for what it’s worth, I have butchered a LOT of chickens and so has Jean Janzen. I know that if only by the grit in the gizzards.

  11. Me too. And watch out for the bile duct!