Monday, September 29, 2008

Say, What?

I had one of those discomfiting experiences yesterday wherein I read something that made me very uncomfortable, but couldn't quite put my finger on just why. The something was this op-ed piece by Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. My first response was that Prof. Gitlin was indulging in some academic hyperbolic over-kill.

This election campaign is about more than its issues, slogans, proposals, strategies, tactics, attacks or counterattacks. Like most presidential elections, it represents a collision of myths. Every four years, various versions of America wrestle with one another, and through this combat, the nation inspects itself, turns itself over and over, striving to choose not only how it wants to be led but what it wants to affirm, how it wants to be known -- really, what it wants to be. ...

The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent -- what they symbolize. ...

The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. ...
[Emphasis added]

Oh, please. It's a freakin' election, something that happens every four years. If Prof. Gitlin is right (and, I admit, it's possible he is), it's damned disappointing because it means Americans are still looking for a daddy. I had hoped that eight years of the Unitary Executive would have cured us of wanting anything other than a chief executive subject to the oversight of the board of directors (Congress and the federal judiciary) rather than a savior who believed himself ordained of God.

That said, I was still not satisfied with the tension in my gut. It took nearly a day for me to pin it down. After re-reading the essay for the fourth time, I think I finally got what was providing the agida.

Sen. John McCain is relatively familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before him.

McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West. Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort -- rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men at home in nature (not in our effete cities) -- who settled the West on their own. ...

Obama is the quintessential outsider -- a "sojourner," the New York Times' David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii, alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world; to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.

Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an egghead. He's the professor -- but one who can sink the shot from beyond the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. ...

So that's the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God's country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant's child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven't yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure -- the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.
[Emphasis added]

With the bolding, I think you get the picture it took me entirely too long to figure out. Even a respected academic can't get past the racial thing, which would be ok if he were just describing what he saw as the key to the election, except that he can't even get past the stereotypes that comes with the racism implied in the descriptive language he has chosen: "closer to the color of Tonto," "sink the shot from behind the three point circle," "impure," "melting pot in person".

I guess the fact that I am appalled by this is a measure of the naivete I like to think I'd finally left behind. I really thought that in the 21st Century America was ready to measure individuals by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. If Prof. Gitlin is right, however, I was wrong, dreadfully and sadly wrong.

What is even worse, however, is that such as Prof. Gitlin are not helping to move us forward. I hope his students have better luck.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Karin said...

Todd Gitlin is a wanker. It's as simple as tht.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

Sad. But I believe the Prof has hit some home runs here. I wish it weren't true. But then again, metaphors are so imprecise. My Lone Ranger is not necessarily his...

5:52 AM  
Anonymous larry, dfh said...

He's from the columbia school of journalism, the alumns of which (with the exception of the great Molly Ivins) have been the conduit of the disgrace that has been our government for the last 8 years. This is what they teach at the csj, just like the econ 101 principles espoused by gwb are what they teach in the harvard mba program. Ivy-league, indeed!

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Rake Morgan said...

Thanks for a provocative post.

I went back and read the original op-ed piece and think it is as brilliant an insight into this election as any I've read.

It is possible, of course, to categorize McCain and Obama solely by their policy positions, but I believe as does Prof. Gitlin that there is a symbolic undertow to why voters choose certain candidates. To deny this or to dismiss it as just some irrelevant Ivy League excretia is to deny the complexity of the human heart and mind.

5:16 PM  

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