KEEPIN' IT UNREAL
Steyn on People Thursday, 22 May 2008
from National Review
If you read a Barack Obama speech, you notice that, aside from the we-are-the-ones-we’ve-been-waiting-for narcissistic uplift and the Washington-needs-to-lift-people-up-not-tear-them-down bromides, almost everything he says is, well, nuts.
I don’t mean the moments when he gets carried away and announces that his Administration would “stop the import of all toys from China”. As it happens, that’s a policy I’m not unsympathetic to. Over 80% of American toys are made in the People’s Republic and, while that may well be appropriate given the whiff of totalitarian coerciveness that hangs around Barney the Dinosaur, I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with contracting out US innocence to the butchers of Tiananmen. For one thing, come the Sino-American War, Beijing will have the ultimate fifth column inside the west: the nation’s moppets, resentful at having their Elmos and Spongebobs cut off the duration, will be shinning down the drainpipe after dark in ski masks and blowing up power stations to hasten the day of liberation.
But forget that. Obama doesn’t mean it. What’s worse than the painting-by-numbers demagoguery are some of the accidental glimpses of the Senator’s world view. For example: “The drug companies, they’re not going to give up their profits easily when it comes to health care.”
Well, gee, how unreasonable of them. But demanding they give up their profits “easily” comes easy to him. Until he wrote his recent bestseller, the concept of “profits” was entirely theoretical to Senator Obama’s life. As his wife put it, the Obamas “left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do. Don’t go into corporate America.” So Barack didn’t. Instead, he became a “community organizer”, whatever that is. At any rate, it’s a job most functioning communities seem able to do without. It would make no difference to life in this great republic if every “community organizer” in the lower 48 were to be deposited on an atoll in the Antarctic. On the other hand, if America’s drug companies were no longer profitable, it might make rather a lot of difference.
In print, Barack Obama comes as close as any major party nominee ever has to sounding like the kookiest college Marxist. But, as I say, that’s when you read his words, on the page. When you hear him, in that smooth baritone that would make “Would you like fries with that?” sound like change you can believe in, everything is terribly reasonable, moderate, evenly modulated.
I was thinking of the Obama technique while watching Jeremiah Wright on TV. The Obama campaign’s in-house pastor made the news with a half-dozen entertaining soundbites. The Senator found himself obliged to plead that, alas, he’d chanced to be out of town on God Damn America Sunday, Aids Conspiracy Sunday and the America-had-it-coming 9/11 memorial service, and defenders of Obama’s curious choice of spiritual advisor offered the reflexive response that these controversial remarks had been taken out of “context”.
So the Reverend Wright supplied the context. He went to the NAACP and the National Press Club, and CNN and co broadcast the speeches live under the bizarre misapprehension that their fawning coverage was doing their boy Barack a favor. The Reverend did vocal impressions of the Kennedys and demonstrated the different styles of black and white marching bands, and attributed these to genetic differences: Blacks are “right brainers”, whites are “left brainers”. Blacks have a vibrant oral tradition deriving from long-ago African tribesmen who were in effect the first hip-hoppers, while Mozart wrote down his symphonies on manuscript paper, which is all very well but, let’s face it, the powdered wig set have no sense of rhythm. I paraphrase, but not much. Underpinning every utterance of Rev Wright was the assumption that these features are hardwired into us and no amount of culture or education can undo them. Presumably no amount of government money or employment quotas can undo them, either, although the Reverend didn’t go that far. Had a white man gone on national TV and given the speeches Wright gave he’d be finished in public life and so would any man who’d been dumb enough to spend 20 years in his company, get married by him, and entrust his kids’ religious upbringing to the guy.
As it happens, honky culture is also rich in oral tradition – Homer, for example, not to mention medieval nursery rhymes still known to every kid in the early 21st century. Of course, the white man then figured the big bucks were in writing things down and hiring a lawyer to enforce your copyright. But the idea that black artists are biologically conditioned by their “oral tradition” to half-baked hoodlum exhibitionism barked out over a pneumatic backing track would have struck, say, Scott Joplin as absurd. Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than Snoop Dogg.
But the best refutation of Wright’s thesis is his protégé. Were Obama carrying on in his pastor’s vernacular tradition, he’d be at single digits. I think the Senator’s shaping up to be a tragic figure – a man born free of the bitterness of the African-American experience who by choice immersed himself in the toxic pool of Jeremiah Wright’s neo-segregationism. When Obama’s mask slips and he makes his throwaway observations about health-care profits, you glimpse the narrowness of the world in which he’s spent his adult life. But political candidacies are about the music more than the lyrics. And, when he opens his mouth to sing, Obama’s baritone is reassuring and mellifluous, and the accompaniment is beautifully orchestrated. Tonally, he’s the Nat “King” Cole of political candidates – which suggests he at least knows the limitations of the Reverend Wright’s wacky race theories on vernacular authenticity.