Never in my lifelong observation of politics have I seen an election to match this one for extravagant theatricality: Laughter! Tears! Elation! Nausea! This campaign is like a periodic table of human capability, from venal self-interest to hermetic self-delusion, from moral blindness to moral grandeur. To find another story that encompasses as much of the human comedy and tragedy as this one, you have to go back to Aristophanes’ celestial satires, to the spectacles of grand opera, to the dysfunctional families starring in Genesis.
Hillary Clinton, having herself been victimized by smear campaigns, has in the past acted to advance racial equity in this country. But she is now so blinded by ambition that she has become a self-parody, an Iago with no compunctions about inflaming the electorate with whispers, willingly abandoning all principle and honor to pursue advantage. Jeremiah Wright, who has been reading from the book of injustice his whole life long, has become a Pagliaccio, mistaking his part in the play for real life. Failing to see that he is being used to discredit Obama—or perhaps simply prizing his own sudden access to the spotlight more than he values Obama’s chance at the presidency—he has helped what he has cherished to be harmed. And Barack Obama has become Joseph, whose remarkable ability to interpret dreams was perceived to be such a threat to family power relations that his own brothers sold him out.
Like all these examples of metatheater, our current political circus turns on individual human wounds and lapses, magnified for the stage. Look at Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright, and tell me this never happened to you: you are close to a person who has much to give, who has generously opened heart and hand to you. Time passes, and your dear friend’s conduct is called into question: he is accused of behaving badly; she is perceived as dangerously misguided. You come to your friend’s defense: I know him, there’s more to him than this questionable act; I know her, there’s more to her than this misconceived statement. You counsel a wide view: understanding, appreciation, recognition of the deep truth that no human being is an unmixed blessing. Then your friend turns on you. Your world whirls like a kaleidoscope, rearranging itself in a newer, sadder pattern. A price is paid.
I know this story all too well, and if you have been alive for some years in a human body, you know it too. Now it is being projected in living Cinemascope on the widescreen of our broken political system, and I am worried, very worried, that we will be distracted by the spectacle of it, squandering our opportunity to awaken from democracy’s long slumber.
People keep talking about what Reverend Wright actually said to Bill Moyers on April 25th or to the National Press Club on the 28th, as if something important depended on his exact turn of phrase. From the left, the point keeps being made that Wright has articulated few things that weren’t said by Martin Luther King first, or that his condemnations are in the ancient prophetic tradition. (If you’re interested, check out Deuteronomy/Devarim 28 for a truly terrifying curse against a beloved nation’s iniquity, and count Jeremiah Wright as a moderate in comparison.) From the right, commentators keep saying that Wright speaks for Obama when he demands that the government apologize for slavery and its other violations of human rights abroad and at home; that once in office, Obama will exact the vengeance Wright’s words conjure.
The truth is this: Reverend Wright has made sound statements and crackpot utterances. There are crackpot ideas on the fringes of all political and social movements: in a contest between Wright’s extreme statements about HIV as government-sponsored genocide and John McCain supporter Reverend John Hagee’s assertion that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for New Orleans’ tolerance of homosexuality, surely we have to call a tie. More important than the contest of words is to notice how differently the political circus treats questionable statements from left and right. Follow mainstream headlines and you will learn that Wright is a Great Satan and Hagee, well, what was that about again?
It has been said there are only two plots in literature: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In our national theater of politics, a couple of plot-lines are also ubiquitous and evergreen. On the right, it’s “Invaders are coming to get us!” On the left, it’s “The king is evil!”
The two themes play very differently on our campaign stage. The right problematizes and villifies groups that are already marginalized: sexual minorities, religious minorities, people of color, immigrants. This material makes for big press because it entails lots of attention and little risk for the media; the consequences of angering out-groups are bearable. This plot turns on the deeply buried truth that those who are wronged may someday rise to put things right. It has been a winning strategy for a long time, because it asserts and reinforces the barrier much of the electorate perceives between themselves, at home and entitled in America, and the Other. In this frame, Jeremiah Wright symbolizes the hoard of killer bees coming to claim “our” territory. When this plot-line succeeds in capturing the audience, it validates racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and other invidious prejudices by tacitly casting them as self-defense.
The left takes aim at the powers-that-be, pointing to all the ways that those who wield economic, legislative and social power abuse that privilege at the expense of those who have less. This plot turns on the idea that no action, no matter how debased, is implausible in light of past wrongs: the Tuskegee Airmen constitute an airtight argument for government-sponsored AIDS. This plot-line plays poorly in the mainstream press because commercial mass media are deeply addicted to official sources: too much is at stake in offending them. By focusing on figures of constituted or at least established authority, this strategy most easily captures an audience of the aggrieved and excluded. When it is done well—when conditions are such that convincing information can be mobilized to support contentions of abuse by those in charge (which pretty much describes the present moment)—this plot-line succeeds by activating empathy, creating a coalition of the abused and their allies. When it overreaches, it activates ressentiment instead, externalizing responsibility for our common predicament, so that people gravitate to blame without being moved to act in their own interests.
It is the presence of Barack Obama that has lifted this moment into epic theater, engaging so many people with the prospect of a new, nearly unthinkable plot-line in which democracy actually rises and shines. He has appeared on the scene during a time of almost unbearable negativity, taking on a role worthy of Hercules’ fifth labor, mucking out the waste-products of our body politic while a Greek chorus tells him not to bother, in a little while he’ll be up to his neck in excrement too.
I close my eyes and remember that Joseph’s dreams got him out of slavery, out of prison, and into a position of power he used to rescue even the brothers who threw him into the pit. His secret was holding fast to what he saw, never allowing himself to be swayed from his truth despite the false accusations of those who sought to bring him down to their level.
Our opportunity here and now is to do the same: to pay attention to what’s really happening, to focus on what’s most important, on what it means for our future, and not to be distracted by the theater of politics. All of us who can see through the spectacle, we need to be Joseph now.