I'm Tired of Being Cool -- Understanding My Love Affair With Barack Obama
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I love Barack Obama. I love to listen to him talk. His victory speeches after Iowa and South Carolina gave me chills. I haven't felt that way about a politician since I worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968. I haven't felt that way about someone's oratory since hearing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I found myself thinking: "If they try to steal his nomination at the convention, I'm flying to Denver to demonstrate." I haven't felt that way in decades either. I should have felt that way when they stole the election from Gore in 2000, but I didn't. And I don't even think Obama's positions are that great. He's weak on health care, panders on Israel, and usually sounds like the type of mainstream liberal that I hate. I don't care, though. He speaks to my heart and I feel inspired and moved by his emphasis on community, meaning, and responsibility.
But I'm aware of something else, too. I'm a bit embarrassed by loving Obama -- unless, of course, I couch my support in hard-nosed political calculations, e.g. he's better equipped to beat McCain, he can bring people into the political process and energize our movement, or he can create a political space where progressives can organize. But these are objective calculations and analyses about others and don't reflect my emotional identification with and response to Obama. These latter feelings make me uncomfortable. I feel like one of the herd. I think I'll be viewed as naÃ¯ve. I worry that my progressive friends will see me as hero-worshiping and, for some reason, that seems immature and slightly neurotic. And all of this is in addition to being bombarded with media coverage frequently raising critiques of Obama as superficial and his followers so smitten they swoon like girls getting their first look at the Beatles.
I became curious about this embarrassment I felt. If one of my patients in psychotherapy evinced such discomfort, I would assume that it has some deeper, probably unconscious, source. What's the source of my discomfort adoring Barack Obama?
When I was young, my father used to make fun of our neighbors. Their crime was that they seemed to spend a lot of time together on the weekends. To my father -- and, consequently, to the rest of our family -- this was pretty ridiculous. Why would a family want to hang around together? My father certainly didn't; he was an alcoholic who was disconnected from his family. He was a man who lived in his head and never expressed longing or love for others. I grew up prone to feeling embarrassed about my own and others' needs for family intimacy. Uncomfortable with open-hearted expressions of love, I became clever and sarcastic and felt a private disdain for those who were too open about it. I became cynical.
It's easy to see here that my cynicism was a defense, one with which psychotherapists are very familiar. As a child, when one's desire or need for something is rejected, one develops the unconscious belief that he or she is not supposed to desire or need it. The reality of its absence is not only normal, but moral. It's not just that we normalize the emotional reality of our childhoods -- we make "what is" into "what's supposed to be." For example, in my case, it wasn't just that familial love and pleasure wasn't normal; it was that my incipient desire for it was wrong and ridiculous.
Because, of course, I didn't give up my desire altogether. Like everyone else, love was something that I wanted and needed. What happened was that my need and desire for it became dangerous. It violated an unconscious prohibition. It threatened me with being ridiculed or shamed. Safety -- psychic safety -- was to be found in cynicism.
The same dynamics were true when it came to hero-worship. It's normal for kids to want and need to idealize their parents. As we grow up, we never completely give up this need and, in fact, we often put our idealizations to good use in seeking out mentors, coaches, and teachers. In my case, I tried my damnedest to safely idealize my father but his detachment and rejection made that impossible. I grew up not only prone to be disappointed with male authorities but to feel embarrassed by my wish to admire one. It didn't seem cool. One shouldn't be taken with fame, right? It's a bit demeaning. Ultimately, I became cynical about that, too. If I was with a famous person I'd try to either ignore him or her or interact in a way that didn't reflect a shred of awe or admiration. It was important to seem cool.
Except cool in the present political context really means cynical. Cool means that we're not in love with Obama; we just think he's a strong candidate. Cool means that we're not like my childhood neighbors who love to connect with one another; we're just excited by the fact that Obama is bringing disenchanted voters back into the system on election day. Cool means that we don't ourselves relate to him as a rock star; we're just impressed that he can generate that type of enthusiasm in others. Masquerading behind a veneer of "objectivity," television commentators have their own version of cool; they discuss the "Obama phenomenon" and never admit that they, themselves, might be moved. They accept the frame of "form vs. content," "poetry vs. prose," "words over actions," and weigh in to announce that one or the other is winning in the presidential horserace. Listen sometime to George Stephanopolous's roundtable with burned-out talking heads like Cokie Roberts, George Will, and E.J. Dionne, and one is drenched with their cynicism. The subtext is always: "we're not a part of this phenomenon ... we're wry, amused, and objective analysts of it ... we've seen it all ... we're not ever that impressed with anyone ... " These folks are cool, that's for sure. And no one is cooler than David Brooks of the N.Y. Times who obviously fell in love with Obama initially but then felt compelled recently to write an article mocking the revival-tent antics of the Obamamaniacs.
That we're cynical about Obama because we're afraid of being disappointed is certainly no news flash. But cynicism of this sort is deeper than that. We have come to identify our own longings as dangerous, our own longings for someone to inspire us, to bring us together, our own longings to be part of a community of meaning again in politics, our own wish to be connected to something bigger than ourselves, a "something" that Barack Obama embodies, the "something" that gives us a chill when we hear him speak. We have been disappointed in our lives in both personal and public spheres. We dread being embarrassed again by loving someone or wanting something that we can't and aren't supposed to have. We feel a tremendous pressure, internally and externally, to be "realistic" and to accept what is as what is supposed to be. To not be realistic is to risk humiliation and rejection. And this danger lies in wait behind our relationship to Obama.
Our private conflicts about idealizing others and longing to "fall in love" with someone in politics are reinforced all the time in our everyday social lives. Our society is based on individual competition and gain. We're taught that the market is natural, selfishness is innate, and that dependency is weak. We're led to respect the rugged individualist, and suspect the idealist. In political life, we assume that politicians are corrupt and manipulative and thank God we have the media to interpret what politicians are really doing and why. Edwards was seen as "positioning himself" on the left, Clinton as the tough voice of experience, and Obama as the Great Conciliator. The fact that the media has named and spun these candidates doesn't appear in the media accounts. And, of course, there is a huge chunk of reality in this type of discourse; that is, politicians do routinely lie and manipulate their images. The problem is that the media doesn't just mirror reality, they also distort it, they shrink it, they wring out whatever authenticity might actually be there. They wouldn't recognize emotional truth if it hit in the face. And it is, in the form of Barack Obama, and as a result they are actually at their worst with him, at first sounding somewhat enamored but gradually becoming more and more cynical. Because reporters and pundits feel reflexively and pathologically obligated to not participate in the hero worship, hopefulness, or political passion that he stimulates, they consequently render these feelings as potentially just another deceit or manipulation to report.
Obama may yet disappoint us. In fact, he likely will. And yet, somehow he has put the issues of hope, possibility, meaning and community back into public life. He has reminded many of us of who we are and who we want to be. We should celebrate this. We should celebrate it and take it seriously as evidence of what is possible. We should acknowledge and embrace our own feelings and, through such self-awareness, recognize that the feelings that Obama triggers lie at the heart of every person that we're trying to organize, and it's our challenge to figure out how to elicit these feelings. The Right does it through appeals to patriotism, family, and community, although for them it's a jingoistic patriotism, a conventional heterosexual family, and a predominantly white community. The new mega-churches do it through addressing the needs of their parishioners at all levels and dimensions of their lives, including their needs for meaning, recognition, connectedness, and agency.
The Left needs to do the same. Even if Obama doesn't ring our bell, we need to not be cynical about the fact that he rings the bells of others. And the lesson to be learned from his campaign is that we need to listen to our hearts and realize that social change depends on listening also to the hearts of others.