Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Barack Obama and the Politics of Imagery

Original Link: http://jay1949.wordpress.com/2008/05/31/barack-obama-and-the-politics-of-imagery/

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.

- - Marshall McLuhan (1971)

We are living in McLuhan’s eventual future and the politics of imagery are upon us. The man who heralds the arrival of this age is Barack Obama, now in contention to become President of the United States by abdicating to his image. As such constructs tend to be, Obama’s image is a false one. This state of affairs has been highlighted by the controversies arising out of Obama’s personal relationships, including his relationships with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and with the radical Weatherman bomber, William Ayers. Attempts to dismiss these relationships as “distractions” - - which, in an ironic sense, they are - - will not make them go away; the issues of character and honesty which they infer are too important.

To state the case bluntly, Barack Obama pretends to be someone who he is not. The image he and his backers project is that of a “transformational” politician, a “uniter,” a “post-partisan” leader who will overcome petty differences to bring about fundamental “change.” It is a meretricious spiel. In reality - - behind the cloak of “image” - - Obama is a standard-issue politico with a gift for public speaking. He talks a good line.

Nonetheless, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and Obama’s past behavior belies the image he projects. His past behavior is that of a political opportunist who adheres to and votes a hard-left Democratic Party line. Obama has no record of bipartisan, much less nonpartisan, politicking. He talks the talk of transformation and post-partisanship but he has no history at all of walking the walk of those concepts.

Enter Wright and Ayers. These two associations are important both for the fact of the relationships temselves and for Obama’s reactions to the controversies they recently engendered. They show that Obama, first, is an opportunist and, second, is deceptive. They reveal the man behind the image.

The likely explanation for both of these associations is very simple. Obama cultivated a relationship with Ayers to establish contacts with the academic liberal community in Chicago; he attended Trinity United and pursued a relationship with Rev. Wright to gain “street cred” with Chicago’s black community. Obviously this is an explanation which Obama cannot give because it is patently inconsistent with his imagery.

I confess a certain degree of nostalgic liking for Rev. Wright. Like me, Jeremiah Wright came of age in the 1960s. Unlike me, Wright does not realize that he is a visitor here in the future and should learn and observe the customs of the new age (“When in Rome . . .”). The Sixties were a time of ferment and conflict; those of us who lived through that time observed and experienced, among other things and persons, the defiance of the anti-Vietnam War movement; Black Power; Abbie Hoffman (“Steal This Book”); Eldridge Cleaver (“Soul On Ice”); Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and the Black Panther Party; Malcolm X; Black Muslims; the Weather Underground; the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the Watts riots; the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. In this context, the style of outrageous hyperbole which Rev. Wright still practices was common, even typical. Wright is a relic of that time, preaching a theology of “liberation” which dates to that era. So even though I may disagree with his viewpoints, hearing the Rev. Wright’s hyperbolic, truculent rants is like traveling back in time to the days when I was young and the world was in a different, invigorating kind of tumult.

Nostalgia aside, Wright obviously does not understand that there have been fundamental changes and meaningful progress in American society. Yet he maintains a substantial following in the Chicago area and was for many years the spiritual leader of an influential church and a prime mover in his community.

I contend that the conclusion that Barack Obama chose Trinity United and its pastor at least in material part for political reasons is unassailable. Obama cultivated a friendship with Wright for two decades and knew very well of Wright’s outrageous sermonizing. Yet when Trinity United’s video containing excerpts from Wright’s sermons drew national attention, Obama lied about his relationship with his pastor. He tried to claim that these were snippets culled from many years of sermons (implying that they were not representative) and that he had not heard them before.


The Rev. Jeremiah Wright who spoke at the National Presws Club certainly was the same man shown in the video clips and he is the same man who preached on Sundays at Trinity United for the whole 20 years of Obama’s attendance. Jeremiah Wright is who he is; he is incapable of dissemination; his image and his reality are the same. He says what he says, how he says it, and he is incapable of anything else. The video clips shown on television were not unrepresentative bits picked out by the press; they were chosen by members of Trinity United (including, in all likelihood, Rev. Wright) and recorded on a DVD issued by the church precisely because they portray accuratesly Rev. Wright’s style and message.

There simply is no reasonable possibility that Barack Obama attented Trinity United for 20 years without knowing in detail of Rev. Wright’s philosophy and message. Confirmation of this assertion exists. When some of Rev. Wright’s statements were reported in print in 2007, Obama promptly removed Wright from his position as an advisor. The only reasonable explanation for this action is that Obama knew of Wright’s philosophy and was familiar with his sermons and thus realized that public exposure would damage the candidate’s image.

Finally on the Rev. Wright topic, note well that Obama disavowed Wright only after the pastor made the statement that Obama was a “politician” and therefore would “say what politicians say.” This statement was both true and a challenge to Obama’s political imagery. Wright’s other very-well-publicized statements were substantially similar to what had previously been broadcast. Thus it was the challenge to the image that led to Obama disowning Wright, such a challenge being intolerable.

When the William Ayers controversy emerged, Obama again sought to misrepresent the relationship, tossing off Ayers as someone who lived in the same neighborhood as the Obamas and whose kid had attended school with Obama’s children. Once again, further revelations showed this to be nonsense. Obama cultivated a relationship with Ayers over a long period of time and used that relationship to further his political career by, among other things, having a campaign kickoff event at Ayers’ home. Obama had to know of Ayers’ well-publicized background as a member of the Weather Underground, another phenomenon of the 1960s, who had engaged in the bombing of government facilities.

The matters, I again assert, reveal the character of the man behind the image. They reveal that Obama is quite comfortable with a circle of friends that includes persons who hold radical ideals dating from the 1960s. They reveal that Obama is dishonest. They reveal an otherwise typical politico of very liberal persuasions who has a great talent for public speaking, which he uses to project an image. As McLuhan predicted, Obama readily abdicates to that image, for it is indeed far more powerful than the real man could ever be.

The circumstances indicate that Obama has a narcissistic personality type. Two of the major features of the narcissistic personality are “magical thinking” and a pathological need for admiration and praise. [See endnote 1.] This personality type is a perfect fit for a McLuhanesque “imagery” politician. Magical thinking enables Obama to believe that he is who he says he is. The need for admiration and praise moves him powerfully to perform well before a crowd. Yet these are also weaknesses. To sustain the belief that he is the image he projects, Obama will lie. Must lie. The flip side of the need for admiration and praise is an inability to tolerate criticism, particularly when it is true. (See above on the disowning of Rev. Wright, and note also that Obama discontinued debates following the first and only such event in which he was questioned critically about his associations.)

Something that is truly disturbing about this situation is that some of Obama’s supporters openly acknowledge what they are doing. They refer to it as “branding,” in the commercial advertising sense. Advertisements for Clorox are “branding;” they convince consumers to pay more for Clorox and forego the less-expensive, chemically-identical, generic brand of bleach one shelf away. In a rational world, consumers would buy the generic bleach and Barack Obama would have no chance of becoming President of the United States. In this distressingly McLuhanesque future, consumers buy Clorox and Obama is a serious contender.

All candidates for high office go through a process called “vetting,” as they should. [See Endnote 2.] “Vetting” a candidate involves checking out his background, including work and public service records and his personal life in order to ascertain, to the extent possible, what kind of person the candidate is. Character always matters and it matters most for the big jobs, like President. Consider: the two least-vetted candidates to win the Presidency in the last century were Herbert Hoover, who had never held elective office, and Jimmy Carter. In both cases, they were one-termers whose defeats for re-election did some damage to their political parties. Even so, the voters who elected Hoover and Carter knew a whole lot more about those candidates than we know about Barack Obama; his surface has hardly been scratched.

The Obama camp’s complaint that the Wright and Ayers issues are “distractions” is ironically true - - they take attention away from the “image” and focus it on the person behind the image. We citizens have the right to seek a high degree of confidence that the person who holds the office of President will do the right thing when the real testing point comes. This is more important than debating the details of proposed changes in policy. The “distractions” will continue.

* * *

[Endnote 1] - The current revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IVR) gives the critieria for narcissism as any five or more of the following: 1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance; 2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; 3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique; 4. requires excessive admiration; 5. has a sense of entitlement; 6. is interpersonally exploitative; 7. lacks empathy; 8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her; and 9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes. Please note that I do not contend that Obama has a personality “disorder,” but he does seem to exhibit several of these features.

[Endnote 2] The term is borrowed from the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing. Before a horse can race, it must be checked by a veterinarian to ensure that the animal is healthy and in condition to race. This came to be called “vetting” and the term later jumped to political races.

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