Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dispatch 1

Dispatch 1
Isn’t She Lovely?
David Levi Strauss

For a mere voter, it was frustrating to watch the overdetermined and utterly predictable Spectacle that is the party’s nominating convention lumber to life tonight in Denver. Our excitement at Barack Obama’s rise, from his incandescent keynote speech at this convention four years ago, to his unlikely early victories and impossible triumph in the primary, led us to believe that something, everything, had changed, and
that perhaps even this hapless ritual might be transformed into a better version of itself. But it was not to be, at least not yet. Just as the opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics went all North Korea on us despite extraordinary individual feats, the first night of the Democratic National Convention insisted on Ken Burns without realizing that it had everything it needed in Malia and Sasha Obama.

Something felt wrong from the beginning; not just the self-conscious mawkishness, but something deeper, lurking under the deadend of identity politics. It was as if the worst tendencies of 1980s had come out to make one last attempt to stifle the future. Race vs. gender. And the hall was haunted by other spectres of past failures: Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Howard Dean. I’m sure we’ll see Al Gore soon. There is something inside American liberalism that forgives too much and gives up too soon. A compensatory, defensive liberalism that refuses to win. Is the Obama campaign a real political movement, or just another empty promise? Having gotten our attention, will Obama Democrats, like their predecessors over the last 30 years, find a way to lose?

This time, the stakes are just too high. Barack and Michelle Obama realize this. They are real leaders, not empty vessels that must be filled up with platitudes, and tonight showed that the Democratic establishment hasn’t yet figured that out. Watching Michelle Obama give that speech was like watching a great miler run through tapioca. I think she came through anyway, but why put your best through that?

If American voters again decide that they want someone in the White House who appeals to their worst selves, who they can feel “comfortable” with, the Obamas will lose. But if they agree with Michelle Obama that “the world as it is just won’t do,” then this spectacle is just a distraction. In his speech at the convention in 2004, Barack Obama invoked “the true genius of America” without irony or cant. If that genius survives, it needs to rise now, and push aside the party faithful. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Filed Monday, August 25, 2008, after the first night of the Democratic National Convention.


1 comment:

elizabeth said...

As I sat in a room full of reporters, some seasoned and some giddy and new-to-the-convention-experience, I was aware of the changing levels of background noise during the evening. The interest and focus ebbed and flowed throughout the evening's speakers, but the floor was almost silent during Michelle Obama's speech. This was not because they wanted the words, as the copy of the speech had been handed out a few minutes earlier.
It was as if the room was waiting for the results of this first big test--to see if the Obamas could pass the "big time" scrutiny. The room was quiet and attentive, and at the end of her speech, the room seemed celebratory--pleased. I know past responses to progressive agendas have failed, but this is a country that wants predictability. The political right is making headway questioning Obama's predictability--his trustworthiness. In this country, we like sitcoms and melodrama--predictable outcomes.
I think Michelle Obama's speech struck the right note--can you imagine such a speech from Cindy McCain? Here is an event that might not be breaking ground in the structure of the event--the form of the convention, but rather in the content. I cannot remember an introduction to a potential first lady that was so full of truth and heart--full of a content that "mere" voters are accustomed to connecting to. I would like to change the emotional tenor of the country, and the way many people make these decisions, but if we survey the forms through which Americans seek catharsis--which are conservative and often emotionally simplistic--we cannot expect radical change in BOTH form and content. Postmodernist theater doesn't have a majority audience either.
Michelle Obama's speech didn't break formal ground, but the content radically changed the way a potential first lady is introduced to the country.