Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama and Elvis: Not far from the maddening crowd

by Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 10/31/08

Obama took this region by storm around February some time – only eight months ago - around the time of the video, which rhapsodized a very good speech he gave here in New Hampshire featuring the phrase, yes we can, the night he lost to Hillary. Now with just a few days left, elation appears to be yielding to apprehension here in the north country of New England.

You see several opaque manifestations: They are not raising much money in the hills; there are not many signs; almost no one comes to the door except school children recruited by Obama-leaning and perhaps obsessed teachers – those who were timid at the beginning of the war on Iraq when they were needed to be brave, now feeling empowered.

Many of those who opposed the war on the first day and on every day thereafter until Robert Gates took over appear to be turning away. Obama did the right thing in opposing the war, said one critic, but his rave run for President compares to the Spice Girls and the spice quickly wears off when the likes of Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel join the group. A local political cartoon this week says as the leaves turn, so liberals turn conservative. And not even waiting for the election, an old trusty stalwart of Yankee character and independence, who writes a column in Vermont, bemoaning the lack of a center in politics today has begun to grumble about a third party. It is all quiet here in the mountains.

I can think of one reason for this, and this is why I backed away from Obama: the crowds. It is not his doing; it just happened that way, but the Obama phenomenon can now be compared to the scratchy TV images my mother made us look away from when Elvis danced on the Ed Sullivan Show and teens swooned and tore at their clothing; when he arrived at the airport, some had to be carried out in ambulances. They faint at Obama speeches as well. I’ve seen them do it, and Obama is smooth as silk when it happens, calling for help in a calm voice; it’s all part of the happening, all in a day’s work. But this is why John Lennon stopped The Beatles from doing live concerts; they were wheeling down paraplegics to watch from the front row and it gave him the willies. They had come to see him as savior of some kind and Lennon saw a kind of madness growing in the crowd. Likewise Obama, today perhaps.

There is much not to like about us here in the northern mountains. Many of us come here because people on the flatland don’t like us and we don’t like them. But one thing to our credit: We do not like crowds and we do not like being part of a crowd. That is why we come here. It diminishes us as individuals. Our spirit fathers, Emerson and Thoreau in particular, speak in opposition to it at every turn and it goes against every grain in our traditional New England character. The size of the crowds; a 100 thousand in Colorado, the Obama chant – yes we can, yes we can, yes we can - may be having an effect up here.

And it may be telling us something about ourselves, something even possibly about the crowds which grew with Elvis and The Beatles. Nothing like this happened in America prior to WW II; we found our God in small and unpretentious rural churches, stone urban cathedrals and subtle synagogues. It may be telling us that we have become something in time unintended by the Founders; that 240 years of free and unfettered democracy has turned us out of the republic - and a republic specifically requires full individualism for both the fey and the rugged - to faces in a crowd.

Fouad Ajami has some thoughts on this in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal.

“There is something odd -- and dare I say novel -- in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail,” he writes. “Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.”

The crowd is based on an illusion of equality, he says, citing Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s classic Crowds and Power. Its quest is for that moment when "distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd."

These vast crowds turning out for Obama in St. Louis, Portland and Denver are a measure of America’s distress. This election has at its core a desire to settle the unfinished account of the presidential election eight years ago, says Ajami. It is the rematch that John Kerry had not delivered on.

That is why I think some of us have turned away up here. I opposed the war on the first day out of Buddhist principles first begun to be acquired 41 years ago when I saw people die in warfare and was part of the theater which brought their deaths. It taught the lesson that expediency and accommodation of the crowd is the dependable tool of those who seek war: the crowd can always be counted to appease power until the going gets rough. But I have no grudge today against Bush, Rove or Cheney. They did what they had to do and I did what I had to do. The war is over. Let’s go on to the next thing. If we both act with character to our beliefs and experiences we will rise to be a stronger country. But it takes longer; years, decades, millennia perhaps. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.

In making the case for Obama today, Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan agrees with Ajami that Obama’s “runaway train” serves as a practical rebuke to the past five years. But she says it needs rebuking.

That is the problem: Rebuke is the way of the Revenge Demon; it is the weakling’s path to opposition - those who were not brave when they were needed to be brave, but came later when the path was safe to express their venom. They are driving the train. This is what poisoned the culture in the 1970s in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam and could do so again today, turning this crowd into a horde.