Issue January 28, 2009

Self serve

“We never come at the true, and best benefit of any genius, so long as we believe him an original force.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our culture, our age, has been searching for a Champion.

An archetypal hero who, with chiseled countenance and even hand, would serve to focus our collective will to humanity and thoughtfulness through strength and veracity, “some brave Apollo” who elicits respect and calm in friends, and to whom enemies surrender fearfully. Every culture in every age has done the same. It is a constant theme throughout our histories, the instructiveness of which is undeniable and bountiful.

We sit hungry at the table, impatient with the meager fare of scandal and disappointment that has been laid before us over and again. And when we are finally presented with one who is, in word and appearance, a Great Man, a monumental figure, there is heard a collective sigh of relief as our chests thunder with admiration, and our hearts swim with pride at finally being party to something right and good. And perhaps we should be proud. It remains to be seen.

I don’t think it hyperbole to describe the fervor over President Obama as anything short of hero worship. This compulsion is a result of a perfect storm of his real and inherent magnetism, that of his populist rhetoric, and a persistent deficit in greatness of late. And while most of my intellect screams out that this pseudo-deification that I perceive is at least completely bizarre, if not suicidal, another, measured part begs me to pause and consider.

Look at the monumental figures of any culture and you read the values to which it aspires written in shorthand. They’re a Polaroid of the zeitgeist at any given moment. This being said, the election and adulation of President Obama show that, even in our weakened state (because of it?), consensus leans, once again, to some fundamentally humane and egalitarian ideas. To wit: Torture is probably wrong, institutional fear is unhealthy to the national psyche, tolerance breeds thoughtfulness, greater responsibility begets greater freedom, etc. That these are some of the points we, as a nation, have chosen to highlight bodes well. It means we’ve not forgotten the parts of ourselves (and collective self) that are admirable.

Not losing sight of this one thing is crucial and thus bears repeating: That which is to be admired in President Obama is that which we admire in ourselves.

To forget that, or to convince ourselves that we are somehow separate from what we admire, would be to displace both our will and power, and hand it over to another. We pour into our heroes our own hopes, those things that we wish to foster in ourselves. The real danger is that we would wait quietly for them to do our work and take responsibility for us and from us.

The wisdom in Obama’s call for renewed self-reliance and responsibility cannot be overstated. As is the case anytime we are given the keys and asked to assume responsibility for ourselves, it is simultaneously exhilarating and frightening to be told, effectively, “I can’t do this by myself. You’re going to have to get your act together.” We’ll see what it looks like once policy starts rolling off the desk, but floating such an idea seems, in some significant way, a tacit agreement on Obama’s part to share power, and is a comforting reminder of the sweet difference between organizer and decider.

When I am stirred by the president’s speeches, I’m forced to balance my skepticism of the man against what I view as the categorical correctness of the ideas he presents. This is an easy riddle to unlock, and hinges on my misplacement of ownership. Simply put, the ideals that affect me so are not his ideals. Barack Obama is the Elected Steward of our ideals, not the owner of them. We are our own benefactors.

“Obamamania,” as it’s being called this time around, is very familiar. In the ornate approbation of the president, we find that we still have a leg to stand on; more importantly, to stand on one leg is to very nearly fall on your ass.

So we go to work with eyes fixed securely on both the message and the messenger, with hopes that they will not drift, one from the other. 

Reading: R.W. Emerson, “Self Reliance,” “The Uses of Great Men”

Listening to: David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (still)