the presidential election season, many with an interest in liberty
resorted to the logic of "the lesser evil." Many contemplated
a McCain administration, and found it a scary prospect. I don't
intend to argue with that. But we shouldn't assume Obama really
will prove to be a "lesser evil," simply based on superficial,
managed political appearances. In fact, Obama's relationship with
his own image is perhaps the signature aspect of his character,
and worthy of greater scrutiny.
Here's a quote
from Obama's memoir, Dreams
from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, which has
been making the rounds:
avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully.
The more politically active black students. The foreign students.
The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and the structural feminists
and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore
leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism,
Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out
our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud
that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's
stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure.
We were alienated."
not quoting this in reference to the "is Obama a Marxist?"
or "how socialist is Obama?" debate. Others may be more
intrigued by that angle. (Mostly, others who haven't been paying
attention to the fact that almost all politicians in modern times
advocate forms of socialist economic policies, whether they ever
recognize or acknowledge that.) I am not concerned here with outing
Obama as a socialist. I don't think the quote alone cinches the
case either, since political beliefs can evolve. I know a number
of former Marxists who are now committed to individual freedom and
interested in sound economics. Former associations could deserve
the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I can think of a number of self-proclaimed
Marxists and socialists I could at least count on to curtail the
sprawling military and financial fascist monopolies which are the
basis of the State, and restore civil liberties.
I'm not even
interested in the revelation that Obama was a lame leftist poseur
in college, or had obnoxious taste in fashionable leftist ideology.
(He wants the reader to know: he was an authentic poseur.
It doesn't come off that way.) Although, I do think it's funny that
he thinks his oh-so-generic alienated and rebellious experience
was anything special to talk about, anything significant to establish
the identity of a person who should interest others.
interest me about that quote is something a little more subtle,
which nonetheless jumped out at me: the fact that even back then,
Obama was so conscious of his image that even picking friends
became an exercise in political appearances. He certainly wasn't
going to deliberately confess anything damaging in his own book,
but he didn't hide his politicized reasoning for associating with
other people. That's significant. Evidently, he thinks it's normal
enough, maybe even laudable. The thing is, a genuine person makes
friends for many reasons, and political beliefs is certainly one,
but I think we can agree: cultivating politically-correct appearances
is not one of the appropriate reasons for picking friends. It's
also a very strange and troubling preoccupation for anyone of college
Now, we should
be clear about this. I see nothing the matter with making friends
with interesting, or amusing, or friendly, or intelligent, or offbeat
people who happen to believe in Marxism (or happen to be black,
Chicano, or foreign). If you think back at the friends you had in
college, or the people you associated with, it will probably happen
to be a motley list. And I can certainly appreciate something about
many people who still are Marxists, or once were Marxists.
But happening-to-be anything is not the case here. Instead, Obama
deliberately chose to associate with certain stereotypes of people,
choosing them not even because of their shared political beliefs,
but for their assistance to his social image and nascent political
capital at the time.
Some may not
think it quite fair to credit his younger behavior to a yearning
for social aggrandizement which would later solidify into political
campaigns. For, as previously observed, Obama was a poseur, and
they are all about appearances. So is it possible Obama was just
acting fake, the way a poseur acts, and he has since grown out of
the need to be popular with the sorts of people he wants to impress?
In that case, maybe the cause wasn't monomaniacal politics, but
the insecurity of youth, despite Obama's insistence that he wasn't
"insecure." No doubt, the reason partly was a need
to be accepted and cool. The way I read it, Obama does appear to
be using this recollection partly for the self-effacing appeal
of confiding immature habits from his angry youth — the kind of
oh-how-young-we-were confession that is simultaneously intended
to foreshadow mature greatness, in political biographies. But we
could only chalk his motivations up to mere youthful self-preoccupation,
rather than budding, single-minded image-management, if he had ever
stopped living his whole life for the goal of keeping up appearances.
He didn't grow out of that, though, the way he grew out of the rebellion.
Instead, his portrayal of himself to match whatever incarnation
context should demand has only continued, and become the basis of
a chameleonic national political career.
Back in Obama's
old days, the circumstantial sociopolitical test for Obama was appearing
"left" enough, and emphasizing minority identity politics.
For example, at one point, it was acceptable and advantageous for
Obama to associate with black-power activists. More recently, he
has been emphasizing his multicultural, multi-racial credentials
in a "we're-all-one-big-world" kind of way, which in my
view, is not so much authentically open-minded and cosmopolitan
as it is intended to appeal to highly-popular racial tolerance,
rather than threatening whites with a "black identity."
He has dropped former associations like red-hot pokers.
And back in
the primaries, Obama had to appear anti-war and anti-authoritarian
in order to distinguish himself from Clinton (and Bush). More recently,
a number of the appearance-management tests have involved looking
like someone a mainstream Republican might vote for, and thus he's
been perfectly willing to remake himself as another national security
mouthpiece, supporting the endless Terror War and anti-civil-liberties
surveillance, so that he could obtain the right credentials again.
Betrayed Obama supporters could only express shock at this blatant
sellout of their anti-war principles, but their usefulness to the
Party had already ended.
There was also
that are-you-Establishment test of whether he would kowtow to the
plutocratic "bailout" rip-off and power grab. Of course
he did, just like he bowed and scraped for AIPAC and assured them
he would do "anything" to prevent Iran from — well, so
far, adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty more closely
than the US. (A no-nuking-civilians guarantee from a presidential
candidate would only diminish us in the eyes of the terrorists,
don't you know! And Obama's chances with "national security
moms" who vote their fears.) "Respectable" and "serious"
national candidates must do nothing less. Picking the sleazy and
corrupt Biden, a man who claimed the Patriot Act was his idea first,
for a running mate only reinforced Obama's Establishment-pandering
A man with
a sound character and healthy personal life doesn't pick friends
to pass the politically-correct tests of the time, whatever those
tests may be. Neither does a man who really believes in things pick
up and drop political positions or pick a running mate for the same
reason. That is the sort of thing only the slippery-eel subpopulation
of PR-obsessed, career-motivated narcissists does — the natural
politicians, if you will. This pattern hasn't stopped. Obama's
evident character continues to be based on dressing the part and
(temporarily) playing it, whatever that part might be. In any
situation, Obama is not only willing to dress the part; rather,
dressing the part is absolutely central to his thinking.
Such image-consciousness is probably the reason for his long-winded
obsession with his own identity. It is even the reason why he
made friends in college! Now that is a scary indication
of the content of his character.
actually "believes" is probably an irrelevant debate.
There probably isn't any such thing in a dependable sense of the
word, except that he believes in his own political success and self-assurance,
including a perfect right to say one thing and do another, and faith
in the State to do Good as long as he's in charge.
Which is to
say: Obama is an astute and very typical politician. His
own political skills are not in much doubt. He has certainly proven
himself a better politician than John McCain, for managing
his image more successfully. The question is whether continued emphasis
on politics, and craftier political posturing, will help or hurt,
and whether political skills are of any use when the problem has
long been politics. Aggrandizing a "new blood"
Party politician like Obama simply reestablishes the same plague
of power with a new face.
This is not
to say there won't inevitably be differences between an Obama administration
and a McCain administration, or any other. Certainly, politicians
from the major parties do have differences in the demographics to
which they must pander, and the factions they intend to reward.
The problem is that, beyond a few predictable issues like abortion,
there is truly no way to predict what the differences would actually
be in practice, based on a managed image like Obama's — except that
realistically, politics will almost certainly go on as usual and
"change" will not occur. All the powerful special interest
groups will continue to work with an Obama administration, from
neocon warmongers to financial extortionists to the military megacomplex
to the petty dictators of bureaucracies.
In fact, from
the anti-State perspective, a case can easily be made that Obamania
indicates Obama will make an unusually dangerous president. It's
dangerous for a Party-machine-nominated, appearances-obsessed politician
who sits atop a State to be feted like royalty, revered like a saint,
or followed like a messiah.
At least there
have been no HOPE posters with McCain's face plastered around my
neighborhood. At least hardly anyone could fully trust a man like
McCain, and few have really believed him to be interested in or
capable of "change." (The MSM's dutiful parroting of that
"reformer" tag of his notwithstanding.) At least just
about everyone realized rich white McCain is actually part of the
Establishment. For that reason, a man like McCain receives far more
scrutiny and skepticism than a man like Obama, who successfully
portrays himself as both a reformer, an outsider, and a savior.
scrutiny and skepticism of the State and all its offices, not more
blind faith. I certainly don't want any figurehead to "restore
trust" in the State or its imperial presidency. I want the
State to crumble for lack of trust and lack of support, so that
the people who formerly held it up on their backs can be free to
live without its interference, impositions, and influence over their
be good for the State. He will manage its image the way he always
has his own.
Patrick Barth [send him mail]
is a writer in Philadelphia.