Dressing the Part


Throughout 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:

"To 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."

I'm actually 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.

What does 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 age.

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 credentials.

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.

What Obama 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. 

We need 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 lives.

Obama will be good for the State. He will manage its image the way he always has his own.

October 31, 2008