Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Cult of the Average

A few minutes ago the Democrats officially nominated Barack Obama as their candidate for president. You might have heard about it. It made all the papers.

If you believe the pundits, the Democratic Party has made a massive mistake: they have nominated a man who is not average.

Oh, the horror. The horror.

A couple pieces inspired this entry. The first comes from New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor (who evidently made it a point to write out "Barack Hussein Obama"); the second from Slate's John Dickerson, who has quite conspicuously valued balance this election cycle.

Dickerson tears into Obama for the crime of erecting some Greek columns on the Invesco Field stage where he'll be speaking tomorrow. (To be sure, Salon's War Room had a similar take) Never mind, as Dickerson at least notes, that George Bush had a similar set-up in 2004 and received no criticism for it. Never mind, as some of Salon's readers pointed out, that much of America's governmental architecture is designed in a Greco-Roman manner. If Greek columns indicate delusions of divinity, then the whole of Washington D.C., not to mention the Baker County courthouse in Macclenny, Florida, should be targets of John Dickerson's next column.

Kantor's story, by contrast, is not an opinion piece, but purports to investigate why Obama has had so many issues connecting with people. My two "favorite" passages:

But with Barack Hussein Obama officially becoming the Democratic presidential nominee on Wednesday night, some of the same qualities that have brought him just one election away from the White House — his virtuosity, his seriousness, his ability to inspire, his seeming immunity from the strains that afflict others — may be among his biggest obstacles to getting there....

Last month, while visiting Jerusalem, Mr. Obama crammed a note in the Western Wall that was promptly fished out and posted on the Internet. The message was elegantly phrased, as if he had anticipated that his private words to the Almighty would soon be on public display.

The overriding message here? Barack Obama is too good for his own good. There's no evidence that he intended that Western Wall prayer to be read by the public, but damnit, it was remarkably well-written. What shallow artifice! He can inspire people! He has "seriousness!" God, please save us from this above-average writer, inspirational figure and serious individual.

I mock Kantor and Dickerson, but I suspect no one will be as upset with their pieces as I am. After all, it has long been established wisdom that our candidates must fundamentally reflect us. They must be like us. They cannot be too far above us, because that frightens us.

Well, guess what? Barack Obama is above you. Hillary Clinton is above you. John McCain is above you. We need to recognize that. We need to embrace that.

John McCain has argued, and the media has embraced the claim, that Obama's unique ability to inspire crowds, to remind them of their hopes and aspirations, is a piece of sorcery to be shunned and scorned. The media has argued that Obama's wide-ranging intellect, his professorial ability to find the depths of a question and explore them, are hindrances to an effective campaign.

We must denigrate enthusiasm. We must mock idealism. We must spit on oratory and inspiration and passion. For countless generations we have told the youth of the nation that they must assemble and participate. They must take part in the political process, because if they don't, democracy crumbles. We have told them to be passionate and enthusiastic. And when they finally discover a candidate about whom they can be passionate and enthusiastic, people like Dickerson and David Brooks and countless others insult them. Brooks and Dickerson and countless others insult that candidate for his willingness to speak to them and his ability to inspire them. The youth of America, it seems, was meant to be seen and not heard in the political process.

And John McCain? McCain's message to those who are my age is simple: participate in the process, attend a rally, cheer your candidate, express enthusiasm, and I'll put you in an attack ad that labels you a member of a messianic cult.

Why do we want our presidents to aspire to average? Do we understand the kind of decisions a president has to make? We're talking about a man who decides to send troops into harm's way. We're talking about a man whose decisions affect the wellbeing of millions of Americans. We want an average man making those decisions? Why? When did we come to that conclusion?

I think that moment came before I was born, and frankly, I'm rather pissed that decision was made without my input.

We've seen what happens over the past eight years when our president is a man of average intelligence and below-average intellectual curiosity. So why then do people like Dickerson and Kantor, two writers who presumably did not earn their positions at and The New York Times by being idiots and sub-par writers, continue to help perpetuate this idea of the middle brow, unexceptional president?

As much as I want to blame the media, this is on us. We ask silly, insipid questions like, "Which president would you rather have a beer with?" Yeah, I ended that sentence with a preposition. That's what Real Americans(TM) do. Screw you Barack Obama and your firm grasp of the English language!

If this entry makes me sound enraged, it's only because I'm enraged. This denigration of excellence has poisoned our political system to the extent that any deviation from average is considered evidence of electoral weakness. We have, after more than 230 years of independence, finally succeeded in creating a political atmosphere that punishes a candidate for demonstrating skill and talent.

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