The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 25th, 2009

Our best hope is that Barack Obama can resist the rabble-rousers

Life is blighted by the tyranny of the urgent over the important, as someone said. That is why, at the time of Barack Obama’s global triumph in Washington, I wasn’t watching the proceedings live on television but dealing with some urgent minor errands. It was very annoying, particularly when someone asked me why I wasn’t sitting enraptured in front of a television somewhere. Without thinking I replied that it wasn’t really important anyway: I was sick and tired of all the hoopla. Then I realised I wasn’t just being irritable: I really meant it. I don’t mean that I am sick and tired of Obama. On the day when he was elected as the future president – more than 11 weeks ago now – I felt just as much joy as many millions of other people. The happiness of that moment hasn’t faded, nor has the reminder that politics can occasionally throw up someone who appears to be truly inspiring. What has changed is that the public good feeling has, one way and another, been whipped up, day after day, into an excess of feeling. Excessive emotion, particularly the inflated emotion of the crowd, is something that should always be distrusted, especially in politics; there are plenty of sombre historical reasons for such misgivings. By the time Obama’s inauguration day had finally arrived, these feelings had in many places reached a pitch that was almost hysterical. Quite apart from the razzmatazz all over the United States, people in this country had been behaving for days as if we were about to witness the second coming. The hysteria was particularly marked among journalists and commentators, who were gripped by Obama mania. Those who couldn’t actually persuade their bosses to send them to Washington wrote think pieces in the tones of humble acolytes in a sect. Those who did get to America seemed to think the British public really needed to be exposed to hour upon hour of excited, repeated, boring, trivial detail; it was almost pathological. And squillions watched. At the same time as losing their hearts to Obama, masses of people seemed to be losing their heads. The media have played an enormous part in this; it is dangerous. It is true that some people have publicly and privately pointed out that Obama, however remarkable, cannot walk on water and it is a mistake to encourage any expectation that he can. But that hasn’t stopped the hyperinflation of mass expectation and mass feeling, both over there and over here. There seems to be in the darker recesses of the human pysche a constant yearning for hero worship. No ordinary mortal, however exceptional, can meet the requirements that mass adulation makes of a hero, and when he hesitates or fails, the risk is that the masses will turn to equally irrational extremes of anger and disappointment. Such worship is likely to turn a person’s head, too, and tempt him to imagine that perhaps he might walk on water and should be treated accordingly. If anyone can resist – and perhaps restrain – such mass adulation, it is probably Obama. No blame attaches to him, I believe. His inauguration speech struck me as a heroic model of self-restraint. Although Obama can speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and has given speeches of heart-stopping, almost classical rhetoric on the campaign trail, he chose not to use his power. At such a tempting moment for a great orator, he chose not to stir up the passionate feelings that it needed only a touch of his honeyed voice to arouse. Instead he spoke gravely of the power that lies in humility and restraint. In the context it was positively un-American and it was wholly admirable. It was exactly the corrective tone of voice that was needed, which a lesser man might not have been selfless enough to use. Imagine, to suggest a ridiculous comparison, what a man like Tony Blair would have made of such a moment. He would have taken off into the ether on the wings of mindless poesy. I’ve always thought that what went wrong with Blair was his seduction by American presidential glamour, by the machismo of the motorcade, the great power of all that mass attention. I think that as soon as he got to Bill Clinton’s Washington, the unsophisticated boy from Islington was corrupted by the thrill of outriders, snipers and surround-sound imperial razzle-dazzle on a world stage; it turned his head, with results that we now know. There is a great tradition in British thought, to which Obama is heir, just as he is heir to the disciplined classical rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, of not saying more than you mean. One of the most famous expressions of this restraint was given by Shakespeare to Cordelia in King Lear. When her vainglorious father demands to know how much she loves him, she will say no more than is strictly true: she will not exaggerate to advance her own interests. “According to my bond, no more no less,” she says. Her sisters make overblown protestations, but betray him. Cordelia remains quietly loyal. This is the honourable tradition to which Obama seems to belong. The opposite tradition, which informs so much of the media and politics, is excess – an excess of exclaiming, promising, demanding, mythologising, misunderstanding, mindless gabby ignorance and general emotional incontinence. Look on the blogosphere – Obama has been subjected to all this in unprecedented volume. The new president faces problems at home and abroad that may well be insoluble. He is very inexperienced and most of us know little about him. Historically speaking, few individuals make a difference for the better, yet individuals in power can and do constantly make terrible mistakes for the worse. Whatever Obama’s virtues, the truth is that no president could possibly be sure what to do about the global financial crisis. Even the wisdom of Solomon could not decide what Washington could or should do about Gaza, or Afghanistan, or Iran’s nuclear capabilities, or North Korea’s, or world poverty, or domestic debt, or drugs, or the American poor. And even if anyone knew what should be done, it might still be impossible to do very much. The almost religious expectations laid upon Obama will necessarily be disappointed. That is why the hysterical hoopla that has built them up is indeed important, because it is dangerous. We’ve had the circuses, the masses will soon say. Now we want the bread. And what will happen to the emperor who cannot provide it?