She had seen May Day parades when people were still enthusiastic or did their best to feign enthusiasm...As a group approached the reviewing stand, even the most blasé faces would beam with dazzling smiles, as if trying to prove they were properly joyful, or, more precisely, in proper agreement.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
You know he talk so hip he’s twistin’ my melon man…
Don't you know he can make you forget you're the man?
--Happy Mondays, Step On
The appeal of Barack Obama is best understood as kitsch.
The Obama campaign, as any, is more a work of art than of argument. It is (present tense, for it continues) a narrative blend of hagiography, historical fiction, mythology and propaganda. Like any work of art it may blend various genres and themes, but it is ultimately of one specific type. All political movements rely more or less on kitsch, but the Obama campaign, stripped to its essence, is kitsch.
This phenomenon-as-political movement is a masterwork of improvisational, interactive environmental theatre, with the electorate as its participatory audience. But a political campaign is no mere work of fancy or fabrication. When power is the end for which the narrative is the means, one cannot refuse his role in the play, even in opposition. We are all players now in Barry's melodrama.
What do I mean herein by “kitsch”? Not the common usage that has rendered the word little more than a synonym for "inferior." Nor any of the only slightly narrower meanings of unsophisticated, anachronistic, culturally irrelevant or crude. I do not mean merely that it is sentimental; though sentiment is its active ingredient. I refer specifically to that self-conscious and obliquely self-referential aspect of kitsch; of kitsch as the celebration of a given sentiment as its own end and justification, as an ennobling thing it its own right. The quote above captures it better than I can. In that part of Kundera's book devoted to the subject he notes how ubiquitous and permanent kitsch is, how inseparable it is from the whole of culture and human existence. The author was not only outlining kitsch's role in the totalitarian movement that looms grey and dour over his story, but also conceding the kitsch element in that story.
Content does not make kitsch; kitsch is in the nature of our relationship to content. Kitsch is the self-indulgent celebration of one’s capacity to feel and emote, through the deliberate suppression of doubt, nuance and skepticism. Kitsch is not the artist saying "behold this truth", but the audience prompted to declare, “behold our love of truth." Kitsch is the saccharine film soundtrack that drops in before anything has actually occurred, cuing us to emotion. For the acolytes of the Obama campaign the kitsch element can be summed up as, "behold the depth of our feeling."
This is kitsch's appeal, directly to our vanity. Even as we seem to be drowning in the language of its opposite and mortal enemy, irony, kitsch is everywhere. Even our gangsta rappers indulge in kitsch; they are among the worst offenders. The unfortunate rap theme written for Barack Obama was a prime example of kitsch, by a familiar practitioner thereof.
Kitsch's prevalence and permanence are so great that unravelling it from the totality of our experience is daunting, and most will (perhaps with more wisdom than this author) come to sigh that it is "everywhere" before moving on to more productive pursuits. This is unfortunate, because that very same prevalence is precisely why an understanding of kitsch is so important. There is no sensible "anti" kitsch position, as if we will eradicate the ineradicable. It would be unfortunate if one political faction or other were to successfully fashion it into an adjectival anchor to weigh down their adversaries, creating a new term of calumny to go with "fascist", "communist", "racist", et cetera ad nauseum. But we're well served in better understanding it, so as to better understand ourselves and that vast area of effective human behavior that is neither wholly rational nor studiously moral, but desperately and sometimes dangerously emotional.
What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Because kitsch is the willed absence of doubt, it acts as a neatly closed emotional system, impervious to skepticism and hostile to introspection--herein lies its political genius. Through propaganda, kitsch arouses revolutionary ardor and imposes totalitarian control. Kitsch fires up the rabble and cows the mass.
Those few of us left capable of viewing the Obama phenomenon with detachment will recognize its seductive offer of an easy, celebratory catharsis, its encouragement and indulgence of the individual's sense of moral superiority. The effectiveness of this appeal is manifest in the adoring crowds, in the deliberately incurious and uncritical appreciation of the candidate and now president-elect that continues. In the candidate's unspoken collusion with the media to equate his personal ambition with the civil rights movement itself and to subsequently equate any rejection of the candidate's race-based appeal with a rejection of his race, holding criticism of the campaign guilty of bigotry until deemed innocent.
In the wake of electoral victory, the rhetorical purges would begin within hours. One such story in the New York Times portrayed Southern white support for John McCain not as merely as evidence of the declining influence of these voters--but assigned a reverse cause-and-effect, ascribing their declining influence (as a sort of punishment) to their resistance to Barack Obama.
They were presented with candidate brandishing his race as a value--a moral superiority--in and of itself. They rejected the race-based candidate, voting more than usual for the nationalist Republican over the liberal Democrat. The charge then follows that they've rejected Obama entirely because he's black (not because he runs, almost entirely, as black; needless to say, any automatic support accruing to Obama for his race is, curiously, anti-racist); of course, this is then fed back into the system, as proof of the desperate need of the candidate, to rout once and for all this "racism".
In the case of Obama, kitsch appeal operates at a heightened advantage, cuing a long-conditioned response in whites inclined toward critical self-examination and conspicuous expressions of tolerance. This practice has always come with an expectation of change, of eventual improvement in relations among the races generally, between blacks and whites specifically. This subconscious expectation of a final conclusion is borne of our familiarity with the cinematic arc of film.
But after decades of unprecedented state action and an opening up of the culture none would have imagined possible, the foreseen idyll of perfect racial equality and its ensuing harmony (the kitsch promise), has faded into the harsh reality of a stubborn inequality. Inequality increasingly reveals itself as the predictable result of a society unprecedented in both its fairness and ethnic diversity.
But this cannot be said. Even as blacks gain cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers but not talents, they continue to lag in the professions and business pursuits. Meanwhile, other minority groups advance disproportionately as well up through the ranks of society. The rate of change, the opening up of opportunity in a society that not long was as segregated as the rest of the world remains to this day is nothing short of revolutionary. There is no historical precedent for America; yet, the more liberal, the more meritocratic our society, the deeper the resentment of inequality--and, contrary to our hoary egalitarian assumptions, we can expect increasing material inequality as the result of increasing equal opportunity. We have the unfortunate task of reconciling a diverse and restive population to this humiliating reality. Strategies are subconsciously developed.
The historical reality and present romance of black suffering in America assigns a moral premium to blackness; not unrelated, the general appetite for and fascination with black culture assigns it a cultural premium. Routinely, a thing is dismissed as inferior or, yes, derided as kitsch, if it is deemed too "white." All of this serves to heighten, in the projecting mind of the audience, the candidate's natural gifts, and assign others not in evidence, such as wisdom.
Whether he understands it or not, it was in pursuit of these structural advantages that Barack Obama abandoned his origins and embarked on his anthropological excursion into the heart of African America.
Instinctively the ambitious sense the path of power. The dirty little open secret of Obama's personal narrative is the "multicultural" candidate's lack of curiosity in things beyond the narrow and provincial Ghetto Gatsby identity he's crafted for himself. Quite contrary to the attempts of some to portray the man as foreign and Muslim because of his time in Indonesia, what's truly striking about that is his apparent--or deliberate--indifference to the experience.
It was there that he and his feminist mother were exposed to a stark counter-example to the West; it was there, not in the United States, that he was bullied for being different. It was from there that he was sent home to take advantage of the vastly superior opportunities and advantages of home and, eventually, to entrance earnest white liberals relating the emotional torment induced in him by the outrages inflicted on a Black Man in America: someone asked to touch his hair, his grandmother feared an intimidating black beggar (who "could have been my brother" he narrates, impervious to the irony that this man for whom he imagines a comfortably remote brotherhood is assaulting an actual relative, for whom the young Barack apparently felt not a moment's protectiveness). For Barack Obama, Indonesia and Hawaii look great on a resume, but their experience and contrasts aren't of much practical use.
In light of this, his attitude toward conservative whites, his charges of narrow bigotry and provincialism, would be found laughably oblivious if not outrageous placed in their proper context, but one gets the impression he doesn't truly understand the nature of his metamorphosis, of his ambition and rise. The language, for him as well as his acolytes, is too seductive; its effect too successful; its rewards, he has brilliantly demonstrated, only as limited as the ambition and energy that harness it.
Examining the phenomenon one is struck--and perhaps reassured--at how unexceptional, outside of ambition, is that which we know of Barack Obama. Having deliberately veiled himself in a cliche, welcoming the projection onto him of the neuroses and hopes of a restive nation, he is like the void in the eye of the storm.
In this environment the convention that structural disadvantages and white attitudes account for the lack of black success in business and the professions, for disproportionate rates of incarceration and poverty, for the whole host of ills for which each white individually is daily hectored to feel responsibility, as a feature of collective guilt, is not merely unsupportable, it's absurd.
The more evident this becomes the more fiercely defended the taboo against questioning collective guilt as a model for race relations. The absence of comprehensive societal equality requires ever more fanciful explanations; ever greater expressions of commitment to equality of results are required of public servants; ever greater denunciations of a nation that has taken historically unprecedented actions to achieve it. This is the pathological behavior of a neurotic society. The nation yearns for a climax, a final act of absolution. It stubbornly recedes the more we strive for it. Thus Barack.
To maintain the taboo, any resentment of this must be equated with bigotry; skeptics are ostracized and deprived of status. Propagandists distinguish themselves fashioning rationales and assigning blame for a distressing reality. In America the civil rights movement has made the familiar trek from revolution to totalitarianism. Kitsch has sustained it on that journey.
Of course in this cultural milieu, adopting the collective guilt model so regularly and inelegantly expressed in such arenas as Barack Obama's former long-time church, "whiteness" as an ineradicable sin in itself is a necessity. The candidate himself stated as much clearly when describing slavery as "America's original sin", as if the institution originated and continues here, rather than in Africa. He also means, more to the point, "cardinal sin". There is no final absolution for white America, just perpetual contrition. The fact that this immodest and wildly presumptuous phrase isn't controversial in the least, acquiesced to by silent consensus, is cultural sanction itself. The Caucasian holds second class moral status. Whiteness is the "human stain" of a stigmatized identity. This is too valuable a bludgeon for those who wield it (ironically they are mostly white elites, mobilizing minority resentment to bring their white opponents to heel) to be surrendered without a fight.
Ritual condescension of offended identity groups is a requirement of polite society and public stature. To escape a censure that grows harsher the more hollow the condescension becomes, whites individually and as a group place a premium on the achievements of prominent blacks, who must be found and promoted to assuage and take advantage of this. This is the environment Barack Obama burst upon with his 2004 speech to the Democratic national convention.
Barack Obama effortlessly assumes the mantle of grievance for the greatest sins of the nation--slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement. But, contrary to the habitual assumption, his unique personal history gives him not a greater understanding of this history, having neither the typical black American nor typical white American experience, but a lesser understanding. Barack Obama stood outside of this epic dynamic, looking on with envy. His choice of a fabricated identity on one side of it should disabuse us of the assumed inherent misery and unfairness imposed upon black America--no one is so fortunate to be born an American than an African American. There is no cachet in being white.
For Barack, American race relations is a cherished romance that became one with his considerable ambition. This romance will not be sacrificed now. Observers silently take solace in the assumed falsity of his black struggle. About the time of the election a prominent political reporter could be found on a television interview program, with perhaps unintentional frankness, trumpeting Obama as an African American without the African American experience and, more to the point, anger; touting, to put it crudely, his inauthentic blackness.
For a candidate to arrive on the scene as a sort of prefabricated historical figure, for his ascension to be defined as an act of justice and absolution; in light of the grand myth of the civil rights movement in America and the sheer power of this narrative--the wonder of Barack Obama is not that he is here, but that it has taken this long for him to arrive.
The news reports following the candidate's triumph proclaimed the fall of a "barrier." But the barrier had faded long ago--in fact it was over ten years ago the nation was so transfixed by an African American public figure, Colin Powell, for the very same reasons it's now enamored of Barack Obama, that at one point it seemed he could have chosen between the presidential candidacy of either political party--this before his political affiliation was confirmed. In fact, the automatic goodwill bestowed on that man has still not dissipated, despite the fact his personal career of mediocrity in powerful positions has only been interrupted by his implication in the misinformation campaign preceding the Iraq war.
Barack Obama did not "smash a barrier", as the headlines trumpeted. Barack Obama was carried along by a powerful force to where he is. Barack Obama was inevitable.
We're probably fortunate it is this man, and not some other--probably because he seems decent enough, and relatively free of corruption for an ambitious politician; this of course we've taken on faith, as part of the deal. He may even prove capable.
It is not entirely an earnest if misguided aspiration to justice from which arises this absurdity; it is also a form of chauvinism. It comes from the cloistered sense that history begins with and is confined to America. This truncated historical context is accompanied by a shrinking of the present's context, ignoring the example of every other nation in the world that must grapple with the challenges of diverse populations and tattered histories. The libel compares the nation to an idyll that has never existed, not to the world that is and has been; it's a further outrage that the imagined idyll is born of a distinctly Western and Judeo-Christian concept of equality before God, regardless of race. The charge that "America is a racist country" is meaningless placed outside of its proper context: as compared with what other country? Likewise the hoary fashion and shallow conceit condemning Western culture as a whole. In America we alternate between ignorance and disdain not only for the past but for the world beyond our borders--even, or especially, those who routinely condemn America for its racism.
Contrary to the mass conceit of the Obama campaign, it is more this chauvinism and not a post-racial, global consciousness upon which Barack Obama depends. Escaping us is the irony of this moral bludgeon being wielded by a man far more likely to be descended from Kenyan (as well as European) slave traders than black American slaves. Again, there is no environmental history of blackness for Barack to call upon, only the birthright bestowed by his transitory father; only, in the end, the color of his skin and the features of his face. Barack Obama is a white liberal living out the exquisite dream of actually being black. More relevantly, he is an ambitious politician taking advantage of it.
To be successful a campaign must identify itself with and within a single, all-encompassing myth. The McCain campaign attempted to make itself one with the myth of national greatness, through the personal narrative of heroism of its candidate. The Obama campaign, more successfully, made itself one with the myth of civil rights. Ultimately the point is to present the candidate as the living human embodiment of Providence. In a post-religious age, politics and celebrity fill the evangelistic void. Personality captures power and familiar interests and factions advance behind this wedge.
By myth I do not mean illusion. Fundamental truths are revealed to us through the myths we hold dear. The fundamental truths our candidates sought to co-opt this year were the necessity of love of country in one instance, the justice of equality before the law in the other. But through the vulgarizing exploitation of the ambitious, a nation's founding mythology becomes flattery and demagogy, mere caricature. The fundamental parent truths underlying our mythology are difficult, humbling and, perhaps most relevant to this, limiting. Through political expedience our founding myths are becoming overladen with contradiction, no longer recognizable to us.
The disappointments in store will reveal to us that a nation is not sustained by wealth, or power, or even democratic process, but the binding power of a fundamental truth that, unlike the flattery of kitsch, demands something of us and guarantees nothing. What we may be witnessing now is our degenerate end as a people that brandishes as a weapon a mythology it no longer believes.