Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In the Armchair Again

I thought Barack Obama's reaction to the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy was classy:

I have heard some of the news on this and so let me be as clear as possible. I have said before and I will repeat again, I think people's families are off limits, and people's children are especially off limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics, it has no relevance to governor Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. And so I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18. And how family deals with issues and teenage children that shouldn't be the topic of our politics and I hope that anybody who is supporting me understands that is off limits.
Especially by including his own mother, it felt sincere, coming from somewhere deep within Obama: don't you dare attack a teenage mother! It is almost a defense: Look at me, my mother, the loving care of my grandparents, and how our family turned out.

The craziness of this story is that it combines Americans' two great democratic loves with respect to the news: getting into our politicians' shit, and judging the parenting and romantic choices of people we don't know. Call it People magazine politics.

The intimations and rumors of a possible sinister conspiracy invokes the third, rooted in the American system of trial by jury and brought into full bloom by detective fiction and Court TV: our collective capacity to invent and imagine scenarios to fit the facts or the absence of facts.

Normally, the problem with American consumption of mainstream political media is its uncritical, uninterpretive assumption of what one is being told -- with its color negative being the paranoid refusal on the political extremes to believe anything said by a media or political authority. The third mode is the hyperinterpretive imagination, the belief by ill-informed pundits and amateur TV-watchers that one can, with a limited amount of information, reconstruct what really happened, from matters of fact to individual motives. In this way any Nancy Grace or Grace Nancy can decide that a parent with a missing child in fact murdered that child and hid the body, that Saddam Hussein secretly orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center (in collusion with the CIA, the Illuminati, and the state of Israel), or that a governor's brother-in-law is secretly the father of her/her daughter's baby.

The assumption is always that all the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle fit, that there is no interpretive remainder, and that lying beneath the surface is not sloppiness or accident but a masterful and sinister lie hiding in plain sight, which only the amateur can uncover. Call it the Purloined Letter theory of the news; or if you don't cotton to references literary, the Jon Benet Ramsey theory.

It's not just a mistake; it's a collective delusion, one not limited to self-righteous TV talking heads or bored midwestern housewives, but a kind of language-game that almost all of us participate in, one that is democratic but perhaps also primal -- an attempt to interpret the motivations of a rival, whether internal or external, our childhood attempts to make sense of our complex family dramas, the animal ability to anticipate the next move of predator or prey.

It's a delusion with a germ of truth, not about its object but ourselves, and it takes immense discipline to dissolve. Obama's naming his mother is a razor slashing a silk balloon. There is too much else to talk about, too much hanging in the balance. An arrow shooting into the future.

1 comment:

Robin said...

Nice writing on this post. It blossomed from standard blog-fare (setup, blockquote, commentary) into something quite lyrical -- quite epic -- in a really natural way.