Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Post-modern Presidential election? Or what Barack Obama and Ron Paul have in common

The foundational idea behind post-modernism is that there really are no objective facts, but a complex web of competing narratives, each of which has equal intellectual legitimacy. Huh?

Think of it like this. Suppose you are studying the works of William Shakespeare, and you have the following six sources:

A memoir by an actor contemporary to Shakespeare;

A website on Romeo and Juliet put together by a sixth-grade class in central Indiana;

A scholarly linguistic analysis of word-use in Shakespeare's sonnets;

A letter from an evangelical Christian complaining that plays should not be performed in public;

A science fiction story with a character named William Shakespeare Jones'

A You-Tube video recorded in the basement of a thirty-year-old introvert explaining why he is really the subject of Hamlet.

Post-modernism would hold that all six sources are equally important narratives about Shakespeare and deserve equal consideration in any serious analysis, because the study of Shakespeare is NOT about what he actually wrote, but about the meanings everybody imposes on his writings.

Screwy as that sounds (like the denial of the possibility of objective truth) there is some merit in this approach.

Think of it this way: Christianity is essentially a post-modernist exercise, in which the meanings people impose on the Bible are often actually more important to them than what the book actually says.

So what's this got to do with Ron Paul or Barack Obama?

Early in the campaign process a large number of politically disaffected, potentially Libertarian-leaning voters saw in Ron Paul the personalization of their own fears about the government, and created a narrative of principled opposition and statesmanship for their putative candidate that ... ultimately ... proved unequal to them. Notice what happened when people who had invested in the Ron Paul narrative found themselves faced with the actual Ron Paul's checkered past and flirtation with overtly racist thought: they denied it, and immediately attacked anyone who subscribed to what a post-modernist would call a competing narrative.

In other words, the narrative they invested in the candidate became more important to them than any countervailing facts about the candidate. Postmodernism allowed them to discount those pesky facts as a competing narrative that enjoyed no credibility.

Much the same process is happening with Barack Obama. A narrative of consequence has been created for the junior Senator from Illinois, a narrative consciously designed to evoke--all at once--the consequential leaders of our immediate past: JFK, Reagan, MILK. You can find people countering arguments about Obama's lack of experience by invoking JFK's similar lack (ignoring the fact that Kennedy had been a Senator for longer and also enjoyed prestige as a genuine war hero). You find Obama himself invoking Reagan's effectiveness as a change agent.

Now you even find people quietly wondering whether or not Obama will be safe, that someone might try to take him away from us by assassinating him.

This narrative functions to insulate Obama from legitimate criticism of his (nearly non-existent) record or of his (wildly impractical in any measured fiscal sense) plans for expanding Federal benefits for everyone--magically paid for by the rich.

Defenders of the Obama narrative are so heavily invested that they also buy into the old right-wing bitch narrative about Hillary Clinton to discredit her. Yes, there is a lot of true, Lord of the Flies gruesome politics behind the now-floundering Clinton machine, but it is positively Orwellian to watch one wing of the Democratic Party thoroughly demonize one of their own. Moreover, it is being done with absolutely no concern about the manner in which the bitchification of Senator Clinton will cripple the next woman to seek the Presidency.

Obama's supporters would do well to learn a lesson from the much smaller scale Ron Paul implosion: when the wheels start to come off the narrative--as they will sometime late this summer--there will be a strong temptation to engage in denial and to attack the people who will be citing the inconvenient facts about Barack as engaging in right-wing smears.

The reality is that nobody--no real human being, no real politician--could deliver on the messianic narrative being crafted for and by the Obama campaign.

The Obama we are currently watching is more a creation of our own projected imaginations than anything else.


Shirley Vandever said...

I think that people want an objective truth, and when something conflicts with the truth they have become comfortable with, they become defensive. An objective truth is so nice and definitive and neat and clean; if the situation is made uncomfortable, that means someone has disrupted one’s neat and clean little world, and the natural response is to lash out.

I wouldn’t count myself among those who attacked anyone with a competing narrative on Ron Paul, however I’m not sure that the parallel here can be considered a direct one.

I equate the …checkered past and flirtation with overtly racist thought more along the lines with the recent infamous Obama-With-Turban and McCain-Screws-Lobbyist stories, and with about the same amount of importance. Not to say that there wasn’t some fact that was not true, only that it was spun into a nasty web of innuendo and in such a malicious way (as well as from suspect sources) that it of course gave me pause, but eventually was not a factor in my decision to support him.

While you may disagree with me on that, I nevertheless get your point. In the case of Obama, however, I think it is more a case of omission rather than commission. In the Paul instance, some more exuberant supporters may have indeed had a knee-jerk reaction to what was being reported. In the case of Obama, nothing is being reported. There is nothing there, therefore there is nothing to react to.

It is easier to avoid nothing than to confront something.

Great post. Dang, you always make me think.

Tyler Nixon said...

Lest I risk falling into your trap of accusation of "they den[y] it, and immediately attack...anyone who subscribe[s] to what a post-modernist would call a competing narrative", I am going to defend Ron Paul here.

Frankly Steve I am surprised to hear you affirm the nonsense about Ron Paul being a racist, while ignoring his singular and specific contributions to the debate re: monetary policy, foreign policy, limited government, constitutionalism, taxation, regulation, and personal liberties. Other than Kucinich or Gravel, no one else went there especially not on the GOP side and certainly no one left standing bothers to raise these critical issues.

Your cursory dismissal of Paul smacks of your own bugaboo of stating a simplistic and lampoonish version of someone else's views to suit your argument.

Further, while there is truth in what you are saying about people investing themselves into the campaigns of Obama and Paul the distinction halts abruptly in the details. Obama provides few if any well-thought, well-reasoned positions and lots of free candy and increasingly so at that.

Unlike Obama's made-up-along-the-way ideological identity Paul's has stood consistent for decades...and the long-standing public record is not one in any way resembling a "checkered past and flirtation with overtly racist thought."

Show me the money, Steve, beyond the TNR hit piece and Lew Rockwell's writings that took liberties with Ron Paul's personal trust and the use of his name on newsletters.

Back to your argument, once you get past the emotive investment aspect, Ron Paul put forth more substance and staked out more succinct positions on critical matters just in this campaign than Obama has arguably done in his entire political life.

While I see your point on the vague aspect of what drives people to such intense support for a candidate, your comparison falls apart upon scrutiny of the relevant substance, while it comes at the expense of your repeating a smear of a candidate who, while you may not like his version of libertarianism, is as good as it gets for libertarian thought on the national stage in 2008.

That you buy into the smear of the same people who would attack your libertarian views as hard as they attack the "right wing" has left me surprised.

Did you ever think that we defend Ron Paul because those who attack him wish to lump his alleged racist views with libertarian views generally?

Think about it. Because this is the core of a radical difference between support for Paul and Obama. Obama's supporters think the man himself walks on water and don't care much that his message is vague and emotionally-driven.

Paul's supporters, myself included, know and readily admit the imperfections and frailties of the candidate as messenger, but we feel so strongly about the message he has shared that it is worth stepping up with our utmost vigor and personal resources. Paul supporters talk of hope, but they back it up with specifics and detail about how this country must change direction or face a declining future.

Obama talks of change, Paul has walked the walk his whole life. I would think you could see this even with just a cursory review of his legislative record in Congress or even just in this particular Congress :


But hey, to each his own.

Steve Newton said...

Tyler (and Shirley)
First off, I would never have included you in the list of non-thinking responders....

However, let me try my point again: many of the Paul faithful did not want (by their own admission in many many places) to examine the newsletter issue and place it in the paradigm that they already held about Paul--I have read hundreds of posts that say, essentially, "Ron could never have done this, I don't need to look at the evidence; I already know the man," when in reality what they knew was their own narrative image of the man.

But we can disagree on the specifics of the case (Tyler, one of the reasons that I had never endorsed Paul is that I've known about the newsletters for years, and I also disagree with his stand on gay rights) and still not wound the original point that I was really making about Obama:

His narrative has overpowered his reality, and his supporters are so invested in it that they consider any close, critical scrutiny as a smear attack--which is, rightly or wrongly, the same phenomenon I saw with Ron Paul.

Tyler Nixon said...

I hear what you are saying Steve. But I think there is far more credibility to be given to Paul's supporters' vigorously defending him against charges of racism, without supposedly digging into the "evidence", simply because it is so radically inconsistent with just about everything the man says or writes.

The defense of Ron Paul has been extreme because the attack is extreme. Being called a racist is one of the most disgusting epithets of which I can conceive, and is beyond despicable unless it is absolutely and clearly true rather than just bandied about from fabricated innuendo flowing out of pure partisan hackery and personal spite.

What bothers me about the smear aspect of Paul is that "closer examination" is what the smear artists cared not to do. I think many Paul supporters (myself included) took pause and did look at whether it was a credible charge. My own examination showed an immediate and glaring discord between the so-called racist rants and the years of published speeches and statements of Paul himself - verifiably his. But the attackers care not about logic or a fair examination, only smear.

Recently in Delaware Liberal I posted a Lew Rockwell 1991 LA Times editorial written contemporaneous with the inflammatory newsletters. I think even an elementary reader would see how similar the tone and verbiage were to the "racist" writings purportedly made by Ron Paul.

The answer from the smear artist(s) was simply no answer. I can certainly understand saying Paul was negligent or sloppy about the use of his name and what was published under it. But the smear artists refuse to accept this and just carry on with the despicable charge that Ron Paul is a racist.

There is a certain blogger who has repeatedly attempted to insinuate I am a racist by repeating my support for the "racist Ron Paul", going so far as to say it would be used against me in any political campaign I might undertake myself.

This has been despicable in so many ways it has left me aghast almost every time it has been used against me.

So you'll have to excuse me if I have little tolerance for broad brush comparisons to the nature of the attacks on Ron Paul versus Obama, and the nature of the vigor behind the counterpunches.

Again, Paul's supporters aren't just blindly following someone because of mass razzle dazzle but because his specific positions attracted them. It is why so many young (college aged or younger) Paul supporters are able to cheer his points on the Fed and monetary policy.

If a rather wonkish candidate like Paul is firing people up, it is likely not just from some emotional tie to his oratory or group stampede dynamic, a la Obama.

Similarly, Ron Paul's message is so succinct and dangerous to collectivist sensibilities that the low road of personal smear was a conscious path to stop not just the man but the message.