Saturday, June 13, 2009

Obamania--The Metamorphosis of Social Conscience

by Richard Crews

When I first happened to see Barack Obama in 2004 (when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention), I was thunderstruck. I have long held Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as the most perfect piece of English language rhetoric I knew. I used it in classes; I analyzed it in gross and in detail, hungry for insight and instruction into the deepest currents and manipulations of the language. I recited it--sometimes even to myself--desperately trying to parse how it could possibly exist--so perfect from its broadest vision to its smallest details--how any human mind could have gathered it together just so.

I have looked through the utterances of such great rhetoricians as Kennedy, Roosevelt, Churchill, Disraeli, and Macaulay for such perfection. The closest I have come is in some of the fugues of Bach and some of the poetry of Robinson, Yeats, and Pope. (There are a few other stretches of prose by Lincoln that reach this level--such as the Bixby letter.) My quest has born little fruit. Then suddenly here was a man, confident and calm, marching syllable by syllable through perfectly sculpted metaphors, perfectly framed and tinted images, to a consummate purpose and resolution. Without rancor, without the slightest taint of prejudice; with firm and sturdy intellect; with comfortable vocabulary and unflinching grammar. I was thunderstruck.

When I was recently asked on a meaningless questionnaire to state my political affiliation, I wrote "Obamania." That moment in 2004 was when--although I did not know it at the time--my Obamania was conceived. It gestated over several years as I became aware how perfectly his thoughts were organized--how unfailingly his words fell into line with what words ought to say.

That is a curious phrase, "what words ought to say." It depends on a perfect alignment of brilliant intellect, a vast expanse and deeply informed fund of knowledge, and careful and conscientious consideration of social (and philosophical, even spiritual) issues. Every other business, religious, and political leader I know slips up somewhere in bringing that amazing constellation of personal attributes together.

I could rhapsodize about how Obama favors pragmatism (but, that is ETHICAL pragmatism) over ideology; about how he is willing to bring together the most brilliant minds and able to bring out their disparate ideas, and to use all their considerations to congeal a strategy and decide on a plan of action--healing all their hurt passions to his final view--and then to move on. I could enthuse about his organizational and leadership skills. I could admit my admiration for his endless calm and unruffled poise, his balance of humility with willingness to lead, his artful negotiation skills.

But those are not my primary aim in writing this. Rather, I want to understand and to convey his impact on me and in addition, finally, the implications of that for the evolution of our broader social conscience.

As I listened to Obama through his presidential campaign, I came to realize that he never slipped. And I came to believe that his "performance" had (or could have) two implications for me personally. One was that he thought through thoroughly his philosophical and spiritual foundation--again and again and again. In other words, he seemed to have practiced and learned an approach--a set of mental mechanisms (as I had found in Lincoln)--for seeking out, over and over again, the deepest implications of whatever problem he was attacking, whatever topic he was addressing. I saw this strikingly, for example, in his "race speech" but, in truth, again and again, whenever he spoke.

The second was that he never let himself descend from his rooftop rhetoric, even while always keeping in mind his foundation and relating what he was saying to his spiritual and philosophical roots. He never let himself be glib or frivolous, never even hurried--certainly never inconsiderate.

Seeing, again and again, his mastery of those abilities, I have felt inspired to work harder on them for myself.

Moreover, I believe I have seen many other people--both in the U.S. and around the world--similarly inspired. I do not think that many people understand or experience it the same way I do, but I do believe that Obama's coming on the world stage--and so frequently on our TVs--with his endlessly calm, considered sensibleness has caused--and will increasingly cause--a metamorphosis in many individuals and, in fact, in our collective social conscience.