Self-Definition as Destiny

Sometimes you wonder how anyone made it through the late seventies in America, with all the pop-culture self-actualization crap in the air. Part of that was the late-disco multi-layered and massively overproduced sound of the group Earth, Wind & Fire on the radio, and in those clubs with strobe lights and towers of hyper-accurate speakers – oddly stirring songs like Fantasy and Shining Star, all about becoming all you could be, before the Army decided to recruit young men by asserting that becoming all you could be really had more to do with grabbing a rifle and riding around in tanks and helicopters.

 

Perhaps you had to have been there, but back in the day, before the Army co-opted the concept, the thumping waves of cool sounds would have you believe you could be, and really were, just what you decided to say you now were – you really are who you say you are – words that always popped up in those lyrics in one way or another. Some of us chucked our old life in the cold reaches of the old and exhausted east and moved to Southern California to the sound of Earth Wind and & Fire – that was our soundtrack. Why not? You could be what you decided to be. Driving down Santa Monica freeway in a borrowed 240-Z on a perfect night with a willowy young blond at your side, with that Fantasy tune blasting from the many speakers, made it all seem so.

 

Of course it was all nonsense. What you are is where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen, and what you never dared try – and genetics. Born from a family of hefty, quiet and reserved people, you were just not going to pass as dashing and brutally cool. That was just not in the stars.

 

And too, other people define you. You get pegged as this or that, and things get all self-referential and self-reinforcing. Everyone agrees you’re shy and thoughtful – or the opposite – and you are. You accept the reality others see – there are more of them, those others, after all. There’s no point pretending what isn’t so is so – you look like a fool.

 

Still, part of being an American is having the self-confidence to reinvent who you are. That’s what we do – and Fitzgerald wrote that astounding novel about that very thing, The Great Gatsby. Things didn’t work out so well for Gatsby, but Fitzgerald was onto something at the very core of being American, inventing the self you want in the land where anything is possible. We can build a narrative of who we want to be, and say that’s actually who we are – and if we say it often enough, over and over and over, we can get people to believe it. And thus we may be happy, or at least at peace, questions of authenticity aside.

 

All that is a round-about way of introducing the concept of the way politicians – those who would, with our approval, run the country – construct the self they want us to see, the fiction they have invented.

 

For example, on Tuesday, July 22, John McCain, having met his political Waterloo – Obama on his world tour not looking foolish but seeming all statesmanlike and stunningly effective – had to fight back. Over and over he was saying this:

 

This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.

 

But Obama was saying nothing about losing a war – he was saying things had calmed down in Iraq, at least a bit, and it was time to work on the real problem in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. That is, if we want to win anything, we should, as he has often said, fight the actual bad guys, and take care of them there. And it seems the Iraqi government agrees – go do what you have to do, we’ll be fine, thank you very much.

 

But McCain’s new mantra, carefully constructed, was an assertion of the self he had carefully constructed over all the years – it had nothing to do with the merits or dangers of any grand geopolitical strategy. We were to consider who he said he was – as he says, he knows how to win wars. Implied in that is that his opponent doesn’t, and is the kind of guy who would rather be president than win anything difficult.

 

What he said was superbly irrelevant to the matter at hand – what we do next, and why, and how. As with another song from the late seventies, he was Neil Diamond singing I Am, I Said, or something like that.

 

See Digby here:

 

Whatever you do, don’t impugn this man’s character. He did something worthy forty years ago which allows him to say any nasty thing he pleases and then lead the entire political establishment in a group whine if anyone calls him on it.

 

And let’s hear no more about how modest the maverick is. When’s the last time you heard a candidate, much less a certified, unassailable hero, bragging about how courageous he is? I’m not sure I even ever heard the Codpiece go quite that far.

 

Saying who you really are, and whining about it, massively undercuts your assertion. Others might see that as pathetic – you really shouldn’t have to say you’re courageous. That’s for others to decide. It’s like standing in front of the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, walking up to hot girls and saying you’re cool – painfully weak stuff, or even comic, like in the movie.

 

And Jessie Roberts here notes that McCain has had some problems defining himself.

 

“Putting the Country First”, July 4, 2008:

 

Patriotism is deeper than its symbolic expressions, than sentiments about place and kinship that move us to hold our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. It is putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything.

 

Worth The Fighting For, p. 373, published September 2002:

 

I didn’t decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president.

 

Which is it?

 

This business about who you really are, and who defines you, got even more baroque the same day when McCain’s campaign released a new video ad on YouTube – Obama Love (alternate version here). These poke fun at what the McCain Campaign sees as extreme and rather stupid media bias in Barack Obama’s favor. The base ad is all clips of people like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews gushing over Obama – which version you will see released on national television depends on user input, as they’re asking fans to vote on which has the better music.

 

At Salon, Alex Koppelman discusses the ad here:

 

The video seems to serve two purposes. First, it further separates McCain from what he had called his “base” – the press – and moves him closer to his real base in his party, which always appreciates a good argument about liberal media bias. And then it also injects into the discussion what seems to be a frequent theme inside the McCain campaign about its opponent. The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle had a good take on this on Tuesday, writing about “the McCain campaign’s general contempt for Obama and his adoring throngs” and pointing to an example from an article in the New York Times:

 

“There is nothing you can do about it,” said an acerbic Mark Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, while standing at the back of a modest crowd assembled to hear Mr. McCain speak at a picnic in South Portland, Me. “‘The One’ went to Europe and homage must be paid.”

 

I think Zengerle’s got it right – this video is more evidence that the McCain camp will try to use Obama’s supporters against him, portraying the Illinois senator’s campaign as a love-in or a cult as it tries to use one of Obama’s biggest advantages against him.

 

Koppelman also points to Politico’s Jonathan Martin and this quote from McCain spokesman Brian Rogers, who was asked why the campaign produced and released this video:

 

Love for ‘The One’ is in the air.” Martin explains, “McCain aides have begun to poke fun at Obama’s rock-star image by referring to him with the faux lofty phrase.”

 

Then there’s ABC News’ Jake Tapper, commenting here on the McCain campaign’s “Obama Love” video:

 

If there’s any senator who has benefited from a generally friendly media it’s McCain. His opponents in 2000 and 2008, his senate colleagues, and Democrats have been complaining for years that the media gives McCain a free ride.

 

This is like Britney Spears complaining that the hype around Miley Cyrus far exceeds her talent.

 

That’s cold, but spot-on. McCain is saying we should look at the “self” he has created, and it’s authentic. We should not look at the cool guy – or at least not consider how others see him.

 

Some people, like Jonathan Chait at the New Republic, do get McCain:

 

Today, McCain not only claims not to have altered his views for political convenience, he has preposterously made his alleged refusal to do so the central theme of his campaign.

 

Yet, somehow, I still feel some pangs of affinity for the old codger. Where Bush is peevish, entitled, and insecure, McCain’s charming, ironic, and self-deprecating. Bush’s path to public life was trading on his father’s name to run a series of business ventures into the ground before being handed a baseball team. McCain’s was an episode of awe-inspiring perseverance.

 

Yes, people put far too much stock in the candidates’ personalities. (I’d vote for an obnoxious, pampered phony who shared my beliefs over a charming war hero who didn’t.) But personality isn’t completely meaningless, either. A president sets the tone for our public discourse, and McCain is pretty easy to take. His demagoguery comes with an awkward forced smile, which doesn’t make it more forgivable but does make it less irritating.

 

Chait concludes with this:

 

The idea that McCain could establish a reputation as a maverick by standing up to his party on numerous issues, win back his party’s support by abandoning nearly all his heterodoxies, then prevail by portraying himself as an unwavering man of principle is nauseating. Yet somehow the idea of a McCain presidency itself doesn’t terrify me. What can I say? Bush has lowered my standards.

 

That is, all in all, a masterful exercise in damning with faint praise.

 

Still the other side is fuming that no one sees who Obama really is. There’s Lisa Schiffren, writing here at the Corner, one of the National Review’s blogs, complaining about the media bias in favor of Barack Obama. And she is really upset with Obama’s plan to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in a stadium that seats seventy-five thousand cheering fans – “To me, this is evocative of something Leni Riefenstahl might have documented.” Leni Riefenstahl directed “Triumph of the Will” – the famous Nazi propaganda film that documented a party rally where Adolf Hitler spoke. Doesn’t anyone see what’s going on?

 

Whatever – at Politico see Ben Smith:

 

In truth, and while there are other dynamics going on, the central issue is just sheer volume. There’s vastly more public interest in, and coverage of, Obama. His rise is a better, newer, story. That means that McCain’s message has been muted; but his missteps are too. He’s been able, in particular, to make it this far with a domestic policy agenda whose sheer vagueness wouldn’t have made it through the Democratic primary.

 

It’s kind of a joke, as Michael Grunwald at Time points out:

 

The media will try to preserve the illusion of a toss-up; you’ll keep seeing “Obama Leads, But Voters Have Concerns” headlines. But when Democrats are winning blood-red congressional districts in Mississippi and Louisiana, when the Republican president is down to 28 percent, when the economy is tanking and world affairs keep breaking Obama’s way, it shouldn’t be heresy to recognize that McCain needs an improbable series of breaks. Analysts get paid to analyze, and cable news has airtime to fill, so pundits have an incentive to make politics seem complicated. In the end, though, it’s usually pretty simple. Everyone seems to agree that 2008 is a change election. Which of these guys looks like change?

 

Game, set, match – McCain can present his carefully constructed self, however distorted now by his adopting all the positions he once said were evil – tax breaks for the corporations and the rich, banning offshore drilling for oil, authorizing the CIA to employ torture and all the others. It doesn’t matter. As before, others really define the self.

 

But some on the left do have a similar problem with Obama. Digby says these words from Obama worry her:

 

“There is security progress, but now we need a political solution” in Iraq, Obama said in the first news conference of his highly publicized trip abroad. Afghanistan is now the “central front in the war against terrorism,” he added.

 

Her comment:


I guess it’s inevitable that we would see this formulation used. But is it really necessary to have a “central front in the war on terrorism?” If so, can someone explain what “winning” this “war on terrorism” will look like?

 

Politically it probably makes sense. It’s easier to use familiar phrases than to fight them. And it ensures that the DC establishment will proclaim that Obama is Very Serious…

 

Perhaps what Karl Rove famously said – “politics is TV with the sound turned off” – is true. If so, it doesn’t really matter what any of them say, only how they look when they are saying it. And he looks great.

 

And she notes that Media Matters points out this – Obama has been talking about sending troops to Afghanistan for years:

 

Indeed, all the Democrats have, going all the way back to Kerry and the 2004 campaign. There’s absolutely nothing new here. I haven’t heard him call it the “central front in the war on terror” before, but it’s certainly possible that he has done so.

 

But elsewhere she says this:

 

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Afghanistan, but I do know that it has been the definition of “quagmire” for hundreds of years for Western powers. It’s a strange, impenetrable country in a strategically important place that ties modern, arrogant imperialists up in knots over and over again. So, it is with some trepidation that I see Barack Obama saying things like “this is a war that we have to win.” I honestly don’t know what that means. No western power has ever “won” a war in Afghanistan.

 

I realize that Democrats have been using this “took his eye off the ball” for years now in their criticism of Iraq. And maybe it’s true. But frankly, I’ve never seen the evidence that if we had just put more troops into Afghanistan we could have “won.”

 

It seems to me that this war in Afghanistan isn’t really even a war – it’s a manhunt. And we’re looking for a man who probably isn’t even there, but is rather holed up in neighboring Pakistan, our ostensible ally. And further complicating matters he may not even be alive, but even if we captured him and “brought him to justice” we’ll just make him into a martyr and create a whole bunch more terrorists, many of them in European countries and maybe even here. I don’t get the end game of this great game.

 

So what’s this “war” all about and why are we agitating so strongly to escalate it? Can we accomplish anything by putting more troops over there? I hope so. But the Soviets had their 40th Army in there for ten years and it didn’t work. I know that one American troop is worth twenty Russians and all, but it doesn’t seem like there are very good odds of success, even if we knew what that meant.

 

But then she concludes it’s all about the “self” you try to create:

 

Like I said, I’m not a expert and I don’t have answers. But I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical that the Democrats are using the notion of an Afghanistan escalation to bolster their macho street cred and that it’s going to end up biting us all in the ass just like the last time a Democratic president escalated a war out of fear of being baited by the right. I hope that isn’t the case.

 

It is dangerous running on the person you want others to believe you are – a construction that may have nothing to do with the real world. It got Jay Gatsby killed, after all.

 

She’s not an expert. Juan Cole, the nation’s preeminent Middle East scholar, is an expert. See his item in Salon, Obama Is Saying the Wrong Things about Afghanistan. There more detail than you might want, but it comes down to this:

 

In general, Obama’s policies toward Iraq synchronize neatly with the aspirations of the Shiite-dominated elected Iraqi government, with an affirmation of the need to gain the consent of the Iraqis for any status-of-forces agreement with the U.S., and with a far greater emphasis on addressing the humanitarian crisis provoked by the U.S. invasion. On leaving al-Maliki’s office, Obama was able to call his consultations with the prime minister “very constructive.”

 

By comparison, Obama’s criticisms of Bush administration policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his determination to make those countries the centerpiece of his foreign policy, are more problematic. Obama’s determination to put down the tribal insurgencies in northwestern Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan reveals basic contradictions in his announced policies. His plans certainly have the potential to ruffle Afghan and Pakistani feathers, and have already done so in Pakistan.

 

And he might listen to others:

 

Before he jumps into Afghanistan with both feet, Obama would be well advised to consult with another group of officers. They are the veterans of the Russian campaign in Afghanistan. Russian officers caution that Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Soviets attempted to do in the 1980s with nearly twice as many troops as NATO and the U.S. now have in the country, and with three times the number of Afghan troops as Karzai can deploy. Afghanistan never fell to the British or Russian empires at the height of the age of colonialism. Conquering the tribal forces of a vast, rugged, thinly populated country proved beyond their powers. It may also well prove beyond the powers even of the energetic and charismatic Obama. In Iraq, he is listening to what the Iraqis want. In Pakistan, he is simply dictating policy in a somewhat bellicose fashion, and ignoring the wishes of those moderate parties whose election he lauded last February.

 

You pay the price for constructing the self you want to present to the world. Earth Wind & Fire – yes, that was great music, but with foolish lyrics that have caused no end of trouble.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Cultural Notes, Iraq, McCain, McCain and the Press, McCain's Service, Obama, Obama's Foreign Trip, Press Bias, The McCain Brand. Bookmark the permalink.

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