Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cult of Personality

Back in the early years of this century (pardon that, but I couldn't resist), I worked with a student who told me that she didn't want to discuss George W. Bush's conduct as President because she knew him personally. She'd met him at a state dinner while he was governor of Texas, and she liked him.

I respect her feelings, but something is wrong when adults (and as a college student old enough to vote, she was and is an adult) can't even conceive of a difference between their feelings about a person and their judgment of his or her conduct. This seems to be a basic human trait, though; I'm beginning to realize that what I consider a basic necessity is for most people an ability to be gained, if at all, only slowly and painfully, with regret that it's even necessary. It's so much nicer and easier simply to judge people by their cuteness or lack of it, by their accent, by their shared fascination with this or that Saturday-morning children's tv show, by the color of their skin, by the way they dress or walk or wear their hair.

One reason I've always liked online discussion is that you get to know people only by their words and, ahem, ideas. It took me a while to figure out that for most people, this is a major downside. It especially seems to bother people who are used to getting their way either by being cute and charming, or by being threatening. Suddenly the physical presence they've always relied on doesn't work any more. Wink! Grin! Twinkle! Menace! Loom! Argh! What's the matter with this thing?

It took me a while to figure out that, as I mentioned once before, many of the political / intellectual writers I follow know each other in person, and underlying their debates with one another is their personal friendships and enmities. Which, of course, they're entitled to -- they're only human, after all -- but it sometimes introduces undercurrents and weirdnesses in their published writing that interfere with their argument and analysis. I am still haunted by the memory of mentioning to a friend a scholar of Judaism I'd been reading with interest. Her response: "Oh, I've heard he's really hard to get along with!" I was boggled. What does that have to do with his scholarship? I'll never meet him; nor, as far as I know, did my friend. But gossip takes precedence, I guess.

So, of course, I've been working my way around to our new God-King, Barack Obama. As I've said before, I suspect I would like him if I ever met him. (Weirdly, over the past few weeks I've had several dreams in which he was a character.) But that had nothing to do with how I voted, or how I'm going to evaluate his presidency. For many people, though, it's all that matters. I decided to write this posting after I found a comment on another blog by someone who found it "amazing to feel such closeness--true 'intimacy' with the occupants of 1600 Penn..." Even if she does (and I think it's a self-deluding fantasy), so what? A good many Americans felt "true 'intimacy'" with George W. Bush and his lovely family, or with Sarah Palin and hers.

Still, I admit to a slight, infinitesimal sense of inner conflict. My friend Anne Haines mentioned at her blog that
Later on, I watched an online video of the Obamas dancing at one of the balls -- not the ballroom dancing with each other, but cutting loose a bit and dancing with the crowd. And there was Barack, big as life, DOING THE BUMP.
... with a teenaged girl who asked him to, it turned out when I found a clip.

It's true, Obama is a good dancer, if a bit too contained. (On the other hand, can you imagine the corporate media's reaction if he'd let loose and done something fancy?) I wouldn't mind dancing with him myself. And it was sweet to see him dance with the girl; I'm sure she'll tell her grandchildren about it. But a few days later, Obama was killing children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He's talked about how he'd feel if his daughters were killed by Palestinian missiles; but what if they were killed by US missiles, fired at the orders of the President of the United States?

Then there's this photo. Had I known before that Obama is a southpaw?

(But then, so is McCain; and so were Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bill Clinton. The horror ... the horror... ) That gives me a sense of fellow-feeling with him. Intimacy, though? Huh-uh. He also used that hand to sign the orders that killed civilians a few days later.

Finally, there's this photo by White House photographer Pete Souza:

Such a likable man, really. But he's taken on a job that enables him, requires him to do horrible things, and he's shown no hesitation about doing them.