The theme this week has been the shallow narrative pundit types construct to account for phenomena too complex for the few lines or the few moments they have. These narratives are amazing both in the staying power (hey–people like stories, especially ones they can remember or those that appeal to their sense of something or other) and in their vacuousness (no way to verify them–we need the medium of the pundit to relate them to us). Over the past two days we have discussed "liberal" columnists. Now let’s take a look at David Brooks–grand narrativator. Today he spins a tale about Obama. This one, like the narratives that began to circulate in the past couple of weeks, centers on the idea that Obama is all pleasantries. Brooks writes (my intrusions in brackets):
Barack Obama had a theory [did he?]. It was that the voters are tired of the
partisan paralysis of the past 20 years [that wasn’t his theory]. The theory was that if Obama
could inspire a grass-roots movement with a new kind of leadership, he
could ride it to the White House and end gridlock in Washington [this sounds a lot like Bush’s theory in 2000–a new kind of politics someone said once].
Obama has built his entire campaign on this theory. He’s run
against negativity and cheap-shot campaigning. He’s claimed that
there’s an “awakening” in this country — people “hungry for a different
kind of politics.” [the contextless quotations give this paragraph an air of authority]
This message has made him the front-runner [he’s the front-runner (barely)–but we can’t really say if this is why he is]. It has brought millions
of new voters into politics [evidence for this claim?]. It has given him grounds to fend off
attacks. In debate after debate, he has accused Hillary Clinton and
others of practicing the old kind of politics. When he was under
assault in South Carolina, he rose above the barrage and made the
Clintons look sleazy [how clever of him].
Yet at different times during this election, he’s been told to get
off the white horse and start fighting. In the current issue of Time
magazine, Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs report on a meeting that took
place in Chicago last Labor Day. All of Obama’s experienced advisers
told him: “You gotta get down, get dirty, get tough.”
Obama refused. He argued that if he did that, the entire basis for
his campaign would evaporate. “If I gotta kneecap her,” he said, “I’m
not gonna go there.”
The thesis of this abysmal piece is this: Obama’s campaign is based, according to Brooks, entirely on the specious claim that a new kind of politics (i.e., being nice) will captivate people, he’s right (because it has–according to Brooks), but in order to beat the sleazy Hillary Clinton, he will have to practice the old kind of politics, and in so doing, he will become a sleaze like Hillary, and thus his message will have been contradicted and shown to be what it is, shallow tripe (so I suppose we can go back to shallow Manichean moralizing like in 2004).
This message, I think, is a phantom of Brooks’ imagination. Obama, like Clinton and McCain, has more to offer–he claims–than inspiration. His words have meaning. Besides, Obama seems to have been a rather able debater up until this point, as Brooks even acknowledges. After all, he did make Hillary look like a sleaze, didn’t he?
While the narrative on Obama is that he’s an ingenue–Clinton is, in Brooks’ narrative, a clumsy, unappealing sleaze who will do anything to win:
Clinton can’t compete on personality, but a knife fight is her only real hope of victory
Naturally this sorry piece of writing can’t rightly be evaluated by the tools of the critical reasoner. It makes assertions without evidence and draws apparently contradictory conclusions. But Brooks has to know this; I hope at least for his sake he does. I wonder then, what’s it for?