There's Nothing Wrong With Obama

Everyone seems to love this article about what might be wrong with Obama. Many people, who are quite smart, are posting and re-posting this all across Facebook.

I read it, and I think the author, a psychology professor from Emory, is also worried about this. But as a psychologist, the most obvious explanation never appears in the article.

The obvious explanation is: I'm smart and I feel duped by words. I'm smart, I am not supposed to fall prey to eloquence. I'm smart, I know how to choose good leaders, so Obama must have changed.

Sorry folks. He hasn't changed. If there's one thing Obama is, he's a perfect master of opportunity. Here's the key quote from the New York Times essay:

Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

This is evidence that the person who we have elected has all the great skills of a low ranking executive in a major corporation. Stay low. Stay quiet. Don't rock the boat. Keep up appearances. And when the chance comes to make yourself look good in an nonthreatening manner, do it.

The cross posting, and reposting of this essay is a classic reaction-formation.  My intelligent facebook friends just can't accept that they made a bad choice and all the evidence was there. But, but, I am a critical thinker! How could I be duped by mere words?

They can't accept that they are the victims of rhetoric.

Rhetoric, which appears zero times in Westen's essay, is the culprit here. Obama is a fantastic rhetorical strategist. He knows just what to say to get elected. He also knows just what to say to his opponents and the country to be re-elected.  He also knows that no matter how disappointed you are with him, you will not vote for his Republican opponent, because you like them less. He's got it figured out, and he knows that lukewarm policy, no matter how much you don't like it you will figure out how to accept it.

Obama is a master of the dark side of rhetoric, the part we don't like to talk about that much, but is still very much a part of us. Reason and rationality's attraction is that we can achieve a level of smartness that allows us to become immune to "mere" language. If we develop critical thinking, if we teach better reasoning, we will release the hold of pretty words over our minds. Reason's great victory is rhetorical: We believe very much in the story told by the tradition of logic and reason (and shame on Westen for not doing one Google search on narrative theory before writing his essay. Where's Lakoff? Johnson? White?). We believe in the rhetoric of reason and logic. We are right back where we started.

There is a more charitable read than just "Obama is a sorcerer of dark words." The more charitable read is that rhetoric is running the whole show. We are all prisoners of its power, including Obama. He was duped by his own words, we were duped by them, in short: Humans are creatures who are duped by words, only to swear by words they won't be duped again. We are stuck, but we are stuck in the environment that makes us human. More appropriately: We are stuck in the environment that makes us make us human. It gives us all the tools to persuade, to calm, to excite, to dupe, to reason, and yes, to make reaction-formations about our regrets.

Once we can figure out how to accept being at the mercy of language we will be better off politically. This is not a call for better detection equipment among people - that sad, tired, "See through deception" plea we get from fields like psychology and philosophy. What we need is pedagogy of comfort that we are adrift at sea, at the mercy of the tides and waves, but that this is our home, our natural environment.

But the simple explanation of the "evil word sorcerer" is just too tempting. One last quote to point out the obvious skilled rhetor Obama is:

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.
Surely Westen doesn't hold the sophomoric belief that Obama's book was "more true" than Obama's political actions? Surely Westen understands that Obama's book was written for, and bought by, people who already wanted to believe in Obama. The book was written to make money, and to communicate ideas to a group of people who were already, albeit fractionally, united behind Obama. That chapter doesn't appear now because it is not rhetorically useful - why tell a story that doesn't help you with your opponents? That story is for the sappy liberals, while the Reagan stuff is for the sappy conservatives (hint: there is no escape from sappiness, I have recently learned).

Westen, noted psychologist that he is, is a sucker for the counter-transference. His "patient" is working out things for him in his own confused political sensibility. He wants to believe that the patient is who he wants him to be, not accepting him for who he is. His "treatment" of Obama is a "treatment" to fix Obama back to what Westen wants him to be. Developing a pedagogy of reason that accepts our helplessness is not the most attractive project, but necessary if we are to build a savvy, functional politics for the future.

We are all suckers though, just like Westen. In a symbolic universe made by our own hands, we can't help but be. What we lack isn't a good, clear story or a politician who "knows what he believes." What is needed is a way of accepting our symbolic prison, becoming comfortable with it, and figuring out a way to stop this senseless binary of words vs. reality.

Or perhaps I am committing a performative contradiction. Perhaps in the symbolic order we are trapped in a quantum singularity, and mistake our days old reflection at the event horizon for a rescue ship.