February 27, 2008

The arbitrariness of conviction

In reply to those who claim I don't really know much about Barack Obama, I answer: true. I don't really know much about Hillary Clinton, either. I didn't know much about Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Only staffers and campaign managers, who hang out with these people, know much about them. They see them in day-to-day situations, watch how they react to surprises and contingencies calling for a decision, and they gradually form realistic appraisals about them. That's what we call human beings "knowing" someone. We don't have the insiders' vantage point. I've never seen Barack or Hillary in person; they exist as pixel images on my flat screen TV; in a close-up, I'm guessing they're represented at about a 1:2 scale, but they only have two dimensions. I listen to them, but they're mostly reformulating sentences they've said hundreds of times before. They're not actually engaged in a give-and-take with me. Maybe if I hung out with each of them for thirty days or so, and we talked for a few hundred hours about just anything that occurred to us, and went to a ball game and to a bar, and played chess or Scrabble and watched Jeopardy! together, maybe shot some hoops, and I got my guitar out and we sang "Margaritaville," and then I asked each of these lawyers for help on some complicated legal issue I'm working on...well, then I'd probably actually have the basis for an opinion.

The odds of those things happening aren't very good, are they? I suppose when the Founding Fathers put their ideas of democracy together, the structure for it, the connection between candidate and electorate was much closer to what I've just described than it is now. The operation of the town hall was close to their experience; it was unlikely, in the Concord election of Selectmen in 1795 or so, that the local Yankees would put the village drunk in charge of their finances. As visionary as they might have been, there was no way for Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin to imagine the post-McLuhan Age of virtual reality. Essentially, we still use the same system they devised, but the candidates who succeed now are not necessarily the people who would do best at the level of one-to-one interaction I described above. They're the ones who are adept, under the guidance of their handlers, at manipulating the images they project to appeal to broad-based demographics. I think we all know that. When we express our preference for a candidate, however, we are not basing it on the appeal of their "image;" rather, we are using our intuitive powers of perception to imagine what this person would be like if we actually had the opportunity to get to know him/her. It's possible, if I ever had the chance at any sort of intimacy, that I would like Hillary more than Barack; she might be funnier, quicker with an insight, more reassuring in her comprehension.

I don't even understand very well what process finally produced these two as the "inevitable" candidates for the Democrats. I would surmise that it's not an accident that one is a woman and the other is African-American. Both seemed like plausible candidates. The mainstream media saw the "story line" implicit in their choice and began playing them up. Let's face it, it's a more compelling narrative than Joe Biden versus Chris Dodd. After they seemed inevitable, after their images were burned into the psyche of the American populace, it then became our job to form some kind of "commitment" to one or the other, even though we did not really have much of a role in narrowing our choices to these two.

That's how it works now in the World of Mass Media Man. Don't pretend it doesn't. You can come at me with your "arguments," and your "insights" into the candidates based on something you've read on the Web written by some special pleader; and I can counter with some obscure thing I've read somewhere else. And the truth is neither one of us will be very convincing.

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