Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Caesar

"It hath been taught us since the primal state, that he which is was wish'd until he were."

Shakespeare's axiom of popular susceptibility to demagoguery is fleshed out in Stanley Fish's NYT piece on Obama this morning, "Yes I Can." Stanley Fish is one who commands the sort of respect reserved for the likes of the serpent in the garden; towering intellect, competent in the dark arts of persuasion, and capable of making his auditors enjoy their hornswaggling at the hands of an expert sophist. (Fish is very great admirer of Milton's Satan, who he also greatly resembles.) Yet today he lays aside his sophist's hat and, worried lest the One give away the game like some prestidigitator whose trick is showing, gently admonishes Obama while demonstrating to the rest of us the sheer mastery of the upward gyre of demagogic, narcissistic self possession.

Last week I was driving home listening to President Obama’s speech on the General Motors bankruptcy, and I heard the full emergence of a note that had been sounded only occasionally in the two-plus years since the announcement of his candidacy. It was the note of imperial possession, the accents and cadences of a man supremely aware of his authority and more than comfortable with its exercise.

Imperial possession, indeed--and it looks like he intends to possess quite a bit more before he's done. Fish's analysis of the progression of Obama's use of the first person singular, which makes Bill Clinton seem a tongue-tied school boy by comparison, is instructive. Indulging in his own form of idolatry, Fish admiringly compares Obama to Don Corleone, who began a patriot and ended by striking the pose of a Roman emperor:

Obama is still idealistic and a patriot, but he is now also an emperor and his speech shows it.

That Fish shows no alarm at the implications of that sentence is telling in itself. Postmodernism is about power--unmasking its surreptitious manifestations in the oppressor class, while drawing its practitioners and acolytes like moths to a flame in their almost desperate willingness to do anything to get and hold power themselves. It is in this sense that Obama is the first postmodern president, although again Bill Clinton made a pretty good run at it. Thus, Fish is an admiring observer (and in time, with the rest of us, a servant) of the new emperor for whom egotism and narcissism are recommendations.

In the beginning, observes Fish, it was about "us". Obama began with sentences like "It’s humbling to see a crowd like this, but in my heart I know you didn’t come here just for me.” “Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy”; “Let us be the generation that ends poverty”; “this campaign can’t only be about me; it must be about us.”

Fish ably shows the transformation as the campaign progressed:

When he wins the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3, 2008, the rhetoric alters as he imagines himself (perhaps for the first time) performing in the office he aspires to. “Let us” is replaced by “I’ll”: “I’ll be a president who harnesses the ingenuity of farmers.” “I’ll be a president who finally makes health care affordable.” “I’ll be a president who ends this war in Iraq.”
Everything alters in the inaugural address (Jan. 20, 2009). The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. “But know America” — or, in other words, “hear me” — “…they will be met.” And later, when he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”
By the time of the address to the Congress on Feb. 24, the royal we has flowered into the naked “I”: “As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress.” “I called for action.” “I pushed for quick action.” “I have told each of my cabinet.” “I’ve appointed a proven and aggressive inspector general.” “I refuse to let that happen.” “I will not spend a single penny.” “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves.” “I held a fiscal summit where I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term.” That last is particularly telling: it says, there’s going to be a second term, I’m already moving fast, and if you don’t want to be left in the dust, you’d better fall in line.

There’s no mistaking what’s going on in the speech delivered last week. No preliminary niceties; just a rehearsal of Obama’s actions and expectations. Eight “I”’s right off the bat...Accompanying the “I”’s are a bevy of “my”’s, which reach out to embrace the universe. The third time he says “my auto task force,” it sounds as if he were referring to a lap dog. Ditto the mention of Karen Mills, “my Small Business Administration” chief. When he thanks Canada and Germany for doing their part, it is as if those sovereign nations were doing him a personal favor to which he was entitled. When he invokes “my administration” you might think he was talking about some prized possession. (My daughter…my ducats.) It is always “I couldn’t in good conscience,” “I became convinced,” “I wanted to ensure,” “I instructed,” “I recognized,” “I want” (three times), “I’m calling on Congress.” At least he doesn’t say “my Congress,” although that is certainly implied.

Fish never indicates directly that there is anything problematic with any of this. His concern is that Obama not offend against taste, or perhaps against the canons of imperial dictatorship:

An occasional passive construction to soften the claim of agency would be a good idea (even though the grammar books warn against it). It’s one thing to be calling the tune; it’s another to proclaim it in every sentence.

So, a little advice from the old professor to the young would-be Caesar: it is better to be feared than loved, but dial back the "naked I" before you take the crown.

No comments: