Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Why I hope Obama wins
or, The Kids are Alright

It was presidential, I say.

Obama's speech yesterday was something I haven't seen in a long time. I can actually tell you the last time I remember seeing something like this: in very different circumstances, during the 1999 war over the skies of Kosovo. President Clinton came on the television and did more than just tell America that the Serbs were evildoers and had to be destroyed. He told America where Kosovo was, why what was happening mattered to both to the American people and the Serbs, and then explained what he and NATO were going to do about it.

After that, you could say you disagreed with the President (and many did then, and I came to over time) but you couldn't say you'd been kept in the dark.

The current President has neither the faculties nor the inclination to keep the American people informed in such a manner. But it's clear, after Obama's speech yesterday, that the junior Senator from Illinois does. This was a political speech, to be sure -- all speeches by politicians are. But it was also an attempt to inform, to educate, and appeal to reason.

Appeal to reason. I miss that so much today, of all days.

A lot of people are comparing it to MLK, which I think misses the mark pretty badly. This was something more like Kennedy, or even FDR -- Democratic Presidents who used the media of their time to keep the public informed and up-to-date on matter of incredible import and complexity.

But being the year 2008, Sen. Obama isn't using radio, as FDR did, or TV, as Kennedy did. The Youtube video of his speech has been viewed 1.2 million times since yesterday. It's more than have watched Pastor Wright's inflammatory speech in a week. It would be one thing if Obama had made this speech and it had fallen on deaf ears. I had to listen, for years, as idiot pundits tell us that my generation isn't interested in politics, that the Internet is killing people's attention span, that our very democracy was at risk because citizens my age and younger find meaningful communities on the Internet, not just in person.

Well, 1.2 million people just showed us, because apparently we always need to be reminded, that the medium isn't the message (fuck you, McLuhan's ghost), and that Youtube is good for 40-minute primers on race relations, not just 40-second clips of dogs on skateboards. And don't kid yourself -- if baby boomers are watching this speech on youtube, it's because half of them are getting the links forwarded to them by their kids.

We saw the first glimmers of this in 2004, with Howard Dean's unsuccessful campaign. We're seeing those techniques come to fruition today with campaigns from both Democrats that are feeding on the Internet, and being driven by it. And while I'll credit both Obama and Clinton for adopting these techniques, I think what Obama did yesterday was more important in the long run. He showed that while you can build a campaign on Facebook friends and Obama Girl videos, the new power of the Internet also gives you the power to speak to people in ways that we've forgotten. Rhetoric and argument never lost their power, but they've been inconvenient for modern media until now. Obama made an entire 40 minute speech without a really useable sound bite, a ten-word quote that the networks and papers could wrap a headline around.

I desperately want to see a campaign like this succeed, less because of Obama himself than because America desperately needs to remember how to really debate real issues. There's nothing more necessary to democratic governance than this, which we know because the most rapid and fundamental changes in American politics have been driven by exactly these debates. But they've been what's sorely lacking in American politics until now.

Various groups bicker over what will be the biggest problem of the new century -- climate change, peak oil, the economy, overpopulation, etc. -- but miss the larger context: unless America re-learns how to govern itself, unless it becomes possible again for a democratic country to choose something other than the status quo, than none of those problems are solveable. And if the United States learns what it means to have an active political culture again, one where people can choose the best of a number of outcomes, then none of those problems in insurmountable.

So to my friends who think I've been pretty fucking depressing lately, I say buck up: we're seeing something important change in America. If it doesn't put Obama in the White House, it can still change the way politics happens in America from here on out. We might just be seeing the early days of a better nation. It almost makes me feel sorry for my parents' generation. All they got to see was the Civil Rights movement, the Apollo Program, and Jimi at Woodstock. If we're smart, demanding and lucky, my generation will get to see America become American again.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Don't underestimate how many baby boomers can and do use YouTube.

Your point about the democratic prerquisite for solving concrete problems is right on.

Chet Scoville said...

I really really really hope you're right.

Catelli said...

Hope and optimism flickers on, does it not? Obama really makes that flame of hope stronger.

There just is an awful lot of darkness to push back, and in that frame I echo Chet. Damn, I hope you're right.

Phil Paine said...

Your last sentence had a phrase that is identical to one that has been running through my head for the last few years: "see America become American again". It sums up exactly how many Canadians feel about the U.S. --- that it is not now the neighbour that we once knew, but more like a victim of Alzheimer's disease. The body we see only reminds us of the person who once was in it.