November 4, 2012

Competing Narratives

Print More

With the election tomorrow, I feel compelled to write about the candidates despite the anxiety of influence created by the endless amounts of spin echoing across the airwaves and the deluge of ink already spilled. To me, though, the wonky policy preferences of the candidates underlie a larger cultural choice we are being asked to make. As far as I’m concerned, the 2012 election is about the difference between cosmopolitanism and conservatism as essential principles, rather than the differing opinions on policy that come with them.In one corner, we have Mitt Romney, silver-spoon fed Governor’s child, whose boot straps were prenatally lifted up for him by his father’s success. The Romneys have been power-players in the regressive Church of Latter Day Saints, a deeply conservative institution that, despite its outsider status to some, represents a purely American type of orthodoxy, a revisionist ideology founded upon co-opting biblical history for the narrative of American exceptionalism. Yet, Romney rarely discusses his faith — like his tax returns, personal life or personality, he is intensely private and hoity-toity, preferring country-club banter, witticisms directed at the President and unobjectionable political banalities to real candor. At the debates, Romney appears uncomfortable when flustered, preferring to avoid any discussion of unsavory issues. Romney has proved unable to leave his comfort zone — a man who avoided the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s by fleeing to serve on mission in France (where he presumably went two years without touching a drop of French wine) and then by isolating himself further as a married 22-year-old at Brigham Young University and as a family-man while at Harvard.Obama, on the other hand, embraces his own eclectic background. A child of a Kenyan exchange student and a white Kansan living in Hawaii, young Obama lived in Indonesia where he learned to speak passable Bahasa Indonesia. Later, he grew up in Hawaii, experimented with drugs like many high-schoolers do and left to attend college on both coasts of the continental U.S. After graduating from college, he worked in some of the poorest parts of Chicago as a community organizer and then went to Harvard where he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Sure, the President has been successful in most of his pursuits, but moreover his background seems indicative of humble beginnings, an open mind, and, most importantly, compassion.  In 1995, before he entered politics, he wrote Dreams from My Father, an impressive narrative about his multicultural background, praised by Philip Roth and Toni Morrison as an astounding literary work and by Time Magazine’s Joel Klein as the “best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” As a student of literature I have always believed that it is impossible to write good characters without empathy — Obama passes this test with flying colors. According to what we have seen during this campaign cycle, from the now notorious 47 percent comments to stories about childhood bullying, finding the same quality in Governor Romney is more difficult. Perhaps this simply stems from Romney’s poor communication skills, or maybe it comes from the cultural myopia that has kept the former Governor from ever walking a mile outside of his own designer loafers.The same dynamic comes through in the candidates’ speaking styles. Obama is cool, calm, and collected, always willing to share his thoughts on difficult issues, preferring to address things head on in speeches and take responsibility for decisions.Romney, on the other hand, is rigid, robotic, uncomfortable and gaffe-prone. He reeks of arrogance, a wily disingenuous sycophant perpetually caught with his pants-down. In response to direct questions, Romney demurs with circuitous harangues about his history in business or plans to create 12 million jobs (a number that most experts estimate will likely come with recovery, regardless of who is in the Oval Office). For those of you unwilling to follow the increasingly opaque issues and proposals of the candidates, I offer you an alternative interpretation, a competing narrative for explaining the election: In 2008, when we elected Barack Obama, we told the world that we were done with the days of brutish imperialism. The Bush years showed how Americans are all too willing to accept an unholy marriage between big business and small minds, greedy capitalism and antiquated ignorance. By electing Obama, we said that we’re no longer going to chase our tails with our deplorable education system, third-world economic inequality and foreign policy that resembles a sociopath playing Risk. And though things have only gotten slightly better in terms of raw statistics (mostly due to Republican obstinacy and poor economic circumstances), the symbolism of having a worldly President who would never dream of cutting off stem-cell research and PBS in an effort to appeal to dogmatic anti-intellectuals is huge. By electing Barack Obama, for the first time Americans said that we will not allow the fear-mongering Old Guard to ride atop the backs of the ignorant and manipulate the government to their liking. Electing Mitt Romney and the coalition of birthers, evangelicals, and Gordon Geckos, we would effectively be saying, “never mind!” Hopefully demographic shifts have made us better than this, but only the Electoral College will tell.

Original Author: Adam Lerner