Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Point of Vulnerability

Jason Linkins, Political Reporter for The Huffington Post, probably called it right in this morning's weekly column about the "Sabbath-Day Gasbags," as Calvin Trillin used to call them:

Today is a good example of how covering these Sunday shows is like staring down the barrel of a gun. See, thanks to Senator Obama, who couldn't come up with a way of explaining the thesis of Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, to a room for of Bay Area Democrats that wasn't wholly inept, we can comfortably predict that this Sunday morning, instead of a vital discussion of the unbelievably goofy and, well, UNBELIEVABLE testimony proffered by David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker on Iraq, we're instead going to listen to the Sunday Morning hosts and panels give a national conversation on elitism. This, despite the fact that they are, to a man, out-of-touch by several million degrees and so elitist that they are practically toffee-encrusted.

On the other hand, if we really do want to focus on Barack Obama, then a better source for background may be Homer (or, to be more academically accurate, the Homeric bards). Consider, for the sake of a literary exercise, the opening invocation to The Iliad (drawing upon the translation by Richard Lattimore):

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

This invocation says nothing about the Trojan War. The 24 books of bardic verse that unfold are ultimately about the tragic flaw of dissension within the Achaian ranks. As the invocation says, the conflict was between Agamemnon, leader of the Achaian troops, and Achilleus, who was unquestionably their strongest (and most invincible) warrior; and the argument was over claims to "spoils of war" in the form of two women abducted from Troy after an early battle. Achilleus "claimed" Briseis as has mistress, while Agamemnon claimed Chryseis, more prestigious since her father was a Priest of Apollo. However, the abduction of Chryseis was taken as an offense to Apollo, who took his wrath out on the Achaians (not the first time Agamemnon had offended a God), thus forcing Agamemnon to return Chryseis to her father. Still feeling entitled to the "better share of the spoils," Agamemnon then demanded that Achilleus turn Briseis over to him. Achilleus ultimately yielded but at the price of withdrawing from all subsequent battles to "sulk in his tent." (One of these days I hope to find out who first coined this particular turn of phrase, having failed to find it in Samuel Butler's prose translation.)

Stripped of both sexism and martialism, this is a quarrel over who has rights to a "prize," a chosen leader or an accomplished warrior. Ultimately, Agamemnon gets his way by "pulling rank;" and Achilleus' first inclination is to kill him. However, when he has the opportunity to do so, Athene intervenes; and that's when the sulking starts. Beyond any divine intervention, however, Agamemnon prevails because of the appeal of his "experience" to the troops as a whole, while Achilleus' skills, however valuable they may be, are perceived as "elitist." So it is that the Homeric saga now rams into the travails of the Democratic Party.

Those who really want to stretch this argument can consult Aeschylus to find out what eventually happened to Agamemnon! Achilleus, on the other hand, eventually leaves his tent and wastes no time in reminding both Achaians and Trojans that he is still "the greatest." However, he has another tragic flaw, which is one small point on his heel that is not invulnerable; so, in the final days of the siege of Troy, he is brought down when an arrow shot by Paris (who started this whole mess with the abduction of Helen) is guided by Apollo (still mad at the Achaians after all those years) to strike Achilleus at that one point. (We are now in the territory of Virgil's Aeneid.)

For all the tales of heroic deeds, then, the Homeric take on the Trojan War is really all about "ill will towards men" (to contrast with the message the angel delivered to the shepherds) and more among the Achaians than between Achaians and Trojans. Whether or not Achilleus is really an appropriate model for Obama, there has certainly been an impressive degree of invulnerability in his campaign strategy; and much of that invulnerability may have come from his ability to raise himself above the muck when it looks as if things are getting ugly. This has to have been a strategic decision on his part; he could not have come this far from beginnings in Chicago politics without being touched by the "dark side" of the process. Therefore, what is most impressive is how well this decision has turned out for him; but, like Achilleus, the strategy may not be entirely invulnerable.

So we come to today's obsession of the Sabbath-Day Gasbags. For all of his popular appeal, is the perception of elitism the sensitive heel which, if properly struck, can bring down Obama's strategy? Given the metaphorical arrows that have been fired by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, they certainly would like it to be (with or without any assistance from Apollo). However, as Sam Stein, another Huffington Post Political Reporter, wrote last night, Obama and his strategists are laboring mightily (with the strength of Achilleus?) to keep his discourse "on message." In the less poetic language of Warren McCulloch, they are accusing both Clinton and McCain of biting Obama's finger rather than looking where he is pointing. (One might even go so far as to suggest that a recurring Clinton strategy has been first to bite the finger and then to point in the same direction.)

For my part I hope Obama keeps his finger intact. As I wrote yesterday, I feel as if he has finally given some teeth to all his rhetoric about audacity; and, as I put it, he identified "a systemic problem to which most players in our political processes have contributed in one way or another (including Obama himself)." That post attracted an anonymous comment, which followed up on this observation in an interesting way:

Obama, however, is in a difficult position. He can't speak out about the systemic, fundamental issues that America faces without losing the support of the elite. Moreover, his message - were he to speak plainly - might be lost in the shouts of "un-American".

The honest truth needs to be told. Will anyone actually tell it? More importantly, will America listen if it is spoken?

We are now witnessing the consequences anticipated by the first paragraph. The questions in the second paragraph remain unanswered. Obama has pointed his finger at a "dark side" that he has probably experienced first-hand. Unlike Achilleus and perhaps a little bit more like Oedipus, he wants us to believe that, having emerged from that "dark side," he is now in a better place from which he can take on our own darkness, replete with frustration and expressed in bitterness. I have no idea whether or not our country can accept looking where that finger points and listening to what Obama is telling us. The signs, however, are that they see in both Clinton and McCain more frustration and more cause for bitterness. If Obama prevails, it will be through staying "on the message" that sets him apart from his opponents in both the Democratic and Republican Parties; and he may yet show himself to be less vulnerable than the "bards of the media" want to make him out to be.

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