Friday, January 18, 2008

"Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!"

I realize this is the second time in one week that I have used a direct quote from Barack Obama as my title. The first time I concluded that I may be tilting in his direction as I consider how I am going to vote in the California primary; but my decision to use direct quotes has less to do with my personal preferences and more to do with the fact that the quotes are getting more interesting (which is why, in earlier posts, I have offered up quotes from Dennis Kucinich). Now, just to make sure we all have a "sense of reality" here, let us begin with the assumption that the last candidate to exercise true spontaneity in what he said was probably Ronald Reagan; and I certainly did not cast my vote in either of his Presidential elections on the basis of his spontaneous remarks! Nevertheless, one of the reasons why so many people have become so disgruntled with the current race for the White House (after the obvious fact that it has felt like it has been going on forever, because, in "political time" it effectively has been going on forever) is that they are pretty much convinced that everything they read or hear has been "pre-cooked," usually by the best crack time of writers and strategists that the candidate's budget can afford. Thus, when Obama, as reported by Nedra Pickler for the Associated Press, "embraced local traditions [in Las Vegas] by debuting a biting political standup routine Thursday night that mocked his rival," we should assume that his jokes were as spontaneous as the ones Groucho Marx came up with while interviewing the contestants on You Bet Your Life. (Presumably by now everyone knows that all contestants submitted biographical summaries before the show took place. Groucho had plenty of time to review these and work up his material, whether or not he had the assistance of other gag writers. The only "spontaneity" came from the fact that no one reviewed the resulting material, one joke of which ultimately got him thrown off the air.) However, spontaneity aside, Obama's "routine" threw a new light on the general matter of how people make their decisions in either voting booths or caucus gatherings.

Consider the context that let up to the punch line I chose to cite:

Obama began by recalling a moment in Tuesday night's debate when he and his rivals were asked to name their biggest weakness. Obama answered first, saying he has a messy desk and needs help managing paperwork _ something his opponents have since used to suggest he's not up to managing the country. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his biggest weakness is that he has a powerful response to seeing pain in others, and Clinton said she gets impatient to bring change to America.

"Because I'm an ordinary person, I thought that they meant, `What's your biggest weakness?'" Obama said to laughter from a packed house at Rancho High School. "If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. And then I could have said, `Well, ya know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. It's terrible.'"

"Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!" he said.

Any student of Wittgenstein has no trouble reading this as a parable about language games, but how many Las Vegas voters are students of Wittgenstein? (Woody Allen's classic piece for The New Yorker, "The Whore of Mensa," comes to mind.) All of those Las Vegas voters know full well that they are being jerked around by the language being dished out to them, not just by politicians but by just about anyone they encounter; but it takes a good joke to get at the heart how it is that language is more a process of social manipulation than a vehicle for communicating assertions. Obama figured that out, embedded it in a context relevant to the upcoming caucus, and incorporated it in his campaign strategy. I don't care if he (or his strategists, for that matter) calculated the whole thing out in advance. He deserves points for getting at least this one slice of the electorate to reflect on the whole selection process in a way that departs radically from how the media want them to think about it; and he deserves to score lots of points (if not my vote) for that.

Of course every good joke becomes more memorable in a context of a follow-up that drives the same point home. Here is how Pickler's account continues:

Obama chuckled at his own joke before riffing on another Clinton answer in the debate, when she said that she is happy that the bankruptcy bill she voted for in 2001 never became law.

"She says, 'I voted for it but I was glad to see that it didn't pass.' What does that mean?" he asked, again drawing laughter from the crowd and himself. "No seriously, what does that mean? If you didn't want to see it passed, then you can vote against it! People don't say what they mean.

"You know what I'm saying is true," he said, then addressed his routine directly at audience members who don't know who they will vote for yet. "Undecideds, remember now, remember what I'm saying."

There is that same punch line again, this time reinforced by the real message that addresses how those who participate in the Nevada caucus will make their respective decisions.

Obama may never be a Lenny Bruce or even a pre-cinema Woody Allen; but, if nothing else, he has captured the spirit of a more recent comedian and adapted it to his own purposes. That comedian is Robert Wuhl, who hit upon the idea of designing a routine to be delivered in a history classroom. Wuhl's lesson, as his HBO viewers know, is that the study of American history is the study of "the stories that made up America... and the stories that America simply made up." Obama applies his own style to the same goal, getting his "audiences" to appreciate how much of their "reality" is actually grounded in stories that are "simply made up." I strongly believe that being conscious of this fundamental precept can make us more informed (and, therefore, hopefully, better) voters. Whether Obama ends up the one who benefits the most from our being better informed remains to be seen!

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