Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Coalition of Diversity

Once again the people have spoken; and, in spite of what I have called our obsession with "top-dog thinking," there still is no top dog. As Associated Press Writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Calvin Woodward put it in their review of the primary results for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama:

Based on their current delegate counts, neither candidate can win enough delegates in the remaining primaries and caucuses to secure the nomination without the help of nearly 800 party officials and top elected officials who also have a voice in the selection.

In other words it all comes down to what the superdelegates choose to do at the Democratic National Convention.

They are going to be under a lot of pressure, not only from both Clinton and Obama but also from those who argue that superdelegates should be obliged to reflect the popular vote count. On the other hand, if the superdelegates were to unite among themselves, they could exert an alternative influence, which, as I previously observed, has been pitifully neglected by our political system: they could turn a competition into a coalition. Even if the concept of a coalition is alien to the prevailing rules of the political game, it has not entirely vanished from our cultural foundations.

This morning on NPR I heard at least one pundit invoke Joseph Campbell's concept of the heroic quest. Without quibbling over the authenticity or reliability of Campbell's scholarship, we would do well to recognize an important prototypical characteristic of the quest myth, which is that, while there may be a "hero," that hero is assisted by many agents. Each of those agents has both strengths and weaknesses. Each of the strengths must be brought to bear at some point along the road to achieving the quest; and sometimes a strength is used to compensate for a weakness of one of the agents (even a weakness of the hero). In other words it is not the hero who completes the quest but the team that forms around the hero (not always as a result of choices that the hero makes). Thus, for all the top-dog influences on our culture from athletic and military competitions, the fundamental myth of the quest is a celebration of the power of the coalition. Put another way, it is the fundamental myth about the building of a society.

I found myself thinking about this over the last couple of weeks while watching the episodes I had recorded from the Firefly marathon on the Science Fiction Channel. This is a quest myth that barely has a hero; but it does have a highly diverse collection of agents, each with a different knapsack of skills (and each with any number of all-too-human foibles). This is a pleasant contrast from Star Trek myths, all of which are organized around military structures in one way or another. Serendipity, the spaceship in which the Firefly characters travel, is much closer to a democracy than any of the Star Trek settings. If anything it is closest to that melancholy passage that Benjamin Britten wrote in Billy Budd, when the British officers are recalling the mutiny on the Nore and refer to it as "the floating republic," sort of the ultimate embodiment of a "ship of state" constituted on democratic principles.

This all reflects back on a point I raised about the nonsensical self-importance of the World Economic Forum. Do we, as I had then suggested, tell stories in order to keep fear at bay, because we have become so victimized by the culture of fear imposed on us; or do we, as Joan Didion put it, tell ourselves stories in order to live? It may very well be that, however badly we are being assaulted by fears contingent on the follies of our current administration, the very viability (which is to say "life") of the Democratic Party, if not our Constitutional foundations, will depend on whether or not we can live by the "coalition lesson" of the quest myth. The media will probably do their best to conceal that lesson. After all, their bread and butter (which is to say advertising revenue) almost always comes from stories of competitions, since so much of advertising is all about how to be a winner rather than a loser. However, if our culture has roots deeper than the media can undermine, we may yet be able to pull ourselves out of a mess that has been in the making for eight years. Pessimistic as I may be about the unraveling of our state of affairs, I would still like to believe that, just this once, we have what it takes to turn back those forces that have come so close to enslaving us. It just seems ironic that such a capacity may ultimately reside in the will of that elite class of superdelegates attending the Democratic National Convention.

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