“At the end of it, he watched the campaign go on from Wisconsin and he realized that tough enough and smart enough and shrewd enough weren’t anywhere near enough. Not in the country in which the campaign was now taking place. Not in the country that made the intemperate eruptions of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright from a pulpit in Chicago more relevant to its choice of the next president than the speechifying of Moqtada al-Sadr from a balcony in Baghdad. Not in a country that didn’t care if there was an actual heart left in its politics as long as the candidate put his hand over where that heart should have been or wore a pin above it on his lapel. The cynic believed that journalism wasn’t enough. He felt like that woman he’d seen in Chicago, screaming into the sleet while the trash piled up around her shoes.
Patriotism, the cynic read. There were “questions” about Obama’s “patriotism.” (Reading the elite political press had long ago forced the cynic to think with quotation marks.) The cynic knew where the “questions” about Obama’s “patriotism” were coming from. They were coming from the “conservative America” that Obama had told the Democratic convention four years earlier didn’t really exist, from the fat little delegates and their fat little wives who thought the Purple Heart Band-Aids were oh so very clever. They were coming from the people who did their best to disqualify black people from voting and gay people from marrying, in those red states that Barack Obama had told the Democratic convention were only an imaginary construct meant to divide us, as though the country didn’t open its eyes wide and walk into the divide, skipping and whistling like the children of Hamelin.
“Patriotism?” the cynic thought. “Patriotism” to what? To the forms of democracy and not the tattered remnants of its substance? To the words of the Constitution but not its neutered spirit? Blind, stupid, deaf, and dumb loyalty to shapes and colors and band music and bright shiny flag lapel pins, but nothing left for the bedraggled ideals dragged through the mud at Guantánamo and Bagram and a hundred other places?
The cynic read the words and he heard the quotation marks in his head, clanging at either end of the word like cell doors closing.
“My country, ‘tis of thee / Sweet land of dumbassery / Of thee, I fucking sing,” thought the cynic.
In Time magazine, right on cue, Joe Klein spectacularly opined that Obama hadn’t been “explicit” or “corny” enough in his expressions of patriotism to win over the good white burghers of western Pennsylvania, which seemed to indicate that Joe Klein firmly believes that western Pennsylvania is populated by lizard-brained morons. And right on cue, Obama went to North Dakota and told a crowd, “I love this country, not because it’s perfect, but because we’ve always been able to move it closer to perfection.”
When was the last time that happened, the cynic wondered. What country exactly is Barack Obama talking about here? This country has rolled back its constitutional order to a point where you’d think Thomas Jefferson had died as a child. It’s rolled back its jurisprudence to a point about a month before the Magna Carta. It has done so willingly, even eagerly.
Cynicism was noble, the cynic believed. It was to be directed only at targets worthy of it and not at a candidate’s failure to provide what the elite political press could sell to a complicit nation as the proper proletarian dumb show. It was to be directed at how seriously Barack Obama has misjudged the country he so obviously wants to lead, which is not the country he talks about but the spavined America that actually exists, because that’s the country in which the American people, in a hundred different acts of omission and commission, have freely determined that they want to live. A country of stunted anger and, yes, bitter denial of all that it’s done to itself. That’s the country in which Barack Obama is running now. If he sees it from the stage when he tilts his head and looks off into the far distance, he gives no sign of it.
He talks forever about “change.” Change from what? the cynic wondered. Obama never really says. He criticizes Bush, and his people, and his policies. He runs through the litany: Iraq. Katrina. The collapse of the subprime mortgage industry. The overall economy, now barely clouding the mirror under its nose. He’s tough when he does it, and smart, and shrewd. But it ends there. Obama never addresses the era of complicity, the fact of the country’s accessorial conduct in its own murder. He just tells the country that it’s really better than all that. And the cynic’s questions are never really answered. And he talks forever about “hope.” The cynic hears it and remembers the legend of Pandora. Hope was the jewel left in the box after she’d opened it, but Pandora never noticed Hope until she’d loosed all the demons onto the world.
Why would anyone have faith in America, which is not tough but fearful, not smart but stupid, and not shrewd but willing to fall for almost anything as long it comes wrapped in a flag? Why would anyone have faith in Americans? Barack Obama says that he has that faith because of his own life, because he was able to rise to the point where he can be thought of as president of the United States. He is the country’s walking absolution. That’s his reason, the cynic thinks, but it’s not mine. There has to be confession. There has to be penance. Being Barack Obama is not enough. Not damn close to enough.”