Andrew Sullivan, who writes a wonderful blog (which I must confess I am addicted to for its combination of serious thinking and daily links covering the breadth of our culture), has written the cover story for the Atlantic Monthly this week. In it, he makes the case for Obama.
As readers of this blog know, I am an Obama supporter as well. I even drew lessons from his campaign style on how to raise my kids without lying to them (see "Obama's Example for Parents: It's better to Hedge than to Lie"). When you take a Presidential candidate's style to be a lesson for your kids, and you're not Chris Matthews on a book tour, that is serious support.
But I can't agree with Sullivan's premise that Obama's main appeal is that he transcends the resentments and divisions of the Boomer generation. I think that is wishful thinking, a product of a desire on Sullivan's part to escape history, a classic Romantic, indeed "Transcendentalist" urge.
The truth about Obama is that he is a symbol of the victory of one side. Obama's candidacy is the Iwo Jima, if you will, for the side of the Boomer war that has, after more than four decades, "overcome some day": the hippies, the war protesters, the drop-outs, the integrationists, those hairy, messy, starry-eyed kids who moved to San Francisco with flowers in their hair (well, the ones that got past the drugs).
Why do I say this? Because his validity as a candidate shows that Americans now see racial integration as a given; they see kindness as part of the male identity; they see religion as something to discuss with reference to the play of cultural traditions instead of the received, exclusive, timeless Word of God. Obama articulates what Sullivan calls a "conflicted and resilient identity," one that relies on his own power of narrative to weave it together. His identity is a journey, and in understanding it this way he marks himself as a product of the Boomer obsession with personal identity, an obsession labeled ennobling by those on one side, and narcissistic by those on the other.
Here's Sullivan on Obama's book, Dreams From my Father:
"[This book] was a genuine display of internal doubt and conflict and sadness. And it reveals Obama as someone whose “complex fate,” to use Ralph Ellison’s term, is to be both believer and doubter, in a world where such complexity is as beleaguered as it is necessary."
Exactly. The side of the Boomer generation which supported Vietnam, which rejected the sexual revolution and the bra-burning, which detested the idea of America as a place of flag-burning, civil disobedience, ruptures in the social framework, in short, the side of the Boomer generation that is still behind Bush because, well, he's a "good man," that side does not believe in a world where "complexity is as beleagued as it is necessary." They believe in a world of clear rights and clear wrongs, God, country, and (generally speaking, white, heterosexual) family.
If Obama's candidacy means anything it means that those days are soon to be over. That's why I like it. Obama is visible history on the move, not its transcendence.