Much of the reaction to yesterday’s memorial service for the shooting victims in Tucson has centered on the raucous behavior of the crowd in attendance. A self-described “liberal” blogger quotes John’s New York Post piece on the peculiar atmosphere of the event — and goes on to remark on something I noticed: that President Obama appeared startled by the crowd’s noisy reaction to some of the best lines in his speech. Here is blogger Ron Replogle:
Obama was plainly taken aback by the crowd’s eruption into applause at the most inappropriate moments. He was there to deliver a eulogy. The crowd was there to participate in a democratic pageant. Applause was its way not only of honoring the victims of the Giffords shooting, but of congratulating itself for its own wholesome sentiments.
This last point could profitably be parsed in detail, but in a general sense, it captures a pattern developing in American society: one that results from deliberate inculcation as much as from the growing failure of social norms to dictate greater discrimination in our behavior. One manifestation, for example, is the invincible “self-esteem” enjoyed by low-performing American math students. Americans now spend much of childhood being encouraged, like toddlers, to clap their hands and shout “Yay!” about themselves on principle.
But it’s Obama’s reaction that got my attention. There’s a sense in which he appears to have ended up, haplessly, at the completion of a circle: he’s the one left holding the bag as the trends once urged by the 1960s-era radical left now demonstrate that they are already in force. Today, there’s no social institution called “The Man” left to rail against. The mythical figure who tried to hold us all back, lower our self-esteem, and keep us silent during eulogies has been vanquished. The crowd is in charge now — thoroughly middle class, self-consciously “diverse,” devoted to self-expression and self-congratulation — and its thing is to clap its hands and shout “Yay!” (or, alternatively, “Boo!”).
I’m reminded of a cult movie from 1968 called Wild in the Streets. Obama’s position has struck me more than once as being similar to that of the movie’s protagonist (played by Christopher Jones), a rock singer in his 20s who rides into the Oval Office on a wave of unbridled anti-establishment fervor. (The trailer portrays the movie pretty accurately.) The Jones character, in a manner reminiscent of Barack Obama, comes across as more conventional and reassuring to voters than many in his political cohort. But what he finds when he gets to the White House is that his movement has already torn down everything that made the office worth holding. There is nothing left to deconstruct or triangulate against; no throne to step down from.
The movie’s silly story line is an analogy to the Obama presidency, only in caricature. But the outlines have been visible on a number of occasions. Whenever Obama has disavowed America’s global leadership, but then expected foreign heads of state to give his policy gambits special weight, he has seemed to not understand that the one tends to cancel out the other.
My impression from yesterday’s service is that Obama was genuinely surprised by the untoward reaction of the crowd — and it may well be that he has never given real thought to the proposition that radicalism of all kinds is at odds with the order and seemliness we rely on. In that, he would be characteristic of his academic and political background. But he is a product of that background, not one of its driving forces. That it is he who must now stand before an indecorous people and try to observe decorum is not so much ironic as poignant and sad.