All in the Game

Inside the mind of Barack Obama as he sets forth on his first term as president
Online Only: Walrus Managing Editor Jared Bland interviews Mark Kingwell at The Shelf blog.And so you woke up one morning and it was finally over. Victory. A triumph. Your acceptance speech was deliberately subdued, more effective in its withheld power than the barn burners of the early days. The crowd surged and wept. Your wife and daughters exited the windswept stage smiling, leaving you there, tall and handsome, a new man for a new millennium.

And what you thought then was not what people think. It was not the relief or joy of having won. It was not the burden of that same win. It was not even a mixture of the two, the smart pundit’s comment of choice. He’s got a lot on his mind now, Anderson. The reality is starting to sink in, Tom. Heavy lies the head, Campbell.

It was none of that. Instead, you kept thinking of that moment on the late-night talk show, the funny one, when you were asked to recite random text as if it were a speech. And you did that, because it was the funny one, and it’s important to show you have a sense of humour and you’re not stiff or elitist or dull. You did it. And it was weird, it was eerie, it was actually kind of creepy. The banal words came out of your mouth with the same intonation, the same building crescendos of inspiration, that floated hope and change and yes we can across crowds and screens, and that made people, even hardened cynics, tear up a little, because even they believed it might be true or just really wanted it to be true. Or maybe because of some mysterious neurobiological response from a deep part of the primate brain that responds, physically and emotionally, to certain rhythms and stresses, recalling the happiness of dancing, the beatific content of polyphonic harmony or Fibonacci curves, the line of beauty. As basic and as meaningless. As content free.

No, worse — not content free, content neutral. You could say anything at all, and if it was said right it would sound right. It would be right. There you were, reciting the phone book or whatever, and it sounded awesome. And the host was kind of freaked out, and you were a bit freaked out too. Because what was going on anyway? If inane sentiments, random word strings, could sound almost as certain, almost as impressive and commanding, as your real message, your message of hope and change and yes we can, what was that? Your message was real. The other wasn’t. And yet they sounded the same.

But now, making another speech, accepting the office, inaugurating the new era, you thought: wait a second. This is crazy, you thought, there on the stage in front of the people shouting and waving and weeping at the mere sight and sound of you. The difference is obvious, it’s obvious. Anyone watching you, hearing you, recite the phone book or whatever could tell the difference — that was what made it funny, the incongruity of making the meaningless sound meaningful, the contrast between appearance and reality, between acted and meant, between insincere and sincere, fake and authentic. Anyone, everyone, knows the difference. The difference is obvious!

And in fact, in fact, look how smooth you are, playing with this difference in such an assured way, meeting objections that you are an underqualified rhetorician, a pretender, by turning right around and taking them head-on, showing off your rhetorical skills to put them in their proper place. Not with the truth. Not with the message. Just the technique. Just the vehicle for delivering the message. One cool customer, you thought briefly to yourself there on the stage, one deft operator, being able to play around like that, to be so comfortable, so at ease with the difference that you could jump over the difference and back. You had command. It was obvious.

Was it really? Yes it was. Of course you had it, it was in your grasp, you knew in your heart, your faith was strong, your purpose true, your aims noble, and your character fine. Of course they were. You had it. Everyone said so. Everyone agreed. Everyone celebrated your command of the difference. But did you really have command? You kept wondering, and the wondering was hard to quell, because that wondering was part of your having it. Your certainty came from doubt, your courage from trial, your resolve from pain. The command was earned, you’d been trying to show that for months and months now. And everyone agreed, everyone said so. The wondering remained, though, and you wondered in turn about that. If you had, if everyone said so and everyone agreed, how come you kept wondering, how come you had moments of doubt that did not resolve into certainty, moments of trial that did not bolster courage, pains that would not go away because they were part of you?

Okay, okay — just a human being here. Not a saviour. Not a god. Not a devil either, or an evil genius. Just one man, risen to the top. Risen to the top of a system where the oneness of one man, the oneness of one woman, was the whole idea. Each one counts for one. That’s the basis of the whole shebang, that’s the fundamental tenet. Six billion of us, more, and in theory every single one counting for one. Everything flows from that, everything. Even though right now it was just 300 million or so, the ones with the right photo ID and bank accounts.

We actually know it’s not true. It’s a fiction, this counting for one. A necessary fiction, you thought, standing there. It’s one of those fictions that serve a crucial purpose and therefore are accepted, their untruth converted to value. You might call it a noble lie, a lie with moral sanction. Because nothing would work without it. The whole system would crash if we stopped agreeing to suspend disbelief about this one thing, this basic idea. The whole business would come tumbling down. One counts for one. Even though it doesn’t. And it doesn’t because we’re not equal, in opportunity or access to justice, let alone wealth, any more than in talent or good looks. Because nobody without millions of dollars to spend could even think of standing where you were now. Because one man with dark skin was not about to change the fact that who your parents were accounted for most of what your life would be like, despite the constant claims directly to the contrary.

Those claims had to keep coming, though, and we had to go on believing them, or else everything would falter. You wondered: did we play at democracy the way we play at cards or dice, evening out differences with the mechanisms of chance, with fictional order and accepted rules? Or perhaps as children play, imagining and taking on roles, switching them around, acting them out, pretending? A magical system, a brilliant invention, the best one so far?

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5 comment(s)

David Owen MorganMarch 14, 2009 10:46 EST

But Mark, isn't the joke that nobody votes for the philosopher king? Even if inaugurated under the same unabashedly philosophical pretense that was the promise of a Presidential campaign, accepting the terms of philosophy's hope-for-wisdom-game already looks like political suicide. Right? Didn't Plato say that?

Extending the metaphor, even in victory Obama's trajectory looms nearer to David Foster Wallace's sad spoilsport suicide than you're acknowledging here. Even if it was a triumph for reason and wisdom, a clever subversion of the rules to sneak a philosopher through the door dressed in hope's sheep's clothing, does anyone really believe that story goes anywhere from here? Seems to me that if you're the philosopher President, the only way to save yourself from imminent political demise is to shed your skin once more and reveal that you can be the wolf-tongued politician we've seen all the others become. The philosopher gets left behind, forgotten, head hanging low while fumbling back down into the cave of middling bureaucracy and rhetoric and stupefying black-and-whites.

Piercing piece of writing here, though, perhaps most of all for imagining introspection possible while hypnotized before a crowd of one-point-five million. Stellar. More on point than my comments here, anyway, for you should never cry wolf.

Alan SerrecchiaMarch 21, 2009 10:38 EST

I see why Obama does what he does, call it trickery, call it illusion - he, the great pusher of hope but what I don't see is why Mr. Kingwell does what he does? Why anybody does what Mr. Kingwell does, myself included?
That is, use one's skill to pull down the cloak of hope that Obama builds up? Why do this?

Ignorance? Clearly not. "Without hope, we would see that the bleakness of the world is not that it is unjust, but that it is meaningless".

The alternative is well known, but then why?
Why cast a light on darkness when it is already so easily seen?

So Obama comes along with a shinny new mask, one that many perhaps do not recognize, and they let him in, they let hope in. His skills are too refined - they cannot refuse what he offers, they cannot see the cracks in it.

But why use our skills to reveal to others what they cannot themselves see? For their betterment, or for ours? So that we may avoid suffering alone? After all, you cannot guide someone away from 'falsehood' without a sense for the 'truth' - but there is no sense to hope, right?

Maybe someone better may come along? Someone more truthful, someone who really can provide hope? NO! As mentioned NO ONE CAN DO THIS, EVER!

The point is, hope allows, it leaves the door open, what steps through, has nothing to do with hope.

A meaningless life in the face of our desire for meaning is most certainly unjust and yet, life only becomes unjust when we unnecessarily conclude the question of meaning prematurely - that is, during the process of our living.

To slightly invoke an old voice, it is a conclusion that we draw that then draws us - and the rope of life with it.

Lets hold high our hopes and those who inspire them and those who remind us how to forget and how to remember.


Gene MillerApril 21, 2009 09:04 EST

What an interesting excursion! Great piece.

Really, if you exteriorized the thoughts that a lot of us have been having lately, you would come up with streams that ran with Obama's meditations as imagined by Kingswell. Had Obama's 'universe of private thought' seen the light of day during the campaign, we might well be dealing with McCain/Palin idiot-triumphalism. But I wonder if Obama had any of this worked out at the start, or whether he has seen only since taking office how much of a 'reset' of the American way of life will be required.

(In this context, you wouldn't want to miss David Brooks on the evolution of Obama's agenda in the New York Times

In the same way that Cheney presumed to speak for the whole country and the national mission when he stated "The American way of life is not negotiable," Obama now presumes to speak for the national identity when he says that "we have built our house on sand."

Rahm Emmanual has suggesed, as have others, that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." However you imagine Obama's private soliloquy—and Kingwell has made it deliciously Shakespearean (keep going Mark, there's a book in it), it amounts to opportunity meeting genius meeting 'ecological' inevitability. I sense that's how history will see it.

Anna ReitmanJune 29, 2010 09:15 EST

Mark Kingwell...get out of my head!
Brilliant and remarkable essay...

Obama's strategy was apparent during his presidential campaign. He sent his adviser to explain to Canadian officials that alluding to the possibility of NAFTA renegotiations was just political positioning. Say anything to win.

Message? What we say is not what we do.
Result? Maintenance of the status quo.

Myles MackenzieNovember 05, 2010 10:31 EST

I revisited this essay today, as a kind of intellectual memory jog of the things that have been floating around my head since Obama's election.

Following the anti-Obama wave that was this week's mid-term election, it strikes me that the perfect emptiness of Obama's hope construct, that you describe, is very much at the heart of his current political trajectory downwards. Not so much because those who were caught up in his message have lost faith or have been stung by the harsh reality of unrealizable expectations. Surely this factors large, but it isn't the full story.

Where the philosopher king has erred most tragically is in not laying the conditions for his other friend 'change' to live on. We all know that governing and campaigning are distant cousins at best, but what Obama put on offer, besides the ephemeral notion of hope, was the promise of inclusion and participation in the shaping of the nation's governance. The transparency and engagement of Government 2.0 (if one must describe it so), was in many ways the real potential manifestation of the hope and change so bandied about.

This was what caught the interest of the young, of the curious and of those who saw the possibility of sharing the responsibility of community and nation building. The inspiring rhetoric of Barrack Obama contained within it the perspective of that young community activist in Chicago a decade earlier. An optimistic perspective that came not only from imaginings but from building community and affecting change in people's lives.

If there was any means to escape practical failure to the benefit of a metaphysical hope, it was in offering Americans a means to experience a similar, if smaller, active role in the building something. Without such an avenue, the ground has became fertile for others pointing at another god, as it were.

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