In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, writer David Bromwich says, “…Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy—a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions.” He was talking about Obama’s recent rhetorical exchange with Benjamin Netenyahu and his foreign policy posture in general, but he could easily have simply been summing up the man’s career. When even The New York Review of Books has noticed that President Obama’s rhetorical gifts, such as they are, have little corresponding grounding in facts, consistent actions or coherent policy positions, it seems safe to say that the mirage of Barack Obama’s all-encompassing competence has lost a bit of its glimmer. In short, the man seems to say much but know little.
As his detractors have pointed out all along, this should not be a surprise, given that he had no real record of career achievement outside of a Chicago-machine-enabled rapid rise through political offices. No scholarly production, no legislative achievements, no experience in business, foreign policy, science or any of the other multitude of spheres in which he adopts a posture of knowing mastery. How can this be? How can a man who seems to so many to know so much actually know so little? How did he fool so many people?
There is nothing new about the BS artist, especially in politics, but Barack Obama embodies and expresses a particular form of posturing that has largely arisen since, and partly as a result of, the great wave of Baby Boomers processed en masse through the nation’s universities. A great deal could be said about this, but for right now I think it’s helpful to understanding the Obama phenomenon to look at one aspect of the cultural meme that 50 years of high-volume liberal arts education has produced.
Some say liberal arts education was originally designed to give the student a broad overview of the major spheres of the pursuit of knowledge. Some say it was designed to enable the children of the ruling class to appear educated at ruling class social events. Whatever the current state of liberal arts education is in America, I would say the latter case has taken hold in our culture, as throngs of bourgeois and hoi polloi have learned to varying degrees, mannerisms, postures, verbal and other behavior patterns they associate with the elite class. There are many elements to this, but one is the ability to simulate more knowledge than one actually has. This may not be the case for, say, math majors in college, where you can either do the proof or not. But how about in the humanities and the so-called social sciences?
Students in those areas are instructed and encouraged to represent their opinions in strong assertive terms, like good rhetoricians. When composing one’s term paper on “Barney Fife: Phallocentric Hegemonic Structures in Mayberry,” one is rewarded not for lots of “I thinks” and “I feels.” One is rewarded for representing (and, as most former undergraduates would agree, pretending) that one actually knows what one is talking about. And in the liberal arts, one reads a little about a lot of different things and can acquire the illusion that one knows quite a lot about a world with which one has not yet actually interacted. One’s head is filled with ideas and notions that have as yet had no opportunity to test against reality.
This is the norm in college. We all learned it, and we learned to recognize the trait in others as a marker of social class and status. We all learned how to hold forth on all manner of subjects we knew maybe a little about, or at least knew what someone we had read had said about. And of course, we all learned what the accepted opinions were, what the accepted sources of the accepted opinions were—which writers, “thinkers” and publications provided acceptable conversational supportive citations. We learned to be fake intellectuals.
The Woody Allen character in his film, “Play it Again, Sam” put on Bartok records when he had a girl over he wanted to impress, even though he had no real appreciation for Bartok. Come to think of it, Woody Allen himself has made a career of dropping names like Proust, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard throughout his films, while giving little evidence in his life or work of having actually read or understood those works. But his audiences love to be flattered that he assumes they have read those authors, or at least recognize that they were supposed to read those authors while they were otherwise engaged. Like his character in the movie, he is a poseur who appeals to his audience of poseurs.
Most college graduates, unlike Barack Obama, ended up with real jobs in spheres that tested, and perhaps demolished to some extent, the fine theoretical notions they acquired in college. Nevertheless, a significant cohort of that cultural meme still thinks of itself as part of the intelligentsia. And its members look to the cultural cues they recognize as signifiers of membership in the club as the principal credentials required for positions of leadership. And you either display those cues, as Obama does masterfully, and are therefore accepted or even revered. Or you don’t, as in the immediate past case of George W. Bush, or the current avatar of the “out” crowd, Sarah Palin. In which case, you are cast out, vilified and obsessed over with the full wrath of tribal abhorrence.
This is the culture that was so charmed and fooled by Barack Obama. Obama knows this game well. He has the look, the language, the culturally-potent signifiers, the knowing smirk, the snark of the college know-it-all. The Maureen Dowd cultural snark. The Tina Fey smirk. The Jon Stewart “good-natured” mockery of all nonconforming notions. The Bill Maher disgust (at least, at private fundraisers) with bitter clingers, Walmart shoppers and outré outliers who could never hope to enter the precincts of Those Who Know. People like “us.” He mastered the poses, the coded language, the mannerisms, the condescension. Above all, he dropped enough verbal nuggets to suggest that, unlike Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir, he already knew the answers to life’s persistent questions.
He was so good that, with the able help of the national media, he was able to convince a majority of voters that a man who had never had a real job in any field somehow knew more than everyone else about economics, capitalism, the Middle East, China, the environment, every individual American industry, how to get the world to love and respect us. Everything, really. Lots of people saw through him right away. But the majority who did not were wooed and seduced by the packaged façade. Many of them still are. They continue to be impressed by his Bartok records. They imagine he possesses the intellect, knowledge and insight they would like to think they have but know they don’t. But he seems to have it, and for far too many, that is enough.