Obama vs. the Phobocracy

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By Michael Chabon
Monday, February 4, 2008; 12:00 AM

There are many reasons not to support Barack Obama's candidacy for president, but every one of them is bad for the same reason.

Because I have come out publicly for the senator from Illinois, I am often called upon to listen as people offer up -- with wistfulness and regret, or with a pundit's show of certainty, or with a well-earned but useless skepticism -- their bad reasons for not giving Obama their support. For a long time now, I have listened to these people with forbearance and with a sense of duty -- not to some principle of open debate or of the inherent merit in the free exchange of even meritless ideas, but rather out of obligation to the candidate whose cause I champion.

Because Obama appears to be a patient, forbearing man with a gift for listening, I figured I owed it to him to play the thing his way. So I have nodded and looked into their eyes and hummed sympathetically as people gave their reasons and made their excuses and generally offered up, as if they were golden ingots of profound wisdom, the handful of two-penny nails with which they plan to board up the windows of their hopes for themselves, their families, their country and the world.

But now, with everything seeming to come down, at last, to the first Tuesday in February, and in the wake of an all-out, months-long push by the cynicism industry to cook up an entire line of bad reasons ready to heat and serve, I admit that I'm getting tired of listening to rationales from people who know that Obama is a remarkable, even an extraordinary politician, the kind who comes along, in this era of snakes and empty smiles, no more than once a generation.

Oh, sure, most of these people tell me they would like to see Obama become president. No question, he comes off as at once brilliant and sensible, vibrant and measured, engaged and engaging, talented, forthright, quick-witted, passionate, thoughtful and, as with all remarkable people whom experience has taught both the extent and the bitter limits of their gifts, reasonably humble. In a better world, people tell me, in theory, sure, having a president like Barack Obama sounds great. But not, you know, for real. Not in the base, corrupt, morally spent, toxic and reeling rats' nest that we like to call home. Things are so bad we just can't afford to waste our votes, people tell me, on some fantasy super-president with magical powers. We need someone electable, someone, as I have been told repeatedly in the past year, who can win.

Of course this misses the point; it misses all kinds of points. In a better world, if there were such a thing (and so far there never has been), we would not need a president like Obama as badly as we do. If there were less at stake, if our democracy had not been permitted, indeed encouraged, to sink to its present degraded and embattled condition not only by the present administration but by a fair number of those people now seeking to head up the next one, perhaps then we could afford to waste our votes on the candidate who knows best how to jigger, to manipulate and to conform to the vapid specifications of the debased electoral process it has been our unhappy fate to construct for ourselves.

Because ultimately, that is the point of Obama's candidacy -- of the hope, enthusiasm and sense of purpose it inspires, yes, but more crucially, of the very doubts and reservations expressed by those who pronounce, whether in tones of regret, certainty or skepticism, that America is not ready for Obama, or that Obama is not ready for the job, or that nobody of any worth or decency -- supposing there even to be such a person left on the American political scene -- can be expected to survive for a moment with his idealism and principle intact.

The point of Obama's candidacy is that the damaged state of American democracy is not the fault of George W. Bush and his minions, the corporate-controlled media, the insurance industry, the oil industry, lobbyists, terrorists, illegal immigrants or Satan. The point is that this mess is our fault. We let in the serpents and liars, we exchanged shining ideals for a handful of nails and some two-by-fours, and we did it by resorting to the simplest, deepest-seated and readiest method we possess as human beings for trying to make sense of the world: through our fear. America has become a phobocracy.

Since I started talking and writing about Obama I have come to see that this ruling fear, and nothing else, lies at the back of every objection or reservation people raise or harbor regarding the man and his candidacy.

Fear whispers to us that white voters have a nasty tendency to tell pollsters, friends and neighbors that they support an African American candidate, then go into the voting booth and let the fear known as racism pull the lever.

Fear tells us that ugliness, rage and brutality are the central facts of human existence, that decency and tolerance are luxuries on whose altar our enemies will be only too happy to sacrifice us.

It is through our fear of falling prey to the calamity and misadventure from which the media promise faithlessly to protect us -- a fear manufactured and sold by the media themselves -- that we accept without question the media-borne canard (tainted, in my view, by a racism as insidious as any that hides behind the curtains of voting booths) that Barack Obama, a seasoned and successful 46-year-old husband and father of two, a man sweeping into the prime of his life with all his sails and flags unfurled, is too young and inexperienced for a job that demands vitality and flexibility and that, furthermore, has made nonsense of glittering resumes, laughingstocks of practiced old hands and, in a reverse of Popeye's old trick, ravenous alligators out of years of accumulated baggage.

Fear and those who fatten on it spread vile lies about Obama's religion, his past drug use, his views on Israel and the Jews. Fear makes us see the world purely in terms of enemies and perils, and leads us to seek out the promise of leadership, however spurious it proves to be, among those who speak the language of that doomed and demeaning, that inhuman view of the world.

But the most pitiable fear of all is the fear of disappointment, of having our hearts broken and our hopes dashed by this radiant, humane politician who seems not just with his words but with every step he takes, simply by the fact of his running at all, to promise so much for our country, for our future and for the eventual state of our national soul. I say "pitiable" because this fear of disappointment, which I hear underlying so many of the doubts that people express to me, is ultimately a fear of finding out the truth about ourselves and the extent of the mess that we have gotten ourselves into. If we do fight for Obama, work for him, believe in him, vote for him, and the man goes down to defeat by the big-money machines and the merchants of fear, then what hope will we have left to hold on to?

Thus in the name of preserving hope do we disdain it. That is how a phobocracy maintains its grip on power.

To support Obama, we must permit ourselves to feel hope, to acknowledge the possibility that we can aspire as a nation to be more than merely secure or predominant. We must allow ourselves to believe in Obama, not blindly or unquestioningly as we might believe in some demagogue or figurehead but as we believe in the comfort we take in our families, in the pleasure of good company, in the blessings of peace and liberty, in any thing that requires us to put our trust in the best part of ourselves and others. That kind of belief is a revolutionary act. It holds the power, in time, to overturn and repair all the damage that our fear has driven us to inflict on ourselves and the world.

And when we all wake up on Nov. 5, 2008, to find that we have made Barack Obama the president of the United States, the world is already going to feel, to all of us, a little different, a little truer to its, and our, better nature. It is part of the world's nature and of our own to break, ruin and destroy; but it is also our nature and the world's to find ways to mend what has been broken. We can do that. Come on. Don't be afraid.

mchabon@gmail.com

Michael Chabon's novels include "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and, most recently, "Gentlemen of the Road."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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