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Essay

Obama Amid the Pillars Of an Ancient Culture

On the final evening of the Democratic National Convention, delegates and supporters moved to Invesco Field in Denver. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is set to accept the Democratic nomination for president Thursday evening, making history as the first African American presidential nominee from a major party.

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

There is no more generic architectural statement in the United States than the Greek temple. White columns and classical proportions are the aesthetic DNA of our banks, libraries and office buildings, as well as almost every important structure in Washington, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It is the default architectural style of democracy -- and totalitarianism, too.

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Which makes criticism of the neoclassical platform on which Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination Thursday evening rather odd. John McCain's campaign mocked the structure -- the "temple of Obama" -- which included simple Doric-style columns supporting a classical entablature. The "Barackopolis," it was claimed, was a sign of Obama's hubris.

The sudden aversion to classical references on the part of Obama's opponents puts them at odds with a distinguished history of conservative scholarship. Conservative academics, invited to speak in Washington, can't seem to get started without reaching for the Greeks. Donald Kagan, a Yale scholar, cited Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides and Aristotle in his 2005 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. Two years later, Harvey Mansfield, another Jefferson lecturer, focused on the Greek idea of thumos -- which means something like "spiritedness."

As the culture wars roiled academia, and classical studies were threatened by multiculturalism, conservatives became possessive in their defense of the Greeks, which irks left-wing classicists, and would confound writers such as I.F. Stone, the progressive journalist who wrote "The Trial of Socrates." The Greeks were volatile people, and their legacy is not easily reduced to "conservative" or "liberal" ideas.

"We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality," said the Athenian leader Pericles in his "Funeral Oration" -- a remarkable expression of tolerance during a time of war. Try selling that, as a Democrat or a Republican, on the hustings -- a term that originally referred to the platform on which a political candidate would speak.

Closer examination of Obama's platform (the architectural, not ideological one) suggests some basic neoclassical precedents, including the Oval Office. That may account for part of the criticism he received: It is presumptuous to assume the trappings of the White House before earning the keys to it. This is hubris, the Greek term for dangerous pride.

It's an idea that Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz emphasized by slyly comparing Obama to a deus ex machina -- the divine figure at the end of a Greek play who sets the world in order.

"It's only appropriate," Diaz said, "that Barack Obama would descend down from the heavens and spend a little time with us mere mortals." Never mind that George Bush gave his 2004 acceptance speech on a very similar husting. Obama's opponents may worry that the deus ex machina idea needs to be mocked so it doesn't get traction. Obama, after all, would love to be seen as someone who can cut through intractable problems and rebalance the political order.

This suggests that the platform wasn't so much a temple as a theater. And indeed, it somewhat resembles a Greek theater with its distinction between the palace, behind, and the public forum in front.

But there's another architectural reference that may have greater resonance. While neoclassicism was the default architectural style across the United States, it became particularly associated with the aristocratic architecture of the antebellum South. Obama wasn't just borrowing ancient precedents, he was unconsciously recalling -- and appropriating -- the look of Tara and dozens of other (real) plantation houses.

Is race involved in the criticism of Obama's "temple"? Perhaps.

Consider an academic debate that roiled classical studies in the 1980s and '90s. This was the "Black Athena" controversy, which centered on claims of Martin Bernal -- a professor of ancient Eastern Mediterranean cultures -- that Greek culture was essentially cribbed from Afro-Asiatic roots. Bernal's book is not held in high repute today, but it fostered an important debate about the role of racism in classical studies.

The vitriol of the discussion also demonstrated the extent to which "classical" culture is equated with "white" culture, even on the most superficial level: white temples, white statues, white marble. Which turns out, of course, to be an illusion of history. Greek temples and statues were routinely painted with vibrant colors.

Efforts to use race against Obama often have centered on a stark juxtaposition of architectural ideas with Obama's blackness: One cartoon circulating on the Internet shows Obama painting the White House black; the controversial July 21 New Yorker cartoon in which he appeared as a terrorist inside the White House, rendered the Oval Office with precise neoclassical details: an arched alcove, molding and wainscoting.

The debate, then, isn't about arrogance, or Greek gods, or hubris. It's about whether Obama can lay claim to an architecture, and a culture, that is perceived as both our collective inheritance, yet is also deeply coded as European and white.


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