Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, July 28, 2008

The "Kitschification" of Obama

What inspired this post was a thread we had last week about Obama's trip to Europe. I expressed a concern about the JFK analogy. And I didn't get back to reading the comments, and I noticed today that Pombat and others mentioned that this was the analogy being advertised around the world. So I replied to those comments and then realized that by now they were buried so deep, no one would probably see them and I figured that the discussion merited a post on its own. So I am repeating some of my comments here.

I am concerned about the commercialization of Obama's name and image. This divorces the real person from his own name and identity and makes him more of a cult figure than a real person or politician. I raised this concern about Obama's supporters (followers?) during the primary. For many, their faith was in his personality rather than his politics. I don't think that Obama or his campaign is encouraging this, it's just an organic thing, a shallow cultural trend where everything and everyone is a cartoon character or celebrity. But I am concerned about it for Obama's sake. Once he has to be a real leader, and start compromising his more popular beliefs or policies, where will these "cultists" be and what will they do? (enter the ominous music)

Here is a sample. I was in Target the other day and I saw a birthday card that was zoomed in on a woman's ample chest. She was wearing a white tee shirt with cleavage. On the Tee-Shirt was "OBAMA" in red-white-blue. On the inside was the note, "Now that I have your attention . . ."

I've seen stickers like this one below on cars:

Photo sources: Sticker Giant and Obey Giant Store

They are really cool stickers. But they elevate Obama to some mythic, revolutionary status. They were designed by a group called "OBEY Giant" whose slogan is "Manufacturing Quality Dissent". They have some really great stuff. But these stickers say nothing about Obama as a candidate, a policymaker or a politician. It appropriates his image and turns him into some kitschy, Worhalesque subject. It's hallow, meaningless, another way to say more about the wearer of the image than about the person whose image has been used- like save tibet stickers or Yellow Ribbon magnets and American flags on cars. And it will gain a life of its own apart from Obama.

This is also why I object to the Kennedy analogy, especially when Obama is running around Berlin. 1) Terrorism is not communism. Global warming is not communism. The threats facing the world now are nothing like the past. 2) It indicates a desire on the part of Americans to look backward and to yearn for the Camelot era of 1960s. That doesn't help us solve the problems today. We need to stay focused on today's issues and strategic planning for tomorrow. 3) I especially don't like the analogy because I remind people that Kennedy was, um, assassinated!

By focusing on Kennedy, a president who died before could really do much one way or the other (ask most Americans about Kennedy's contribution and you don't get much but what a great feeling he gave everyone and a few famous quotes), I think people are hiding from the real issues. Respect for the US has fallen dramatically and people around the world want the US to get better. They want us to pick a real leader. America still represents hope to a lot of people around the world and thus we have an obligation to be better and act better in the world. And our government has an obligation to treat us, its citizens, better. That should be the real story, not this "gee, isn't Obama just like Kennedy!" For starters, dudes, he's umm . . black and very much alive!


Pombat said...

USWest: just wanted to clarify which bits in that previous thread I was responding to, because whilst I do see this 'kitschification'* of Obama happening in the US, that's not how he's being portrayed down here in Oz - hopefully that's reassuring!

So, snips of comments in order:
USWest: "That said, it seems the theme from Europe to the Middle East is "We are waiting for US elections. We hope Obama wins." "

Me: "USWest: I know he's not gotten down here yet, but that's the theme in Oz too.
His tour seems fantastic to me - it's like he's getting a six month head start on the job, and looks like everyone he's meeting is supportive. Much hope here!"

And then your point, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
"Respect for the US has fallen dramatically and that people around the world want the US to get better. They want us to pick a real leader."

We're not seeing the kitsch side of things down here - no bumper stickers, t-shirts etc (yet...) - we're seeing a lot of stuff that inspires a lot of hope: news footage of a clearly smart, together, confident politician; being gladly welcomed by every VIP he meets with, and not making a single gaff (to paraphrase Jon Stewart, it's so sad that that's where the bar has been left, but hey).

From what I've seen of him, he's a true statesman. Hopefully he'll more than live up to the media coverage, because he's got a lot of work to do once he's in office...

*kitschification is a great word btw, which I fully intend to use in conversation as soon as possible!

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, US West. To be frank, comparing Obama to Kennedy kind of lowers the bar a little. Like you said, aside from not getting us all killed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy really didn't do much before he was killed.

Let's HOPE Obama does better.

I wouldn't worry about the commercialization/kitschification hurting Obama's electoral chances though. I can't remember where I heard it but somewhere I heard that which candidate's face sells best as a holloween mask in October has the best chance of winning in November.

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest writes that posters like the "HOPE" graphic shown above, "elevate Obama to some mythic, revolutionary status... [T]hese stickers say nothing about Obama as a candidate, a policymaker or a politician. It appropriates his image and turns him into some kitschy, Warholesque subject. It's hallow, meaningless..."

I understand what USWest is saying, and she is of course correct that these images give little if any indication of his policies. But then again, the traditional "Obama '08" sticker says even less. At least these are uplifting and--as USWest noted--they are pretty cool from a design point of view. I like them, I approve, and I do not find them kitschy--rather, I find them a powerful statement that America can be good again.

These are also Obama's equivalent of Reagan's "morning in America" commercials. But if nothing else, Obama is surely a better actor.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I like that USWest accidentally called these images, "hallow." A Freudian slip, perhaps?

Spotted Handfish said...

"America still represents hope to a lot of people around the world and thus we have an obligation to be better and act better in the world."

Sorry, but I don't think a lot of people would agree with this. America doesn't represent "hope". It represents the largest economy in the world with the largest military in the world, and so US domestics can have a great effect on the rest of the world. Maybe people desire an American lifestyle, but don't confuse that with wanting to be you.

Raised By Republicans said...

Spotted Handfish,

I'm sure a lot of people disagree with your staw man interpretation of what US West said.

She never said that people wanted to be us. Actually, I think her point was that many (not all) people look to us and get excited about the prospect of electing a thoughtful and intelligent leader (rather than a retarded monkey with a drug problem and mesiah complex) because we are the biggest economy with the biggest military. And we're usually a democracy that uses that power more responsibly than most other superpowers in history (compare us to the USSR, the British Empire, the French, China etc and we are certainly no worse and often better behaved).

What's more we have more potential to do good in the world than just about any other government so we're like the under achieving genious kid with a trust fund and a ticket to Harvard who could cure cancer some day but just keeps getting into trouble.

I know my hope is that an Obama victory will start to close the chapter on Bush approach to the world.

USWest said...

RBR is correct on my statement and I appreciate his clarification. Also, I work with many immigrants, most who came here to escape nasty regimes back home. And I have had several tell me that we in this country do not understand how people in less off parts of the world look at America and see it as a beacon of what is possible. Even the Arabs tell me that while the current Administration looks a like a petty dictatorship, America, unlike their countries has built in self-correcting mechanisms. Iranians love America even if their country doesn't. They want all things American. It's how they confront the restrictions placed on them. My friends from Eastern Europe, especially as you get closer to Russia, cling to the myth of America. And the myth is powerful. So in some ways, when the street of Berlin fill up to see Obama, they are really filling up to get a little piece of the myth. These people have more hope than I do at times. My own boyfriend who is from Turkey came to America for no other reason than the power of the freedom and the coolness of it. He is like a convert, more patriotic than I (therefore I forgive him for voting for Regan . . . twice.) So let's not be too quick to shrink America down into a single cynical proposition. And perhaps, the same can be said for countries like Australia that were not traditional colonizers as RBR point's out. Australia is also a wild land of opportunity for many immigrants who come for all sorts for different reasons.

I am cynical in a lot of ways. And I can argue, just as Spotted Handfish did, that we in this country have given corruption the veneer of legitimacy by legislating it. But then there is the other side of things, where some kid named Bill with a great idea can start his business in a garage in Silicon Valley and revolutionize the world with a personal computer. Or some guy named Carnegie can give small American towns $10K grants to build public libraries, therefore giving birth to an entire system of government funded libraries in nearly every town in America, something that doesn't exist in hardly any other country, including countries like France that claim to value erudition.. These things just aren't possible in many parts of the world.

Pombat, I can't claim "Kitschification" as my creation. I heard it first from writer, Philip Roth who spoke about the "Kitschification of destruction" regarding the public response to 9/11. It is a great word, though. That and "mawkish" which I often find myself using.

LTG: I agree that it is a great sticker, but being the man of faith that you are, doesn't that rank up there with the golden calf? It's like putting Obama on the same level with Jesus or something. That makes me a little queasy. And again, I just hope that the politician that Obama will have to be in order to make change happen won't be so disappointing to these people that they seek to hurt him. That is what worries me more than anything. In the meantime, it is good press for Obama. I don't see anyone doing this with McCain, unless of course they want to sell golf tees and a hand-held ball cleaning kit. How's that for Freudian slips, Dr. S? :-)

Dr. Strangelove said...

"...and a hand-held ball cleaning kit. How's that for Freudian slips, Dr. S? :-)"

Oh, indeed. I love it. (I mean the slip, not the kit.)

Raised By Republicans said...

You want the Golden Calf American style??? Here you go:

The Acting President said...

Just to let you all in on it, this was designed by OBEY artist Shepard Ferry and it's a work of art. Ferry is an Obama Supporter but I think it's unclear whether or not the image was meant to be one of support or a wind measurement.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The "hope" poster is not my style, but I don't see anything particularly wrong about it. It's not golden calf material to me.

As for foreigners and Obama, here's my take. For generations in the 19th and 20th centuries, America was a place people came to to make new and better lives for themselves. It was an outlet for Europeans who were stymied at home economically, religiously, or politically. As the Irish used to say, if America did not exist, they would have to invent it. I think Europeans in particular are excited about Obama because they imagine that he embodies what they wish America were, what many once believed America to be: young, future-looking, beyond racial and ethnic hatreds and division, unburdened by the past, full of promise, open to the world, the arsenal of democracy. The America their grandmothers told them about, American airmen during the Berlin airlift making special runs to drop candy to the children of Berlin who - just three years before - they were bombing. The America that our grandparents' generation told us about - the outpouring of love and exultation poured out on our grandparents' generation as they marched through Paris in August 1945. Or a generation before, when President Woodrow Wilson toured Europe and was greeted by ecstatic crowds as a new messiah, promising the end of all war. JFK represented, toEurope, all of these things too. Youthful, handsome, strong, brave. Europe was still dealing with its ancient hatreds, its collaborators, its dictators, its rotten past; America was going to the Moon.

I think that's also what the HOPE poster expresses. Many people look at Barack Obama and long to see in him that vision of the America they long for. It's not about policy.

If Obama did not exist, we would have to invent him. In fact, that's what people are doing. That's why some older people wonder about the seeming lack of content to Obama's campaign. To a great extent, Obama is himself the medium and the message.

Raised By Republicans said...

Can I just say how sick and bloody tired I am of people perpetuating the MYTH that Obama's campaign lacks substance.

When you compare him to every other major candidate from both parties, his positions are as detailed as theirs. This started as a Clinton campaign talking point which the press has picked up and run with. Now the Republicans are pushing it in the hopes of convincing some of the more resentful Clinton supporters to vote for McCain.

But this "Obama has no substance" story is nonsense.

USwest said...

Fair point, LTG and I think a good characterization of what others see in America.

RBR is correct. When the setting calls for a policy discussion, Obama does that. When it calls for a rousing, abstract speech, he does that.

What impresses me about Obama is how practical and grounded he is. He has had plenty of opportunities to screw up and each time, he soared. Allow me to rephrase that: Other politicans, when placed in similar situations, would have reacted with less integrity in responding than Obama. Obama always took a respectful, thoughtful, and reasonable approach. Examples: The Wright situation, the race situation, and even in the European tour.
McCain is a petty man and he acts petty. Obama isn't petty. He hasn't acted petty, and he hasn't put forth petty policies. I think what really happens is that the media is more interested in the soaring speeches than the policy. Policy is hard. People don't want to talk about the nitty gritty of policy. And that is why I get bothered by things that distract from serious policy disucssions. The soaring speeches pep up the troops. But then we need to use that "pep" to make change.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - I agree that it is false that Obama's campaign lacks substance. But it is also true that a great many of his younger supporters are not particularly into the policy stuff. Ask a lot of people why they support Obama and answers like "universal health care" etc. do not immediately tumble out of the mouth. What comes is anti-Bush rhetoric and maybe something about Iraq, at most. Plus high praise for Obama as a man of integrity, passion, vision, and intelligence.

Raised By Republicans said...

"But it is also true that a great many of his younger supporters are not particularly into the policy stuff."

And a lot of people voted for Clinton because she is a woman and a lot of people will vote for McCain because he's white. What's your point?

The Law Talking Guy said...

How many times do I need to say it? Lots of people who support Obama at the top of their lungs, like the people who have these HOPE signs, are into the person, not so much the policies. They were persuaded by his story, not his policy positions. The crowds for Obama were chanting "Yes, We Can" not "Universal Health Care Now!" or "Tax fairness now!" That's why arguments about policy during the campaign against Clinton didn't matter too much, but the Jeremiah Wright stuff did. That's why members of an older generation don't "get" the Obama thing. You can point out all the substance and policy you want in Obama's campaign, and it's all there, it doesn't change this basic fact that his supporters trumpet Obama's personal story more than his policies. Bill Clinton's message was "It's the economy, stupid." Obama's campaign slogan might as well be, "He's Obama, stupid."

McCain's campaign goes even farther and actually runs away from substance deliberately. His supporters aren't chanting "Offshore drilling now." They're mostly too old to chant and the conservative "christians" mostly hate McCain's policies, because they're not fascist enough or hostile enough to women and gays (although he's trying, Lord knows he's trying). The public doesn't like McCain's policies either, inasmuch as he's just promising a continuation of the Great Failure. McCain tries to gloss over all that. He just keeps saying, "I'm John McCain! Look at my background! I'm a war hero! I've got the judgment and experience! Blah-diddy Blah Blah Blah!"

No, Obama's got plenty of substance. It's just that few people, including his strong supporters, are really paying attention.

Anonymous said...

I don't think comparisons to JFK are a bad thing and I don't see it as looking back to the 60's either. I see him as a ry of hope for ending the criminal element that has a grip on this country and the world. If you have people in society who are abve the law, then there is no justice or laws...and that is what people are responding to I think...a new sheriff in town. And as far as the t-shirts et all, any mass media product like that is created for the lowest common denominator...not for you! They want non thinking people to vote for Obama too!

Raised By Republicans said...

"They want non thinking people to vote for Obama too!"


The Law Talking Guy said...

Of course they want non-thinking people to vote for Obama. That's what it means when you ask for votes from independents and Republicans.