The world will little remember what Barack Obama said during his disappointing presidency, despite his messianic promise and his reputation as rhetor par excellence. His words were not memorable to begin with. (Try to recall a quotation, apart from his famous campaign slogan.) More significantly, his words were not intended to be remembered. They served a different purpose.
Today’s mass audiences, having been cultivated for generations to react instantly to the sounds of hortation and form an immediate impression, did not so much listen to President Obama as feel him. Obama offered listeners a participatory experience designed not to convey truth but rather to engender feelings of approval and affirmation. Bill Clinton tenderly felt our pain. Barack Obama invited us to feel his.
Obama understood that his mass audience, cultivated (“educated”) by interactive experiences like kindergarten, college, and Facebook comments, who now receive broken news in the form of tweets, would recoil if directly exposed to the bright light of an incisive, deliberate critique or a well-reasoned, prudential plea. The heat would blister their pale skin, unaccustomed as it is to regular exposure to the sun, were they not slathered in the SPF 30 of greasy ideology, which makes them immune to the actual meaning of words he spoke.
From Homer to Saint John, aletheia (truth) was an unveiling, an illumination of what is real. For Plato, the sun is analogous to the Form of the Good, whose illuminating rays shine the light of truth onto the realm of reality, allowing men to see beyond the shadow of mere opinion. But in the shade of ideology, in the sunless Mirkwood of unmoored rhetoric, everything is cool, pale, and dead.
Cool, that now ubiquitous word of the Jazz Age, means to be detached. Nothing seems to bother the cool dude, whose distant gaze, half-smile, and nonchalance suggest that he’s unperturbed by things that concern his nerdily excitable lessers. In President Obama’s case those things were the obligations of custom, tradition, law, faith, loyalty, blood, and community.
There’s no denying that Obama was the Cool President. All of the pundits, the professional impressionists, said so, including the man himself. “I’m a cool president,” the Leader of the Free World wryly replies to Jerry Seinfeld in a webisode of the aptly named Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And he says it with such irony! You just know that he’s totally self-aware, poking fun detachedly at his own coolness, which makes him all the more cool.
Teenagers are the archetypes of cool, because they live detached lives within a prophylactic society that idealizes and lusts after them, shielding them from adult responsibility while lavishing them with adult privilege. (Just don’t get [her] pregnant!) Adults who long to return to such a state of nature take turns worshiping them and resenting them, but always imitate them.
As every parent of teenagers knows, all of the cool kids (especially the overgrown ones who define our mass culture) talk, dress, and act alike. Unmoored, they float freely downstream and collect in the same eddies, just fluxing around, before the current draws them somewhere else. Their freedom is an illusion; they are actually caught in a vortex of unreality.
Had we paid attention to the Cool President, we would have noticed his fondness for the words values, pluralism, and tolerance. He dropped them regularly during his impression sessions, especially whenever a Muslim committed murder in the name of Islam, and the President wished to divert our attention from the logic of the crime. Over the summer, he used such language to comfort Canadians who, judging by his languorous tone, had been utterly paralyzed by that poisonous bigot’s breakfast known as Brexit. Speaking in the Commons before the Canadian Parliament, he noted the transcendental bond that unites the sons of Yankees and Tories:
[O]ur history and our work together speak to a common set of values to build on—proven values, values that your Prime Minister spoke of in his introduction—values of pluralism and tolerance, rule of law, openness; global engagement and commerce and cooperation, coupled with equal opportunity and an investment in our people at home.
One might say, with apologies to Red Sanders and Vince Lombardi, values aren’t everything; they’re the only thing. For, Obama continued,
As Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, “A country, after all, is not something you build as the pharaohs built the pyramids, and then leave standing there to defy eternity. A country is something that is built every day out of certain basic shared values.”
Here on this darkling North American plain, where values and not people are the warp and weft of existence, it is supposedly our moral duty to acquiesce in the face of an endless dialectical synthesis of whatever “We” currently are and whatever the cool kids identify as the next worthy “Other.” The Other will not be asked to assimilate (which would require an act of actual tolerance on our part), nor will we be urged merely to accommodate them and their alien ways (which is what actual pluralism would mean). We must instead combine with them to form a new reality, whose identity is values.
The discomfort we feel at this ontological alteration shows that we are not cool. (Q: Why is my pharmacist wearing a burka? A: Dude, chill.) It is considered a moral defect, an expression of prudish bigotry, which can be cured only by more unmemorable impression sessions, which banally reiterate the ideology of America as the nationless nation composed of disparate immigrants who have no common bonds—no shared history, no shared culture, no shared ethnicity, no shared religion—and therefore nothing to lose and everything to gain by merging with the Other. Indeed, in order to “be an American” (or apparently a Canadian, or perhaps a humanoid), one must simply commit oneself to “our values.” Since these values are actually “human rights,” the argument over the fitness of this or that species of Other is always moot and also reminds us somehow of Hitler. In fact, the very notion that the Other is “other” is suspect, because, from the moment they began to share “our values,” they had already begun the process of becoming Americans, whether they were standing on the soil of Kenya or Syria or Guatemala, or undergoing a full baptismal immersion in the Rio Grande. And judging by “our values,” they were at that time even more American than those who currently claim American citizenship yet stubbornly and xenophobically wish to exclude them.
We may now clearly identify why conservatives can never be cool, despite Pastor Tim’s best efforts at the Chastity Rocks! youth seminar, and that is attachment itself. Attachment to family, friends, community, tradition, ethnicity, religion, shared history, and any other existing thing that may stake a prior and higher claim on our duty, loyalty, and affection is not cool. Attachment cannot be tolerated because it assumes a plenitude of being, a recognition that realities independent of my individual self actually exist and do not depend on the all-powerful state for their existence.
Attachment implies a vision of the good that amounts to conforming to reality, and to do so requires us to know how all of these realities relate properly to one another. You are a son; be a good son. You are a farmer; be a good farmer. You are a citizen of Rockford, Illinois; be a good citizen of Rockford, Illinois. “Know your place”—a summary of biblical and classical wisdom, passed to us in our mothers’ milk—stings the nose and bites the toes of cool moderns, whose immediate impression upon hearing it is oppression. But if we don’t know our place—how who we are relates to everything else—then we don’t know how to be good, and thus have no chance at happiness. Modern men who want to be like the cool kids are sitting ducks, waiting for Leviathan to consume them, its digestive juices (“values”) pouring over their bodies, breaking them down into undifferentiated atoms before assimilating them into the state. Detachment requires that being who we are must needs give way to becoming what someone else wants us to be: a good meal for a predator.
Obama’s very person being an homogenization of black and white, many Americans naively pretended that electing him to the highest office would somehow solve the race problem. But “race problems are too important to be solved,” as Mel Bradford said. “They can only be accommodated. . . . [A]ll of us who will not take half a loaf will get a stone.” Abraham Lincoln’s attempt at solving the unsolvable problem was to create a black ethnostate far away and ship nonwhites to it. Today, other ideologues dream of a white ethnostate and invite Americans of European ancestry to believe that adopting this dream is essential to becoming who we are. These dreams, like Obama’s and Lincoln’s, are cool; but despite its usage, cool is not synonymous with good. Detachment from reality eliminates the possibility of the good.
The conservative answer—not a “solution”—to the uniquely American race problem is accommodation. Not accommodation to a continuing revolution or the need to foment a new one, but magnanimity toward our actual neighbors, a realistic desire for peace that doesn’t deny our differences or seek to eliminate them, but acknowledges our complex shared inheritance, which has already made us who we are.
The conservative’s confident understanding of human nature, richly supplied by our Christian and classical heritage in the West, assures us that there are limits to pluralism. We cannot accommodate everyone from everywhere. Far from being a contradiction, a vigorously sane immigration policy enhances our capacity for tolerance. History has taught us that there is violence in the borderlands. And the desire to transcend history is at the heart of all cool millenarian fantasies, which always end in bloodshed.
From the beginning, Barack Obama’s dreams of endless “Change,” of permanent national flux, were a recipe for racial animosity and violence. Ultimately, the impression that his words left was that magnanimity is impossible. Only submission to his ideology would yield peace and happiness. For eight years, he was captain of the football team and prom king, and we had to listen to him. Graduation day is fast approaching, and we’ve already forgotten everything he said.
It falls to conservatives to go beyond impression to understanding, however, because unreal chiliastic visions still compete for our affections.