Tag Archives: John McCain

Everything You Know is Wrong! or Escape from the Kingdom of the Proknows

“Everything we know” said Hillary Clinton would win the nomination, Barack Obama couldn’t, John McCain was finished and The Patriots would win the Super Bowl, but The Oracle of The Matrix would tell us it ain’t necessarily so!

There’s a line from a sketch by the comedy group Firesign Theater: “Everything you know is wrong!”  This much I know.

Recent events have me pondering this line.   I’m tempted to speak like the Merovingian in “The Matrix: Reloaded,” and declare it as the only real truth, but modify it thus: “Everything we know is wrong!”  or “What ‘everyone knows’ is wrong!”

There are people who “know.”  Call them “professional knowers,” or experts, consultants, gurus, etc.  In the media, we call them, as a group, “punditocracy,” “the chattering classes,” or “denizens of the blogosphere,” — or shall we call it “the blowhardosphere”?  Every field has its experts.  Let’s call them “ProKnows” — one characteristic of ProKnows is to coin phrases.  Politics is rife with ProKnows.   Some of them have bona fide credentials — degrees in this or that, or experience covering politics; others have forced their way into the public forum through tenacity, or high volume or because they provide quotable copy for other chatterers.  And yet, particularly in the past year or so, the one thing we really know about this crowd is that all of them have been consistently wrong.

Just think of what the ProKnows “knew” at some time in the past year:

  • Hillary Clinton will walk away with the Democratic presidential nomination because of her name, her connections, her money, and the army of ProKnows at her beck and call, but she can’t win in November;
  • Okay, so this Barack Obama guy has thrown his hat into the ring, but he doesn’t have a chance (see previous item); besides, he’s black, or not black enough, and he has that unfortunate name, and nothing to his name but a nice speech from 2004; only starry-eyed neo-yuppies longing for the next JFK will vote for him;
  • John McCain has no chance to win the nomination because he’s too old, the Christian Right doesn’t trust him, he spoiled his independent creds by pandering to the Christian Right (that doesn’t trust him), his campaign stumbled early on;
  • Rudy Giuliani’s (short-lived) front-runner status, despite his divorces, and pro-life, gay rights positions, proves the Christian Right doesn’t matter any more (even though John McCain won’t win because of the Christian Right), and besides, once people get a look at him, they’ll drop him (actually, that turned out to be the case);
  • Mike Huckabee’s success proves the Christian Right still matters;
  • Mike Huckabee’s success proves the Christian Right doesn’t matter any more;

Some of these declarations were contradictory, while others were nearly universal, such as “Hillary is inevitable.”

I like to go back to “The Matrix.”  For me, not all roads, but a representative sample, lead to “The Matrix.”  Agent Smith, Neo’s archnemesis in the trilogy, keeps declaring the inevitability of his victory and Neo’s defeat and death.  He’s wrong repeatedly — although ultimately kind of right, but that’s another topic.  Also central to “The Matrix” is the battle between the computer programs named The Oracle and The Architect.  The Architect is the archetypal ProKnow: Even though, by his own admission, he has failed six times to create a flawless Matrix, he still searches for the technological fix, the more elegant equation, the extra bit of data that will somehow lead to a stable, infallible system based purely on everything “knowable.”

The Oracle, the archnemesis of The Architect and guru to Neo and his crew, possesses her own “knowledge,” but it is knowledge that escapes the known and the knowable, a.ka. the empirical, the verifiable, the quantifiable.  As she explains to Neo, The Architect’s job is “to balance the equation,” hers: “to unbalance it.”

We, the ProKnows, find ourselves often just like The Architect: confounded by what escapes our cultivated, quantifiable or at least rationally comprehensible “knowledge.”  And so, when we find ourselves, for instance, watching the New York Giants defeating the flawless New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, we witness the limits of our ProKnow knowledge, and fumble for some empirically feeble answer, such as “the Giants wanted it more” or “they found a way” (“life finds a way” sayeth the chaos theorist in “Jurassic Park”).  In other words, there was something beyond the playbooks, something we couldn’t draw on the screen with X’s, O’s and arrows — something that unbalances the equation.

Let’s go now to the final scene of “The Matrix: Revolutions,” the end of the trilogy.  The Oracle sits on a park bench, basking in the blazing new sunrise created by the child-genius Sati in honor of Neo.  Seraph, the Oracle’s faithful companion, asks the Oracle about this improbable outcome:

“Did you always know?”

“Oh, no,” the Oracle says, the sun illuminating her face, “I didn’t.  But I believed.  I believed.”

Coming soon: More examples of “everything you know is wrong.”

 

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Why Obama (and the Rest of Us) Can’t ‘Transcend Race’

Among the many tributes paid to U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama is his alleged ability to “transcend race.”  I’m afraid this truly is a fairy tale.

It might be accurate, in a narrow sense, to say that Obama can, and must, “transcend race” so he can appeal to diverse political constituencies on grounds other than race.  In that restricted sense, Obama has clearly already succeeded. 

 In any broader sense, Barack Obama cannot transcend race and neither can America.  Race is too fundamental to America’s history, society, culture and sense of individual and collective identity.

But don’t just take my word for it.  During research for my masters thesis at the University of Georgia, I read a  lucid book titled “Racial Formation in the United States,” by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.  Here is a passage from my thesis that summarizes racial formation:

Omi & Winant define race as: “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies,” and we should think of race “as an element of social structure rather than an irregularity within it; we should see race as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion.” Omi and Winant (1994) see the concept of race evolving through racial formation, “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed,” through an evolving series of racial projects.

So, according to Omi and Winant, the meaning of race can and does change through history.  No doubt various competing racial projects are changing its meaning even as I write.  If one of those projects has the potential to “transcend race,” I’m open to hearing about it, but I’m not holding my breath.  Witness how, over and over, discussions of Barack Obama shift, sometimes from one sentence to the next, from “transcending race” to identifying him as a black candidate.  During the campaign for the South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton took pains to point out Obama’s blackness.  The widely criticized trick backfired; South Carolina black voters apparently noticed Obama’s blackness, and overwhelming supported him.  No “transcendence” there.

It is historic, we say over and over, that America could very well elect its first black president.  Indeed, that would be a historic moment.  We’re already getting historic between Obama and Hillary Clinton.  But how is it possible to say we might elect a black president, and then insist that he or anyone else has “transcended race”?  If it still matters that much, then the color of his skin still counts at least as much as the content of his character.

Here are some corollary questions to think about:

Is it meaningful to say Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or any other presidential candidate “transcends race”?

If it isn’t meaningful to say of any of the white candidates that he or she “transcends race,” then what does that say about how we define race?  Which racial project is operating here?

We say without thinking that Barack Obama, whom we know perfectly well has a white mother and black father, is black, but I’ve never heard anyone say he’s white.  With multiracial celebrities abounding and multiracial children featured in advertisements, why does the “one drop rule,” which states that any portion of black ancestry makes you black, still rule?  Again, which racial project is at work?

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The Media and Barack Obama

Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Jim Wooten today asked the pertinent question, “Does the media prefer Barack Obama?”   Hillary Clinton clearly thinks so,” he writes, and continues:

Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” She was referring to a skit last weekend that had television journalists fawning over Obama.

“I just find it kind of curious,” Hillary continued, “that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, but I’m happy to answer it. You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it because I was part of the administration. But when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.”

The suggestion that the media caters to Obama was advanced earlier in the day by campaign supporters. Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton adviser, said that “the press has largely applauded” Obama “every time” his campaign launches pesonal attacks on Hillary. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says the media has “relished” Hillary’s slide.

Wooten goes on to write that he keeps a TV going and gives it a look when something interesting pops up.  “Here lately, with the field down to two candidates, it appears far more balanced — that is, when I look up and the story is political, I’m as likely to see Hillary as Obama. ”  But that wasn’t the case earlier, when cable channels clearly preferred Obama, Wooten opines.

 He concludes by asking: “You report, you decide: Does the media prefer Obama?”

Well?  Media bias is hard to examine, since the examiner is inherently biased in the examining.  If you’re a Hillary supporter, a supporter of someone else, or simply skeptical of Obamamania, you might well assert that the media favors Obama.

But the perception of bias is common, maybe universal.  The most partisan supporters of the Palestinians are convinced the media are biased against their cause and let Israel get away with everything, while the equivalent on the Israel side are just as convinced  the bias runs the other way.  And they’re both criticizing the same coverage.

Given the above caveat, I do sense the media favor Obama.  From a journalistic standpoint, his personal story really is more interesting than those of the other candidates.  It’s a story to unjade us: The interracial marriage, the immigrant father, the son of the African immigrant who goes to Harvard, the relatives in Kenya following his every move.  The response to Obama, that “audacity of hope” euphoria, is genuine and reporters write about it, and thus inevitably fan it.

Still, my sense is that the media does favor Obama.  The media — by which, readers should understand, I mean mostly the political press — hasn’t liked Hillary from Day One, long before Obama appeared.

 It’s not just the-liberal-media-loves-the liberal, though.  The political press corps loves John McCain, at least since the Straight Talk Express days in 2000.  The media never liked Rudy Giuliani, g0ing back to his New York mayoral days, and he returned the favor.  Politically, Rudy is largely a bit further left than McCain.

Does the media’s playing favorites help the favored and hurt the disfavored?  It would be hard to support a “no” answer, but where’s the chicken and where’s the egg?  Do some public figures naturally rub reporters the right way and the wrong way (in a figurative sense)?

 In my case (I’m not a national political reporter, btw), I find it hard to warm up to Hillary and easy to warm up to Barack.  Full disclosure: I have a multiracial son, nieces and nephews.  I very much like John McCain on a personal level.  His personal story is also compelling.

But if the media’s bias is discernible, despite our constant pieties about “objectivity,” then aren’t we in trouble?  How much damage do we do to our credibility?  It’s too flip to say there’s not much damage left to be done; it’s immensely important to democracy that the press maintain its credibility and do its best to strive for objectivity.

During my brief stint as a college journalism professor, I tried to tell my students the reader shouldn’t be able to tell your political opinion or opinion of a person from your reporting.  I guess I didn’t teach that lesson — or any other lesson, I’m afraid — very well, but apparently neither did my colleagues.  Or is it the students who are the problem?

Back to Lesson One, anyone?

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