Monday, January 26, 2009

Dumber than a Bag of Krauthammers

Charles Krauthammer's most recent piece about Obama's inaugural address is interesting to read in light of Stanley Fish's comments about the speech as parataxis, a piece of writing composed of separate moments instead of tightly linked units.

Krauthammer writes: It was so rhetorically flat, so lacking in rhythm and cadence, one almost has to believe he did it on purpose.... The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln's second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush's second inaugural.

In a way, Krauthammer is saying the same thing as Fish. Whereas Fish saw the speech as fitting into a specific rhetorical (even Biblical) tradition, however, Krauthammer sees only disorganization and even an intent to underwhelm:
In a stunning exercise in lowered expectations, Obama offered not quite blood, sweat and tears, but responsibility, work, sacrifice and service.

Krauthammer professes to find this an odd offering, but is it odd? Aren't responsibility, sacrifice, and work exactly what we want from a president? (And quite different from what the vacation-prone Bush gave us?) Wouldn't an inaugural address high on emotion and soaring rhetoric have drawn the scorn of people like Krauthammer? 

Krauthammer's piece seems like an exercise in frustration; he's squeezing the event for all it's worth, trying to muster some sort of coherent criticism, but his primary criticism seems to be that there's nothing to criticize:

The most striking characteristic of Barack Obama is not his nimble mind, engaging manner or wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. It's the absence of neediness. He's Bill Clinton, master politician, but without the hunger.

It's as if he's saying, This guy's as good as Clinton, but we won't be able to impeach him for having sex with an intern, and he won't be weakened by undue attention to the opinion polls. 

On the issue of race, he was even more withholding, and admirably so. He understood that his very presence was enough to mark the monumentality of the moment.

Here Krauthammer again shows that he understands exactly what Obama is doing. Indeed, Krauthammer can't help himself: he even praises the President. But then he overreaches, trying to stretch the observation into something that fits his own ideology:

Obama's unapologetic celebration of Washington and the Founders of the original imperfect union was a declaration of his own emancipation from -- or better, transcendence of -- the civil rights movement. The old warrior Joseph Lowery prayed for the day when "white will embrace what is right." Not Obama. By connecting himself in this historic address to Washington rather than Lincoln the liberator, Obama was legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation or mental reservation. If we ever have a post-racial future, this moment will mark its beginning.

"Transcendence of the civil rights movement," "legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation," "post-racial future"—slippery phrases in which Krauthammer attempts to squeeze a kind of Republican victory out of the moment, just as William Bennett tried to on election night when he said that Obama's victory meant no more excuses, no more talking about structural inequalities and injustices in America.

Krauthammer ends on a note of forced ominousness:

A complicated man, this new president. Opaque, contradictory and subtle. And that's just day one.

One might feel heartened that we have a complicated president to lead our complicated country in our complicated world. Not Krauthammer, apparently, who seems to feel a faint cold fear at this mysterious man who has somehow insinuated himself into the Oval Office.

Never mind that he's written a 450-page memoir in which he painstakingly works through the complications of his own identity and another book in which he outlines his philosophy on the future of America. No, people like Krauthammer and Spengler at the First Things blog insist upon seeing Obama as unknown and unknowable, something out of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. 

Spengler, writing about a Poe story called "The Man in the Crowd," in which the narrator follows a cipher-like character, concludes:

After twenty-four hours of unrelieved Inauguration coverage, I felt at one with Poe’s narrator, who learned no more of his quarry than the rest of us learned about Barack Obama.


I'm reminded of the opening of Ralph Ellison's famous novel:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.


Kate in Chicago said...

Do you think Krauthammer meant to be as transparent and contradictory as you describe? Or is he as clueless about his own transparency as he is about Obama's?

I think you make a great point. He's looking for flaws but in fact, praises Obama. Being president certainly is the worst job, but I think Obama is beyond his years. It's interesting how young people understand him better than the older generation just like how a child absorbs information better than an adult.

framiko said...

I think that Krauthammer is frustratedly casting about for something to complain about, but that he knows he's mostly preaching to people who already agree with him and hate Obama, and those people will just fill in the gaps in his argument with their own inchoate angers and prejudices.

Kate in Chicago said...

You're right. I've been hanging around psychologists too long.

What a waste of Krauthammer energy.

Liz said...

Or do you think this Krauthammer piece really points to the differences between conservatives and, well, non-conservatives: that he really scoffs at the idea of service and responsibility? bush was our example of how you don't need know anything about "service" and don't need to be responsible and apparently some think that worked out okay for him.

in the end, krauthammer - and all the conservative commenters - have got to be bitter that we have the obamas. they really have to stretch to make points about him being ill-qualified or untrustworthy without seeming vengeful and petty.

Liz said...

and i really liked the title of this post.

framiko said...

Interesting point about Krauthammer's scoffing at service and responsibility--much like his scoffing at the "mushy internationalism" of Obama's speech.