Obama might be the shaman that America needs

Summary:  Since we are about to elect a President largely on the basis of his charisma, the FM blog is running a some articles on this topic.  Know it before you buy it!  This is the third in the series.

At what point does criticism of Obama’s charisma and rhetoric become criticism of leadership itself — and blind faith in technocratic solutions so loved by policy nerds?  Michael Knox Beran crosses that line in “Obama, Shaman“, City Journal, Summer 2008 — “The candidate’s post-masculine charisma tempts America in the age of Oprah.”

His article opens well.

In the patois of punditry, “charismatic” has come to mean little more than “like a rock star.” But the striking thing about the charismatic leader is the extent to which his followers regard him as a healer of wounds, an alleviator of pain. In this sense, surely, Senator Barack Obama is charismatic. …  he has entered the American psyche not as a hero but as a healer.

… But Obama’s rhetoric encompasses more than a promise of racial healing. He is not the first politician to argue that politics can redeem us, but in posing as the Adonis who will turn winter into spring, he revives one of the more pernicious political swindles: the belief that a charismatic leader can ordain a civic happy hour and give a people a sense of community that will make them feel less bad.

In the second page Beran seems to repudiate the very concept of leadership.

Obama finds a scapegoat for the present discontents in politics — a politics, he argues, that breeds “division, and conflict, and cynicism” and that has become a “dead zone” in which “narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth.”

The solution, he says, lies in a political reformation. Unless we “begin the process of changing politics and our civic life,” we will bequeath to our children “a weaker and more fractured America” than the one we inherited.  Hence his mantra, “Change we can believe in.”  Like the Nicene Creed, Obama’s doctrine begins in belief.  Credo.  Once we believe in the possibility of a transformative politics, “the perfection begins.”  … We discover that “this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”  So believing, we can replace a politics that breeds division, conflict, and cynicism with a politics that fosters unity and peace.  In Obama’s “project of national renewal,” government can become an expression of “our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity.”

This reads like Zeno’s proof that motion is impossible.  History contains countless examples of leaders sparking social and moral regeneration by recalling a people to their ideas.  Does Beran believe than reformation is impossible?  Or that if possible, it cannot be initiated by great leaders exhorting their peoples — but instead by some other method?

Probably Obama is overselling what America can dream, what we can accomplish.  Better that, however, than leaders who do not believe in America and its dreams.  Spiritual regeneration, done by us as individuals, may be the only path to success for America.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about America’s political regime

Other posts about the candidates for President

1. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other (7 February 2008) — Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.

2. What do blogs do for America? (26 February 2008) — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern.

3. A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012 (1 March 2008) — What is next in Iraq? None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future. McCain intends to fight so long as (or until) we suffer few casualties, then stay for a long time (perhaps a hundred years, as McCain said here and here) ). On the other hand, Obama has been quite explicit…

4. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay(3 March 2008) — We can elect leaders with vast ambitions (foreign for McCain, domestic for Obama), but can no longer afford them.

5. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?(21 March 2008) — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

6. President Obama, an Muslim apostate? (2 June 2008) — Nope.

7. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties (18 May 2008) – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.

8. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman? (6 June 2008) — Weirdness from our next President.

9. Does America need a charismatic President? (15 July 2008)

10. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series) (16 July 2008)

For the articles from other sources, see About the candidates for President of the United States.

15 thoughts on “Obama might be the shaman that America needs”

  1. The numerous references that Beran makes to Machiavelli buttress the argument that I have advanced with various posts in this blog that the early Modern Era, the Renaissance and the Baroque, form a template to analyze current events.

    However, as Beran concedes, the “Oprah-like” character of Obama’s persona differs from Machiavelli’s virtue.

    A better Renaissance figure with which to study this phenomenon would be Baldassare Castiglione, whose Book of the Courtier, provided the template for how the Renaissance man about the town should comport himself.

    Fundamental to Castiglione’s view is that the courtier should exhibit spretzatura, a careless grace: making the difficult seem easy, the deliberate look inadvertent. Spretzatura is difficult to define except that Roger Moore’s various characters, eg. Bond and Simon Templar, exhibit it while Peter Seller’s Clouseau utterly lacks it.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A wonderful perspective — thanks for this comment!

  2. How generous of you, Fabius, to take the minority view! However, nothing in Obama’s public statements, or the records of his economic and foreign policy advisors, indicates he will do anything other than continue the Bush-Clinton policies of military neo-liberalism.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a skeptical and depressing outlook. Even worse, I agree. See:

    A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012 (1 March 2008) — What is next in Iraq? None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future.

    How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents? (21 March 2008) — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

  3. Duncan: Machiavelli and Castiglione are curious models for the present (unless you are a follower of Leo Strauss!) Metternich and Talleyrand might be thought of as late examples of that kind of leadership, but I agree with Barbara Tuchman’s view (Guns of August) that the aristocratic tradition of governance finally crashed in WW I.

  4. Duncan: Machiavelli and Castiglione are curious models for the present

    It is difficult to state my position concisely, but note that i also have previously stated that contemporary discourse should involve irony.

    That gives rise to the question of what exactly one should attempt to parody. This is where Machiavelli, Castiglione, and their cohorts come into play. History repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce – or something like that.

    For what it is worth, in direct response to this Fabius post, I purchased Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, Counter-Nationhood (Hardcover), a book I have been circling around for a long time.


    Marlowe inscribes this cursus not simply to participate in the Renaissance recovery of classical authors, but in particular to contest the national authority of the ‘Virgil of England,’ Edmund Spenser. Using an Ovidian cursus to contest Spenser’s Virgilian cursus, Marlowe enters the generational project of writing English nationhood. Unlike Spenser, however, Marlowe writes a ‘counter-nationhood’ – a nonpatriotic form of nationhood that subverts royal power with what Ovid calls libertas.

    None of this amounts to a concise thesis. Rather, it strives to provide people with tools that they may find useful in responding to the thesis that Fabius describes.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Irony is — I think according to Aristotle — the awareness or a reaction to the unchangable difference between what is and what should be. Machiavelli broke with that belief, with his conviction that a political regime could be founded that worked far better than anything see before. America and the UK are the results of his dare against history.

  5. I wonder if Obama’s appeal to government as transcendent expression of national values and will is outdated in the era of Philip Bobbitt’s “market-state” (from his excellent “Shield of Achilles”).

    If Bobbitt is correct that we are facing the end of the “nation-state” and a transition to some new state constitutional order, shouldn’t some of the political rhetoric we hear be giving hints about the new order to come? Does Obama represent the apotheosis of old nation-state rhetoric or does he represent something new?

  6. shouldn’t some of the political rhetoric we hear be giving hints about the new order to come?


    Please forgive me for mouthing off yet one more time, but this relates directly to my point about irony.

    Of course you are correct, but it would also follow that much of the rhetoric would be to the effect that things are not what they appear to be, that things do not add up; that words do not fully mean what they say. Hence irony.

  7. Robert Petersen

    America’ economy is going down the tube. The real crash might not even have hit the United States yet, but is only underway now. I have until now doubted that Obama would stand a chance in Washington and I still have serious doubts. I believed that powerful groups would prevent him either from getting elected or actually achieving anything. But if – or when – the crash comes the country would be ripe for the closest thing America would ever come a revolution like the one in Russia in 1917. Powerful interest groups would matter little if they were out of money and influence – or simply busy saving their own skin. Under those circumstances America would really be ripe for change. I would be up to Obama to provide the Message.

    Things can’t be all that bad in the United States anyway. The Germans voted for Hitler under almost similar bad circumstances.

  8. Gary Wills had an excellent discussion of charisma in “The Kennedy Imprisonment, published about 30 years ago. I submit this quote not because it relates to Obama but because it’s beautifully written by Walter Bagehot, founder of The Economist:

    “There lurks about the fancies of many men and women an imaginary conception of an ideal statesman, resembling the character of which Alcibiades has been the recognized type for centuries. There is a sort of intellectual luxury in the idea which fascinates the human mind. We like to fancy a young man in the first vigour of body and in the first vigour of mind, who is full of bounding enjoyment, who excels all rivals at masculine feats, who gains the love of women by a magical attraction, but who is also a powerful statesman, who regulates great events, who settles great measures, who guides a great nation. We seem to outstep the moenia mundi, the recognized limits of human nature, when we conceive a man in the pride of youth to have dominion of the pursuits of age, to rule both the light things of women and the grave things of men. Human imagination so much loves to surpass human power, that we shall never be able to extirpate the conception.”

    – Walter Bagehot, of Bolingbroke
    Fabius Maximus replies: A great quote. A horrible analogy. Alcibiades was a disaster for Greece. Socrates’ teaching took someone with such gifts — favored by the gods with almost every gift of mind and body — and produced such an impious and disloyal individual. This was no doubt in their minds when they condemned him to death (that, plus the love of tyranny displayed by sstudents such as Plato).

    This raises some interesting questions about Obama’s love of our regime, esp. in the light of his longtime church affiliation and some statements by his wife.

  9. From here, it seems to me that there are two types of leadership:

    1. That which results from some sort of talent or ability, such that due to competence it is obvious that a certain person should be in charge of (in some way, to some extent) an effort or group.

    2. That which results from mass psychology, such that in certain group situations people become passive and inert (the Kitty Genovese and other cases), looking for external cues, and/or are less inclined than they should be toward coordinated action, sticking to a plan and so forth. This type of leadership is essentially a band-aid for the underlying problem that humans tend to be either too passive, or riotously overreactive, in groups.

    The second type should not only be questioned; over time, it should be eliminated…

  10. goodtimepolitics

    Obama is just another far left liberal running for president, he will change nothing about the terrorist war. He can call it hope all he wants, but we can not eat hope, we can not run our cars on hope! Obama has now lied to his supporters on all the issues and they have let him hear their concerns and he now is starting another change in issues! The man does not know anything and relys on other 100% to tell him what to say! I ran across this and its a goos song! Get a chance go listen to it!

  11. Why then is he proposing a nazi/maoist style youth brigades that will dwarf the US military? Something stinks here

  12. “Probably Obama is overselling what America can dream, what we can accomplish”

    I find that more often than not, Obama seems to be selling what HE can accomplish- not America. His campaign seems to be driven by a tremendously large ego that requires stadiums full of people chanting his cliches, platitudes, and slogans. One shouldn’t be surprised though. After all, have you ever heard of a barely noticed mid-western state senator who thought his life important enough to write two autobiographies before the age of 45? Even Kennedy only had one autobiographical work and it was at least about an interesting period in his life (and yes I know he most likely didn’t write it himself).

    I am beginning to wonder if this campaign is nothing more than the world’s biggest and most successful book tour. ;-)
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is, of course, one of the more common phenomena in history — mass enthusiasm for a worldly savior. Still, few states allow these folks to so quickly ascend to the pinnacle of power — as does America. In the past this worked, I supect, because the President had so little power — for good or ill — that America was realtively unaffected either way. That is, of course, no longer true. Obama could substantially reshape America in the next 8 years.

  13. Actually what Obama sells is how HE can use AMERICAN money to rid the world of poverty, nukes, and hunger – except he has no plan to pay for any of it except through higher taxes.

    His naive foreign policy approach that just sitting down and talking with despots, terrorists, dictators, and wanna-be dictators is somehow the answer is laughable. His entire foreign policy team is made up of former Clinton staffers either for Bill or Hillary, and those that aren’t are academics who teach theory as opposed to reality.

    His actions speak much louder than his words. His own city/district in Chicago is in shambles – violence so out of control the Gov is calling in Natl Guard; he was so wrong on the surge in Iraq that know he is calling for a surge in Afghan – just as McCain did…he also wants to invade Pakistan. And of course leaving Iraq as he plans would allow Iran to take control, al qaeda to rebuild and set the stage for the 3rd Iraq war.

    Then there is his allegiance to the mother land – as his church indicates. Obama will send troops & taxpayer money aplenty to africa and neglect the US just as he has neglected his own district – where by the way, citizens aren’t to keen on obama.

    Don’t forget his plan to spend $50B on Aids and let Aids patients freely immigrate into the US – presumably for the “free healthcare” he plans for everyone…what’s that? Taxpayers will be funding that plan?

    And building a civilian army as big and equally funded as the Marines and Army – what’s that all about? Obama Youth?

    See Obama for what he is. A used car salesman who plays the victim and cries racism when you don’t want to buy his Carfax lemon.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The nice thing about electing someone with such a brief national record (e.g., Carter or Obama): we can draw our own picture of what will be — since there are so few facts on which to build a forecast. Yours is just as logical and well-supported as the euphoric ones above. This is a strange way to select the leaders of the world’s most powerful nation.

  14. It’s true that leaders often bring people together behind their ideas. But as Virginia Postrel has pointed out, that has not been Obama’s real strength so far. His real strength has been in making people believe that he agrees with them. She suggests that he projects “glamour” rather than “charisma”. People project their hopes and dreams onto him. In one of his books, he acknowledges that sooner or later, this will lead to a lot of people being disapponted.

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