Neither American presidential candidate inspired me to believe that he could deal with (let alone resolve) the enormous financial crisis we face, or end the no-front wars being fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and a dozen other smaller hotspots around the globe. Though Obama may have a greater sense of justice, it is not clear how his health insurance plan or his bow to protectionism will help diminish the rapid acceleration and deceleration of the wealth of the rich and the stagnancy of the rest.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s victory needs to be recognized and celebrated—not simply recognized for the fact that he won, but recognized by understanding the meaning of his victory. We must understand the underlying, naked mythological background behind what we see in the rhetorical clothing of the cut and thrust of daily politics. Barack Obama must not simply be celebrated because of his expertise, his organizational depth, or his ability to discipline marginalized references to growing watermelons and holding barbecues on the White House lawn. He must not be adulated because he became a celebrity in the eyes of many who wanted to party and celebrate good times because, in the words of Kool & the Gang, “everything’s gonna be all right.” Rather, we must extol, consecrate, solemnize and honour Barack Obama by performing the rites due to a transformative figure, beginning with the ritual of turning water into wine, or transforming the irrationality of the political process to reveal the underlying logos.
On the surface, Obama’s victory means that black is not only beautiful for blacks, or for the hippy-inclined youth who wore afros in the sixties and seventies—including my eldest son, now a hair-challenged professor at Princeton. Black has become beautiful for everyone. Barack Obama allows not only blacks, but every one of us, to stand proud. Obama inverted the witchcraft, demonology and black arts of the Republicans into a white glowing halo of hope, and adumbrated a possible end to the politics of paranoia.
Obama turned style into substance, and this is the essence of real magic. Faced with environmental catastrophe, worldwide economic collapse, international terrorism and domestic gross injustice, Obama sent out a message of hope. On the vernal equinox light and dark, good and evil, are in balance. Obama convinced a majority of Americans that, in the face of tumult and storms, America, and the world, are on the verge of seeing the retreat of darkness as it gives way to rebirth and renewal. Further, he sent out a message that magic was but the beginning, for it had to be followed by the rites of spring and the requisite rituals needed to forestall disaster. Ninety-five years after the first performance of Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky’s balletic masterpiece, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), a ballet that came to symbolize modernism and the unfolding of the bloody century that would follow, we are on the cusp of a new vernal equinox. The sun will cross the celestial equator sixty days after Obama takes office and will act out the annual ritual of the greatest contest of all, that between the forces of light and darkness.
For the cluster of old men in the Procession of the Sages, nature is viewed as a threat that must be appeased. The choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential candidate was not just an effort to round up the fundamentalist vote for the Republican Party, but was also a re-creation of the Slavonic pagan sacrifice, made in the name of the Ritual of the Rival Tribes that constitute the Republican Party. McCain’s gracious and heartfelt concession speech was greeted by the same hissing, booing and unruly behaviour that greeted Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for this ballet almost a century earlier, without any recognition that the divided elders of the Republican Party had watched a beautiful young woman perform a political death dance. Neither sex nor the death of innocence, let alone the bacchanalia of death that has been the greatest legacy of the past hundred years, affronted these old men. Just as the audience of Stravinsky’s ballet was scandalized by the sexually erotic choreography that evoked and visualized the tension between birth and death, youth and old age, Americans were scandalized by the profligacy of a dream come true for an individual human, in touch with nature’s rhythms, acting like a consumptive consumer in a fashion candy shop. Americans said nothing when the old men of the Republican Party, intent on putting their stamp on nature, wasted hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars on war and destruction and failed economic policy, yet bourgeoisie sensibilities were outraged at the expenditure of $150,000 on designer clothes. If white magic is the pursuit of ethical ends through technical means (Weber as cited by Arjun Appadurai), black magic embraces pagan rites in the pursuit of rational technology as an end in and of itself.
However, the young woman in The Rite of Spring was not a symbol, but rather the embodiment of the multitude. Her political death was a feverish self-sacrifice to the ideals and politics of the staid elders. False patriotism, as well as ethnic and racial struggles, indoctrinate people to follow her path and climb the stage, dance, and fight to death, in a sacrifice built on a myth that nourishes a cynical, self-deluding struggle for domination—a morbid commitment to self justification and a rejection of the Other. New generations are sucked onto the stage, believing in the only possible right thing: the seemingly altruistic sacrifice of their lives for the nation, the ethnos, and the white man’s burden, now denominated as “democracy,” while in reality only serving the ambitions of the state and its leaders. The awakening of the nation may have required the death of its next generation and the suffering of those who survived, but the sacrifice can only be valued if it does not serve to reify the values of those who sent these innocent young men and women to their deaths. Instead of a technological future, that demands the sacrifice of nature and is oblivious to the lessons of the war, Obama offers a humanistic idealism, a love of culture, and a belief in man’s creative potential to overcome all challenges. So the virtue of aspirations vied with violence, healing vied with continuing an orgy of repression and violence.
Obama has showed how gravitas can beat back the impetuous, impulsive and erratic behaviour of a senior citizen playing the adolescent, who only redeemed and revealed his true self in his gracious and heartfelt concession speech. Obama is a dancer, the Muhammad Ali of the political boxing ring, who proved that a swift and intelligent move can avoid the constant jabbing of a determined fighter. When McCain charged Obama with cavorting with American Weathermen terrorists, Obama did not throw back recollections of McCain’s secret meetings with the ruthless military dictator of Chile, General Augustus Pinochet. Instead, Barack skipped sideways; his fancy footwork undermined the dominant metaphor in which pundits weigh whether a body blow has been struck. Obama was a strategist who magically transformed community organizing into a nation-wide endeavour to beat a headline grabbing tactician. Obama showed that a networker could beat a netminder who cultivated the old Republican community instead of creating a new community to support his platform. Obama paradoxically proved himself a partisan unifier who gave the Republican brand its biggest black eye, and revealed that his Republican purported maverick opponent was really an emperor with no clothes. Obama, at heart and in substance, is a constitutionalist rather than a unilateralist in regards to both domestic and foreign policy. Obama showed that an exchange of ideas could beat the doctrine and ideology of intelligent design, in either its transcendent divine or immanent natural form of economic laws of the market.
McCain was a fearless and therefore rash, rather than courageous, opponent. Courage is a virtue that teaches us what to fear, and how to beat that fear, rather than to be fearless. The greatest American fear has been that whites would never elect a black man as president, let alone one who was a product of what used to be called misgenation—interracial marriage was illegal in many American states just fifty years ago, only struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967. Forty-five years ago, during the March on Washington, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Obama won the presidency, not by dramatizing the shameful condition and ill treatment of many blacks with which King began his sonorous oratory, but by celebrating the American dream that any American child could become President. That was truly an act of courage.
The old decrepit order was one of a dying winter, which reified a bygone era built on the repression of instinct and the conquest and misuse of nature, characterized by one tempest after another, and maintained by a will to exercise power over others in order to marginalize those who challenged this frame. Barack Obama, in his solemnity and gravitas, wore the smile of a clown in a comedy of manners, for, as Northrop Frye wrote, comedy is about resurrection and rebirth, offering a Promethean vision and belief in a redemptive power that resides in each and every one of us and in our human capacity for imagination, intellect, courage and love.
How, then, do we proceed to honour, celebrate and install the appropriate rites in keeping with a religious belief in the creative god within rather than the dangerous devil outside, threatening to seize control of our minds and bodies? How do we give credit to “in God we trust” and discredit the belief that we must first distrust the devil? How can the unity of faith, in a vision imbued with logos and united with a sense of revolution and dramatic change, complete the victory over the marriage of confessional conservatism and demonic romanticism? How can America come together when it is so divided by those who make abortion and gay marriage the defining political issues? Obama proves once again that words have power and can be the shaman’s ecstatic ladder. How can one be a partisan for a liberal view of humans, for a civil religion of respect for rights and differences, as well as a unifier? How do you forge one nation under God when that nation is so clearly divided?
First, surface blackness is to be celebrated at the same time as it is recognized as a dominant evil force of the past, exemplified in the way in which blacks were treated. Second, instead of sacrificing the innocent Other, we must sacrifice our own time and energies in order to redeem that dark past. Third, an offering must be made to recover and redeem the true past, the affirmation of universal human rights, rather than the adoption of a global mission to save the world. Fourth, all Americans must pay their way and properly support the state, instead of rejecting state taxation as a rationale for the territorial enlargement of frontiers, a black magical faith that goes back to the myths of the independence of the thirteen colonies. Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, these standards must be established by reconstructing America’s golden age that has been crushed by an alternative false vision. So the past must be redeemed through a more authentic past. The dark past must be redeemed by extolling this alternative vision. Reality, not illusion, and pragmatic freedom, not coercion, have to challenge the arbitrary and the hypocritical. In doing so, recognition of the divine creative will within can displace surrendering to an external will.