Saturday, May 24, 2008

Obama's Geekish Anti-intellectualism

Obama's soaring rhetoric is a peculiar hybrid, blending the academic flavor of (unsuccessful) Democratic contenders Al Gore, Kerry and nomination competitor Hillary Clinton, and the soaring lyricism of winners Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Bush.

David Brooks at the New York Times recently wrote an interesting piece about the cultural ascendance of "geekdom." Brooks is certainly correct that a counter-culture of ascendant geekdom has been underway in recent decades, but the idea that Bill Gates got rich and thus got back is no new story. That's the geek life cycle.

But I'm more interested in how such socio-cultural phenomenon impacts politics. Brooks suggests that Obama is the "Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes." He also paints President Bush as the anti-geek: "With his (Bush's) professed disdain for intellectual things, he’s energized and alienated the entire geek cohort, and with it most college-educated Americans under 30." How do we square these observations with the the narrative Hillary Clinton authored a few months ago that while Barack Obama recited fine poetry, she produced good prose? (One thing for sure is that Clinton appears not to have learnt the lessons of 2000 and 2004 when Al Gore and Kerry got lost in policy details in their speeches, whereas George Bush just sounded good keeping things simple.) So here's the puzzle: how is Obama's rhetoric poetic and allegedly substanceless, and yet also intellectual and persuasive to so many college-educated geeks?

It is no surprise that some "Obamacans" remember Ronald Reagan when they hear Obama speak. Reagan, like Obama, sounded like an intellectual lightweight to many democrats, just as he sounded erudite to conservative intellectuals. He did this by reaching for grand themes that would summarize his specific policy positions and this aggregating rhetoric passed for profundity among those that agreed with him ideologically. Obama, like Reagan, argues from first principles. He did this in his debates with Clinton, when he let her delve into policy details as he constantly came back to key principles: judgment, change, and unvarnished liberalism. And so while many in the media determined that he was a poorer debater than Clinton (as many in the media determined that Al Gore won most of his debates against Bush), the court of public opinion decided in favor of Obama (and Bush).

So is Obama intellectual or anti-intellectual? For better or worse, he seems to have settled on a median position between the two. After all, some think that he sounded too "professorial" in his speech about race following the Reverend Wright controversy at the same time that many Clinton supporters see him as an intellectual lightweight without the know-how to get things done in Washington.

At the very least, Brooks' claim that Obama is the champion of the geeks must be carefully moderated, because so much is going on inside the geek label. To be sure, Obama's supporters are younger and therefore presumably cooler than Clinton's supporters, but I'm not sure if they are necessarily more intellectual. Technological savvy is a weak proxy for political or intellectual sophistication; and the iPhone hordes are as much a class as they are a generation. As purely a matter of political style, Obama has tapped into the kind of poetic anti-intellectualism that brought Reagan and Bush into office. And at least for now, he continues to enjoy the accolade of a unifier because he has learnt to supply us with lofty, if sometimes vague, promises.

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