April 09, 2008

Barack Obama: The Quintessential Postmodern Candidate

The point of this post is neither to endorse nor discredit Barack Obama as the Democratic party's candidate, but rather, to point out why I think he is the natural choice for American postmoderns. Much has been made over how he has energized the youth vote in America, and I think that there is a direct correlation between his young supporters who have come to age and are increasingly influenced by a postmodern worldview and his success as a candidate.

Postmodernism is sort of a moving target, and it is hard to create concrete categories that show exactly what sets it apart from modernism, though many have tried. For the sake of this blog, I will use the unofficial categories first proposed by Emergent church leader and author, Brian McLaren (who happens to swoon over Obama, himself...he officially endorses him, also). In his 2001 book, A New Kind of Christian, a fictional character named Neo gives a talk at a local college meeting about the differences between modernism and postmodernism, using seven categories to draw his conclusions. My effort is not to show that all modern values are better or that all postmodern values are better. There are values to each one. Again, the point is to show how Obama fits the postmodern values much better.

1. Modern Value--Rational vs. Postmodern Value--Experiential. The rational world was summed up in Decartes' "Cogito ergo sum"..."I think therefore I am. The rational world looks for proof in concrete evidence where facts outweigh feeling. On the other hand, postmoderns value what they experience over what is rational. So...a personal experience is a high value for postmoderns. Many have compared Obama's political rallies as "cult-like" replete with girls fainting on several occasions. More than one commentator has referred to these rallies as "worship services." Oddly enough, it's hard for many of his supporters to nail down exactly what his plans for our country are...they just like the way he makes them feel. See here how Dave Matthews completely dodges the question about Obama's "empty rhetoric". One more description of "the experience" worth reading here, too.

2. Modern Value--Scientific vs. Postmodern Value: Spiritual. A little more detailed than the first comparison...proof verses faith. Again, see the previous examples that hearken Obama to a preacher of sorts, even a/the Messiah: click here and here and here for some examples, and here for a blog that chronicles the Messianic language used about him. A group has even started a "Barack Obama is my Homeboy" t-shirt, which we first saw as "Jesus is my Homeboy." Even his beliefs as a Christian have been defended against claims that he is Muslim, especially in the wake of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory sermon clips (which Diana Butler Bass grotesquely defends here). Obama has definitely been portrayed as not just a religious man, but a deeply spiritual man offering hope of Biblical proportion. His book, Audacity of Hope was inspired by a sermon he heard. Update: (Newsweek does an in-depth article on the multiple facets of Obama's religion).

3. Modern Value--Homogeneous vs. Postmodern Value--Pluralistic. How much more pluralistic can you get than a man from both African-American and Caucasian descent, who has a Muslim name and a Christian faith? Growing up he spend time in both Muslim and Catholic schools. He is also a wealthy, Harvard-trained lawyer who is somehow able to provide the image of working with the poor and downtrodden. He is his own, personal melting pot, unlike your standard "homogeneous" Clinton or McCain. Update: In the Newsweek article mentioned previously, the multiple sources of Obama's religion alone are astounding.

4. Modern Value--Exclusive Truth vs. Postmodern Value--Relative Truth. Admittedly, this is the hardest category to fit Obama into. All politicians who operate on such a national scale use relative truth in their campaigning and their attacks on their opponents. This is more of a pragmatic move than one of philosophy. Update (08/05/08): USA Today contributor Jonah Goldberg picked up on this same topic. More proof that Humanivy is ahead of the curve...

5. Modern Value--Individualistic vs. Postmodern Value--Communal. "Community" is a major stress point of the Obama campaign, down to his YouTube video about getting a "community" organized for him. His main slogan is "Yes WE can!" as opposed to "Yes I can!" On Super Tuesday, he declared "WE are the ones WE've been waiting for. WE are the change that WE seek." Obama's basic political beliefs that the government has the responsibility to provide entitlements like health care for all are rooted in the idea of community. The community, not each individual, is charged with the care of each other, instead of the individual first.
Author Toni Morrison (the woman who called Bill Clinton the "first black president") says that he "truly thinks of his country's citizens as 'we' and not 'they.'"

6. Modern Value--Functional vs. Postmodern Value--Creative: Obama is a man running on the idea that he's an outsider to Washington with a fresh way of doing things. In Morrison's endorsement of his candidacy, she said that he is "creative imagination coupled with brilliance" to equal wisdom. On Obama's homepage, there is a community blog where guests can write their thoughts on his candidacy. One author lists his/her understanding on the qualifications of a president, one of them being an "innovative, creative solution seeker." "This is Obama's strenghth [misspelling left intact]," he or she writes. No one else is playing the "fresh and new ideas" card like Obama is...nor really can they.

7. Modern Value--Industrial vs. Postmodern Value--Environmental: The Democratic party certainly has the perception of being the more "green" party, and Obama has the image of being the most environmentally-friendly candidate. Even back in 2004, the environmentalist webzine The Grist stated "as if we need one more reason to love Barack Obama." This "Barack Star" apparently has "got green cred." Obama is not a johnny-come-lately to environmental issues, either. As early as 1985 he was pushing for asbestos removal from Chicago housing projects. In 1996 he worked in Harlem getting minority students at City College to understand the value of recycling. According to the League of Conservation Voters (the self described "political voice for the environment") he earned a score of 86% for his first three years in the Senate. He earned a 96% rating for the 109th Congressional session, compared to Clinton's 89% and McCain's 41%.

One more category that I'll add is a belief, stated or unstated, in some form of postmillenialism (which is the belief that Jesus will return to an earth that has gotten increasingly better and better resulting in a overwhelmingly Christian world). Obama is on record saying that he doesn't know if there is life beyond earth (an odd thing for a Christian to say), but that he'd rather focus on life here on earth. Postmoderns in the church enjoy the idea that our job is to make the world a better and better place so that Christian (or post-Christian) culture will replace that of the world. In Rob Bell's book, Velvet Elvis, he ends it with the idea of a good world that God created, and how it is still good. "The Bible ends with God coming here," he says. He describes Christians' "gift to world around us" as "hope." Hope is a key theme of Obama's campaign, and the language he uses to describe the country his presidency will create is quite similar to the language postmoderns in the church use to describe the world they'd like to create. At a church in South Carolina in fall 2007, Obama said, "I am confident we can create a Kingdom on earth." His postmillennial language will further win the hearts of postmoderns as the election nears.

No other candidate fits the mold like Obama.

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