Obama and the magic feather

There have been some interesting attempts to explain the curious psychology of the Obama years, in which an executive office that was already too powerful seized incredible new powers, while conducting an unprecedented semi-nationalization of an entire industry… but the President himself is held completely innocent and blameless for everything that happens.  There’s a stunning cognitive dissonance between the nearly religious belief of Barack Obama’s followers that he’s a superior, elevated being, the smartest man ever to hold the Oval Office – a belief he happily encourages while nourishing a cult of personality, and occasionally remarking that he’s better qualified to do every job in the Administration than whoever currently holds it – and the absolute refusal to hold him responsible.  

To his followers, he’s both a titan striding across history, and a naive man-child helpless to do anything but wail in anguish as Washington, and America, fail him over and over again.  He’s the ultimate executive and the perfect spectator, the creator and master of an unprecedented super-State and the eternal outsider who just arrived in Washington yesterday, and can’t believe the mess he found.

That’s a heck of a contradiction.  Personally, I don’t believe in the superior compassion or intelligence of government at all, because I’ve been paying attention to history.  But if I did hold such a belief, I would certainly expect the chief executive – and all of his top subordinates – to be both capable and accountable.  I would think even a doctrinaire Big Government leftist would agree that increased power must come with heightened responsibility.  The Uncle Ben Rule doesn’t just apply to nephews who get bitten by radioactive spiders.  

American liberals don’t see themselves as totalitarians or fascists.  They will tell you, to a man and woman, that they believe strongly in the principles of liberty and justice… they just define those things differently than the rest of us do.  They think the all-powerful State is an instrument for securing freedom, including the “freedom from need.”  They bristle in rage when conservatives accuse them of wanting to reduce American citizens to tax serfs and hapless dependent pawns of the Ruling Class.  They’ll tell you all that power is just a means to an end, and the end is a form of enhanced liberty, in which the Little Guy (who they believe is generally not the brightest of souls, bless his little heart) is protected from cunning robber barons, and is relieved of the crushing burden of worry about paying for the bare essentials of life, such as condoms.

But surely under this model, the government – the sole repository of compulsive force in society – must be held strictly accountable for everything it does, because otherwise it has failed in its essential mission of using force to secure the higher freedom of the people.  The only way to prove that an almighty executive like Barack Obama, his army of czars, and officers who wield undreamed-of power and discretion the way HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius does are not tyrants is to hold them to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.  President Obama occasionally elicits nervous chuckles by insisting that his increasingly banana-republic style of government is not a banana republic.  Well, the only way to keep authoritarian power from sprouting the bananas of tyranny is to insist on a merciless standard of responsibility, particularly for the chief executive.

But instead, the American central State is both more powerful and less accountable than ever… and the Left is totally cool with that.  A couple of left-wing pundits have expressed unease about Obama’s failures, particularly ObamaCare, and have shifted uncomfortable behind their keyboards as they notice that Obama doesn’t even bother with the ritual sacrifice of underlings to deflect accountability.  Nobody gets fired, ever.  The Administration is forever pronouncing itself clean as a whistle.  And quite a few people on the left side of the American electorate remain untroubled by even the revelation that Obama, by his own admission, didn’t bother to follow up on his signature health care program at all, ever, before it launched.  They beheld the amazing spectacle of the most powerful American president in the modern era say he was terribly disappointed that nobody warned him about all the problems with ObamaCare, and he was thinking about appointing a blue-ribbon panel to figure out why he was kept in the dark… a panel that shows absolutely no sign of convening, weeks later.

Rush Limbaugh has this theory about how Barack Obama is kept eternally separate from the actual results of his policies, the ultimate example of how socialism is given endless credit for good intentions, no matter how badly its plans turn out in practice.  The other day, Ace of Spades expounded at length on an intriguing notion that politics at the national level has become entirely a spectator sport for most Democrat voters – a dramatic narrative, a form of fictionalized entertainment, in which Obama is not an accountable chief executive but the star of a thrilling production, “Barack Obama: The Movie.”  Who cares what happens to the extras?  The audience is entirely concerned with the “journey” of the great hero – a verbal construct the mainstream media often uses explicitly.

I think Luke Epplin’s insightful takedown of children’s entertainment at The Atlantic provides the perfect metaphor for the way an increasingly childlike electorate views this insanely irresponsible President and his team: it’s all about the “magic feather” storyline of victory through heart, spirit, and self-esteem.  

As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather–or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears–and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Examples from the past decade abound: a fat panda hopes to become a Kung Fu master (Kung Fu Panda); a sewer-dwelling rat dreams of becoming a French chef (Ratatouille); an 8-bit villain yearns to be a video-game hero (Wreck-It Ralph); an unscary monster pursues a career as a top-notch scarer (Monsters University). In the past month alone, two films with identical, paint-by-numbers plots–Turbo and Planes–have been released by separate studios, underlining the extent to which the magic-feather syndrome has infiltrated children’s entertainment.

I might quibble with the inclusion or Ratatouille on that list – it’s a relic of Pixar’s apparently concluded Golden Age, and as such, it plays at a higher level than the goo-goo babytalk most children’s entertainment, and quite a bit of the stuff aimed at adults, indulges in.  The rat chef in Ratatouille does not prevail entirely because he means well and believes in himself; he really is a brilliant chef, and he worked hard for most of his life to get that way.  The obstacle he overcomes is prejudice, which (because this is one of those Golden Age Pixar productions) even he admits is not irrational, because there are good reasons to be skeptical of a rat working in a five-star kitchen.  He wins the day because he put in the effort to become eminently qualified for the job he wants.

But otherwise, the Atlantic piece is a great dissection of the cult of self-esteem, and every word of it rings equally true for the simplistic plot of the juvenile production playing out in Washington for the past five years.  Barack Obama might be the ultimate disciple of the cult of self-esteem.  As Mark Steyn notes, Obama has floated upward through life by doing very little other than showing up, striking a pose, and giving a good speech:

For the last half-century, Obama has simply had to be. Just being Obama was enough to waft him onwards and upwards: He was the Harvard Law Review president who never published a word, the community organizer who never organized a thing, the state legislator who voted present. And then one day came the day when it wasn’t enough simply to be. For the first time in his life, he had to do. And it turns out he can’t. He’s not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. And Healthcare.gov is about what you’d expect if you nationalized a sixth of the economy and gave it to the Assistant Deputy Commissar of the Department of Paperwork and the Under-Regulator-General of the Bureau of Compliance.

Politics, the late Christopher Hitchens used to say, is show business for ugly people. But it’s also ugly business for show people. Thatcherism is a political philosophy; Obamaism is a vibe, a groove, a pose, an aesthetic. When his speechwriters are cooking, he’ll get them to work up a little riff about how it’s not about Big Government vs. Small Government, it’s about “smarter” government. A few months ago, he even gave it a hashtag! #SmarterGov. How cool is that?

And the amazing thing is that a sizable portion of his base is still solidly behind him, because this is all like one of those dreary latter-day children’s movies to them.  All that matters is that Obama and his team meant well, they tried really hard, and they believed in themselves.  They’re supposed to win… and if they don’t, it’s because sinister forces have stolen their victory.  It’s a narrative of moral superiority and victimization that soothes the profound intellectual insecurity of the Left, which has been watching its ideas fail after implementation on titanic scales for over a century now.  And it’s extremely useful to politicians who refuse to take responsibility for anything they do.  Just give them another chance, and this time the dazzling light of their special souls will conquer grim reality.  You just have to believe in them a little harder, and hate their enemies a little more.



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