16 October 2008

Truth Force, Obama, and keeping it cool

In the immediate aftermath of the debate last night one media read on Obama's performance was how he kept cool, how he was "sticking with what had worked" and not getting angry. Some have rightly read this as an excellent move throughout the campaign as one wrong move in the angry direction and suddenly the "angry black man" stereotype can raise its ugly head, destroying any chances of Obama success.

I think, though, that there's an additional positive dimension to these moves. It's not just to avoid "angry black man" and it's not just because this has "worked in the past." Watching the debate last night made me realize why the British were driven half crazy by Gandhi, the "half-naked fakir" who fought for self-rule by practicing self-rule (rule over the self): self-control such that his calmness was his strength, and he didn't just follow the truth but practiced and lived it.

Now, Obama's no Gandhi. And while some may suggest that indeed we need to throw off the yoke of years of mis-rule, that's not the same really as fighting against a colonial government. But I think it's valid to push what we're seeing with Obama's approach in the debates and in the wider campaign beyond cool, calm, collected, and beyond a defensive maneuver against the possibility of racist stereotyping. His ability to answer questions, even those posed in heated tones and with aggressive anger and frustration, even those that repeat falsehoods that have been debunked for weeks, and to do so in a calm, collected manner--that is the truth force Gandhi and his followers employed on a much larger scale to help convince the British to leave, and then subsequently to help convince Indians to stop killing one another during Partition. One could argue that it this political approach that has in part incited the frustration and anger. Perhaps there's some greek rhetorical mode that fits Obama's approach as well. But for me, satyagraha fits: we are seeing an active political campaign that, while occasionally dipping into the muck, at least in its leader finds a space where calm is not weakness, and where cool isn't about him reminding us of Cary Grant. It is a little piece of satyagraha we are looking at, I think. That's what's winning the election for Obama.

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