After overcoming my initial reaction to Obama’s stump speech, which was “zzz…”, I tried analyzing the language. Obama is, for lack of a better term, articulate; his choice of words is this of an effective, eloquent speaker who could rescue the English language after eight years of butchering by Bush. But there was something about that choice that sounded a bit weird, until I realized how reminiscent Obama is of a fantasy novel.
From the first sentence, “Let me begin by saying thanks to all you who’ve traveled, from far and wide, to brave the cold today,” till the end, Obama’s speech is laced with metaphors that suggest he learned a lot of his rhetoric from Lord of the Rings. This extends to the actual content, too: as in a speech given by a king or a knight before a fight, Obama emphasizes leadership, the will to change, and good values.
The one main disanalogy between Obama and a fantasy novel is that Obama is supposed to be conciliatory, while fantasy novels depict battles between conflicted good and absolute evil. Ezra goes as far as basing his entire response to the speech on bipartisanship versus partisanship.
But even then, fantasy novels promote their own kind of cooperation, that between different forms of good. The alliance between old enemies who don’t trust one another is a common theme in fantasy: elves and dwarves in Lord of the Rings, knights and wizards in Dragonlance, etc. Obama is too domestic to conjure the obvious Sauron – Bin Laden – but he still manages to turn poverty into an alternative one.
As with anything Aragorn would say, Obama’s speech was a mixture of bland, boring promises and complex oratory. He manages to combine the worst of “I will make the trains run on time” politics and “Who cares about whether the trains run on time” politics.
What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.
Actually, what’s stopped the US is exactly the absence of sound policies and sensible plans, in the form of the political marginalization of those who promote them. Medicare and Medicaid together cost per capita more than any universal health care system but Norway’s and Luxembourg’s; any politician who’s serious on health care should be able to achieve universal coverage without increasing government spending, and with cutting private spending by at least two thirds. Likewise, foreign policy is a complex maze to navigate that requires a heavyweight who knows what he’s doing rather than someone who can do nothing but inspire.
In addition, religion is central to Obama’s narrative, as in fantasy novels. While no deity is mentioned directly in Lord of the Rings, the entire journey is framed as a religious crusade. The Belgariad is about wars between different gods.
Obviously, religious narratives don’t have to be epic fantasies. If Obama had more depth, I’d call him a Dostoevsky novel instead. But that would require him to talk in intelligent and complicated terms about morality, instead of meaninglessly throw words like “valor,” which is to the fantasy genre what “engorged” is to erotica.
While fantasy makes for good rhetoric, it makes for bad government. Even hard science fiction doesn’t make for especially good government, because of authors’ tendency to pull social trends out of thin air. But it’s still decent compared to fantasy, which has an annoying tendency not to work in magicless worlds.
Aragorn and Gandalf’s rhetoric is great, when a) your goal is to defeat orcs, b) you magically know that at precisely the right moment, someone will rescue you from sure loss, c) you face no opposition more credible than Denethor, and d) you have no trouble making thousands of grunts die in your stead. Outside Tolkien’s imagination, none of the four applies.
Still, despite the empty rhetoric, I think Obama is the best person in the race. Despite the unnerving religious fundamentalism, the grand promises he’ll likely not even try to keep, the shocking lack of political experience – he’s still the only candidate in the race who I don’t know to favor a war on Iran, and that’s what ultimately counts.
For completeness, here’re the genres I think the other candidates or former candidates represent. Most of them are on the crappier side of things, just like epic fantasy, but those I like the most tend to belong to more interesting genres.
Bush is a pulp Western, like “The Tin Star,” the short story that became High Noon. Edwards is of course a courtroom drama that desperately pretends to be a Charles Dickens novel. The Clintons are carefully marketed mainstream bestsellers. Giuliani is a fast-paced, action-packed police thriller. Brownback is Christian literature, like Left Behind. Hagel is any literary masterpiece whose central theme is the undesirability of change. Warner is technocracy-oriented hard science fiction, such as much of what Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein wrote. Feingold is a dystopian novel.