There are many reasons not to support Barack Obama's candidacy for
president, but every one of them is bad for the same reason.
Because I have come out publicly for the senator from Illinois, I am
often called upon to listen as people offer up -- with wistfulness
and regret, or with a pundit's show of certainty, or with a
well-earned but useless skepticism -- their bad reasons for not
giving Obama their support. For a long time now, I have listened to
these people with forbearance and with a sense of duty -- not to
some principle of open debate or of the inherent merit in the free
exchange of even meritless ideas, but rather out of obligation to
the candidate whose cause I champion.
Because Obama appears to be a patient, forbearing man with a gift
for listening, I figured I owed it to him to play the thing his way.
So I have nodded and looked into their eyes and hummed
sympathetically as people gave their reasons and made their excuses
and generally offered up, as if they were golden ingots of profound
wisdom, the handful of two-penny nails with which they plan to board
up the windows of their hopes for themselves, their families, their
country and the world.
But now, with everything seeming to come down, at last, to the first
Tuesday in February, and in the wake of an all-out, months-long push
by the cynicism industry to cook up an entire line of bad reasons
ready to heat and serve, I admit that I'm getting tired of listening
to rationales from people who know that Obama is a remarkable, even
an extraordinary politician, the kind who comes along, in this era
of snakes and empty smiles, no more than once a generation.
Oh, sure, most of these people tell me they would like to see Obama
become president. No question, he comes off as at once brilliant and
sensible, vibrant and measured, engaged and engaging, talented,
forthright, quick-witted, passionate, thoughtful and, as with all
remarkable people whom experience has taught both the extent and the
bitter limits of their gifts, reasonably humble. In a better world,
people tell me, in theory, sure, having a president like Barack
Obama sounds great. But not, you know, for real. Not in the base,
corrupt, morally spent, toxic and reeling rats' nest that we like to
call home. Things are so bad we just can't afford to waste our
votes, people tell me, on some fantasy super-president with magical
powers. We need someone electable, someone, as I have been told
repeatedly in the past year, who can win.
Of course this misses the point; it misses all kinds of points. In a
better world, if there were such a thing (and so far there never has
been), we would not need a president like Obama as badly as we do.
If there were less at stake, if our democracy had not been
permitted, indeed encouraged, to sink to its present degraded and
embattled condition not only by the present administration but by a
fair number of those people now seeking to head up the next one,
perhaps then we could afford to waste our votes on the candidate who
knows best how to jigger, to manipulate and to conform to the vapid
specifications of the debased electoral process it has been our
unhappy fate to construct for ourselves.
Because ultimately, that is the point of Obama's candidacy -- of the
hope, enthusiasm and sense of purpose it inspires, yes, but more
crucially, of the very doubts and reservations expressed by those
who pronounce, whether in tones of regret, certainty or skepticism,
that America is not ready for Obama, or that Obama is not ready for
the job, or that nobody of any worth or decency -- supposing there
even to be such a person left on the American political scene -- can
be expected to survive for a moment with his idealism and principle
The point of Obama's candidacy is that the damaged state of American
democracy is not the fault of George W. Bush and his minions, the
corporate-controlled media, the insurance industry, the oil
industry, lobbyists, terrorists, illegal immigrants or Satan. The
point is that this mess is our fault. We let in the serpents and
liars, we exchanged shining ideals for a handful of nails and some
two-by-fours, and we did it by resorting to the simplest,
deepest-seated and readiest method we possess as human beings for
trying to make sense of the world: through our fear. America has
become a phobocracy.
Since I started talking and writing about Obama I have come to see
that this ruling fear, and nothing else, lies at the back of every
objection or reservation people raise or harbor regarding the man
and his candidacy.
Fear whispers to us that white voters have a nasty tendency to tell
pollsters, friends and neighbors that they support an African
American candidate, then go into the voting booth and let the fear
known as racism pull the lever.
Fear tells us that ugliness, rage and brutality are the central
facts of human existence, that decency and tolerance are luxuries on
whose altar our enemies will be only too happy to sacrifice us.
It is through our fear of falling prey to the calamity and
misadventure from which the media promise faithlessly to protect us
-- a fear manufactured and sold by the media themselves -- that we
accept without question the media-borne canard (tainted, in my view,
by a racism as insidious as any that hides behind the curtains of
voting booths) that Barack Obama, a seasoned and successful
46-year-old husband and father of two, a man sweeping into the prime
of his life with all his sails and flags unfurled, is too young and
inexperienced for a job that demands vitality and flexibility and
that, furthermore, has made nonsense of glittering resumes,
laughingstocks of practiced old hands and, in a reverse of Popeye's
old trick, ravenous alligators out of years of accumulated baggage.
Fear and those who fatten on it spread vile lies about Obama's
religion, his past drug use, his views on Israel and the Jews. Fear
makes us see the world purely in terms of enemies and perils, and
leads us to seek out the promise of leadership, however spurious it
proves to be, among those who speak the language of that doomed and
demeaning, that inhuman view of the world.
But the most pitiable fear of all is the fear of disappointment, of
having our hearts broken and our hopes dashed by this radiant,
humane politician who seems not just with his words but with every
step he takes, simply by the fact of his running at all, to promise
so much for our country, for our future and for the eventual state
of our national soul. I say "pitiable" because this fear of
disappointment, which I hear underlying so many of the doubts that
people express to me, is ultimately a fear of finding out the truth
about ourselves and the extent of the mess that we have gotten
ourselves into. If we do fight for Obama, work for him, believe in
him, vote for him, and the man goes down to defeat by the big-money
machines and the merchants of fear, then what hope will we have left
to hold on to?
Thus in the name of preserving hope do we disdain it. That is how a
phobocracy maintains its grip on power.
To support Obama, we must permit ourselves to feel hope, to
acknowledge the possibility that we can aspire as a nation to be
more than merely secure or predominant. We must allow ourselves to
believe in Obama, not blindly or unquestioningly as we might believe
in some demagogue or figurehead but as we believe in the comfort we
take in our families, in the pleasure of good company, in the
blessings of peace and liberty, in any thing that requires us to put
our trust in the best part of ourselves and others. That kind of
belief is a revolutionary act. It holds the power, in time, to
overturn and repair all the damage that our fear has driven us to
inflict on ourselves and the world.
And when we all wake up on Nov. 5, 2008, to find that we have made
Barack Obama the president of the United States, the world is
already going to feel, to all of us, a little different, a little
truer to its, and our, better nature. It is part of the world's
nature and of our own to break, ruin and destroy; but it is also our
nature and the world's to find ways to mend what has been broken. We
can do that. Come on. Don't be afraid.
Michael Chabon's novels include "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier
& Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and, most recently,
"Gentlemen of the Road."