My experience was different. I arrived from Portugal as an exchange student in 1980, bringing with me the normal European prejudices. Jimmy Carter had been painted in Europe as a level-headed leader, a compassionate statesman. But all the promotion in the world couldn’t survive watching the man give speeches, or hearing of the infamous killer rabbit incident. And my European view could not survive coming in contact with American history books, which even then glorified FDR, the whole “the government saved us from the Depression” mythology.
I didn’t object to the portrayal of FDR. I simply was not economically literate enough.
However, I was savvy enough to know propaganda when I read it. I was disturbed by the palpable longing these texts revealed for an America in the 30s — an America that probably never existed. Even then it seemed to me what they promoted meant turning the clock back to a simpler — and dirtier, poorer, and more brutal — world. I could see we’d got from the ’30s to the ’80s through technological and social changes. This meant the changes weren’t the results of politics and couldn’t be undone by politics. The Democrats could pine for and promise the close-knit society of the ’30s, but they could not bring it back.Even if the ’30s were desirable (I prefer today), they couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Obama doesn’t seem to have ever realized this. He moved in more rarefied circles than the Ohio suburb where I finished high school. You could say he was exquisitely educated not to see the holes in the myths about FDR.
He never got to be a normal person, in a normal environment. His isolation, as the product of a biracial couple, and two broken families, might also have made it harder for him to distance himself from the one security he had — the security of his echo chamber that surrounded him like a an amber bubble encasing dinosaur DNA.
I’ve read somewhere that you simply can’t make large changes in life outlook after 45. I’m not sure that’s true. I could give several examples of people I know who have changed their entire outlook on life after that age.
It is, however, unlikely that someone as thoroughly indoctrinated as Obama was can change his outlook. The narrative he grew up in covers every detail of life and provides a facile explanation for everything. Our arugula shopper knows nothing of the average person’s life and, let’s face it, is unlikely to ever figure it out.
He’s been brought into the present after a fashion, the ’30s DNA spliced into the DNA of a Clinton Democrat, so that he’ll make half-hearted gestures, like proclaiming — in contradiction to his earlier pronouncements — that he’s following in the path of Ronald Reagan; or talking about being a centrist; or disguising tax increases as cuts in spending.
But the end result always breeds true to his dinosaurian world view: He’ll favor unions because somehow, over the years, they’ve become associated with the 1930s (even though FDR did not approve of civil service unions); he’ll sell out allies for a SALT treaty, because it was very important in the 70s; he’ll try to expand train service because he has the odd idea public transport fosters the type of close knit communities we had in the 1930s; he’ll obsess over green energy, because Carter did; he’ll do his best to bring back make-work paid for by the government because he imagines that’s what we want.
In fact, throughout all of it, he thinks he’s doing what everyone — not just the people who brought him up — longs for.
And throughout his flailing around in a world in which he doesn’t fit, examples of this displacement emerge in his speech: Sputnik, Cleveland, cars which use up eight miles a gallon.
If, like the restored velociraptor, he weren’t such a danger to the modern world, one would be tempted to feel sorry for our Jurassic President, wandering around in a landscape he can neither perceive nor understand because all his senses and training show him a world that no longer exists — and perhaps never did.