Ed Driscoll

The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Paracosm

David Brooks coins a novel theory to explain the popularity of this primitive tribalist Bruce Springsteen fellow to the readers of the New York Times, by way of a Springsteen concert that Brooks attended in that Bluest of Blue State regions, Madrid, Spain:

Here were audiences in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore. They held up signs requesting songs from the deepest and most distinctly American recesses of Springsteen’s repertoire.

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!”

Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.? How was it that so many people in such a faraway place can be so personally committed to the deindustrializing landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska, the world Springsteen sings about? How is it they can be so enraptured at the mere mention of the Meadowlands or the Stone Pony, an Asbury Park, N.J., nightclub?

My best theory is this: When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call “paracosms.” These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.

We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton or J.K. Rowling’s version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey’s or Brideshead Revisited’s version of an Edwardian estate.

Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.

Over the years, Springsteen built his own paracosm, with its own collection of tramps, factory closings, tortured Catholic overtones and moments of rapturous escape. This construction project took an act of commitment.

And it’s paying off handsomely these days, allowing Springsteen to lead a lifestyle far, far removed from the workaday world of his fans.

But it’s not like Times readers aren’t heavily invested in quite a few paracosms of their own; as Kathy Shaidle writes, linking to a post quoting Brooks, “This is (part of) my theory about why people get obsessed with JFK assassination, other stuff.” The P-word also helps to explain how Obama’s voters (including Brooks of course) were bamboozled in 2007 and 2008, when they fell for The One’s paracosm in his “autobiography,” as another Timesman recently noted:

While most politicians write their stories once they’ve laid some claim to the spotlight and are already operating in its skeptical glare, Obama did so years in advance, setting the stage long before he strode onto it. The first edition of “Dreams From My Father,” a framing device for the campaigns and speeches to come, was published in 1995. He wasn’t even an Illinois state senator yet.

It was an act of careful and considered self-definition, and with the publication of David Maraniss’s new biography of Obama earlier this month, we learned just how careful and considered. Obama tailored characters to suit his themes and invented a few details of his family’s past, saying that a step-grandfather was killed in combat against Dutch troops in Indonesia when he really, according to Maraniss, died in a fall from a chair as he hung drapes.

One of the most widely cited observations in Maraniss’s biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” is that he had a “determination to avoid life’s traps.” He refused to let circumstances box him in; craved room to maneuver; kept his options open. In college he floated between cultures and political and social groups, studiously avoiding commitment. In the Illinois State Senate, he stood out in part for the frequency with which he voted “present” rather than yea or nay. He wouldn’t be pinned or pigeonholed.

And now? He’s beholden to lawmakers’ whims, buffeted by global winds, as much a spectator as an agent of the most important developments around him, a leader of the free world who follows the news like the rest of us. Against Obama’s wishes and will, his attorney general is investigated and excoriated by a House panel. His jobs bill languishes. Egypt charts a once unexpected course, electing an Islamist president. The Syrian government pursues a bloody crackdown against its people, ignoring the Obama administration’s protests.

At times he looks dazed, and flails. To focus his economic message, he gave an unfocused 54-minute speech on the apparent theory that the more sentences in the mix, the greater the odds of a keeper.

And in order to keep him propped up, more fictions must be created. Or as William A. Jacobson asks at his Legal Insurrection blog, “Are Bain attacks working, or is NY Times trying to create reality? (or both).”

The Times? Manufacturing reality? Why they’ve won Pulitzers for their journalism!

Update: On the other hand, this is clearly a paracosm too far. Waaaaaay too far.