Periscope Depth

[worst08] ezra klein, the american prospect, "obama's gift"

It may be time to bring back the Worst Writing of the Year series. We’re kicking the series off with a bang with Ezra Klein’s revivalist paean to Obama in The American Prospect:

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

As a conservative satire of an excited liberal, this would be pristine genius. “Obama’s finest speeches [...] do not inform.” But no, Klein thinks he’s paying the man a compliment.

Add to that the use of rhetorical touches best meant for an audio speech in a piece of printed text (“… just for an instant”, “over color, over despair”).

Finally, just the purple turgidness of the adjectives should make even the most enthusiastic supporter of Obama gag. “The triumph of word over flesh” (oh I get it!). America “glittering” and its “honored inhabitants.” The act of standing and listening to a guy talk about an election is “sharing in [...] transcendence.” Calling this ‘saccharine’ would be an insult to food additives.

Hold on, there’s more:

In the days to come, just as in the days that have passed [… and in the day that’s happening right now, and yeah, I think that covers all the bases], I’ll talk much more about Obama’s policies. About his health care policy, and his foreign policy, and his social policy, and his economic policy [again, a repetitive list sounds a lot better when delivered in an oral speech than when read on a flat screen]. But so much as I like to speak of white papers and scored proposals, politics is not generally experienced in terms of policies. It’s more often experienced in terms of self-interest, and broken promises, and base fears, and half-truths [see above re: lists]. But, very rarely, it’s experienced as a call to create something better, bigger, grander, and more just than the world we have. When that happens, as it did with Robert F. Kennedy [not to make light of RFK’s tragic assassination, but it takes a rare kind of fantasist to get excited about a man who never actually served in the Presidency], the inspired remember those moments for the rest of their lives.

Deep breath; there’s more:

The tens of thousands of new voters Obama brought to the polls tonight came because he wrapped them in that experience, because he let them touch politics as it could be, rather than merely as it is. And for that, he deserved to win. And he deserves our thanks. The politician who gets the most votes merits our congratulations. But the politician who enlarges our politics and empowers more Americans to step forward into the public square deserves our gratitude. And we, in turn, deserve to permit ourselves to feel inspired, if only for a night.

It seems churlish to lambaste a political blogger for speaking abstractly about an abstraction, as, really, that’s all that political bloggers do. But note the jarring comparison between “the politician who gets the most votes” – a clear and vivid image – and “the politician who enlarges our politics and empowers more Americans, blah blah.” When a campaigning Senator “enlarges our politics,” what exactly is he doing? What’s the expression on his face? What words come out of his mouth? What exactly am I, the reader, supposed to be visualizing?

The answer, of course, is nothing. I’m not supposed to be visualizing or imagining any concrete thing. The words “glittering,” “transcendent,” “inspiring, “elevating,” etc aren’t supposed to convey a thought or feeling. It’s just that Ezra Klein felt really, really good listening to Barack Obama speak and he doesn’t have the words to describe it. And that’s fine. Just say “I felt really, really good listening to Barack Obama speak and I don’t have the words to describe it.” Hit Post. You’re done.