This past weekend, we went to see a Civil War Re-enactment. Since Grant and I are living history junkies, we thought this would be a vivid way to learn about an earlier time. My oldest brought his powder horn and dummy rifle (while I was the one who accidentally clobbered a Confederate general standing on the sidelines!). My youngest brought his revolver. We were ready.
Now, I’m a Detroiter — a Yankee! ::gasp:: — living in South Carolina — that state with a proud rebellious streak of red clay pan. When my oldest found himself getting lost in the noisy amateur theater and asked me, “Mommy, which ones are the bad guys?” I struggled to answer as I stood among my dyed-in-the-wool Carolinians watching the faux fight. I snuggled him close and said, “Oh honey, it’s complicated. They are all Americans.”
We left the battle early when it ambled too far down the hill to see, and we wandered toward the camp. Three “confederates” played some old-timey music for us with their bass fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. We were all entranced by the smell of the wood smoke, the cold autumn bite in the air, the sight of those beautifully simple white tents in a row, and the sound of a century ago. In a low-country drawl, one gentleman told us about their infantry and this all-encompassing hobby: “Yeah, we all have to play Yankees some of the time. Everybody owns two uniforms — one for each side. And if anybody won’t play a Yankee, we show them the exit! It’s no fun if you don’t have two sides.”
Burke would be proud. To be able to don the vestments of the opposing side is just that kind of comedic irony that keeps you from taking yourself too seriously. The guy you’re fake-shooting at today might be your compatriot next weekend. To walk in the shoes of the other side even for play-acting keeps the fight from becoming tragic. Brother against brother is as easily brother with brother even in just a week.
In other words, you have to act in this week’s skirmish in a way that makes next week’s alignment still possible.
And this election season I’ve seen that kind of comedy very clearly in one candidate’s words.
I have never seen Burke’s tragedy and comedy play out so predictably in an election. Oh sure, there are extremes on all sides. Many of Obama’s supporters, for instance, have skewered Hillary Clinton and have made their candidate a tragic hero. Humans are bent toward tragedy.
But in the candidates’ words themselves you can see their dramatically different metanarratives. McCain’s is simple. There is evil and he alone will destroy it. It’s a stock morality tale — with clear-cut characters for who’s good and who’s evil. Of course, in his telling, good is us and ours and evil is them and theirs. And he’s the hero in his story, rescuing the damsel America from the evil terrorists/Democrats/economy/communists/media/intellectual urban elite. He portrays himself alone as the hero. No matter what antics he tries to pull, McCain-as-Hero has been the consistent trope.
Obama’s story is more complex. There is no clear-cut good and evil. And, no matter how his supporters are portraying him (and it is nauseating. Don’t get me wrong), in his own words he is not the hero. He will even say that he‘s not fixing the problems. We are fixing the problems. “Yes, we can!” as the public-address-cum-music-video repeats.
All in all, McCain’s drama is tragic. Fear is the agency for destroying a clearly defined enemy of evil. Within Obama’s talk it’s us-vs.-the-problem.
There are many legit criticisms of Obama. I can understand doubting that the system can solve the problems that Obama claims it will. That’s fair enough.
But I can’t help but conclude that many have so internalized the black-and-white story of tragedy that they simply resist the complexity Obama dramatizes. They shrug it off as mere “eloquence.” They yell threats at crowded rallies. They hang him in effigy.
That’s why we were all relieved to see this recent comic relief — both candidates dressed like funny penguins and laughing at themselves. While some hacks were turning even that into a competition, it did help us all visualize a country post-November-4, after the battle, when we might be aligned with the person against whom we’re fighting now.
My oldest wanted a Civil War hat on Saturday. He chose a “blue coat hat” because “I like blue. And brother, you get a grey coat hat. Then we can switch!” . . . But he didn’t want a hat. He wanted a chicken.