Cognitive taste

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“He was a product,” said President Obama in his melodic eulogy at Ted Kennedy’s funeral, “of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect—a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.”

It was the only overtly political phrase of an otherwise carefully apolitical speech—the only Obama talking point, perhaps. The thing is, politics as “joy and nobility” (carefully chosen words, really) isn’t just about bridging partisanship. That’s what Obama turned it into, because that’s Obama’s shtick. He wanted to say—and it’s a debatable point, really, if you consider McCarthy—that there was a time when reasonable policy proposals wouldn’t lead to comparisons with Hitler, a time when politicians were understood to be philosopher-kings, and above such garbage.

But politics as “joy and nobility”—the joy and nobility (amidst tragedy and suffering) that the Kennedys embodied—isn’t really about that at all. It’s more about being born into an aristocracy, and about the notion that when you’re not just elected but actually one of the Elect, it’s understood that you have sex and drink and party and get STDs from Mexican prostitutes—that you do all of the other things that common people do, only more so.

It’s understood that you’re conducting yourself in the way that a real human being might conduct him- or herself if he or she were born into your position: spending your free time sailing and boozing and getting laid. That’s both natural and aristocratic. Going on a stilted date to Blue Hill, a meal enjoyed in the intimate company of hundreds of photographers and washed down with only one alcoholic beverage? Not natural and not aristocratic.

That’s not a problem for Obama, because he’s perfect and mannerist and comes off like the kind of guy who doesn’t mind having just one drink. Even his imperfections, his cocaine use or whatever, are perfect because they taught him a lesson. That’s why it’s so strange that he’s been dubbed an elitist. He is the furthest thing from a nobleman. The nobility have sex and do drugs and crash cars and sail and have secret parties in their free time. Obama has scarcely spent a minute of his free time in the past decade not behaving in a certain way to please somebody else, not flawlessly emulating the personality traits of the upper-middle-class family-movie protagonist.

Ted Kennedy was a nobleman, and it was his nobility that set him free. If he was above the law for that reason, he was also above pandering for that reason, and it freed him to do real work in the Senate.

I watched Ted Kennedy’s funeral today with my parents in Massachusetts. “He might have been a murderer,” said my father, “and I voted for him in the 1980 presidential primary anyway.” So divine was his status in the Massachusetts of my childhood that there was nothing, not even manslaughter, that would prevent his reelection to the senate. We cried not for the loss of a friend—we had each met him only a few times, and briefly—but for the loss of someone whose face, whose mannerisms, whose handshake, whose accent, had made two totally different generations totally proud of our state in totally different ways.

The fact of not worrying about being reelected set Ted Kennedy free, and decades of civil rights legislation resulted from that carefree status, that noblesse-oblige freedom, the fact of a political future being indicative and not subjunctive. Ted Kennedy reminded us that if the perfect form of government wasn’t Camelot—as England knows, the divine right of kings can yield idiot child rulers, too—maybe it wasn’t modern capitalist democracy, either.

“We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber,” said Obama, “face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature.” He was of nature; he was natural; he did things that politicians can’t do anymore, except maybe Barney Frank, another member of Kennedy’s Massachusetts Congressional delegation, whose recent outburst at a town-hall meeting (“on what planet do you spend most of your time?”)—using language that was in everybody’s mind but is considered untoward for politicians these days—was a very un-modern moment, a moment that was about red-faced, fist-pounding Ted Kennedy, too.

Frank is another politician whose displays of raw humanity—like Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick—probably prevented him from rising further in the political world, yet whose colleagues probably respect him for it, in a way, respect him more than a lot of his more perfect colleagues.

It’s not that a politician today couldn’t transcend partisan divisions the way Ted Kennedy did. In that, Obama might be his equal. It’s that a politician today would no longer be able to survive Chappaquiddick. Politicians are no longer larger than life in that particular way. The forces of modern democracy, as perfected by the media, don’t allow it.

Ted Kennedy was a Democrat, but his rule was not democratic. It was aristocratic. And when we look at what’s gone wrong in American politics, the unfashionable truth might be that as the imperfect aristocrats have been replaced by the perfect politicians, the sorts of policies both unpopular and correct that might arise from a life’s work are being replaced by the sorts of policies both popular and incorrect that might arise from a term’s work.

I wonder if one of the reasons that America waxes so nostalgically about the Kennedys is that it occurs to us, on some level, that there are some benefits to the rule of a hereditary aristocracy; that elections, even conducted fairly and openly, create incentives we’re not quite comfortable with; that what we want, really, is something somewhere between this and Camelot; that maybe we’re a little bit less sold on democracy than we were in elementary school.

3 Comments

  1. yankee interloper

    Hey there Robin, looks like we’re talking about similar ideas, sorta. I loved Teddy Kennedy, but count me as skeptical of aristocracy. I’m skeptical of democracy too, but at this particular moment feels like an old, narrow, self-important elite has captured too many of our institutions. Feels like a dose of popular will would be a welcome antidote.

    http://yankeeinterloper.blogspot.com/2009/08/meritocracy.html

    http://yankeeinterloper.blogspot.com/2009/08/epitaph-for-good-and-decent-man.html

  2. John Whedon

    One of the best reflections to come from Kennedy’s death. Thank you.

    It is reminiscent of some of the views Jan Deutsch, professor at the Yale Law School, has been putting forth for the last ten years or so. The debate is not exactly open to challenges to the conventional view of democracy, and Deutsch has no more than a few devoted students.

    I do see a potential change in this with some of the more recent work of another Yale Law grad, Lawrence Lessig, with Change Congress. The idea is to challenge the way our democracy has become skewed in a way that – here is the clicker – does not allow our politicians to take wrong positions on the merits. The disappointing positions of our politicians these days are rarely a matter of honest, good faith differences.

  3. actually, i do not like politics that much because it is a dirty job.-“-

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