Obama's candy for tough times


Somebody in the coffee shop somebody told me recently that, despite the bad economy, the Ganong candy factory here in St. Stephen is doing quite well. Apparently, they’re running three shifts flat out. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

When times get tough we all seem to turn to cheap, instant comfort. Back in Great Depression, our grandparents flocked to the movies. It’s no different today. I heard on the radio that since the financial meltdown lotto-ticket sales are down but liquor sales are up. Why take a gamble on tomorrow when you can get an instant buzz on today?

I get the appeal. When we were travelling across Maine last week and stopped for gas, the kids followed me into the store. I went on treat patrol, cruising past the potato chip rack with the $3 bags, past the jumbo $2 chocolate bars, finally stopping in front of the penny candies. The kids and I surveyed the gummy bears and licorice cigars until the tiny corrosive thought of dental bills woke me up. But still, the idea of happy kids on 50¢ worth of candy was pretty seductive.

The cheap candy approach isn’t just restricted to family life. I think the US election is stuck hip deep in sugary notions. On the right, McCain promises the American public lower taxes at a time when their government is running out of cash—due to two decades of deregulated corporate plunder and now two costly wars. And Obama is pushing mountains of sugary hope to unprecedented heights.

It’s déja-vu all over again. The media, in the same way they fuelled the rush to the Iraq war, have been building up Barack Obama. Because of that, I don’t quite buy into all the media enthusiasm for Obama. I keep listening to his speeches hoping to hear something to justify the hype. So far, what I actually hear is rhetoric.

This is an important election to those of us who live next to the world’s longest undefended border. So, as Canadians, our interest in Obama is natural. I watched a PBS documentary on Obama and McCain last week, trying to shed some light on the man who will likely be the next president by the time you read this.

So what did I learn? Well, Barack has been giving the same speech of hope since before he went to Harvard Law. He has a history of appointing himself mediator between two conflicting sides. He doesn’t seem to have ever had a real job, and he learned fairly early on how to charm people and work the political system. Like his careful, non-offending voting record in the Senate, he’s has taken the small “p” political approach to building his career. In short, he’s never taken a firm stand on any issue other than opposing the Iraq War as far as I can tell, which must make him the perfect politician. He was also fortunate in marrying a politically compatible partner.

John McCain, by way of contrast, is a perfect train wreck of bad career choices. After Vietnam, he divorced his first, long-suffering wife, leaving her for a wealthy younger woman—and later admitted that he’d been a jerk. He was implicated in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal and had to publicly back away and apologize. He opposed George W. at a time when most other Republicans were still on side. Then he made a tense peace with George to reunite the party—just in time for Obama to savage him as another Bush lackey. Talk about an anti-careerist.

But we do get a sense of who McCain is. He just kind of blurts it out. But what about Obama? There’s one clear signal we do keep getting. He’s the guy who reflects the leadership and the hope we need. He’s very carefully positioned himself as the blank screen—inviting us to project all our hopes and aspirations on him. Race equality? Projection displayed. Supporter of the underdog? Absolutely. Bipartisan peacemaker? Yes again. Financial saviour? Yep, that too.

Students of psychology understand the dark side of projection. When we fall in love, we project our ideal of the opposite sex onto some poor, unsuspecting victim. This projection is really nothing more than a figment of our imagination. And after two or three years we wake up in shock wondering how this total stranger ended up in our bed. Poof, there goes that projection.

Chances are, the same thing will happen to our neighbours in the south. Some morning a year or two after the election, everybody (including the media) will wake up wondering just how this stranger ever landed in the White House. Ironically, the new peacemaking president could get caught up in a global military conflict that would have been better handled by the old warhorse nobody wanted. Poof, the screen goes blank—and a harsh new reality sets in.

We’ve had a few projections here in Canada, too. Pierre Trudeau was our first real political celebrity. Like Obama, he ran on the youth ticket, again acting as a projection screen for their hopes. A few years later he shattered those illusions when he enacted the War Measures Act to quash the separatists in Quebec. And his policies are with us today. On the social front, his multiculturalism still obscures the Canadian identity. On the economic front, his oil nationalization created an east-west divide that is still with us today—and ultimately led to the election of our current prime minister.

Decades ago, before the political “saturation bombing” effect of television and the Internet, our politicians were judged on the force of their ideas, arguments and stage presence. Seen and heard at a distance, our politicians didn’t have to be telegenic. It would be impossible to elect a John A. MacDonald or a Lester B. Pearson today. Yet we can’t imagine our country without them.

I worry that we’re dismissing real leadership talent in favour of constructed media images. Instead of grounded leadership, we’re in danger of electing such untested media trifles as Trudeau’s eldest son. Unfortunately, no matter how sweet, candy is never enough.

Let’s hope there’s more to Obama than we’ve seen —and wish him luck.


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