In Ishmael Reed's 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, a dangerous epidemic, "Jes Grew" threatens 1920s America. For the uninfected, the virus' symptoms are troubling and sudden, centering on an obsession with the dances, lingo and clandestine locations associated with ragtime and jazz. Jes Grew infections start in the country's colored precincts, but the virus soon shows itself capable of spreading to nation's most vulnerable - young white people - sending them out into the streets shaking and twirling and hot with a fever that was "electric as life and […] characterized by ebullience and ecstasy." Far from being simple young-people foolishness, the outbreak threatens the very fabric of Western Civilization itself what with all the freed asses (and hence minds) it engenders.
A white secret society called the Wallflower Order tries to stop Jes Grew. Its weapon? A "talking android," which is to say, a black man who renounced all aspects of black culture as pathological, primitive and self-defeating. (Insert the name of your favorite black conservative here.)
Flash forward 80 years from Reed's fictional/non-fictional world, and your humble narrator (aka, me) is sitting on his putatively free ass, whiling away some spare time on YouTube. A friend has just sent me a new Obama viral video, a Day-Glo music-vid by Sa-Ra Creative Partners member Taz Arnold. Hung on a single, loopy lyric verse and an iconic Isley Brothers sample, Arnold's contribution to the ever growing corpus of Obama-related youtubery is an ebullient and ecstatic little trifle.
This is real and not for play
I'ma vote Obama way
We hood, We votin' and throwin' it up.
Most notable for me was not the video's pro-Obama message, but how it summarizes a certain, mashed-up segment of black L.A. hipsterdom. Spandex and baseball caps, Hollywood Boulevard and the Watts Towers, crotch-hugging skinny rock pants and low-slung hip-hop denim all bump against one another and cohabitate in the L.A. sun, and all of that black diversity and enthusiasm feel completely united under the rising red-white-and-blue sun of the Obama logo. It's the perfect video to watch today, and the best thing is that I am pretty sure there will be a better one tomorrow.
Whether it's the Vote Different ad that kicked off the primary season's viral warfare, or a completely loopy set of videos called Barack in 74 that imagine a man who may well be our next president as a resolutely nerdy stoner at Occidental College, this has been the best campaign ever for ads and videos. It's also been a completely one-sided campaign. Whoever first said "there is joy in the struggle" likely wasn't thinking of viral video, but if the muses of humor, visual intelligence and mashed-up insight could vote, they would clearly be voting Obama. (A tip of the hat to Media Assassin Harry Allen for bringing "Barack in 74" to my attention.)
There's a settling consensus that Obama's likely victory in the Democratic primary race will be due, at least in part, to his ability to harness and inspire DIY Internet memes like Taz Arnold's viral video. Indeed, Obama's campaign has used the Web to stunning effect, whether in terms of fundraising or get-out-the-vote operations like the recently launched Vote for Change, a social networking/registration tool that raises the prospect that, as The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder put it, "[o]n election day, Obama might have more than a million individuals volunteering on his behalf. That should scare the beejeesus out of the McCain campaign and the RNC."
A still from "Barack in 74" http://www.youtube.com/user/BARACKin74
But for black, borderline conspiracy-theorists who view Mumbo Jumbo as a holy Ur-text, the hardening conventional wisdom about Obama and the practical uses of the Internet tell only half a story. It's not just that the first viable black presidential candidate in history made particularly good use of the fluid, hybrid, collaborative, poly-vocal, decentralized, viral and "open" atmosphere of the Internet. It's that the fluid, hybrid, collaborative, poly-vocal, decentralized, viral and "open" values of the Web echo what many of us believe has been the underlying strength of how black culture has been made and distributed for about 400 years. Of course, the black candidate both "gets" the current media environment and reaps the lion's share of that environment's benefits; Jes Grew was Web 2.0 before there was word for it.
Ad hoc images of Obama getting the dirt off his shoulder, or playing Luke Skywalker to Hillary Clinton's Darth Vader strike such a cord because Obama's candidacy and identity are aligned with "Jes Grew" values of revision, remixing, riffing and improvisation. Obama may be a (colored) surface onto which people of all shades and persuasions project their own fantasies, but his rhetoric and operations, the "do-it-yourself" call to hope and the social networking powered fundraising, also directly invite the novel responses and riffs we've been enjoying this electoral cycle. His appeal and the way he operates are not just culturally alien to how both Hillary Clinton and John McCain operate, they are antithetical to their candidacies as well.
Could anyone in the world imagine a borderline not-safe-for-work video like this being created for any candidate except Obama? (Jesse Jackson, maybe?) Clinton's appeals to bureaucratic expertise and McCain's aspiration to be the latest "Republican daddy" leave little for voters to do except sit back and submit to higher authorities, and who would spend an afternoon playing with Final Cut Pro in response to that?
All of Clinton's memorable images were official campaign spots, a home security ad, and some Saturday Night Live skits. And the only clip I can think of from the other side are The McCain Girls, who were so, well, dumb, I'm convinced they're Democratic operatives. The Web is obviously chock full of sexist, degrading images of Clinton, but what's curious is that her partisans never felt any compulsion to remix her image or extend it into novel territory a la Obama's youtube army. Remixing and riffing may have started out, Jes Grew-like, in the nation's black cultural precincts, but everyone is infected now. Including, you would think, "hardworking, white" Clinton voters.
The Clinton campaign's inability to conjure up much in the way of people-powered audiovisual enthusiasm suggests a candidacy not built for the member-generated era of YouTube, but lifted from the top-down early-Internet of Clinton I.
This was not the era of "Yes we can" but "You Will," as in AT&T's 1993 "You Will" ads. Voiced by TV heart-throb (and notable La-La Land conservative) Tom Selleck, the "You Will" campaign offered a slick, neat vision of what people would get to do someday (maybe) using AT&T's proprietary telecommunications gizmos— conduct meetings from a cabana on the beach, or tuck your baby in via video-phone, or take remote learning classes in empty, cathedral-like buildings from teachers thousands of miles away.
I will confess to loving those ads in 1993. They felt upbeat and science fictional, and they depicted gleaming, ghostly interfaces from a wired near-future that I hoped to live in someday. But that message looks, feels and sounds as obsolete now as the Clinton claim of inevitability. ("Clinton Will?")
In contrast, Obama's claims focused on the amazing, unlikely things Americans and their neighbors might be able do together right now, starting, of course, with getting a black man to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. I never subscribed to the Clintons=Racist Demons thesis, but it is clear which campaign has best reflected our underlying cultural and political moment. Fairly or unfairly, Clinton is now understood as an AT&T-like product, while Obama is a platform.
The other thing Obama is, of course, is a cultural virus taking the country unexpectedly by storm just like Jes Grew.
Over on the execrable Michelle Malkin's Web site, readers had typically partisan response to the new Obama video by Taz Arnold:
..[t]he way I look at it, the people involved in this show of extreme stupidity have no stake whatsoever in the future of the United States. They're like a bunch of prepubescent little children singing the praises of a some [sic] cartoon character or a guy dressed up in a hippo suit.
…I had to quickly go to Heritage.org [website of the conservative Heritage Foundation] to purge myself.
…[b]lack "culture" never fails to disappoint.
While these comments were written in absurdly disproportionate response to the Arnold video, they easily could have been written by Ishmael Reed in 1972 to describe aghast reactions to Jes Grew. For all of the Clinton campaign's faults, the contrast between Hillary and Barack was, at its worst, a contrast between 1993 and 2008 style Democratic politics. The battle between Barack Obama and John McCain is shaping up to be a culture war as definitive and epic as that depicted by Reed's classic novel.
The almost biological terror a Barack Hussein Obama presidency inspires in the right is the same terror Reed's Wallflower Order felt at the prospect of an America incurably infected by black culture. That terror reaches back to a foundational American fear of blackness, and it is a kissing cousin to the Lou Dobbs inspired fear over immigration. In Reed's book, the battle ends poorly for the virus Jes Grew, but as one character explains, "they will try to depress Jes Grew but it will only spring back and prosper. We will make our own future Text. A future generation of young artists will accomplish this." It's like he envisioned YouTube before it existed.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.