Monday, July 07, 2008

Obama in Denver: So you thought you might like to go to the show

By Michael J.W. Stickings

It's so funny because it could be true. From The Plank's Jason Zengerle:

As if expectations for Obama's convention speech weren't already ludicriously high, it now looks like he's going to give it in a 75,000-seat football stadium (as opposed to a 20,000-seat basketball arena). Meanwhile, in a bid to further lower expectations, McCain is expected to announce that he's moving the site of his convention speech from Minneapolis's Xcel Energy Center to the lounge at the Holiday Inn out near the airport.

The part about Obama is true. It will be announced today (Marc Ambinder is reporting) that Obama will accept the nomination not at the Pepsi Center (the arena) but at Invesco Field (the stadium). (Update: It's official. David Plouffe says so. It's the "Open Convention.")

The part about McCain could be true. (Why is Colbert is holding a green-screen challenge to make him exciting? Because he isn't.) I would go further, however. Even the Holiday Inn lounge could be too big a venue for him. So why not the Larry Craig Memorial Public Washroom Stall out at the airport for some toe-tapping convention speechifying? It's the right size and there's a toilet right there on hand should the overflow of bullshit need to be flushed.


But, if I may, there's a serious side to this, too.

First, when is it too big? I realize that size can matter and that the sheer spectacle of an Obama speech at such a venue would be awesome.

It's just that I'm reminded of what the sociologist Elias Canetti wrote about the herd mentality in his monumental work Crowds and Power:

The first thing which strikes one about the pack is its unswerving direction; equality is expressed in the fact that all are obsessed by the same goal, the sight of an animal perhaps, which they want to kill... In order to attain what it is after, it must have speed, cunning and endurance, and must not allow itself to be deflected. It urges itself on with its joint clamour, and the importance of noise, in which all the voices of the individual creatures unite, should not be underrated. It can swell and diminish, but it is persistent: it contains the attack.

He was referring to smaller and more primitive hordes here, but the dynamic is much the same, if not much worse for larger crowds. At what point does the individual lose his or her individuality to the group? At what point does the group or the crowd become its own self-sustaining organism?

I'm also reminded of how Pink Floyd treats this dynamic in The Wall, where the line between the rock star and the fascist leader becomes not just blurred but non-existent, with the fans unable even to tell the difference:

So ya
Thought ya
Might like to
Go to the show.
To feel that warm thrill of confusion,
That space cadet glow.
I've got some bad news for you sunshine,
Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel,
And they sent us along as a surrogate band
We're gonna find out where you folks really stand.

Second, and related to this, at what point, if at all, are people turned off by this? Put another way, will there be any pushback against Obama for giving his speech at such a large venue. Even if the spectacle is awesome, even if the 75,000 in attendance are really into it, will it drive a wedge between Obama and the audience watching the spectacle on television? Will it increase the distance between Obama and the voters? Will it create (or enhance) the perception that Obama is an elitist who is simply too detached from, and hence out-of-touch with, mythical Main Street America? After all, McCain may be a terrible orator, but at least most people can relate to an old guy who doesn't speak so well in public. Few of us can relate to a rock star.

Questions, questions.

It's still a good idea, I think, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that Obama will turn into a fascist Pink. But I do worry that politics-as-spectacle can be taken too far and that this could be too much -- or at least could be close to being too much.

It will up to Obama to keep it real, as they say, and not to let either the awesome spectacle, or the troublesome group dynamic, overwhelm him.

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