Monday, January 19, 2009

Rags-to-riches: the resonance of the Obama narrative

It does seem almost miraculous that a man of African descent should become President of the United States of America, the son of a Kenyan immigrant and the grandson of a man who was tortured by the British for his part in the Mau-Mau rebellion.

There are many explanations as to why the American people elected him; undoubtedly much credit is due to his highly impressive moral character.

But as a storyteller, I believe some value arises from the archetypal narrative type which the Obama story represents, one that is at the heart of the American dream: the rags to riches story. This story form is dear to Americans because many of them still believe that it is possible for anyone to become their president, no matter how humble their background. The Obama story epitomises the democratic ideal perfectly.

In its classic form, the rags to riches story has five stages:

The first stage is the 'call', where the hero is in a low state, perhaps unhappy, usually in an impoverished home. For Obama, this might be as a child in Hawaii, or it might be in New York, 1982, when he lived in an apartment in a sixth-floor walkup on East 94th Street, "a drug-ridden neighborhood filled with gunshots". At this stage something happens which calls the hero to the wider world that could lift him out of his miserable state. In the Cinderella story, it's when she gets her invitation to the ball. It's debatable if there was a specific moment when Barack Obama felt the call to serve - his was more a gradual evolution. It might have begun in his second year at Occidental College, Los Angeles, when he began to heed his mother's warning that he shouldn't be partying too much; prompting him to leave for New York. It might have been during his time there, from 1982-1985, where he studied and thought a great deal. Or it might have been in Chicago where he threw himself into the task of helping disadvantaged black people get what was theirs by right at the Calumet Community Religious Conference. His boss, Gerald Kellman, later said: "He wanted to make it from the grass roots and he wanted to learn". It was while there that he became convinced that the most serious problems he confronted couldn't be solved on the local level. So perhaps the real call was here, when he changed course again, for Harvard to study law, a path which many an aspiring politician was supposed to follow.

The second stage is when, out in the world, there is initial success. Cinderella gets to dance with the Prince. Aladdin finds his magic lamp. Our hero becomes a Senator in Illinois.

But in the third stage there is always a setback. Cinderella has to return home when her chariot becomes a pumpkin again at midnight. Dick Whittington is forced to leave London. David Copperfield's child-wife dies. The Sorceror tricks Aladdin's Princess out of his magic lamp. And in The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin loses his girl and fails to find gold. In Obama's case it was in the year 2000, when he lost a Democratic primary run for the US House of Representatives. As setbacks go, it wasn't a big one, but it taught him a necessary lesson. He still had more to learn, and remained at that level for a further four years.

The fourth stage of the rags to riches is when the hero has victory in his sights but must face his final ordeal. Undoubtedly, this point in the Obama story comes when, after becoming only the fifth African-American Senator in U.S. history, and the third to have been popularly elected, he decided to run for president. This campaign set numerous fundraising records, but before he could win the ultimate prize he had to defeat his most fearsome and implacable enemy. In a sense, this was not a Republican, John McCain, but two Democrats - the Clintons. Boy, would she not give up. But the reason why ultimately Hilary and McCain lacked the spontaneous popular support expressed by ordinary people for Obama, is because the Obama story is so much more appealing and inspiring than the story arc represented by either of them, which have, let's be honest, more in common with tragedies (after all, there are very few victims of Obama's pursuit of power, but one can think of more than a few metaphorical corpses littering the McCain and Clinton wakes).

The Obama story is inspiring precisely because of its resonance as an archetypal narrative, because it is the story we want to believe. It's one that we all remember from the tales told to us at bedtime in our younger years. Not just Cinderella, but Dick Whittington, Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Moses, and Joseph. Then as we grew older in the forms of adult stories such as Moll Flanders, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and in modern times Rocky, Citizen Kane, Scarface, JK Rowling's personal story, The Pursuit of Happiness, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, and this year, Slumdog Millionaire. Rags-to-riches is even the basis of many hugely popular reality television shows such as Big Brother, The Apprentice, American Idol and Joe Millionaire (in the States).

The Democrat demagogues knew of its power. It's why, in the 2008 Convention, they requested all speakers to deliver a rags-to-riches story.

Obama's enemy fought till the bitter end. She would not let up until way beyond anyone else would have conceded. It was, like all good stories, nail biting till the final moment. But of course he was victorious -- his followers and fans would say that virtue won out, for once in politics, against absolute lust for power.

In classic rags to riches stories, the fifth and final phase is purely and simply success. The hero gets his princess, or vice versa, and wins the kingdom. Everyone lives happily ever after. The hero's inner virtue has been recognized by everyone at large. The slipper fits Cinderella because she deserves it - being humble and pure, unlike the ugly sisters, McCain and Hilary Clinton. In some versions of the story, the hero himself has to undergo an inner transformation for his virtue to manifest. In other versions, her previously hidden virtue is finally acknowledged by everyone.

Because of this, the reign of the heroine or hero over their kingdom, or city in Dick Whittington's case, is fair and benign. And here is where this narrative form achieves its greatest resonance and attractiveness to people at large, especially the underclasses. So much hope is invested by people all over the world, not just in America, that Obama will make their problems go away, or at least lighten their burdens.

It is almost scary. From Pashtuns to Pakistanis, and Afghans to Africans, we want him to dissolve the war on terror, save us from climate change, enervate the economy and propel us from poverty. He is, sadly, not from a fairy story, wreathed in magic. Remember how we felt when Tony Blair was elected. Remember how it fell apart. We want it to be different this time because that's what the story tells us it's going to be like.

We can only wait and hope that this time, in some way, history really has delivered us the best possible leader for these, the worst of times. We hope that Obama's success will enrich us all.

1 comment:

neil craig said...

Steve Sailer has also written on the resonance of Barak Obama the Half Blood Prince.

I wonder if the moral character of those who first put him into politics, in Chicago, may also have helped him?