September 29, 2008

Cowboy vs. Indian for president

Todd Gitlin analyzes the presidential race in terms of archetypes. First, there's McCain the cowboy type:

Race for president builds characters

Once again, we're treated to not just a campaign but a collision of myths.Part of what makes this year's race so volatile--and so absorbing--is the range of archetypes it has mobilized. Sen. John McCain is relatively familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before him.

McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West. Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort--rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men at home in nature (not in our effete cities)--who settled the West on their own. The myth discounts the immense role of the federal government in conquering the natives, seeing that the railroads were built, adjudicating disputes, arranging for water. No matter: Print the legend. In this image of the Old West, history belongs to the man who takes charge, the warrior in command who knows how to shoot and how to lead others to shoot as well.
Then there's Obama the Indian type:If the Republican ticket harmonizes with deep mythic currents, the Democrats this year are pioneering, and a bit scrambled, in their mythic significance. Obama is the quintessential outsider--a "sojourner," the New York Times' David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii, alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world; to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.

Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an egghead. He's the professor--but one who can sink the shot from beyond the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. One thing is clear: He is not a man of the ranch. Personifying a welter of archetypes, he thrills some, confounds others and jams circuits. Some people ask, "Who is this guy?"
Comment:  I'm glad that Gitlin pointed out how much of America's Western history is a myth. I've discussed that before in postings such as Westerners = Freeloaders.

So McCain is the macho man and Obama is the trickster? Despite Native respect for the military, it's clear which candidate is more of an Indian in spirit. No wonder most Indians are Democrats and favor Obama.

For more on the subject, see Hercules vs. Coyote:  Native and Euro-American Beliefs.


dmarks said...

Yes, the article has little to do with actual cowboys or actual Native trickster figures (or actual Obama or actual McCain), but other than that it is great, right?

Rob said...

The article doesn't explicitly describe cowboys and Indian tricksters, but it implicitly describes them. That makes it an appropriate and good posting for Newspaper Rock.