Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Golem

One of the strangest legends of Jewish mystical folklore is the story of the Golem. The best-known example is the story of the Golem of Prague, made by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect the Jews of Prague from Christians incited by sermons at Eastertime. Eventually, after performing its defensive duty, the Golem stopped obeying Rabbi Judah Loew's orders and the Rabbi was forced to destroy it.

From the Hebrew word for "formless mass," golem refers to the product of a mystical procedure that turns a shapeless lump of clay or mud into a living being, capable of performing service for its maker. The procedure relies on the power of words to create and destroy: the maker imbues the golem with life by speaking or writing words related to the names of God into the formless mass, and it takes shape and gains the power of movement -- but not of speech. When its usefulness is at an end (or when it develops a dangerous will of its own), the golem's maker can destroy it by repeating the words in the reverse order or erasing their written form.

In 2006, columnist Froma Harrop noted that Barack Obama described himself in his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views... my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete."

Today, in August 2011, Froma Harrop has made some interesting headlines by calling TEA Party movement members "terrorists" -- this while heading a project called Restoring Civility for the National Conference of Editorial Writers. But what's been overlooked in the kerfuffle over her name-calling is the topic of the column in which the name-calling appeared: Democrats Also Need a Presidential Primary in 2012. It concludes:
But Democrats would do themselves a huge favor if they had a living, breathing leader as their presidential candidate in 2012. Won't someone step up?

And she's hardly the only Progressive lamenting the failure of Obama to fulfill their ambitions. On Slate, Jacob Weisberg paints a lurid image of Obama as passive and ineffectual:
It has been astonishing to watch Obama's sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there's no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

And in the New York Times, Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, writes that Obama seems passionless and even rudderless:
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

It seems clear that Obama was flattering himself when he described himself as a blank screen. He is a golem: a shapeless mass of unformed political opinions and feel-good slogans who animated himself into national political life with the power of words. He began with his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then followed with The Audacity of Hope (mirroring the way he used Dreams From My Father to become a statewide politician in Illinois), and finally with his campaign speeches in 2007-2008. And along the way, his formlessness allowed both Progressives and more moderate voters to believe that he was assuming the form of their faithful servant, a being that would do the heavy lifting of fixing a broken nation and creating a cross-party coalition behind his preferred solutions.

But having spoken himself into being, President Obama had no idea what he existed for. He assumed that slogans, pronouncements and speeches would be as effective in creating public policy from his shapeless mass of ideas as it was in turning him into a President-like figure. Amazingly, in thirty months in office, he hasn't learned that incantations are not sufficient to the task of negotiating policy decisions with Congress. Even very recently, his press secretary Jay Carney expressed exasperation on Obama's behalf at press suggestions that the President might be expected in the course of his job to write down comprehensive proposals to implement his policy positions.

The final evidence that Obama is no blank screen but an animated being is that the Progressives now realize that they can't change him merely by changing a channel or projecting a different image onto him. In fact, they can't control him at all -- and the fact that they are so outraged to realize that fact indicates that they indeed saw themselves, not him, as the makers of the Golem. They believed that they called him into being and thus should be able to uncreate him, but they are learning that they were merely swept along in his process of self-creation and that they are now powerless to stop him from lumbering aimlessly, crushing their Progressive ideals.

The story of the Golem was made into a so-so Roddy McDowall movie in 1967. But that was a masterpiece compared to the Obama version.

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