Robert Lowell on the Obama prize

“But who believed this? Who could understand?”

As a literary man I was reminded immediately of Robert Lowell’s Beyond the Alps. This is from Life Studies (1959), arguably both the best and most approachable of Lowell’s books:

Beyond the Alps (On the train from Rome to Paris. 1950, the year Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption.)

Reading how even the Swiss had thrown the sponge in once again and Everest was still unscaled, I watched our Paris pullman lunge mooning across the fallow Alpine snow. O bella Roma! I saw our stewards go forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs. Life changed to landscape. Much against my will I left the City of God where it belongs. There the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us only, pure prose. I envy the conspicuous waste of our grandparents on their grand tours— long-haired Victorian sages accepted the universe, while breezing on their trust funds through the world.

When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma, the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa. The Holy Father dropped his shaving glass, and listened. His electric razor purred, his pet canary chirped on his left hand. The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle to Mary risen—at one miraculous stroke, angel-winged, gorgeous as a jungle bird! But who believed this? Who could understand? Pilgrims still kissed Saint Peter’s brazen sandal. The Duce’s lynched, bare, booted skull still spoke. God herded his people to the coup de grace the costumed Switzers sloped their pikes to push, O Pius, through the monstrous human crush…

Our mountain-climbing train had come to earth. Tired of the querulous hush-hush of the wheels, the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth lay still, and saw Apollo plant his heels on terra firma through the morning’s thigh… each backward, wasted Alp, a Parthenon, fire-branded socket of the Cyclops’ eye. There were no tickets for that altitude once held by Hellas, when the Goddess stood, prince, pope, philosopher and golden bough, pure mind and murder at the scything prow— Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain.

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

(As Dexter Gordon says to the Frenchman in Round Midnight, “Lot of that goin’ around these days.” Well, no, actually, there isn’t.)

To Americans who wonder how anyone could be so tone-deaf as to pull a stunt like this, it has nothing at all to do with the person, Barack Obama. Probably you can blame the Obama White House for not (a) knowing that this was going to happen, and (b) having the sense to prevent it from happening. And the ultimate diagnosis, of course, is American. But today’s symptom is most definitely European.

The problem is that Americans, even progressives, are the people in the world who adore Obama the least. Normally it is advantageous, for continuity purposes, that Europeans love Obama. But it is not advantageous that they love him so much. It is weird, distracting and confusing. In short: off message.

This strange European affection is easily explained. You see, there was once an agency named the Office of War Information, which was more or less the pro-Roosevelt press organized as a government agency. OWI no longer exists, but not because it fell from favor; some of its people went to CIA, some went to State, some went back to pretending to be ordinary citizens. OWI is essentially the bureaucratic ancestor of the “mainstream media” as we know it today.

After the unfortunate events of 1941–45, the surviving Continental friends of these gentlemen were organized into a new industry, the official media of Europe. Even in Britain, those loyal to the new military configuration of the planet were praised and petted, and reproduced intellectually; those who were not so sure grew old, had no students, declined and died. Europe is a Darwinian paradise of information, all adapted to military events. You can be sure that had things gone otherwise, the grandchildren of Celine, Brasillach and Drieu la Rochelle would constitute “European public opinion.”

So the problem is: Europe is gaga for Obama not because the wise Europeans, with their centuries of history, raw-milk cheeses and infinitely subtle wines, have deliberated long on the subject, gazed into their crystal balls and detected the promise and meaning of Obama. Europe is gaga for Obama because Europe, as we now know it, is a propaganda colony of Washington. The pre-1940 Europe is of historical interest only, like the Aztecs.

But this is not the Warsaw Pact. Nothing in this relationship is coordinated or hierarchical; Europe is gaga for Obama not because Washington sends it instructions to go gaga for Obama; Europe is gaga for Obama because it truly loves Obama. It wants to love Obama.

In fact, we can see this perfectly in the Nobel episode, because no White House flack in his right mind would have ever asked for this. No State Department would have lobbied for it. If, as some believe, Obama is just a front for the Jews—the Jews are horrified. This ridiculous thing will be a millstone around the administration’s neck for the next three years. Whoever did it cannot have been acting under any sort of instructions.

The Eurocrats who manufacture European public opinion, in the context of a political system almost perfectly insulated from democracy, and an information system which only sometimes tolerates anti-government newspapers and never radio or TV, feel (foolishly) that it is right and good and true to treat Obama as Brezhnev. Americans, thanks to their less sterile environment, are not yet that far around the bend.

Note that this matches a Soviet pattern: the fulsome, comical homage to the Leader is always the most fulsome and comical in the most remote provinces. Reason: the more remote you are, the harder you have to work to move the center.

To see how this works in practice, consider the mind of a random Eurocrat. Let’s call him Philippe, a producer of short documentary films for France 5. Pierre is Philippe of the many tiny, toiling cogs who make European public opinion what it is. Like all such cogs, he is constantly terrified that his life is meaningless and has no real impact on anything. Since this terror is more or less accurate, it has a strong hold on him. Therefore, he strives ever more fanatically in his work to enlighten the public, agitate them, stir them up and cause them to act. He thus adds his tiny dribble, a half-hour every year or two, to the great river of Aufklärung that flows into the eyes and ears of Frenchmen.

There’s a big problem, however. The problem is that Washington is the capital of the world. Producers of short documentary films are powerful because the public watches short documentary films—at least, in theory—and public opinion is powerful. Public opinion is powerful because people vote. But, due to various historical unfairnesses which will no doubt in time be corrected, Frenchmen do not get to vote in American elections. And Philippe makes short documentary films for Frenchmen. How, then, will he find his impact?

The answer is: he will cause Frenchmen to have strong opinions about American politics. An issue which, under normal circumstances, would interest them only slightly more than sewage treatment in the watershed of the Irrawaddy. For the impact, he will rely on the well-known force of peer pressure. As we all learned in middle school, it is much more fun to jump off a bridge if your friends jump with you. Much of democracy is based on this principle.

And so, a year ago when I asked the wife of a friend, a perfectly decent person with no more real interest in politics than in Irrawaddy waste management, why she liked Obama, she replied—I forget the words—that Obama would change America’s image. Or some other cliche, well known to mean international public opinion. Which, you will note, Americans are constantly kept well-informed of. Although, under normal circumstances, etc. (Question: does anyone make a living by informing Europeans what American public opinion thinks of them?)

So this is why Obamolatry approaches North Korean levels in Europe, but is relatively restrained on this side of the pond. In Europe, it has no natural enemies, and it has a much harder job to do. Since Europeans can only influence American politics indirectly, through peer pressure, their opinions on American politics have to be much more intense.

And since they are, after all, in Europe, they are nobly unconstrained by any direct contact with the reality. Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain! This one will take a long time to live down.