Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fearless Politics/Fearless Art

"What do you think of Obama NOW?" The question was casually tossed at me from a guy in my exercise class who has been absent for the past six months or so. Previously, during the long election campaign, we would occasionally share enthusiastic assessments of the future President. But I could tell from the tone and phrasing of his current comment that he had joined the now-bulging ranks of People Who No Longer Support Obama. His main complaint? Obama should have given up on those Republicans a long time ago. He's too quick to compromise, and hasn't shown enough moxie. It seems we've heard that tune before.

I went up to him again after class, feeling a need to set the record straight. Bailing on the Republicans, turning his back on them, I told him, would play straight into their hands, and is exactly the victory they are waiting for--the chance to blame their own extreme partisanship on him and thus co-opt the story. (See how he absolutely refuses to work with us?)

In one of his town hall meetings this week to promote the health-care bill, Obama said, "They think they're wearing me down. But I'll wear them down long before that." Even David Brooks admitted to being awed by Obama's display of "tremendous tenacity."

The President, in my view, has shown an uncanny ability to evolve in the face of incredible stress and obstruction, and never let the bad wipe him out. Where you and I would have snapped long ago--become defeated, frustrated, or offended by the onslaught of undeserved, unfair attacks he has endured--Obama remains in the mode of non-reaction; his ego doesn't react, and it seems to drive people crazy. It's a martial ability his detractors simply can't fathom: defusing and deflecting the aggression of others by relaxing into it, instead of pushing back with force. The discipline of relaxation and non-action goes against all their programming.

There is only one way to relax, yield, and become soft when confronting the hard force of attack, and that is to surrender all fear. After a year in public office with lots of opportunity to practice, Obama has lost his fear. While Republicans grow ever more psychologically stiff and aggressive, the President, by contrast, has become more supple and strong. Instead of pushing back on their brittle false fronts and body armor, he has learned to absorb whatever strikes him, not blocking or shoving back but staying soft like a piece of cloth so an attack will have no point on which to exert its force. The secret is not to resist or insist, but to become instead even more resilient. Obama understands, in the words of author Joshua Cooper Ramo, that "The snapped ruler remains snapped forever." So he never snaps.

I'm probably going to overfish my pond here with where I'm going next, and the comparison I'm about to make. I think Obama has a female counterpart in the art world, who just happens to be my favorite artist ever. Her name is Marina Abramovic, and a retrospective of her work opened this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For thirty years Abramovic has practiced a unique kind of performance art she helped to pioneer, sometimes known as "Ordealism." Now 63, she is still beautiful, and a photograph of her in a recent New Yorker portrays her enacting one variation in a series entitled "Dragon Heads," which for me has always been the most compelling of all her works.

In the photo, Abramovic sits mutely like a rock full of iron, with a python draped around the crown of her head. The snake dips down blocking one eye, extending itself beyond the bridge of her nose and below her mouth, its head brushing against her chin. Another python is curled around her neck, its body knotted like a scarf. The image is unbelievably stunning. You see a variation of the same work in the photo above, taken during a performance at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Abramovic sits in a chair while pythons and a boa constrictor crawl over her body. She has to remain utterly passive and non-reactive. The snakes will respond to any excess energy or show of fear, and she could die. All her works require a similar ability to control the energy flow in her body, to relax and surrender her fear.

To me, it is not too freakish or too far-fetched to place Obama's political trials of endurance with Republicans along the same spectrum of mastery as Abramovic's extraordinary artistic ordeals with snakes. Both require embracing challenging situations, and using them as entry points into the mode of non-reaction by stripping away the limits imposed by fear. Both involve looking for the trail to the dangerous edge and then climbing it.

So now, call me crazy, but whenever I picture Obama hard at work in his office in the White House, it is always with snakes draped over his body. The door is open. Let's dance, he says, bringing out his flute.

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