Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Church of Obama: Just For You

Matt Frei: Taming the cyber beast | Comment is free | The Guardian

The Clinton White House leaked like a sieve. The Bush White House circled the wagons and lived in a bubble; it turned loyalty into a test of service and largely disdained the clutter of opinions from the world outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If the last year is anything to go by, the Obama administration will be a curious mixture: it too will demand absolute loyalty and discretion from its staff while feeding the hungry cyber-masses with the impression of involvement.

I wandered into Obama's campaign website once looking for information about a volunteer training program for a friend that I'd heard about through my local Democratic Party organization. I never found it but by the time I had managed to extricate myself from the site I had given the Obama campaign my cell phone number and signed on to a special interest email list. I searched through page after busy page of slick web design without finding what I needed until I was so overwhelmed by the links, hype and innumerable options for social networking that I left in a state of near panic.

It reminded me of the time, at a conference in China, a group of us went to the Old Silk Market in Beijing (pictured above). It was jammed with shoppers, merchandise of every kind, and aggressive shopkeepers hustling tourists. By the time I managed to squeeze my way back to the edge of the crowd I was panicked. Once I broke free I ran the last lap at top speed to my friends who were waiting at the exit laughing: they'd been through it too and knew exactly how I felt.

I never went back to the Obama site but Barak kept in touch with innumerable emails and text messages that occasionally came in the middle of the night but more often during one of my logic classes, invariably while I was doing a especially intricate proof on the board.

The email list was worst of all. List members, at least those who posted, were convinced that they were on intimate terms with Obama, that he followed discussion on the list (or, at least, that his inner circle did and reported back to him) and looked to them for advice.

I couldn't imagine why. Manifestly there were millions of participants in Obama's social networking structure: we were just numbers. I've never minded being just a number--in fact I rather like it. What I definitely don't like is bogus intimacy--strangers with whom I do business addressing me by my first name and customized junk mail. At the Silk Market stall keepers adopted the same tactic: they assured me that they were giving me special deals because I was special--"five dollah, just for you, no, four dollah, four dollah--and just for you."

Lots of people must like it because if they didn't employees wouldn't be trained to use client's first names and junk mail wouldn't be personalized, but I can't imagine why: it seems so obviously patronizing, manipulative and humiliating.

I especially hate programs aimed at giving clients a sense of involvement by loading them with busywork. In my church this was called "empowering the laity." The assumption was that the laity were at lonely and loose ends, didn't know what to do with themselves, felt useless, isolated and of little worth. The church give them tasks to do which would get keep them occupied, boost their self-confidence, make them feel needed, and create the sense of involvement that would keep them in the fold. When I was involved in the church growth business it was a commonplace that no matter how enthusiastic new members of a congregation were they would never stick beyond a few weeks unless they were hustled into organizations and activities. Religion was ephemeral--sociability was the eternal verity.

It was a complete fake. Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity--the clerical profession in particular. Laypeople were never be heard and the only work we got to do was donkey work. Most weren't even trusted with that. Important donkey work was done by paid staff. Laypeople were given busywork and pretend work.

So, at one particularly painful vestry meeting the Junior Warden, whose titular responsibilities were grounds and facilities, told a long story about his research in local ordinances to determine whether the church door could be tethered by a spring so that it would close of its own accord or whether it had to stay open to comply with handicapped access regulations. Of course, the church employed a facilities supervisor, overlord of 4 Mexican sextons, who looked into such matters and made decisions about the disposition of doors. The Junior Warden was just being allowed to play pretend.

I found it humiliating and find the whole Obama cult creepy for the same reason. I voted for an ideology and a program: for more social safety nets and less military adventurism, for a more activist government, for the agenda of the left. Obama was the icon of that program, the button you pushed to get it. As a voter, I made my goals for the country known by pushing the Obama button.

I'm no expert. I don't know how to implement the objectives of the left, I don't understand the means to the ends I support, or the details and, frankly, I'm not interested. I just want a result. I want that program to pop out of the black box of government and don't want to know what's going on inside. So I'm glad that Obama has appointed a team of experts and technocrats to work on those details inside the black box. I don't want to be involved. What I resent isn't beng locked out of the black box but these attempts to create the illusion of involvement.

People of normal intelligence can't really believe that Obama or his advisors are really paying any attention to what they say and, if they don't, I can't see how they could fail to be outraged by this humiliating, patronizing treatment--the hype, manipulation, vacuous slogans, contrived sentimentalities and pieties, and slick packaging.

I suppose if the church didn't exist it would have to be invented

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