Hofstadter, Powers, Obama: A Politically Hopeful Observation

Thursday, 6 November 2008 — 5:15pm | Literature

Prior to the last week of the American presidential election, I gave little thought to race. I kid you not when I say that for a while there, I completely forgot that Obama would be the first African-American elected to the White House. For some of us foreign observers, anyway, the election was about issues, in spite of the best efforts of the Sarah Palin crowd to convince us otherwise. Colin Powell said it best:

We are only correct in saying that the racial barrier has budged at all because Barack Obama was never, at any point, an identity politician or a token candidate. Race, as overwhelmingly significant as it is, was something to talk about after the electoral votes rolled in. That’s what happened, and that’s what should have happened.

I thought of a book on Tuesday night: the Richard Powers novel The Time of Our Singing, published in 2003. In a roundabout way, it is about Barack Obama. The novel follows the lives of two brothers—half Jewish, half black—who pursue careers as classical musicians. As they see the twentieth-century history of the civil rights movement unfold from their unstable cultural bubble, they have to sort out whether classical music is part of a hegemonic white establishment, or if music just is.

There’s a line from the novel that stays with everyone who reads it:

The bird and the fish can fall in love. But where they gonna build their nest?

Where else? America.

(Well, Canada too—but permit me to set my country aside for the sake of rhetoric.)

The resonance of the Powers novel with the Obama candidacy was so strong, in my mind, that I felt compelled to consult Google to see if anyone else had observed it. As it turns out, someone did—and who should it happen to be, other than Douglas Hofstadter!

Yes, that Douglas Hofstadter. Which makes perfect sense, if you are at all familiar with his work. Richard Powers has always struck me as Hofstadter’s fiction-writing counterpart—what, with their shared interests in deep structure, classical music, artificial intelligence, wordplay, and the dissolution of the form-content boundary as the key to human cognition.

In the interview I linked to above, conducted just prior to the election, Hofstadter passes on the following Palin-drome:

The source of the VP-hopeful’s extensive domestic policy experience:

“Wasilla’s all I saw.”

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