When I put up the Van Jones video from NN10 last night — you can open another window with that video — I expected many of the comments would express views ranging from disappointment to anger, and some surprise that Jones remains an ardent supporter of the President. But I was surprised that only one or two commenters picked up on Van Jones’ Titanic and Lord of the Rings metaphors.
Those metaphors reveal a great deal about the large split between patient but concerned loyalists and the disillusioned/disgusted and those beyond. They also help clarify the issue that has been misnamed the "Obama paradox," something I don’t think is the slightest bit paradoxical, though I understand how the loyalists might see it differently. What do these metaphors tells us, not so much about Jones, but about all of us?
In his Titanic metaphor, Jones said something like this,
Remember, Obama volunteered to be the captain of the Titanic, after it hit the iceberg.
. . . and then he used that to express his own more sympathetic portrait of the President and the challenges he and the country face. So let’s take that where it might lead.
I’m fairly certain Van Jones does not believe the end of the real drama called American democracy is that the ship sinks and most aboard her are lost, save for a few rich people who steal the lifeboats. The real Titanic sank and thousands died. In the real and Hollywood versions, the ship was highly segregated between the wealthy class and steerage, the privileges of wealth were beyond counting, the deprivation below decks a different story. The people in charge were fools, the security people’s main job was to enforce the unfair distribution of wealth and privilege, those steering the ship were driven by greed and arrogance to take excessive risks but were asleep at the helm.
Not only was disaster inevitable, its horrors were imposed unequally and unfairly on the poor. The movie portrays this when the villain — a Master of the Universe — saves himself at the expense of others, while his class literally steals life jackets from the lower class and usurps the life boats. There are not enough life boats for those in steerage, so many plunge to their deaths, to freeze, to drown, to be eaten by sharks. Could we ask for a better metaphor for today’s America, the financial crash, the jobless faux recovery and Congress’ response?
What interests me about Jones’ use of this metaphor is what it says about what you or I might think about America’s future. It would be easy to conclude that Van Jones is delusional: we are not fools, no sirree, so we know the real story and how it ends. So when he says Obama volunteered to be captain after the ship strikes the iceberg, then the logical conclusion is that Obama and his supporters too are delusional and doomed — and that may be true.
But Jones isn’t suggesting we are doomed; instead he dares to believe we can create an alternative ending in which the ship does not sink, and thousands of people are actually saved. And after that, they work on fixing all the reckless and unfair behavior that existed before the crisis. That ending is more interesting to me. And if you think Van Jones is a fool for pretending we can create an alternative ending, then ask yourself where you think you are in this metaphor.
I’m willing to bet many of Jones’ critics also believe there is an alternative ending to the Titanic story, but it starts at a different point. They believe we haven’t hit the iceberg yet. That alternative story would have a valiant and wise captain (someone other than Obama) abruptly change course — a hard to port — and prevent the collision from happening or at least limit the damage and keep the ship afloat. And while the captain is doing that, his Administration will change the segregationist rules on board, redistribute wealth and privileges among the passengers, punish those who cruelly enforced the old regime and for heaven’s sake, replace the coal-fired boilers driving the engines and polluting the skies.
The point I take from this is, you have to be an incredibly optimistic person, someone with enormous faith in humans and the American experiment, to believe in either of these alternative endings, to believe we can dramatically change course and alter America’s future under either scenario. Jones speaks of hope, despair, and change. I’m in despair, but Jones says, if that’s where you are, "you’re not helping," no matter which scenario you believe in.
I don’t agree with Jones about the captain — he’s not, and doesn’t appear capable of, or inclined to be, what I believe is needed in a President at this moment — but I’m not certain how much that matters in the long run. Everything Jones works for, everything that needs to change to alter the ending after the iceberg, also needs to happen (and more) if you believe the iceberg is still ahead.
Whether you believe the iceberg is still directly in front of us, or we’ve already struck it, any alternative ending to this story is going to require a very different attitude from a paralyzing despair.
And as Jones notes — when he says an even better metaphor is Lord of the Rings — the Orcs (Fox’s Breitbarts, deniers, birthers, etc) — really are out there and they are being created and enraged to kill you and everything you believe in . . . but that’s another story.