Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Warning for length, and ranting.
This morning, the Today programme had on the American journalist who has just written a mildly controversial book about the Obamas. To the shock and horror of the commenting classes, it turns out that Mrs Obama may not be a doormat person stuck in a 1950s time-warp. She has, apparently, ideas of her own, and sometimes expresses them. This, it appears, makes her both frightening and angry. And again I find myself hurling another socking great double standard across the room.
But the point was not so much about the brilliant Mrs O. Right at the end, the journalist, whose name I stupidly forget, was asked about President Obama’s first term. Justin Webb, who knows something about American politics, said: ‘Why do you think he has been a bit of, well, a disappointment?’
First of all, the journalist did not pause to challenge the premise. I am quite keen on challenging the premise and think people should do it more often, especially on flagship news programmes. (This is not the same as not accepting the premise, which is a politician’s weaselly way of not answering the question, cf Andrew Lansley this morning on the National Health Service.) In fact, she seemed quite delighted to be asked, as if this were the crux of the matter. She had obviously given the thing some thought, because she did not pause or ponder; she came right out with it. ‘Of course,’ she said, conclusively, ‘he’s the most introverted president we’ve ever had.’
At which point, I literally shook my head, like a baffled horse. I practically snorted and pawed the ground. What? You take the myriad, convoluted, labyrinthine complications of running a country as eclectic and mysterious as America, and boil it down to the fact the president is an introvert? And, and, you blatantly imply that this is a bad thing, a terrible drawback, a defining weakness. I do not understand.
Justin Webb, whom I admire, moved on without a beat, as if this were a perfectly explicable answer. I was left opening and closing my mouth like a grumpy carp. It’s not actually the politics of this that interests me, for once. I could argue for hours that Obama has not been a disappointment. I think it is a miracle that he can govern the country at all, since America seems more profoundly divided now than I have ever seen it. It’s not just left and right, there are furious fissures within the ideological camps. Have you been watching the Republican primaries? There is a massive fight going on between the religious right and the fiscal conservatives, the almost extinct Rockefeller Republicans and the neophyte Tea Partiers, the biblical literalists and the radical libertarians, and all points in between.
Within the same party you have Ron Paul, who wants the government to run a small army and not much else, and Rick Santorum, who would like government to be so enormous it can go into your bedroom and your womb. (There’s fun for the ladies.)
The Dems are slightly less fractious, but the coloured bit of the Venn diagram where centrists once met seems to be smaller and smaller, so there are terrible, pointless, childish rows and stand-offs in both House and Senate, where bills are thrown out because of tribalism, Republicans vote against things they once supported, and filibusters grow like mushrooms after rain. Sometimes, when I watch the implacable dislike and mistrust that seems to obtain between the two sides, I wonder that America can be governed at all.
Yet, Obama stopped the economy sailing off the cliff, got the jobs graph to start crawling up instead of plunging down as it had under George W, put through a healthcare bill which at least contained the idea of universal coverage, pulled out of Iraq, tracked down Osama Bin Laden with his supersecret powers, and repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, all against the howls and tantrums of an obstructionist Congress. He has not been perfect, but, in an awful situation, he has not been bad. And he can sing Al Green songs.
But that is not the point. (Turns out I had to say it, because it makes me so cross when people suck their teeth and say he has done nothing.) The point is that his perceived disappointment is being blamed on being an introvert.
There is an element in American politics which is hard for me to understand fully, and that is the glad-handing aspect. British politicians don’t have to do this. Ministers introduce their bills; the party system guarantees most of the time there will be an easy majority; occasionally the whips are called in and glare with menaces; very rarely the government backbenches rebel. As far as I can see, in America the President can rely on almost no one, even his own party.
For each bill, he has to get the votes, and this seems to involve personal relationships. When asked why his promised bipartisan dream did not come to pass, the Republicans say, over and over, that he never came up to the Hill. He never asked them to things, apparently. He did not have them in for cocktails. It’s so strange. It sounds like they are teenage girls who did not get invited to a fashionable party, and now they are throwing a strop about it.
I that this is partly what that journalist meant when she blamed Obama's introversion for his perceived failure. The only inference I can draw from this odd statement is that if he had been a good ol’ boy, yacking it up, and slapping backs, and twinkling and winkling, then somehow everything would have been fine.
I admit, I am entirely biased. I am an introvert. I get so sick and tired of introversion being seen as entirely negative trait. Introvert is used to mean taciturn and shy and anti-social; that is not its meaning at all. It simply means that the inner world of thoughts and ideas is more real than the external world of events. For the extrovert, it is the exact opposite. The extrovert’s greatest terror is being left entirely alone; the introvert fears the collapse of her internal world. Regular readers will know that my biggest fear is that I shall go mad in the night and wake up thinking I am Queen Marie of Roumania. It is a classic introvert terror, almost a cliché of introversion.
Introversion is a bit like handedness. One can go out and dance and sing and talk and laugh; one can be social and make conversation perfectly well. It’s just it’s a bit like writing with your left hand when you are naturally right-handed. It requires a bit of effort.
The difference is that extroverts thrive on people; big groups, social occasions are like fuel in the tank for them. Introverts, on the other hand, are exhausted by going out, however much it might be a pleasure. That is why, after this lovely weekend away, I had to sit in a silent room for the whole of Monday, staring out of the window. My easiest and gladdest default mode is to be alone.
I always used to think that introversion and extroversion were evenly mixed. Apparently not. Someone worked out it’s more like 30-70. This now starts to explain to me why people react with disdain; it’s the old minority thing. It’s other.
Also, on a very human level, people take it personally. Sometimes, I do not answer the telephone. This is because I have been thinking all day and my brain is not fit for human contact. Often, I refuse invitations, because I am not robust enough for many people in a room; I need to be still and quiet. Because extroverts, the majority, the normal ones, cannot imagine feeling like this, they take it as an insult. The conclusion is: the introvert does not like people, rejects company, is somehow superior or disdainful, is horridly chilly and distant.
It’s not that. It’s just that doing more than one human at a time is a stretch for me, so I need to be feeling strong for it. I need a good night’s sleep and all my iron tonic.
Introverts might not always have the easy ability to beam their charm and magnetism at a group, as Bill Clinton or Sarah Palin may; the concentration on the inner world may well be a drawback in strict political terms. What they do have is the capacity to sit in a room and think. I would like my leaders to be sitting and thinking as much as they can damn well bear.
The world is swerving into water where there are no charts. It is the contemplation of introversion rather than the instant action of extroversion that is needed now. I bet you anything all those bloody Joe Cassanos and the other credit default cowboys were extroverted up to their eyebrows. And look how well that turned out.
One of the complaints about Obama is that he is too cool. He does not connect, apparently. I think you can ask the wrong things of a politician. I’m not sure I want hail fellow well met; I want brain the size of Poland. I’m pleased that the President is a thoughtful man; I admire his dignity and grace. I don’t want to have a beer with him, I want him to make good decisions, because what happens to America affects us all.
But most of all, can people stop drawing intellectually lazy, psychologically inaccurate conclusions; could they stop conflating two different things and making baseless accusations? Could they just leave us introverts alone? We are not freaks. We do not hate or fear people, just because we are not doing karaoke every night. We just come at the world from a slightly different angle. Surely that is allowed?
Pictures of the day. I am slightly obsessed with the colours of the bare trees, so there are rather a lot of snaps of those:
This photograph is not well composed. It is not even in focus, which you might think would be the minimum requirement. But it is of Pigeon doing the blinky eyes. I'm sorry, but no blinky eye can remain unseen. So here she is:
Back to focussed gazing face: