Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Seduction of Al Franken

One of my hopes for Al Franken, besides getting the execrable Coleman out of the nation's hair and off of its payroll, is that he will really use his status as an outsider and image as an oddball to shake things up -- that he'll be something like Paul Wellstone, but shrewder, hiding behind saying, "Hey, the people of Minnesota knew what they were getting, and that's what I'm going to be," all the while continuing to act like a buttoned down, serious player in the system. The contrast between Franken the clown and Franken the serious, thoughtful, man that he actually is gives him much more room for heterodoxy than any other politician in the nation's capital. Franken has a chance, I think, to be a lesser version of the guy Obama's supporters built him up to be, but that he very clearly now, is not: a radical who uses the forms and language of a moderate.

All that being said, I get concerned when the Villagers start building Franken up:

All of this matters because there are constants in the life of the man that Minnesota (Minnesota!!) has now (probably) elected to represent it in the U.S. Senate. Franken has spent his life as a sort of intellectual terrorist, a rebel in open war with the mores and power structures of America. With perhaps one or two exceptions, he has done a brilliant and noble job. Free nations need performers who will mess with our heads. But we are just not used to these performers becoming senators. I don't doubt that Franken will be more staid in his new job than he was in his old ones. But I also find it hard to believe that he will be able to do the job entirely straight, with the same soulless formality that is Congressional convention. He spent a lifetime unmasking the powerful as witless buffoons. Now he is set to become the powerful. It will be fun to see what happens next.

Now, this passage can be read many ways, but as I read it I remembered a line from Orwell: "like an old Trade Union man elected to Parliament, who gets a pat on the back from some titled member of the House of Lords and is lost forevermore." It's a paraphrase, but pretty close to the original, I think.

It's possible Franken is just another soulless hack and there's nothing there to seduce in the first place. If that's the case, him beating Coleman is nearly irrelevant. Coleman took away the seat of one of the very few genuine liberals in the Senate, and if Franken is not going to assume that mantle then those 240 votes or whatever they were might as well have gone the other way. But if he seriously intends to try to take Wellstone's place, he's going to have to learn to armor himself against the gross flatteries of the Versailles class -- a class Scherer is scrambling to join. Beating Coleman? Child's play. Resisting a corrupt and corrupting culture -- especially for a performer, who by nature seeks to be the center of attention? That's going to be a damned difficult thing to do.