The Magazine

The Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama

Some of it may sound familiar.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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There's still room for whimsy at the New Yorker magazine, I don't care what you've heard. Just the other day two of the New Yorker's bloggers (now there's a phrase to send Harold Ross spinning) were chewing over the widely noted eloquence of Barack Obama. They were struck by "Obama's wonderful line," as one of them described it, to the effect that "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Obama uses it as one of his signature refrains. Some of his followers even turned it into a music video.

So one thing led to another, as it does on blogs, and before long the bloggers began wondering, as they do at the New Yorker, what the phrase would sound like in French.

"You couldn't say it in French," blogged one of the bloggers.

"Are you sure about the French?" the other blogger blogged back. "Mine isn't good enough to know if 'C'est nous qui nous avons attendu' or 'Ceux qui nous attendons, c'est nous' would sound French to a French ear, or if it just would sound stupid." Oui, blogged the first blogger. It would sound très stupid. "My ear/memory tells me that it would be too weird to say, since I think there's a we/us thing that doesn't work."

Eventually a French journalist was consulted. He ruled summarily that, translated into French, "the Barack Obama sentence [le sentence de la Barack Obama] sounds weird to me."

So there you have it: You can't really say "We are the ones we've been waiting for" in French. The matter was closed. The bloggers moved on. Good times indeed.

But wait. There was something tantalizingly incomplete about this brief discussion of whether the sentence sounds weird in French: What was missing was an acknowledgement of how weird the sentence sounds in English. What, after all, does "We are the ones we've been waiting for" mean, precisely? My hunch is that the sentence is one of those things that no one will admit to being confused by, like the movies of Godard or the tenor-sax solos of John Coltrane, lest your peers think you're a loser or a moron. Certainly Obama fans won't admit how obscure the sentence is--though several have claimed that it's lifted from a prophecy of the Tribal Elders of the Hopi Indians. Hopi prophecies are famously obscure.

But this is just wishful thinking. The origins of the phrase aren't nearly so glamorous or exotic. Two years ago, before Obama even said he wanted to be president, the left-wing-radical-feminist-lesbian novelist Alice Walker published a book of essays and called it We are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. Believe me: If the line had come from the Tribal Elders of the Hopi nation, Alice Walker would have been more than happy to say so. Instead she said it came from a poem published in 1980 by the left-wing-radical-feminist-bisexual poet June Jordan. Neither Walker nor Jordan has said what the sentence means. But Walker did offer this hint in the introduction to her book of essays: "We are the ones we've been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see."

That's a clue, anyway. The sentence may not have any positive content, Walker seems to be saying, but it does have an indirect meaning, an implication, as a kind of self-referential gesture for the people who claim it. When Obama's supporters say "We are the ones we've been waiting for," what they mean is that in the long roll call of history, from Aristotle and Heraclitus down through Augustine and Maimonides and Immanuel Kant and the fellows who wrote the Federalist Papers, we're number one! We're the smartest yet! Everybody--Mom, Dad, Gramps and Grandma, Great Grandpa and Great Grandma, maybe even the Tribal Elders--they've all been waiting for people as clued-in as us!

Is this what Obama means too? No one who's wandered through an Obama rally and heard the war whoops and seen the cheerful, vacant gazes would come away thinking, "These are the smartest people ever." I'm sorry, they just aren't. What is unmistakable is the creepy kind of solipsism and the air of self-congratulation that clings to his campaign. "There is something happening," he says in stump speeches. And what's happening? "Change is happening." How so? "The reason our campaign has been different is about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it." And the way to change it is to join the campaign, which, once you join it, will change America. Because this is our moment. The time is now. Now is the time. Yes, we can. We bring change to the campaign because the campaign is about change. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Obama and his followers are perfecting postmodern reflexivity. It's a campaign that's about itself. The point of the campaign is the campaign.