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Slouching Towards Charlotte: The Alienating Spectacle That is the Democratic Convention

CHARLOTTE—For me, who had never been to a convention until I arrived in Charlotte Monday night, and who had never been a straight political journalist until I felt compelled to act like one because I was suddenly surrounded by them, the problem of watching a speech from the convention floor, is the problem of the convention generally: With so much manufactured spectacle right up in your face, and so much interpretative press machinery grinding away loudly on every side, you don’t know where to look, or how to look, or even if you’re actually there at all. In some sense the real action of the convention is taking place elsewhere, in media echo-land, in real-time on Twitter (which one begins to check before the speech has even run five minutes), and in the future on tomorrow’s panel shows, whose reactions you’re already trying to anticipate even as you strain to watch the speaker.

But which speaker should you be watching? They’re all so different. The tiny, human one down there on the stage who’s visible only as a node or focal point for the synchronized waving of long foam wands? The big one looming on the Jumbotron, her features so large that they seem slightly monstrous? The TV-proportioned one on the small screens perched on the desks of the reporters in front of you, whose comments on the speech as it plays out deform your experience of the speech itself, tugging you toward a consensus-based response while you’re still in process of forming a private one? Or should you pay attention to the crowd as it cheers and applauds and falls silent and then cheers louder, its reactions in no way reflective of the country’s, but rather of the cultivated microcosm contained in the stadium in which you stand. And where, exactly, in this stadium are you standing? Somewhere up high and way off to the side, laboring to grasp the multi-factorial spectacle that only those who haven’t seen such things from the press level of a stadium-based convention would ever dare to call a “speech.”

“I think it’s lousy,” I whisper during Michelle Obama’s appearance Tuesday night to a colleague who’s sitting rapt before his monitor obviously thinking just the opposite. When I get no response, I elaborate, expand. “She’s overacting. Two gestures for every word. I don’t like all the family nostalgia either: the ‘we were so poor and in debt’ stuff. It’s corny. Patronizing. She’s trying to do some hypnotic regression thing, too, where we all fall in love with the old ‘08 Obama again and block out everything that’s happened since.”

“Well, I think she’s killing it,” the reporter says. “And she’s doing exactly what she has to do: She’s energizing the base.”

I lapse into silence, feeling shamed and ignorant. It’s important, I’m learning, when watching a convention speech to know who it’s aimed at beside the general public—to understand its specific tactical goals—but I’m not wired to think that narrowly. I’m also not wired in such a way that I can ignore the massive teleprompter that Michelle Obama is staring at even as her face up on the Jumbotron appears to be seized with spontaneous emotions that always well up right on cue, and sometimes a micro-second before the cue.

But I’m in the minority on this. What strikes me as melodramatic posturing strikes those around me, judging by their comments, as either immaculate political showmanship or genuine passion, which I find preposterous. Still, they predict with assurance that the speech will be deemed a success, and I guess they ought to know because they’re the ones who will start the deeming process. Which, in fact, has already begun. And which, in fact, turns out just the way they said it would, which I learn when I finally get back to my room and turn on cable TV. What I thought I was seeing clearly, through my own eyes—a wandering, vaporous, contrived display of middle-brow sentimentality and word-goo—I entirely misinterpreted, apparently. Or everyone else misinterpreted it, perhaps, which comes to the same thing.

To disagree with the conventional wisdom even as it’s being born around you—and even as you’re trying with all your might to anticipate and even shape it—is a profoundly disorienting experience. It makes you wonder if you were there at all, or if there even exists a there to be at. Ideally, a convention would be a ground zero of factuality, an objective reality in a shifting universe of spin and opinion and second-order commentary. But the further you get inside one, I’m discovering, the more deliriously lost you feel, particularly to the self that you came in with. How does one both enter the group mind and stay inside one’s own mind? It’s a challenge.

It’s not just a journalistic challenge, either. It’s the challenge we all face as modern political animals, caught in the feedback loops and logic mazes that come of trying to know the truth, our own truth—the truth worth casting our one and only vote for—when we don’t even know where to look, or through whose eyes.