March 29, 2008
You know a nation is in trouble when the worst epithet its citizens can hurl at each other is the title of a folk song: "Kumbaya," an African American spiritual whose name (and chorus) translates from the Gullah dialect as "come by here."
It has had an illustrious career as a Dust Bowl ballad, a civil rights anthem and, of course, a staple at Girl Scout camps and Unitarian Sunday schools everywhere. Lately, however, this morose and rather dull little ditty has morphed into a strangely ironic diss. Invoked by conservatives wishing to brand liberals as lame-brained idealists and by liberals themselves, who apparently hope to shed their hippie trappings by mocking them, "Kumbaya" is an equal opportunity aspersion.
Like its lyrics, which proclaim that "someone's laughing," "someone's crying," "someone's praying" and "someone's singing" -- so "kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya" -- the song's rhetorical uses fit a far-ranging variety of political occasions.
Think I'm overstating things? Let's hold hands and think back:
"The politics of hope is not about holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' " (Barack Obama on his efforts to distinguish his policies from those of Hillary Clinton, October 2007.)
"Remember, it's not kumbaya-ish, it's really powerful." (Obama campaign organizers speaking to volunteers in Austin, Texas, February 2008.)
"The rap on Mr. Obama remains that he preaches the audacity of 'Kumbaya.' " (Frank Rich in the New York Times, Feb. 3, 2008.)
"That was a 'Kumbaya' debate, and that favors the front-runner." (Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, on the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin.)
"Any military person who concludes he's a left-wing, hair-on-fire, 'Kumbaya' child of the '60s has sadly misunderestimated him, to use George Bush's term." (Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak on Obama, Feb. 26, 2008.)
"The rise of multiracialism is not all 'Kumbaya' choruses and 'post-racial' identity." (Peggy Orenstein, in a New York Times Op-Ed, March 23, 2008.)
We may never solve the mystery of who Carly Simon was singing about in "You're So Vain," but it seems clear that "Kumbaya" (as a concept) now stands for Barack Obama (as a concept) and derives in large part from a John Edwards' coinage last fall: " 'Kumbaya' candidate." Thanks to Obama's message of racial transcendence and the group-hug aura conveyed by his supporters, he has managed to give the song a second career as a metaphor for mushy emotionalism.
It must be said that "Kumbaya" has now spread its wings far beyond the presidential campaign. In the last month alone, a Newsweek guest columnist referred to a " 'Kumbaya' moment" in energy legislation, and an Alaska lawmaker deemed increased education spending as "about as 'Kumbaya' a thing as I've seen since the '60s" (he didn't mean it as a compliment). On Wednesday, Microsoft's general counsel and intellectual property chief, Brad Smith, characterized the company's efforts to work with open source software creators by saying, "It's not like let's all sing 'Kumbaya.' "
In other words, folks, this is big. More versatile than Walter Mondale's jab at Gary Hart, "Where's the beef?," more upbeat than the first Clinton campaign's "It's the economy, stupid" and deeper than George W. Bush's "I'm the decider," "Kumbaya" takes decades of political catchphrases and unites them around one raging campfire.
The term allows its users to have their coolness cake and eat it too. To invoke "Kumbaya" is to display one's countercultural credentials while simultaneously letting it be known how stupid and irrelevant those credentials are in today's world. Like those loathsome shibboleths "think outside the box" and "let's take a blue sky approach," which combine self-help jargon with corporate doublespeak, "Kumbaya" manages to be completely earnest and completely disingenuous at the same time. With the exception of the name of the musician Yanni, it's rare to see such versatility coming from a single word.
Still, there's one "Kumbaya" moment in this election that we still haven't been privy to: an actual performance of "Kumbaya," preferably at an Obama rally. I tried to reach Joan Baez, probably the most famous artist to have recorded the song, for her take on the "Kumbaya" craze, but her publicists wouldn't return my calls. I did notice, however, that for the first time in her career, Baez has endorsed a political candidate. I'll let you guess which one.
Enough already. I want to hear "Freebird."
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