The Season of the Shadow

It feels discomfiting and eerie to have plunged so deeply into the realm of the shadow, which is what happened last week. In mythic and psychological terms, the "shadow" is a place of darkness in each of us -- and in society as a whole -- where we hide feelings we are too weak or afraid to face. The news this week was almost a catalog of the shadow's contents: sexual humiliation for Eliot Spitzer, panic and financial ruin for Bear Stearns, dread of death in the Atlanta tornado and the crane collapse in midtown New York City. Beneath the surface of each event, unconscious turmoil magnifies their meaning. They are shared events, and thanks to the mass media, they are felt in ever widening circles. Whole parts of the world, like China and the Middle East, feel ominous.

Various government and rescue agencies are stepping in to deal with the after-effects of what has happened, but the shadow remains untouched. It seems reasonable to say that after months of simmering malaise -- years if you count the Iraq war -- some kind of release valve exploded. Now we are in the season of the shadow, and no one knows what will happen next, only that an unspoken something is always looming around the corner, like a bad cold coming back before you've fully recovered from the last one. Only much worse, in this case, than any cold.

The season of the shadow calls for a leader to exemplify strength and courage. Sen. Obama is presenting himself as such a leader right now, but he hasn't escaped the shadow's grip. With the turmoil surrounding the inflammatory rhetoric of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's repudiations, which ordinarily would be seen as strong and ethical, have opened a floodgate of vitriol from the far right and nervous doubt among Democrats. Why is this a shadow issue? Because the shadow is about backlash. When a high-minded ideal is offered, our hidden anxiety, hostility, and dread are challenged. There's no doubt that Obama is a candidate who rises above the racial divide. But that divide runs deep, and one can't help but feel that Rev. Wright triggers unspoken feelings that we all possess but are ashamed to talk about.

Since the only way out of the shadow is to confront its secrets, a candid admission is called for from all people of conscience. Race and fear go together in this country. White flight to the suburbs and de facto segregation point to this fear. The fact of black inner city decay is real. High rates of crime, drug use, illiteracy, poverty and an attitude of hostile recrimination are endemic -- Rev. Wright specializes in the latter. By serving as a lighthouse of integrity, Obama is also a lightning rod for these negative images.

Personally, he doesn't exemplify any of them, but that won't pacify the shadow. It's a tricky business, but since Obama wants to be the agent of national reconciliation, it's right that he is being forced to confront the undertow of the racial issue, which is irrational, vulgar, spiteful, and hostile. Remaining entirely above the fray won't be enough. He needs to prove that taking the political high road is viable -- it hasn't been since Watergate -- which means looking fearlessly into the darkness in our national psyche.