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Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Obama JFK Comparison Makes Me Far More Nervous Than Hopeful

I get it why this sort of thing makes good people excited after so many years of destruction and despair, but, honestly, will Americans never tire of returning to the bloody well of self-congratulatory celebration of their "can do" spirit? Do we need yet another survey of what American Empire does when it gets in its head that it needs to save the world, unsolicited, and on its own terms?

A couple of days ago I indicated the hesitant shift of my support from the fatally-eclipsed Edwards campaign to the endlessly-dawning Obama one. In making this choice, I am pinning my hopes on the creative collaborative energies of his many good and hopeful supporters -- who seem to me far more progressive and principled and feisty than the candidate who inspires them.

But it is obvious I feel ambivalence about Obama that I never felt for the righteous (but far from perfect) John Edwards. And as I said, my partner and I have split our allegiances cordially between Obama and Clinton where once we were united, so there's ambivalence all over my household these days.

Actually, ambivalence is a blander word than the worry I feel.

Here is an assertion from a LiveJournal post by Roz, that I found via a link over at Lance Mannion's blog. It names much of my worry very succinctly: A Clinton Presidency is going to be unexciting, not especially idealistic and only better by comparison with Bush. But it will break no one's hearts.

It goes without saying, actually, that since this is an American Presidency we're talking about, even a tired technocratic one would deal death and destruction across the globe, even if it weren't in the corporatist-militarist mode Clinton seems too eager to embrace as her husband -- probably the best Republican President of the twentieth century, whatever his official Party designation -- did before her. So, one can be sure that Clinton would preside over many a literally broken heart. But I fully get Roz's point, which is a different one. Here's how I would put my own spin on it:

If what finally determines my support of Obama over Clinton is my excitement about the inspiring provocation of people-powered progressive politics of his supporters, it is important to consider whether the damage to that energy from "betrayal" by an Obama Presidency that failed to live up to their ideals and expectations, perhaps rather dramatically, would be greater or less than the damage done to it by a comparably compromised and corporatist Clinton Presidency few expected more from in the first place?

Here is a bit more of the tail end of Roz's post (follow the link for the whole fine thing), in much of which I feel she is speaking my mind for me, although not changing my mind much, ambivalent as I already am feeling about the whole thing:
I have known idealists who went stale, and I have seen people who evoked mass enthusiasm in spite of not being nearly as good as their fans thought, and I have known machine politicians who worked hard for the common good.

I don't know what to think about the American elections -- a black President would be a good thing, and so would a woman President.

What I do know is that a husband and wife team is not a dynasty, and that people whose supporters go on and on inaccurately about dynastic politics should not be seeking out the endorsement of actual dynasts. Ted Kennedy is an admirable man whose opinion I respect -- but not when he is acting as part of a dynasty rather than as a distinguished senator. Caroline Kennedy is wholly and solely a member of a dynasty, and her endorsement of Obama is a dynastic one.

'A President like my father' -- by which I take it we are not supposed to understand a man who will nearly cause nuclear holocaust, who will get the US into another disastrous war, who will stand aside from important social causes.

I think better of Obama than that he is the over-rated JFK's natural heir.

What I do think is that I would rather have a battered pragmatic public servant than an untried personable spinner of wonderful empty words; I see the idealism that has focussed on him and I remember how many of my friends had real hope from Blair as opposed to voting for him because it was important to get the Tories out.

A Clinton Presidency is going to be unexciting, not especially idealistic and only better by comparison with Bush. But it will break no one's hearts.

I look at my friends list and see a lot of wonderful ideals and I worry that Obama will break your hearts if he attains power.

I hope that I am wrong.

As an interesting complement and perhaps slight corrective to some of the above, I also resonated with Ralph Nader's (of all people) comments about Obama in a discussion with Amy Goodman over at Democracy Now! a couple of days ago:
RALPH NADER: My assessment of Barack Obama is that he knows what the score is in terms of the maldistribution of power. He knows what he has said in the past about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the need for Palestinian rights and a two-state solution. He knows that this war was a criminal war in Iraq and we’ve got to get out of it in a responsible, expeditious manner. He knows that corporations have too much power over workers and consumers and small taxpayers and elections and the government.

But when you watch him, he stays at a very high plain of generality and abstraction about change, and we’re one nation, and we’re one people. And that may sing with the desire of people to feel like they’re part of a unity, but it doesn’t do much for the productivity of the political dialogue. He does not get specific enough. Therefore, I think his main problem is he’s censoring himself, and that is not sufficiently rationalized by saying that’s just a tactic to win the primaries and get elected. After a while, day after day, week after week, when you self-censor yourself, you become a different person, and it’s a reflection on character.

This seems to me a necessary corrective to the many people who keep telling me Obama is better than his current rhetoric suggests, and that I must trust he won't be a corporatist triangulator once he is in the White House, whatever his willingness to take up or at any rate dog-whistle tired right wing frames about social security privatization, Harry and Louise-style socialized medicine baiting, cozying up to wouldbe "curers" of homosexuality, and so on. Of course, even if he were such a figure (as I rather wearily suspect he would be) this would not provide much of a contrast with Clinton as far as I can see, and so, again, it is the world-changing energy of his supporters as against Clinton's that justifies my endorsement of Obama... even as I worry on top of everything else that too much of this very energy is awfully shallow and narcissistic and may not long survive the inevitable heartbreak of Presidential "pragmatism" when it comes.

God, I miss John Edwards.


Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

There's a separate issue that repeatedly strikes me about this campaign. I'm generally confused about the role of a nation-state in resisting pernicious forms of nationalism. (I'm not even sure which forms are or are not pernicious.)

Obama says he will restore national unity. Should we cheer? On one hand, I suppose the Presidency is unavoidably a nationalistic institution, and so we should be patient with the President's nationalistic ideas. On the other hand, if Giles Gunn is right -- if the nation-state is an extremely dangerous institution whose dangers demand that we look elsewhere for a sense of unity -- then we end up in the awkward position of disagreeing with what seems like a good idea.

Reading Amor Mundi, one gets the sense that the Union is, after all, best understood as being divided, in the same way that France was divided during the Revolution (but hopefully without the wasteful violence, etc). Democracy and oligarchy outline a permanent battle line of political difference.

My memory isn't sharp enough to recall whether Edwards's populism indicated an acceptance of national *division* in contrast to Obama's call for national *unity*.

The other reason to be concerned about nationalism, of course, is its potential to harden national exceptionalism. How much time should we spend worrying that a "unifying" Obama Presidency would exacerbate an American sense of exceptionalism?

Dale Carrico said...

The other reason to be concerned about nationalism, of course, is its potential to harden national exceptionalism. How much time should we spend worrying that a "unifying" Obama Presidency would exacerbate an American sense of exceptionalism?

I definitely agree with you that this is a huge worry! I am very concerned that the "we" of Obama's "Yes We Can!" seems to me far too much an American exceptionalist We.

Much has been rightly made of Parag Khanna's article in last week's NYT about the eclipse of American hegemony over the course of the Bush Presidency. America needs to assume its proper place as a more than usually rich and capable contributor to the solutions to the problems for which we are likewise more than usually responsible as Americans --- problems like climate chaos, resource descent, wealth concentration and circumscription of common assets, weapons proliferation, global poverty and inequity, labor abuse, authoritative corruption, neglected disease, illiteracy, and so on.

This means supporting global environmental, labor law, nonproliferation, peace treaties and the planetary institutions to enforce them, working to democratize global governance that now exists as a functionally anti-democratic corporatist world state.

This means partnership rather than leadership, openness rather than control, assuming more responsibilities rather than demanding more privileges.

I get the distinct impression that many Obama supporters hear the embrace of such an alternative in his words. But I worry that they are hearing what they want to hear, rather than listening to what he is saying. Again, it's not that anybody else is saying anything better, certainly Clinton is not, and so my worries on this score aren't nudging me to prefer another candidate to Obama.

My reasons for supporting Obama remain the same, and my ambivalence remains as well. And of course I still fervently hope that Obama proves worthy of the energy he inspires in so many. We'll see.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

If you want to explore the issue even further, it would be interesting to discuss the role of progressive think tanks. I've noticed that the Center for American Progress makes very similar rhetorical moves in comparison with Obama; the Center is not at all afraid to appeal to nationalism in its public documents and writings (including, as I recall, its new plan for economic growth).

Dale Carrico said...

I'm a big fan of the Center for American Progress. I like the Campaign for America's Future, too, which seems to me a comparable organization.

Back when I was still foolish enough to think that using the term "technoprogressive" provided one with a useful handle to describe something new and important ideologically-speaking (before the transhuman boys with their toys decided to use it as a sanewashing term to hide the crazy) I actually thought the Center for American Progress was possibly the most technoprogressive American think tank in existence. By which I meant it was a technoscientifically literate secular dem-left progressive organization devoted to promoting democracy, consent, and accountability in matters of technoscientific change, as in all others.

I'm still a fan, but now just think of them as dem-left secular progressives with a respect for consensus science rather than "technoprogressive" in some neologistic sense to be used who knows how by who knows who for who knows what.

They are indeed focused on American politics, though, struggling to strengthen what Dean called the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party -- on the assumption, it seems to me, that this will result in progressive outcomes on a planetary scale as well.

This seems to me to be good work to do. So long as they remain aware that such a focus can lead to exceptionalist nationalism, it seems to me their focus and work is quite valuable indeed.

It's rather like the difficulty faced by advocates of BIG -- implementing it in North Atlantic democracies is a worthy progressive struggle, but that struggle stands in a complex relation to the worthier struggle to introduce universal BIG on a planetary scale given the impact of uneven global development on what properly counts as "basic" "income."

AnneC said...

Yeah, the "we, we, we" stuff makes me very leery as well. It troubles me greatly that some folks are so enamored with the idea of "unity" that they seem poised to effectively defend a status quo that still excludes quite a few people.

It never ceases to amaze me that some people can't tell the difference between pointing out, "Hey, your definition of 'real person' or 'real American' or 'real [whatever] leaves out all these people over here!" and engaging in "divisive behavior".

De Thezier said...

I posted something on my blog about the Obama-JFK comparison.