Ted Kennedy’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention last night brought tears to my eyes, and I was surprised, until I examined my reactions and understood something about this moment in time and its relation to a moment forty years ago that I had only vaguely felt before.
Caroline introduced him. We both look a whole lot older since the last time I ran into her—she bummed a cigarette off me in the smoking lounge at Lamont Library, where we were both at Harvard. Her life was full of fawning professors and trailing wannabes, so I didn’t feel like pursuing acquaintance beyond discussing Ross Terrill’s China course over a smoke.
Despite the pitifully short time she had him as a father, it’s hard for me and most Americans my age to see her and not think of JFK. She succinctly explained my feeling by saying last night:
“I have never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired them – but I do now.”
Time will tell if Barack Obama is all he’s presenting himself as. I will vote for him without a doubt about doing so. But I’m not naive enough to take him at face value. As I considered my teary reaction to Teddy last night, I understood a few more levels of the Barack Obama phenomenon, at least as it affects me and perhaps others of my vintage.
First of all, I realized that all the “we can work together” flowing out of Obama and his campaign is just a really elaborate version of what FDR meant when he pointed out in 1932 that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. For FDR, pulling together was a necessary minimum for a way out of the economic crisis, and fear was the great solvent of success. This is an emotionally basic proposition, and perhaps too cute, but it’s worth considering that it came from someone who, far from being a starry-eyed dreamer, was the most consumate political schemer of the 20th century.
For it seems so far to have caused a lot of cognitive dissonance, at least among the chattering political classes, that Barak can talk about everyone coming together to solve our problems, at the same time as he ruthlessly operates the best organized political campaign in anyone’s memory. This has given rise on the one hand to criticism from his right (both Clintonists in the party and Republicans) that there is no substance to his planning, and on the other (from his left) that he is not committed to his ideals. Far from being a contradiction, I think this apparent duality is really a result of the corrosion of US politics from the right over the last twenty-five years.
For example, we are a state with an official policy of kidnapping, imprisonment without habeus, and torture. We are told by those who regard themselves as the supreme realists of the post-9/11 world (the Cheneys and Addingtons) that this is an absolute necessity for our survival. We are told by our most senior government officials including the President that we must make war in order to fight terrorism. If these are the valid bases for policy, how can “coming together” have anything to do with the “real” world?
In fact, these policies are not realism, but a kind of right-wing paranoic opportunism. It is worth considering calling them Fascism. They are policies consumed by fear and in fear. This is the fear that is Roosevelt’s “fear itself”.
Fear does not conduce successful defense. This is true in all sorts of martial arts; it is true during interrogation, where torture mainly elicits the results the torturer requires, rather than useful information. It is true for grand policy and military strategy as well—fear did not drive the survival of the British during the Blitz or the invaders of Normandy, or for that matter the Japanese destroyers of Pearl Harbor. Fear dissolves critical social bonds which are the only basis for safety and defense.
So when Barak is talking about “coming together”, he is opposing these policies of fear—for example, in speaking recently to the national VFW convention:
I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out at this audience, I see people of different political views. You are Democrats and Republicans and Independents. But you all served together, and fought together, and bled together under the same proud flag. You did not serve a Red America or a Blue America – you served the United States of America.
Furthermore, governing the US together is true realism, because it seeks to place us on a social footing that can actually focus our energies where they need to go—for example, on trying to prevent terrorists from further acts of destruction here or anywhere else, or on bringing home our troops from Iraq—really soon—to prevent further death and destruction on all sides.
Fearlessness is realistic—it is not pie-in-the-sky. It is not the opposite of pragmatism. And it is certainly not a tool that Bush or Cheney or Addington have ever sought to use as an instrument of policy. Fearful leaders, like all fearful people, believe that only through responding out of fear can they gain control of any dangerous situation. But this is a delusion, propagating more fear, not more safety. Security does not depend on control, but on cooperation.
If Barak is the true pragmatist in his embrace of fearless cooperation, so also is he correct to fight the political battle with the hard-nosed practicality he and his team are exhibiting. The choice of Biden over Sibelius is a good example of this practical political calculation—because why should the defense of ideals be sacrificed to some kind of idealized politics? One assumes that Caroline Kennedy felt as much, as a key player in the vetting process that resulted in Biden’s selection.
And where is the most recent example we can find of this combination of ruthless political skill and clearly articulated, constructive, progressive policy? I would have to answer, the Kennedy brothers, perhaps Teddie the most, given his long tenure in the Senate, followed by Bobby, who traveled much further down the road that he and his older brother started on in the early 60s.
Seeing Teddy reminded me in a deep, deep way of what has been stolen from us. Losing JFK, RFK, and MLK was not an accident of nature. They were crushed because they not only showed no political fear—they showed they could move us all with their constructive fearlessness, and they also showed a grasp of practical politics so acute that the masters of power truly feared their ascendency. Not only did killing them deprive us of fearless leadership, and set the stage for the criminal theft of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, our environment, our treasure, and so much else we have owned—it defined the cost of basic change in a way that made us all so much more fearful.
Listening to Teddy Kennedy on the podium last night, thinking about all that has been stolen from us since the violent truncation of the Kennedy clan forty years ago, I see Obama and the hope he articulates, not through tears of grief, but tears of rage.