Category Archives: Obamamerica

First-person shooter

Christmas is in the air.  All the children are excited.  But some of the kindergarteners in the land are not nestled all snug in their beds because 20 of them were shot to death last week in their classrooms.

The savagery of mass gun violence was visited on a community that, in our collective images about such things, would seem the least likely place for it.  About 28,000 people live in Newtown, Connecticut.  They are 95% white, have household or family median incomes of over $100,000, and three-quarters of the households are married couples living together.  It’s about as comfortable, affluent and safe as one can imagine a town being in the white imagination of America.

If you are white and if you didn’t grow up in poverty, examine your reactions to this massacre.  If you’re like me, you instinctively feel the contradiction between the images of Newtown you have been seeing and the concept of gun violence.  Newtown is everything our white parents left the City to find, including the ‘good’ schools.  They wanted to get us away from all the bad stuff in the City—to escape the drugs, crime and violence.

The City is where the Others live.  These Others are immigrants, willing (Hispanics, Jews, etc.) or not (Black), who because of their Lack of Self-Worth or Lack of Initiative are condemned to dwell amid the drugs, crime and violence of city life.  In our racist white American imaginations, we have always encouraged a close conceptual link between safety and the absence of Others, especially (since they can so readily be identified as different) people of color.

The lack of Others and (yet) the mass gun violence are among the images that white America, and the media that serves us exclusively, are trying to sort out in the wake of the killings.  It is almost entirely inexplicable to us how such a ‘safe’ community can suddenly have turned out to be so to tragically deadly, and for its youngest and most defenseless members.

Two ‘reasons’ immediately jump to mind as we grapple with these images.  The perp must have been a random crazy—and there are too many guns floating around.

Well, not exactly.  The perp, Adam Lanza, spent most of his life in Newtown—he moved there from New Hampshire in 1998, when he would have been six years old.  There have been reports that he was ‘developmentally disabled’ in some way—but there were also reports, starting early and persisting for quite a while, that it was his mother’s classroom where he opened fire.

Authorities say he shot his mother several times in the head, with a gun that was legally owned and registered to her.  She was a gun enthusiast, who owned the two powerful handguns and the M-4 rifle her son carried to the kindergarten after killing her with them.  He could only have carried out the slaughter with some kind of awareness of what he was up to—he didn’t just open fire at random in a crowd, but shot his mother, drove her car to the school, and broke his way in past their security system.  Reportedly clad in combat gear, he seems to have started with two adjoining kindergartens, killing any adult who got in his way, including a number of incredibly brave women who tried to stop him.  He killed women and children, like he had his mother, shooting each of them multiple times.  According to Connecticut’s Chief Medical Examiner, the children were killed by fire from the rifle, a .223 Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic.

James Barron, writing in the Times, led

The gunman in the Connecticut shooting blasted his way into the elementary school and then sprayed the children with bullets, first from a distance and then at close range, hitting some of them as many as 11 times, as he fired a semiautomatic rifle loaded with ammunition designed for maximum damage, officials said Saturday.

This rifle takes a 30-round clip so he must have reloaded multiple times.  That means, doing the grisly math, at least three clips and probably more where emptied, from spare magazines he would have had to have preloaded and brought along with him.  I’m trying to articulate this gruesome process because as much as I agree that guns are far too easy to get in this country, I don’t think this is a case where that issue is relevant.  For what it’s worth, all the guns he carried to the school were legally owned (though of course, not by him).

What I think is most important to understand about this methodical, extensive and horrifically violent killing is the perpetrator’s belief that this was an option he could exercise.

Even if we assume a state of psychosis, he carried out a terribly familiar drama.  It is the drama we see in images of combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, fictional or real.  It is the drama carried out by President Obama with his “unmanned” drone strikes that not surprisingly are less than surgical and usually kill a lot of bystanders, including young children.  It is the drama enacted by President Bush when he decided to give Saddam a more successful beating than his father had managed by invading Iraq, again.  It is the drama manifested across a significant part of the $25B annual video game market.  In fact, the only thing that makes Lanza’s actions different from those carried out in the virtual world by millions of players of “first-person shooter” games like Halo is that he was a first-person shooter in the real world.

I have no idea if Lanza played video games, and I’m not arguing that video games ‘cause’ mass murder.  I’m just wondering why what he did looks so similar.  Why it looks like a firefight in Afghanistan or the slaughtered families of alleged terrorists in northern Pakistan.  I’m talking about this: you have to move through a landscape full of threats, seen and unseen.  If you make a mistake, you will die.  Sometimes death will just fall out of the sky.  The only way to survive is to preemptively slaughter everything that moves.

This is the message that has been sent to a generation of children who have come of age in the wake of 9/11, and force-fed to the rest of us through a constant media clamor.  Rather than sharpening our intelligence capacity to deal with an asymmetrical threat, the ‘right’ thing to do is to rain down death and destruction on the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq through the sheer dominance of firepower.  Rather than figure out how to protect our citizens from terrorist assault, the right and necessary thing to do is to murder supposed terrorists extra-judicially, and outside any kind of international law.  Because someone is threatening us, we have the right to strike preemptively, regardless of any other concept of right, law, or reason.

What is this kind of thinking?  What is a Lanza acting out when he slaughters kindergarteners?  All you have to know is that he thinks he has the right.  This is the right of the privileged, and he doesn’t have to feel privileged himself to act on it—he just has to be a member of the class that owns that privilege: white, male and affluent enough.

In the wake of Colombine, Gloria Steinem noted that “supremacy crimes” of multiple murder are “committed disproportionately by white, non-poor males, the group most likely to become hooked on the drug of superiority. It’s a drug pushed by a male-dominant culture that presents dominance as a natural right”.

As Elliot Leyton reports in Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, these killers see their behavior as “an appropriate–even ‘manly’–response to the frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of life.” In other words, it’s not their life experiences that are the problem, it’s the impossible expectation of dominance to which they’ve become addicted.
…it is truly remarkable, given the relative reasons for anger at injustice in this country, that white, non-poor men have a near-monopoly on multiple killings of strangers, whether serial and sadistic or mass and random. How can we ignore this obvious fact? Others may kill to improve their own condition–in self-defense, or for money or drugs; to eliminate enemies; to declare turf in drive-by shootings; even for a jacket or a pair of sneakers–but white males addicted to supremacy kill even when it worsens their condition or ends in suicide.
[…]
I think we begin to see that our national self-examination is ignoring something fundamental, precisely because it’s like the air we breathe: the white male factor, the middle-class and heterosexual one, and the promise of superiority it carries. Yet this denial is self-defeating–to say the least. We will never reduce the number of violent Americans, from bullies to killers, without challenging the assumptions on which masculinity is based: that males are superior to females, that they must find a place in a male hierarchy, and that the ability to dominate someone is so important that even a mere insult can justify lethal revenge. There are plenty of studies to support this view. As Dr. James Gilligan concluded in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, “If humanity is to evolve beyond the propensity toward violence…then it can only do so by recognizing the extent to which the patriarchal code of honor and shame generates and obligates male violence.”

Regardless of Adam Lanza’s mental state (and there is a huge discussion about access to mental health services that is being ignored here) the patterns of supremacy were available and allowed to Lanza by his status.  And since 9/11, when a handful of terrorists killed three thousand people and took down two of our biggest erections, they have been blessed by those in the highest office in the land in the most explicit way yet in our history.  They have been replayed in a thousand television shows and a million Halo sessions.  Everyone knows that certain people have the right, in self-defense against an enemy who frustrates us by being so hard to reach, to preemptively crush any semblance of their existence with any force necessary.

I am not for a minute arguing that being attacked merits no response or that Lanza is not responsible for his actions or that this awful massacre is somehow ‘caused’ by Halo or militarism.  I’m not arguing causation at all.  When water runs downhill it fills the lowest available paths, and it is the same with acts of anger and hatred.  We have to recognize that the path has been well worn and is now explicitly allowed as a matter of national policy to those white males who as a class are destined to rule the Homeland.

President Obama said in Newtown on Sunday night that we have failed in our duty to protect our children.  Yet how could the community of Newtown have done more at the Sandy Hook Elementary School?  A clearly planned and effectively designed security protocol had just been published to the community by the now-murdered principal.  It seems to me that the community could not have done more to protect their kids.

We have failed our children in a way far more fundamental than I think the President is willing to admit.  We have failed in the most important duty of adults and parents—to set the right example.  We have normalized the application of brutal force—as the children in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan, who are surely as blameless as those in Sandy Hook, know only too well—in situations where we only perceive that our security is threatened, in order to compensate for our sense of shamed white male honor.  A feature of the Bush regime, this is now also Obama’s legacy.  Under the cover of “Homeland Security”, we have allowed our society to indulge at multiple levels an unthinking, blatantly reflexive lack of impulse control.  Not only does this reaction fail to secure us when we clearly need to be secured, it illustrates by example a deadly but sanctioned outlet for those among us least able to control their rage and anger.  And, as always, children pay the price.

(h/t Jessie Jacobs-Brown for pointing to the Steinem piece)

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Dear Prof. Harris – Op Ed Response

On the NYTimes’ Op Ed page, The Price of a Black President, by Professor Fredrick C. Harris of Columbia University—I was moved to write him in response (slightly edited to improve the focus)…

Prof. Harris,

Thanks for your piece in the NYT today.  I too will vote for Obama next week, but I believe we have been poorly served and have served ourselves poorly during his first administration.

Of course, any kind of “post-racial” politics is a complete myth.  It seems to me that the advent of a “black” president has, among other things, enabled all the crackers left in the barrel (and I’m a barrel-half-full kind of guy) to come out as racists in public, by encoding their effusions as “political” discourse.  There has never been as overt a level of racism in national politics as there is now, though it is mainly masquerading as anti-Obama “politics”.

There will always be, at least across the lifetimes of our grandchildren and maybe beyond, a reason in this nation of ex-slaveholders for black Americans to focus on a specific black life, including intellectual life.  But I would suggest that as a matter of current tactics, the only way forward must be implemented more broadly.  I don’t know if class-analysis is universal, but I think at the present moment it is a fundamental.  You indicate as much, in a way, when you allude to the replacement of the moral exhortations of the older generation of black leadership with the individualist, materialist goals of black super-church preaching.

There is a war on poor people.  Poor people are disproportionately black, as you point out.  But if blackness is a proxy in this war, an easy handle on Otherness that helps powerful reactionaries and their ideologically brain-washed supporters cast their attack as a defense of their rights against the Other, then a response that is a black response risks co-optation.  We need a defense of the impoverished—we need black leaders who speak to the issue of human poverty, not just black poverty, as egregious as the origins of black poverty are.

This is where I think both Obama and the democratic left have failed together.  The fact that as bad a candidate as Romney can get so much popular traction is evidence of this—I mean, this guy has millions in off-shore accounts and hasn’t been pushed into revealing the no doubt embarrassingly opulent and rapacious details of this finances, just for a start.  How can this guy have made it this far?  How can he not have been absolutely flayed in this era of unemployment and depression?

The official Democratic party, which has been at least one of the primary political homes of black mainstream intellectuals since the New Deal, is hopelessly compromised.  Obama, were he interested in confrontatory politics (and I don’t believe he is), would have far less than enough to lean on in the current Democratic Caucus.  The political left in this country must organize itself to extend into and gather up the vast sufferings of poor people, black and otherwise, imprisoned and ‘free’, women and men, straight and gay, young and old.  Numerically this population, organized, could put the fear into any politician—it could dominate the urban Democratic party and alter the balance of power in Congress.  If we want Obama to do the right thing, we have to push him like hell from the Left.  If this movement is clearly pan-racial, and pan-everything-else, the fact that Obama is “black” won’t matter.

I put his race in quotations here and above because I think it is easy to forget that Obama is the child of what racists still see as ‘miscegenation’.  This point has been really ignored—he is not black, and he is not white.  (I mean, we are all not white, I know, but I’m speaking in the language of popular imagery.)  I believe Obama embodies to himself all the contradictions this brings, at a personal level.  At the risk of being contentious, I would say that Obama is not the first black president—he is the first president who unites in his person black and white—African American (quite literally Kenyan-American) and white Kansas.

Obama is amazingly free of political corruption, and seems genuinely to desire the best outcome for the most citizens.  We can get him to use the bully pulpit, which he has so far neglected to do at the risk of all he has worked to achieve, and to fulfill the potential of his presidency, if we can show him that it is his blackness *and* his whiteness that inspires us.  And we can only do this as a pan-racial movement.  And we can get beyond race only by calling out the underlying (at least at this point in history) class nature of the issue: the war on the poor.  Just as blacks are disproportionately poor, a politics that addresses poverty effectively, besides producing hugely positive social and economic outcomes overall, will also help black citizens disproportionately—which is what ethics calls for in a land still largely unregenerate and unreconciled to its history of black slavery.

Thanks for an opportunity to rant a bit…

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Us and Dems

Mr. Obama and his top aides have in recent days launched a rhetorical
assault against their own supporters, telling them to “buck up” and
“stop whining” in advance of the election on Nov. 2. In interviews,
they have expressed anger about the lack of enthusiasm for what the
Obama administration has accomplished. NYT, 28 Sep 2010

Sure, I’ll vote for his party again.  How could I do anything else?  I’ve never considered sitting it out—-that’s the kind of purist suicide that has helped to bring forth some of the true monsters of history.

I don’t have a beef with his domestic agenda.  I’m impressed by some of his accomplishments, especially on health care, which represents a useful set of new boundary conditions for further improvement.  In some areas like financial regulation, I’m surprised he’s done so little, given the circumstances both fiduciary and political.  After all, there are a lot of guys at Goldman and the other large investment banks who should be doing time for criminal fraud in the mortgage resellers market—-a call even a lot of investors would approve, not to mention Joseph and Josephine Retirement Fund down on main street, the Independents who put Obama into the presidency.

Obama photo Doug Mills NYT

Doug Mills / The New York Times

The one big issue that carried Obama into office is the one that he hasn’t delivered on—-the war.  This is where the real passion of progressive ire is coming from.  Drawing down in Iraq to 50,000 hostages to fortune is not a brilliant result to be  sure.  But ramping up in Afghanistan is nothing more than the perpetuation of war crimes committed throughout the preceding Bush administrations.  The invasion of Afghanistan was always a dubious proposition in terms of ‘wars of right’.  On a far more pragmatic plane, it has done nothing to make us safer.  The militarization of our response to the 9/11 attack has been an unmitigated disaster in almost every dimension.  What we needed (and lacked in the run-up so glaringly) was and is better intelligence and better police work.  What we got is GWOT.

People my age, even some who felt differently at the time, have had enough of this militaristic self-immolation.  We still remember with deep distress and enduring outrage the johnsons who couldn’t help but insert us and the dicks who couldn’t pull us out.  The issue transcends Republican and Democrat.  Nothing brands Obama more completely as not about change than his persistence in this reflexive war.  It has poisoned our relationships with our allies and others around the world, inflamed our domestic discourse to the point of insanity, and emboldened all sorts of little domestic Hitlerites who in a country more faithful to is founders would be laughed out of the media and out of our faces.  I never expected Obama to blaze any kind of trail into Leftwing Glory.  But I guess it was too much to expect him to have the common sense to just stop all the killing.  If anyone came into office with the opportunity to change our utterly ineffective efforts to protect our “homeland” (hard not to feel a hearty ‘heil’ coming on when I hear this phrase even now) it was Barack Obama.  Yet he has done nothing to make us safer.

I’ll vote for him—-but without any diminishment of my feeling that we’re headed down a slippery police state slope which will make him—-and us—-look like a modern US version of the Weimar republic.

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Idiot Wind

As in the primaries and in the national campaign, the Obama krew are happy to keep their own counsel.  There is a lot passing in the media slipstream on which a less disciplined operation might be inclined to bite, if only as a warning to keep some distance.  They might be forgiven for thinking that, having campaigned in fifty states and won Indiana for Democrats for only the second time since 1932, they have earned the right to some decision-making away from the blast of the idiot wind generators of the mainstream media.

Detroit, 23 July 1967

Detroit, 23 July 1967

Of course, when the Executive Branch changes hands, it stimulates a variety of looting behavior amongst the denizens of the recently downtrodden party ghetto.  All the more so this time, as the Bush Republican Guards  vanish in the electoral blast of the surplus millions, some even from their own party, who banished them from office.  Too tempting in the absence of party overlordship not to smash a few store windows and run off with some expensive TVs.

It’s the way: patronage proceeds any change in governance.  But this year, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it is not just the rabid Bush right that has been dethroned but also the Clinton DNC.  Having campaigned in a manner suspiciously hard to differentiate from their Republican opponents at times too frequent to be random, the Hillary and Bill wing of the Democratic party need not skulk off into the crimson sunset of fratricidal warfare like the various factions of defeated Republicans.  Like Senator Lieberman, they can mysteriously transmute back into real Democrats, and claim their share of the spoils.

One of the more restful aspects of the general election, for me anyway, has been the absence off-stage of the Clinton spin squad, except for the rearguard elements left to man the ramparts of the New York Times.  Of course we had to listen to McCain as he grew hair all over his body politic and bayed at the moon, not to mention his Bride of Frankenstein, the supernaturally well-groomed handmaiden from the far northern wastes, Governor Palin.  But Obama simply repeated the same things he’s been saying since the start of his campaign two years ago, if not four years ago at his Democratic Convention speech.  When you’re consistent, you don’t need any spin.  Political consistency is a very simple state of spinlessness, whether you’re consistently lunatic or otherwise.  That is what was so attractive to the media (and a significantly non-denominational segment of the electorate) about the pre-Werewolf McCain and his Straight-Talk Express.

Now, with the hostile occupation of the seat of power in full retreat, the Clintonian wing of the party is spinning madly once again.  Why would this be any less obnoxious to the drama-free, extraordinarily well-organized Obama campaign in its transition team manifestation than it was during the primaries?  It didn’t convince enough of the voters, and it never moved the needle of the Obama campaign a millimeter off consistent and purposeful.  

Well, not to worry: Hillary is not sure she wants to accept the offer of State.  This most recent posture from the ex-candidate brings the spinification of the State Department in full circle.  

1861inaug4march

Lincoln's first inauguration, 4 March 1861

Barack could surprise me and offer Hillary State.  He might be interested in Lincoln’s relationship with Steward, which at least gained Abe the beautiful peroration “better angels of our nature” for his first inaugural.  But I am inclined to wait for what the President-elect actually has to say.  Maybe the Clinton’s counsel will become AG, maybe Herself will get State, but we shouldn’t let the naming of Obama’s chief of staff confuse us—he was a brawlin’ Chicago pol long before he ran any part of the Clinton machine.  Obama’s people have remained firmly on the command deck amidst the gales of Clintonian spin for an extended cruise already.  No reason to think they are more, and much more reason the think the are less influenced by it, now.

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Race

For the first time in my life as a voting citizen, I cast my ballot for a presidential candidate for whom I’m truly happy to vote: Barack Hussein Obama.  I voted absentee and early in my town in Massachusetts, as I’ll be out of the country next week.  Since my first vote, against Nixon in the NY primary during his 1972 campaign (I was a registered Republican due to some historical confusion on the part of my Australian immigrant father, which gave me an opportunity to vote against Tricky Dick on my first outing), it has been, at best, the lesser of two mediocrities.

I could consider this is my first vote for a black president.  But I’ve come to realize that it is much more—and much less.  The media constantly call Barack an African-American, but I think this is actually a piece of typical racism.  It embodies the blood rule that anyone with some black African blood is African-American, as if being white were a state of non-pollution.  Besides the basic issue that any “white” in this country has at least a one-in-five chance of having a “black” relation from the not-too-distant past, Barack is not the offspring of two African-Americans, but of a white American woman and an African man. 

This fact makes my vote more than a vote for the first African-American president—in terms of the American racist equation, I’m voting for the first miscengenated president.  Besides being an objectionably racist term, this phrase actually has an electoral origin.  Its first use, according to the OED, was in the title of a pamphlet issued in New York City in December of 1863:

The word was coined in an anonymous propaganda pamphlet published in New York City in December 1863, during the American Civil War. The pamphlet was entitled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It purported to advocate the intermarriage of whites and blacks until they were indistinguishably mixed as a desirable goal, and further asserted that this was the goal of the Republican Party. The pamphlet was in fact a hoax, concocted by Democrats, to discredit the Republicans by imputing to them radical views that offended the racist attitudes common among whites, even those who opposed slavery. In New York in particular there was much opposition to the Federal war effort, such as the Draft Riots that included numerous lynchings.

The pamphlet and variations on it were reprinted widely in both the North and the Confederacy by Democrats and rebels. Only in November 1864 was the pamphlet exposed as a hoax. The hoax pamphlet was written by David Goodman Croly, managing editor of the New York World, a Democratic Party paper, and George Wakeman, a World reporter.

By then, the word miscegenation had entered the common language of the day as a popular buzzword in political and social discourse. The issue of miscegenation, raised by the opponents of Lincoln, featured prominently in the election campaign of 1864. 

[Wikipedia]

Apparently (and a surprise, I’m sure, to all the white rural voters of downstate Illinois whose strong support of a black Chicago politician first caught my attention in the case of Obama) I have also voted for a Marxist, a Socialista hardened ideologue and a charismatic demagogue.  

The latter pair of scare-mongering handles are but a small sample of the veritable encyclopedia of right-wing obsessions on display in Mark Levin’s recent screed at The Corner.  This is actually a minor masterpiece of self-revelation, such as Freud recounts in analyzing the dreams of neurotic patients.  It’s so densely loaded with the arcana of wingnuttery that it’s difficult to unpack.  For example, Levin claims there is a “cult-like atmosphere around Obama”, including

Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world.

If I’m not misusing my special handshake and wingnut apron in my effort to pick up this peculiar transmission, I think he’s actually calling Obama a closet Nazi in combining “world” and “Berlin” in that final sentence there.  I am particularly delighted by the daft image of camouflaged teenagers chanting the professions Obama will open to them.  Other than being a bizarre importation of Kim-Il-Jung-speak into US punditry, what would be so strange about teenagers excited by new professional possibilities?…I mean, other than the camo…

But what is worse than any of this?  What does Levin come down to at the end of his confession?

“Obama’s appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the “the proletariat,” as an infamous philosopher once described it”…

Answer: the non-renewal of the Bush tax cuts.  These cuts, which mathematically and demonstrably give back taxes at previous rates to the most wealthy Americans, will not be renewed by Comrade Obama, and the revenue from restoring the upper crust tax rate of the pre-W era will fund middle-class tax cuts (in fact, for 95% of us “middle-class” people earning under $250K a year).   

Obama replied that those making over $250,000 would be taxed more but that money would be returned to the middle-class through tax cuts. “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama said.

The McCain campaign seized on that remark.

“When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you’d better hold on to your wallet,” McCain told a Miami crowd. “Senator Obama claims that he wants to give a tax break to the middle class, but not only did he vote for higher taxes for the middle class in the Senate, his plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don’t pay taxes. That’s not a tax cut; that’s welfare.”

[AP in Newsday]

Tax cuts for the middle class, unless I’m missing something basic, will mean that more middle class income stays in our pockets.  There’s nothing to redistribute but the tax break that five percent of the richest Americans have received under George W. Bush, that by definition came out of the rest of our hides.  This is a restoration, not a redistribution.

But that’s not really the point of McCain’s essentially mendacious rendering.  It has three key racist evocations: street crime (“hold on to your wallet”), giving tax dollars to “those who don’t pay taxes”, and “welfare”.  McCain’s misinterpretation has been often repeated since then by the ticket under the rubric “spread the wealth around”.  

Despite the superficial dressing, it is not about anti-socialism.  McCain is probably pretty secure in assuming that his Miami audience relates to “their” tax dollars being given away—but they will also get the sub rosa message as well: be afraid, be very afraid, because worse than a socialist, worse than a Marxist, worse than a pal of domestic terrorists, Obama is…Black!  And the purpose of this rhetorical tactic is exactly the same as the purpose of the pamphlet that first introduced the term “miscegenation” in an election 150 years ago, except with the parties reversed: to “discredit the Republicans [Democrats] by imputing to them radical views that offended the racist attitudes common among whites”.  

But appealing to racism presents a surprising problem in the case of Barack Obama.  I’m certain that he would prefer something altogether different at this point for his grandmother than her descent into an apparently life-threatening condition.  Seeing her picture in the news as Obama took two days off from campaigning during the last two weeks of the race to visit the oldest survivor of his mother’s white family brought home again what we are really dealing with here in the candidate’s race.  I would be proud enough to vote for the first black president, but this vote is for something really much less dramatic than that, something more ambiguous and something more inclusive in terms of race in America.  And because of that, I can say I’m even more proud today to vote for someone who is neither black nor white, who is black and white, who is descended from Kenya and from Kansas, and who will help us demonstrate as a first step in healing our body politic that we are capable of political acts without regard to race, creed or color.

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Cursing both houses…

There is an interesting clip from a Real News interview of Howard Zinn up on Al Giordano’s top-quality blog, The Field.  Responding to questions about Nader, a third party, and how to break out of the two-party system in order to drive more radical change, Zinn points out that Nader’s transplantation into the electoral arena has been self-marginalizing.  He asserts more generally that entering the electoral process without dominating impact tends to marginalize the progressive movement as a whole.

Rather than displacing the Democratic party, the idea is to surround it with a progressive movement so coherent and ineluctable that Obama’s administration must manifest his ideas in their most progressive form.  Zinn’s historical analogy, as often with Obama, is to that Hudson Valley grandee Franklin Roosevelt, who in nothing but his expression of his ideas could in 1932 be understood as a progressive.  

This encourages me to point out something I’ve been watching since Howard Dean took over the DNC, and especially since Obama started to get any traction in the primary race against Clinton.  

But first, something now far more obvious but not then necessarily predictable seems more and more likely: a huge rout of the GOP in less than two weeks.  When a black, racially-mixed ex-community organizer with Hussein as his middle name is 4 points up in Indiana, something is seriously going wrong with the Republican Stuka Squadrons.  

One can attribute this turn of the tide to a lot of factors, but on the day, the reality of an Obama victory of the proportions I expect will be purely down to one thing: the ground game.  There is simply nothing in recent US electoral history to compare to the unswerving strategic vision, superb management and organization, and massively effective field organization that David Plouffe and his team have put together for Obama.  This is the organization that will turn today’s polling numbers into countable votes on Election Day, and in pluralities far too large to be bothered by any criminal tampering by the remaining Rovians in the losing party.  

The catastrophe this represents for the Far Right wing that has utterly dominated the GOP since the 1994 election is difficult to understate.  The Senate minority leader himself has his head on the block—a loss you would have to go back to 1932 to match.  The Rockefeller Rump of the party has somehow come out from behind its protective wingnut screen and started to denounce it’s own party’s candidate, and to endorse a Democrat.  And the less mentally balanced of the wingnuts are frantically launching themselves into rhetorical space and electorial oblivion.  

But besides the barely visible protrusion of the witch legs from under the House that’s about to drop on the party of Rove, a few other institutions have been smashed to pieces.  These are the less obvious casualties of the popular juggernaut that Obama has let loose and helped organize.

First, the previous and anaemic public campaign finance system is gone forever.  Obama is the first national candidate to fully deploy the vast and decentralized set of interconnections known as the Internet for his campaign.  Among other things, he has effectively built a new public campaign finance system, bypassing the federally administered one to which McCain’s mavericky ways obliged him, and reaching directly into millions of supporters’ pockets for their change.  Eighty three bucks is not chicken feed for most people, but it is the average donation with which the Obama campaign built September’s 130 million dollar inflow of cash, and far less than the 2300 dollars that maxes out an individual contributor.

Second, and more important for our future, the Democratic party machine, most recently in the possession of the Clinton camorra, has been defenestrated.  The immediate move of DNC headquarters to Chicago the day after the Democratic convention was just a particularly dramatic example of this.  There is now a national organization, wired together via the Internet and cellphone technology (and texting), which will be rolling off the energy of a victorious Presidential campaign, and ready to go to work the day after Inauguration as the New Democratic Party.  This party, in urban areas, is organized down to the block level.  It understands how to raise funds in a way that is unstoppable from any centralized position.  It is decentralized, heterogeneous, and has strong but not exclusively progressive tendencies.  It will not be the party of Barak, but rather troops loyal to his administration to the extent they believe he is carrying out his promises.  And, as we will see, it will be flexing its muscles before too long in the 2010 congressional races, blasting away any lingering wingnuts in reach.  

As for the wingnuts, they have nothing to fear but our fear of nothing.

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Tears of rage

John salutes his father's funeral cortege

John salutes his father

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.

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