There’s nothing like getting a new Harpers in the mail to upset my idealistic dreams of a new America flourishing under an Obama administration. Here’s the opening November ’08 Harpers slap-in-the-face for dreamy liberals like me:
After eight years of catastrophic Republican misrule—in the midst of economic crisis and rising unemployment, in a nation plagued by ruinous energy costs and inflation, bank failures, and staggering public and private corruption—an eloquent, charismatic, intelligent Democratic candidate was locked in a statistical tie with a doddering old hack whose primary argument for his claim to the most powerful office on earth is that he was shot down over Vietnam and tortured for five years. Indeed, this remained the case even after McCain demonstrated beyond all doubt, in his impetuous selection of a ludicrously unsuitable vice- presidential candidate, that he lacked the good judgment that is the primary qualification for the job. If the Democratic Party loses this election, then it should forever concede the presidency.
Ouch! I read this magazine for the same reason I watch Fox News. To upset my own comfortable ideologies. That’s the trouble with us liberals — we’re always fretting about being fair, when, according to Harper’s Roger Hodge we’re just a big bunch of conflict-avoidant pussies.
Conflict in politics is not a metaphor, and as with any fight, the audience is likely to get involved. That is the essence of politics. A campaign that decides in advance that voters are tired of negative campaigning, that they are sick of partisan attacks and will respond only to positive messages, has stupidly left the field of battle. The people who truly dislike political combat are presumably among the 95 million who do not vote. Senator Barack Obama, a sophisticated and intelligent man with sophisticated and intelligent advisers, promises to change Washington, to eliminate the tone of partisan rancor, to foster a new spirit of brotherhood and cooperation. Poor lamb, he wishes to lie down with lions. But the Kingdom has not come.
Unfortunately, the sovereign voter can do little, on his own, to remedy the situation, especially if he happens not to live in Florida or Ohio. Yes, he can make a campaign contribution, a slightly more effective form of voting, but unless the Obama campaign decides to wage a more creative and destructive war, casting monetary ballots remains an empty gesture. (Of course one can also join the battle personally, perhaps by repeating the rumors about John McCain’s Alz heimer’s meds or the Sarah Palin sex tape.) Ultimately, we return to the problem of political will, to the Democratic Party, to the commitment of its party bosses to prevail, finally, in this election.
We can hope for change, that the Republicans will make some fatal error, or that Obama’s party will fight hard enough to persuade a decisive number of “low information” voters that John McCain is not only a liar but a menace to our children’s future. Recent precedents, however, are not encouraging. The Republican Party lied its way through eight years of criminal misrule while Democrats mostly just cowered in a back room. Now, faced with a clumsy deception about whether Sarah Palin sought an earmark for a small town in Alaska, Obama exclaims, “Come on! I mean, words mean something, you can’t just make stuff up.” Oh, yes, Barack, we can.
In the same issue that suggests we dirty our hands by calling John McCain a liar and the Bush administration’s “misrule” criminal, we read that Obama is a detached blank screen upon which voters can project any quality they like (or dislike) because . . . well . . . his mother was lonely and so is he:
Obama wants to believe in the common good as a way of providing a fullness to experience that avoids the slide into nihilism. But sometimes I don’tknow if he knows what belief is and what it would be to hold such a belief. It all seems so distant and opaque. The persistent presence of the mother’s dilemma—the sense of loneliness,doubt, and abandonment—seems palpable and ineliminable. We must believe, but we can’t believe. Perhaps this is the tragedy that some of us see in Obama: a change we can believe in and the crushing realization that nothing will change.
This is usually the point at which my own McCain-supporting mother breaks in with “honey, you know, you can think too much.” And after years, decades really, of finding this refrain irritating, I finally agree with her about the thinking part if not about her taste in Presidential candidates.
Like the Obama caricatured in this month’s Harpers as an ineffective dreamer as intent on replacing his deceased mother’s lack of faith with liberal-Christian-do-gooding as Oliver Stone suggests “W” was intent on finally pleasing Daddy, I simply choose to have faith in the stated values of the Democratic party. I continue to believe that over time, we can do better as a nation through consensus and problem-solving, collaboration and compromise, than we can by adopting the tactics of the world’s strong-arm leaders and disciples of discord.
The Good News
Assuming that the guy I think Obama is — highly educated, articulate, and idealistically dedicated to serving the common welfare — actually exist on the political scene (and I will not give up this faith any more readily that others would renounce their own religions) I believe them to be riding the bow-wave of transformation. I have staked my professional life on this faith in my fellows’ ability to work toward the common good, abandoning the extremely lucrative practice of legal battle in exchange for the far less financially rewarding practice of collaborative negotiated conflict resolution.
Who are the real cowards here and who the heroes? People who refuse to negotiate face-to-face “without pre-condition” (“we won’t discuss settlement unless they’re willing to put $10 million on the table first”) and without the protection of several layers of legal counsel? Or those who are willing to test the rectitude of their “position” by sitting across a table with their opponent to frankly discuss their mutual role in whatever commercial or personal catastrophe flowed from the intersection at which their (mis)fortunes collided?
The social psychologists tell us that we live on the razor’s edge of individual survival (me, me, me, me, me) and the collective good. It is our great challenge as a species to live that which we cannot refuse to understand — “we” cannot drill a hole in “their” side of the boat without sinking all of us.
So I will continue to brave reading Harpers (which discourages me) and risk the challenge to my world view of Fox News commentary (which so often enrages me) on the off-chance that my religion — tolerance; compassion; collective effort; empathy and the like, has more staying power than the religion of hate; discord; and, denial.
And I will also continue to believe that none of us could ever possibly be right.
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