Regarding that business about the triumph of hope over experience, that cynical quote – it was Samuel Johnson way back in the late eighteenth century who said those words, “For a man to marry a second time represents the triumph of hope over experience.” He wasn’t big on hope. He preferred the hard reality of experience – hope only gets you in trouble. Those of us who decided not to marry a third time understand. He was onto something there.
He was what we now call a “hard-nosed realist” – an odd term anatomically, but you get the idea. After the death of his mother Johnson penned his “oriental tale” – The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia. That too was a downer. Imlac, the court philosopher, gives the young prince a tour of their end of the world and comes up with observations like this – “Life everywhere is a condition in which much is to be endured and little enjoyed.” The two were looking down on the slums of Cairo at the time, but you can think of Steubenville, Ohio, if you wish. Much of New Jersey works too.
The tale may have been a dyspeptic riposte to Voltaire’s Candide, but it was pure Johnson – let’s not get too excited here. You may recall Johnson also railed against the American Revolution – it was unseemly, ungrateful, an affront to proper political order, and, really, to the way things had been, were and should be. Perhaps he also disliked it so much because it was full of hope – people can choose their own leaders and govern themselves, working out sensible social and legal frameworks so that everyone, without exception, gets a fair chance at some sort of happiness. For him it must have seemed the triumph of hope over experience, writ very large.
But the revolution worked, even if we are, after well more than two hundred years, still working out the details on this side of the pond. Some people still get screwed over by the system, and some die neglected, and many feel this and that keeps them from becoming what they think they should become – all those closed doors, all the regulations and rules, the taxes they must pay for things they think are foolish, and whatever else they think hobbles them. But the general concept that we all get together and work out how things should be still works for us, or we say it does.
You could say we still operate on hope, although since September 2001 it has become obvious that we’ve decided that fear keeps all of us a lot safer than hope. Johnson would smile. He’d “get” the administration of George Bush and the candidacy of Rudolph Giuliani and the whole Republican view of the world – the world is a nasty place and we have to be nasty back, and, in fact, that’s our duty. And there’s the subset of that – anyone who says different, that we should be thoughtful and try to figure out what’s happening and work out some everyone-saves-face solutions to major problems, and play be the rules, is a fool or a traitor. Ann Coulter has that book that says so and she has long argued that a few leading liberals should be shot, publically executed, to let everyone know their views are unacceptable. Many feel that way – William Kristol, who was just hired by the New York Times to write a weekly column, had previously argued that the Times should be charged with treason and shut down. You could look it up. It has been a strange decade so far – we’ve jumbled openness and hope together with shut-your-face fear in an oil-and-water mix. Stir it real hard for a long time and you get a colloid suspension – useless unstable glop. That’s where we are.
But as noted back on 28 May 2003, in the first post on this site, that’s not where we have been:
Do you remember the clear-headed, no-bullshit, let’s-be-fair liberals of yesterday? Bobby Kennedy in that last run just laying it all out – hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don’t we think it through, fix it and make things better? Well, Bobby got shot. Martin Luther King was doing the same thing. Well, he got shot a few months earlier than Bobby. Of course, to be fair, George Wallace got shot too. Lots of people got shot.
But the point is that those optimistic “why don’t we fix it and make things better” kinds of guys are nowhere to be found these days. What you’ll see on Bush campaign stickers in the 2004 election? You know – variations on “Just Do It” or “Money Talks, Bullshit Walks” or “Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up, And Hold On” – and of course that quote from Marge Simpson – “We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it.” The other side, the Democrats, will have bumper stickers asking if we all can’t just get along.
No Democrat will win anything by whining about the smirking frat boy…. To win the Democrats would have to field an opponent with a sense of humor, some brains, and a lot of optimism, someone who listens to what is being said, and is willing to say – “Hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don’t we think it through, fix it and make things better?”
It does not seem like that is going to happen.
But then, of all things, it happened.
Barack Obama came out of nowhere and won the caucuses in Iowa, may win the New Hampshire primary, could easily win the South Carolina primary, and then be the Democratic candidate in an election held as the pointless Iraq War drives everyone nuts, the economy tanks and hundreds of thousands lose their homes, gasoline hit five dollars a gallon and most people are fed up with where the Bush folks and the neoconservative theorists have left us. And old folks might remember this song written by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter for the 1947 movie New Orleans, where it was performed by Louis Armstrong and sung by Billie Holiday (Boomers might remember the 1960 Ricky Nelson version) – here’s a traditional version and here the words are sung. Enough is enough. And the odd thing is that Obama is running explicitly on a platform of hope – that’s the word he uses.
What’s this with hope? What would Samuel Johnson say? Johnson famously mocked the triumph of hope over experience – everyone uses that quote as their trump card put-down for starry-eyed idealistic fools. Sure it’s condescending and pompous, but it’s so literary and worldly to know such things – very impressive. And you also come off as a well-grounded realist. That’s highly valued in political circles these days.
So you say Obama is so young. What kind of experience can he have had? This “let’s all work together” stuff must be foolish, it won’t be sufficient to actually bring about the change he keeps yammering about, and thus it’s basically naïve drivel.
The founder of the Washington Monthly, Charlie Peters, says that may be wrong. He says we should look at Obama’s record in the Illinois legislature:
Consider a bill into which Obama clearly put his heart and soul. The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced – by beating the daylights out of the accused.
Well, the Chicago police are not known as gentle souls. They do have a history of beating the crap out of people until they hear what they want to hear. And Obama’s bill would stop that – interrogations would be videotaped. That would be the law. And here’s what happened with our starry-eyed idealistic young man:
The bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama’s bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to “solve” crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.
… He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery…. The police proved to be Obama’s toughest opponent, [but] by showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.
Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping.
Many on the left distrust Obama – they’d prefer a stick-it-to-the-Republicans brawl, because this time they would win, and that would feel so very good. That’s the conciliation-is-for wimps view, and Obama is the wimp, arguing you’d even listen to the people, of all things. Others see themselves as realists – go with Hillary Clinton and play the triangulation game, careful give-and-take in an offend-the-most-people-the-least approach, where no one really knows where you stand and thus you win.
The Washington Monthly’s blogger, Kevin Drum, leans toward Clinton, but notes what Peters is saying. Still Drum is skeptical:
First, any bill that eventually passes 35-0 can’t possibly have had that much in the way of stone-cold opposition. Obviously Obama did a good job of working with both Republicans and law enforcement interests in Illinois, but at the national level congressional Republicans have shown themselves remarkably immune to Obama-ish cajolery when it comes their key issues. I continue to have my doubts that a charm campaign will get the job done against the likes of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They know all too well who signs their paychecks.
But lest I protest too much, Charlie does make a good point. Springfield isn’t Washington DC, but it’s not the Peoria city council either, and although Obama may not have been a game changer in Illinois, he was an effective legislator who got some important things done. Win big in November and maybe he’ll be able to cajole half a dozen of those famous moderate Republicans in the Senate to actually do something moderate.
He is corrected by a commenter:
It was fought tooth and nail, Kevin. The cops and prosecutors were adamantly against it for some time including the Democratic Cook County Prosecutor.
I swore reform was dead after the commutations, Obama pulled it off. It was an incredible sight.
The end result was truly amazing. The police groups hated the idea and they hated racial profiling legislation – he passed both without angering them, but by working with them, listening, and showing good faith. I never thought it would pass with Democratic State’s Attorneys opposing it, strongly even – but he pulled everyone along and did it pretty quickly.
I know sometimes the claims sound too good to be true, but he is truly an amazingly talented politician with the right values. I like the other candidates, but every time I’ve seen him underestimated, he pulls out a victory whether it be electoral or policy.
And there’s this:
I have never heard this story before, and it highlights something about Senator Obama’s background that gets too little illumination – he really cares about the law as a lawyer ought to care.
Frankly, although not from Illinois myself, my own experience with these sorts of issues leads me to say – wow, this is a great achievement. 1) It is indubitably a good idea, no ifs, ands or buts. 2) There are always strong constituencies with time-tested clichés on their side that oppose any improvements in the treatment of persons under arrest, so I suspect the opposition was strong.
In fact, I would say this story reflects the only actual governmental achievement worthy of the name by any candidate of either party of which I am aware. It seems to me actual positive achievements in legislating are nearly non-existent these days.
It seems to me that what is escaping you in pushing the “Obama is too nice” meme is that if Obama is able to continue realigning the traditional Democratic coalition, by attracting new participants, he can go to the public when faced with Republican opposition.
[It] is correct that the bill in question faced tough going initially. It’s also worthy of note that the bill addressed a real problem – the fact that the Chicago Police Department has a long and putrid history of torturing confessions out of arrestees, particularly those arrestees who have the poor judgment to be black.
This is no knock on Obama, but I do not believe in the Great Leader theory of political change. Obama has political talent to spare and I think it is very silly to believe, as some Edwards supporters apparently do, that a man who was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review is not a fighter. For a black man in America every day is a fight.
But I question whether any Great Leader can do much to loosen the grip of the corporate ruling class without a very broad base of support. Progressives ought to be more concerned with senate and congressional elections than they appear to be. Just consider how different things would be today with Senator Lamont instead of Holy Joe being the 51st vote in the Democratic majority.
So my question is this: Does Obama have more political talent than Bill Clinton? Because Bill Clinton couldn’t get anything progressive done despite his popularity and amazing political talent.
Well, there is that. And this cynicism:
Neither Clinton nor Obama is proposing to loosen the grip of the corporate ruling class. John Edwards is vociferously proposing to do that. That’s why on the very evening that Edwards came in ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa, the corporate media was already pronouncing his campaign over. That’s why Dennis Kucinich is asked questions about UFO sightings in televised debates (when he isn’t entirely excluded from the debates).
There is zero chance of anyone, “Great Leader” or otherwise, becoming president who would actually do anything to even slightly “loosen the grip of the corporate ruling class.”
The best we can hope for is to get a “compassionate conservative” president, like Bill Clinton, who will to some extent persuade America’s Ultra-Rich Ruling Class Inc. that it is in their long-term best interest to let a few more crumbs fall from their table, and implement a “kinder and gentler” corporate dictatorship than what we’ve experienced under the virulent greed, corruption, and naked criminality of Cheney and Bush.
I expect that the corporate ruling class would still prefer to continue the rapacious policies of Cheney/Bush with a new Republican president, e.g. Romney or McCain, but they are also comfortable that Obama or Hillary Clinton are people they can work with if it comes to that.
But somehow the man seems on a different level. Over at the semi-official journal of neoconservative thought, the other side sees a problem, Obama or not:
Politics is not rocket science. You have one party led by a deeply unpopular, unapologetic right-wing ideologue whom its presidential candidates nevertheless decided to embrace. You have another party that has spent most of the past quarter-century undergoing the painful but necessary process of taming its own ideological excesses and tacking to the center. As a result, it now boasts appealing, mainstream candidates with pragmatic policy proposals for addressing real problems. What, exactly, did people think was going to happen?
And now one on the Democratic side is big on hope, on listening, on working things out. Even Republicans like the guy. He doesn’t insult them.
Of course the rest of the world, looking in, as Samuel Johnson might, are, like the fellow from Nigeria, baffled:
Obama represents all that white America has been struggling to prevent. He grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and his father was an African from Kenya. These are not the usual credentials for the candidacy of the Anglo-Saxon White House.
A Brit is amazed:
The cynicism of Europeans (and yes, Brits, this means you!) is sad and underwhelming. Compare and contrast Obama’s speech (and even Huckabee’s) with any one of Clinton’s (HRC), Blair’s or Merkel’s or Chirac’s or Brown’s or Cameron’s. Try to spot the difference.
Also see Lebanon’s Daily Star:
The very moment [Obama] appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.
From South Africa:
Damn, I love Americans. Just when you’ve written them off as hopeless, as a nation in decline, they turn around and do something extraordinary, which tells you why the United States of America is still the greatest nation on earth.
The former Brit, the traditional conservative Andrew Sullivan, wonders what hit him:
How can I write “The Conservative Soul” and find myself rooting for Obama? How can my core beliefs resonate with the libertarianism of Ron Paul and yet allow for support of an urban liberal like Obama? Good questions. One short answer: because conservatism faces a deeper threat from corrupt Republicans than from honest liberals. Because, after eight years of big government Christianism, a unifying liberalism is something I can live with. Because I want to win the long war against the Jihadists – and we need to unite the country again to do it. Because grow-ups know that any democratic society needs at least two parties and that the alternation of right and left – without tipping into extremism – is a healthy thing.
And one of his libertarian readers:
I have a fondness for Ron Paul because he’s the first candidate for president whose views actually mirror my own in most respects, but Barak Obama is the first to actually inspire me. And if anecdotal evidence compiled from my like-minded friends is worth anything, I’m not alone.
We disagree with his political philosophy and very nearly all his positions, and yet are drawn to him and universally agree that we’d be proud to have him as our president. And maybe that pride is enough. We were too young at the time to really understand Reagan, and since we’ve had nothing but a litany of poor choices with unsurprising results. If we can’t realize our vision for America, at least, maybe in Obama we can truly admire our leader for the first time.
Don’t be surprised if many of the young people enthusiastically supporting Paul today wind up crossing the line in a general election and using some of that enthusiasm in support of Obama. I’m sure there are many who gravitate to Paul because of individual issues or out of anger against the establishment. Those followers will drift to third-parties or sit out the election altogether. But there are more, like me, who gravitate to him because of his faith in personal freedom and in the fundamental belief in the human spirit such conviction implies. Obama may not satisfy our thirst for liberty, but he certainly appeals to the human spirit.
There are a lot of us.
Something is up here.
And there’s this reader:
I am a white man, straight, Midwestern suburban kid who went to public high school and on to the Ivy Leagues and top-end grad schooling.
I was born in 1971, three years after the deaths of MLK and RFK, but I used to listen to recordings of their speeches as early as 5 years old. My mother taught me that fairness and equality among all people was the most American of values. So it should come as no surprise that in the already Southern Strategy Republican Party-era I have been a lifelong Democrat.
… As an American, I have been full of rage and hatred at Republicans these past seven years for how they have cynically and deliberately and sneeringly fouled every notion of decency this country stands for – my rage was come by honestly. I feel all of the things the bomb-thrower feels. Edwards would seem to be my guy. And I like John Edwards personally. I want that guy on my side.
But Obama brings me to tears, over and over, and over again. And I find that the correctness of vitriol and the satisfaction in its venting is trumped by the value of being drawn toward empathy and forgiveness for your sworn enemies. And reading about the raw elation of African-Americans who see this as the first true real deal for the first moment in all American history, it makes it that much sweeter.
I have a lot of connections to the NH field staff for Obama and I have no doubt whatsoever Obama will win NH from what I hear daily. And then he will win South Carolina. And then the machine-chit system Clinton is using for the February 5 states will fall like a house of cards. Obama is already up and running in those states on the ground with his own organization, not proxies.
And on November 4, 2008, you will see a landslide and a national mandate, no matter the Republican opponent. Not even McCain can withstand this. A 72-year old man cannot stand up to the under-45 generational wave.
There was a 30% increase in Republican turnout… over 2000 (remember no caucus in 2004 for them). Dem increase since 2000? 290%. 290-30. That is an eloquent statement about the devastation the Bush years have unleashed on their own party, in addition to the nation and the world. And Huckabee is their cynically created Frankenstein, a golem they can no longer control.
This morning is such a beautiful one.
It was a long time coming. Now to see that the man doesn’t get shot – and Samuel Johnson can roll over in his grave.