Dealing With the New World

Okay, it’s not 1968, and that was one strange year. Four years ago, David Aaronovitch, in the Observer (UK), was saying that year was 1968:

The year ended, not with an anti-war Democrat, but with Richard Nixon in the White House, and with Cambodia yet to come.

It ended with the French Right winning a landslide in the post-événement elections, with Labour entering a period of crisis which culminated, 18 months later, in a Conservative government.

Twenty-one more years had to pass before a new Prague spring, and Mikhail Gorbachev blamed 1968 for putting the cause of reform in the Soviet Union back by more than a decade. It saw the death of liberal republicanism in the States, and the beginning of the process whereby the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was to be supplanted by 30 years of killings and murder. It was the year of Enoch Powell and a 30-year fear of even the word “immigration.” It was the year that the great hopes of non-violent change, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, were murdered. This violence found its way into the language. As Kurlansky puts it: “‘Motherfucker’ was everybody’s word that year.”

Things didn’t work out. Change was a bad joke. In 1968 we thought we could change the world, Aaronovitch argues, but we didn’t change that much.

Perhaps Aaronovitch was right, or just bitter. Was 2004 really 1968 again?

No, it’s this year – this is 1968 again, or not. Back in 2004 it was 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, the book from Mark Kurlansky – but this year we already suffered through Tom Brokaw’s spare and pointless overview and now must deal with the animated Chicago 10, released nationally on Leap Year Day. They say that cartoon version of the post-convention Chicago trial is quite good. Some of us will just wait for the inevitable small book – Pointless Political Action for Dummies. It’s enough to make you cynical – or being cynical seems more appropriate than ever.

The seventies was the cynical decade, which was perhaps inevitable, and the voice of that cynicism was the wildly popular George Carlin – and he’s back, with a new special on HBO. Everyone is interviewing him, and the interview in Salon shows him being, well, himself:

We squandered a lot of gifts. Human beings were given a lot of great gifts. We were given the ability to reason, this extra-large brain, walking erect, having binocular vision and the opposable thumb, and all of these things, and we had such promise, but we squandered it on goods and superstition. We gave ourselves over to the high priests and the traders, and they are the ones we allow to control us. I think that’s a huge mistake and it’s disappointing to me. Now, the corollary is, America was given great gifts, this ideal form of government, this most improved form of self-government that has ever come along up until that time, and we squandered it. And once again, on the same two things: gizmos and toys and gadgets – goods, property, possessions – and also this country is far too religious for its own good.

Abandon hope – but he says he doesn’t feel particularly cynical – he feels more like a skeptic and a realist. Some things offer, if not hope, amusement:

And I’m very excited, for the sake of itself, for this Obama story. It’s very wonderful to watch and to follow and to read, because it is so different from what America has allowed itself to do. And I don’t know that it goes anywhere, and I’m not investing in it, but I do enjoy witnessing it. I think it’s a very exciting story.

But he won’t vote for him:

I can’t do that. Because then I’m hooked into a result, then I’m a cheerleader. I don’t want to be that. If that man is going to win, or if anybody is going to win or lose, it’s not going to be by one vote, I don’t give a fuck what they say about Florida. You know, one vote doesn’t mean anything, and I can’t throw in my hands with this process, because then I become a part of it, even to a very small degree, and a tool of it, and I don’t want to do that. I like sitting over here on the sidelines.

He just likes to watch, and comment. That’s his job:

I do feel that when you’re born into the world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show, and when you’re born in the United States, you’re given a front-row seat. And some of us have notebooks.

Fair enough – but something is going on – different from what America has allowed itself to do, as he notes. Maybe we get to do 1968 all over again, but get it right this time.

The Obama candidacy has changed things, but it’s probably not this item: Does Obama’s baritone give him an edge?

A powerful voice is a “god-given sound,” says opera’s Lotfi Mansouri. Obama’s baritone seems to have that magic. Clinton’s higher-pitched voice, not so much…

No, it’s something else. It’s the solidly right Tony Blankley, the man who runs the op-ed page at the conservative pro-Bush Washington Times, warning republicans that things have changed – this is not late 1968 and Nixon returning from the dead, nor is it Karl’s Rove’s World:

Republicans owe Hillary our gratitude. She has road-tested several versions of attacks on Obama that don’t work. Obviously, and first, don’t come out against change and hope – the perennial themes of successful election campaigns. In 1984, even my old boss Ronald Reagan campaigned for re-election in response to the claim that America needed to change, on the words: “We ARE the change,” as well as on the hopeful theme of “morning in America.”

If a candidate is not for change, he is not for us. It has been almost two centuries since Prince von Metternich gained the first ministry of the Hapsburg’s Austrian empire by assuring the emperor that his administration consciously would avoid any “innovation.”

So forget that “stay the course” stuff – you may feel noble, but you’ll be lonely. And don’t run on experience, and what you’ve done for everyone – “In American politics, gratitude is always the lively expectation of benefits yet to come.”

To be specific:

Americans will not give Sen. McCain the White House because we are grateful for his heroism 40 years ago at the Hanoi Hilton. We are grateful, and he was heroic. Americans might gladly vote for him to receive a medal, or even an opulent retirement home, but not the presidency.

Learn for Hillary Clinton’s mistakes:

Republicans should learn from Hillary’s campaign that Obama is remarkably adept at ridiculing the old style of campaigning. He cheerfully and in a cool, understated tone will slice and dice overly broad charges, such as Hillary’s “inexperience” taunt or her ill-considered “words vs. action” charge. (And by the way, after seven years of Bush’s verbal infelicity, there is a hunger for eloquence. Moreover, eloquence is good. Consider Lincoln, FDR, Churchill, Reagan – even Bill Clinton in a cheesy, insincere way.) Obama must have been tempted to use that old Humphrey Bogart line, when Bogart asked of someone who couldn’t keep up with him: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

Overly broad charges against him are dangerous. Republicans will make a mistake if they take to calling him “too liberal for America.” He is too liberal, but they need to make the charge specific point by specific point. If they try to pigeonhole him as a liberal, he will refuse to perch in such a hole. He is a golden falcon, not a fat pigeon. He will swoop down verbally on his accuser and point out how he is not liberal at all on that point – but his accuser’s record is.

… If Obama can be defeated, it will not be with a meat cleaver but with a surgeon’s scalpel. This is difficult in a national campaign in which the public, almost of necessity, must be communicated with by slogans. But Obama is the master responding to blustery charges with wry, dry irony.

Blankley sees the change:

In 1932, FDR’s conversational style trumped Hoover’s old oratory. In 1960, JFK’s coolness and wit caught the emerging post-World War II sophistication of our culture. Twenty years later America, tired of sophisticated cynicism, was ready to return to Reagan’s old-fashioned sentiments and values.

Obama is tapping into a curious alchemy of youthful idealism tempered by Internet edginess.

So this is none of those times, nor 1968 – and it’s no wonder Carlin is amused.

Even the folks at the Wall Street Journal are puzzled. See Obama’s New Populism:

While populist rhetoric has been generally cast in “Us versus Them” terms, Barack Obama is crafting a new style of populism – an affirmative and unifying message that offers a stark contrast to the divisive messages of the past. To be sure, those messages have long brought success. But if Mr. Obama continues to rack up primary and caucus wins, it could lead to a redefinition of presidential campaign rhetoric.

Read on for your dose of history – “With his 1896 Cross of Gold speech and his attacks on the ‘idle holders of idle capital,’ William Jennings Bryan helped propel the prairie and working-class populism that would find a home in the Democratic Party.” But that, and what follows, doesn’t matter. What is happening now is different:

As was summed up in his Super Tuesday speech with the memorable line “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Mr. Obama’s focus is on “we” as opposed to “them.” His opponent is decisiveness and rancor, and his political movement is among the most inclusive ever seen in American presidential politics.

This is far different from 1968 of course – Obama would be puzzled by people in the streets shouting that police were pigs. It would puzzle him, just as he seems more impatient than defensive with those who attack him on his inexperience or idealism or stirring language. What is that about? There are things to do. He listens, replies, and looks for the underlying issue that may be being raise – or not – and deals with it. It’s post-1968 in many ways. It’s also a step beyond the cynical seventies of George Carlin.

Of course the conservatives are puzzled, and the hard right furious – this presents difficulties. His model of political process is to listen, trying to understand what ideas are being presented, to offer a careful critique of those ideas, engage in a discussion, then present his take on the matter at hand. Given the last five decades of political conflict here, this seems to them to be unfair. He’s changing the rules. How are you supposed to deal with someone who is polite and seems to respect you, and is opposed to what you believe? He wants you to THINK about these things? You already did that, and you know you’re right. Why should you have to explain?

They don’t get it – Hillary and Bill Clinton don’t get it. But everyone else does, as shown in the voting. It’s not 1968, or the cynical seventies, nor is it the year they impeached Bill Clinton, nor the Florida recount, not the year of Bush’s first you’re-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists snit. All that hard-won experience and learning to grab and pull the levers of power – all that is secondary now.

You can see that makes politicians uncomfortable. The spokesperson for neo-conservatism, William Kristol, is uncomfortable. The New York Times recently hired him to pump out a column twice a week – they must have been impressed with his position a few years back that there was too much pop-psychology about Iraq, that there was no history at all of Shiites and Sunni not getting along, or his recent position that we should level Iran with nuclear weapons, as the Iranians would thank us for freeing them from the nuts that run the place and the world would cheer. He’s an odd duck, and he’s not so much uncomfortable about Obama as he is in denial. What we have with Obama is not populism, because, he says, with Obama, it’s all about Obama:

Last October, a reporter asked Barack Obama why he had stopped wearing the American flag lapel pin that he, like many other public officials, had been sporting since soon after Sept. 11. Obama could have responded that his new-found fashion minimalism was no big deal. What matters, obviously, is what you believe and do, not what you wear.

But Obama chose to present his flag-pin removal as a principled gesture. “You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”

Leave aside the claim that “speaking out on issues” constitutes true patriotism. What’s striking is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. Obama’s unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good – too patriotic! – to wear a flag pin on his chest.

Kristol goes on and on. The man is vain.

Obama likes to say, “we are the change that we seek” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Obama’s rhetorical skill makes his candidacy appear almost collective rather than individual. That’s a democratic courtesy on his part, and one flattering to his followers. But the effectual truth of what Obama is saying is that he is the one we’ve been waiting for.

Maybe, or maybe not – see Andrew Sullivan on the “We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” matter:

There’s an element of messianic self-regard about the sentence. And I sure hope Obama doesn’t get too cocky or begins to get carried away by the wave of support he has inspired.

But I think some have missed a nuance. The phrase is actually a self-indictment as well as a self-congratulation. The point is surely that we shouldn’t wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate. We are the only ones who can do this. And we’re responsible for our own failure. The sentence is actually a criticism of Obama’s own supporters.

And that makes Obama a conservative, actually:

What makes Obama’s liberalism different from both the technocratic meliorism of the Clintons and the 1970s big government liberalism that preceded it is that it is an inclusive, self-help kind of liberalism. It is participatory, not passive. It is not about government saving us; it is about us saving the government.

Now, I don’t share a lot of what Obama favors in domestic policy (but then I’m pretty disgusted by Bush’s policies as well). I’d prefer to see self-empowerment work outside the channels of government. But he defuses my libertarian impulses by his emphasis on participation and self-help. If I’m going to have to tolerate big spending liberalism, I’d rather have Obama’s version than Bush’s.

As a conservative Sullivan is okay with the guy:

At least Obama will pay for his redistributionism by taxing Americans rather than borrowing it indefinitely from the Chinese. And if you want to blame anyone for making America safe again for liberalism, the current White House is where you should direct your ire.

Once a Republican has said that government’s purpose is to help people who hurt, who can blame a Democrat for following through? In fact, Obama’s left-liberalism is not quite as paternalist as Bush’s. And it comes with fewer theological strings attached.

This is very odd. It’s a new world. Carlin should be taking notes.

And as a gay man, Sullivan probably wishes Carlin, or someone, would note this:

As someone involved in the gay rights world for a while, it strikes me that this is also a core message we need to convey. The Clinton model – exemplified by the Human Rights Campaign – is: give us some big donor checks, we’ll hire a lobbyist (if you’re lucky), and we’ll work the Democratic Party establishment to give you your equality (which somehow never happens). Meanwhile: keep whining (and sending the checks). The Obama model is: you will only get your equality if you stand up for it, risk your job, status, even life for the sake of your own integrity. Stop whining and start explaining and persuading and acting.

So many gay people over the years have asked me where our “leader” is. It’s the wrong question. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Be the change you want to see in the world. And the world changes. In exact proportion to the number of gay people who have abandoned their fear and self-hatred, it already has. No excuses, guys. And no need to wait.

So with them, so with us – it is about all of us. Maybe it’s not fair – no 1968 revolution in the streets, no seventies cynicism, no I’m-right-you’re-wrong-so-shut-up political attacks and counterattacks.

Perhaps that is what this year, 2008, is really about. One can hope.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Competition and Cooperation, Elections, Hardball Politics, Hillary Clinton, Obama, Political Posturing, Political Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dealing With the New World

  1. homeinczechr says:

    If Obama can be defeated, it will not be with a meat cleaver but with a surgeon’s scalpel. This is difficult in a national campaign in which the public, almost of necessity, must be communicated with by slogans.

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