As is obvious to even the most casual observer – yeah, you hate that sarcastic and arrogant opening – the current presidential campaign now winding down can easily be reduced to a choice of two general ways of dealing with things. Of course the Obama campaign is about inclusion – everyone join in and we can make our government work for us all, ironing out our differences so no one gets totally screwed, and then moving on to work out ways to fix what needs attention. So you get talk about things like listening to each other, and actually considering what is being said, and then working out what everyone agrees, even if reluctantly, is best. Then we get to work. There’s not a lot of ideology involved – just what seems to be a sort of civic pragmatism, and realism. Those on the left who are itching for sweet payback, for all the wrongs and all the blunders and all the arrogance of the Bush years, and for all the very real death and the catastrophic collapse of the world’s financial systems, are really not that happy to be told to let it all go – that there’s real work to do and there really is no time now for nursing grudges and working out what you think might be vengeance, nor is there much point to all that. But this is what Obama has proposed – let go of the past and let’s all work out where we go from here. The angry left will have to deal with it – Obama has run on this way of dealing with things, and he’s won again and again because of it. So – insult no one, show everyone basic respect, listen, and then do what’s best, without being a wimp or a fool, but accounting for others. That’s the domestic plan, and that’s the foreign policy plan.
The McCain-Palin campaign goes the other way – some things, and certainly certain people (Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers), and a number of specific ideas and more than a few particular attitudes (Jon Stewart’s smirking or Rachel Maddow’s gentle teasing), are unacceptable. It’s all about differentiation – separating the good from the bad, the moral from the immoral, our friends from our enemies, the godless from the people of faith, the real Americans from those insufficiently enthusiastic about this or that, and so on and so forth. The idea is that you must choose on which side of history you stand – a general list of binary options is implied, a sort of true-false exam to separate the good people from the bad – so do your homework, and then on Election Day do the right thing. The key value is discernment, and what matters is offering harsh but inevitable judgments based on deep experience over many years, or in the case of Sarah Plain, based on having the right attitudes and beliefs, both religious and secular. This is the opposite of inclusion. You don’t work off a synthesis of anything – you sort things out, carefully separating things into their proper categories, so you can deal with them sensibly. The enemy of all this is moral relativism – entertaining the idea that gay people, however they might offend you as flaunting God’s specific instructions, might deserve equal rights, that contraception and early-term abortion might not be exactly the same thing as premeditated murder, that maybe the death penalty doesn’t deter anything and could be itself immoral, that freedom of speech maybe could allow offensive art and political comments that make your blood boil, and that our enemies abroad might have real grievances and, maybe, even basic human needs. That kind of thinking becomes appalling – it muddies the waters. You lose your ability to tell good from evil, you could even lose yourself.
This idea that we should be discriminating in our thinking – separating things and not synthesizing them – has been going on since the Reagan years. Sensible people decide what’s good and what’s bad and don’t budge. But we could be moving to a post-Reagan mindset – we’re all in this together and should stick together and support each other, and being pragmatic, dropping the severe idealism and firm ideology, makes more sense. The Bush administration may well have made this possible – many now long for a competent and effective government, not one where you’re told that although things were screwed up, government is never the answer to anything, and for public policies that limit needless pain and death with out all this talk of the genius of the free-market system and the need for personal responsibility, and for economic policies that seem a bit more fair to people who work hard, not just the investors, and that’s not to mention there are these wars that kill our kids and drain our treasury for reasons that kept shifting and then evaporating, and then pretty much disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Still, the party of differentiation is doing well enough these days – people are drawn to making things black-and-white clear. Still, as reported in the Iowa State Daily, things can get tricky:
Audience members escorted out of Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., campaign event in Cedar Falls questioned why they were asked to leave Sunday’s rally even though they were not protesting.
David Zarifis, director of public safety for the University of Northern Iowa, said McCain staffers requested UNI police assist in escorting out “about four or five” people from the rally prior to McCain’s speech
… “When I started talking to them, it kind of became clear that they were kind of just telling people to leave that they thought maybe would be disruptive, but based on what? Based on how they looked,” Elborno said. “It was pretty much all young people, the college demographic.”
Elborno said even McCain supporters were among those being asked to leave.
“I saw a couple that had been escorted out and they were confused as well, and the girl was crying, so I said ‘Why are you crying? and she said ‘I already voted for McCain, I’m a Republican, and they said we had to leave because we didn’t look right,'” Elborno said. “They were handpicking these people and they had nothing to go off of, besides the way the people looked.”
Such things happen when your way of looking at the world is to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable. Some people who shouldn’t get hurt do get hurt – but you have to keep things straight. You have your standards.
Of course things can get absurd. Thursday, October 30, this video was all over the web – on CNN, Rick Sanchez interviewing Michael Goldfarb, a McCain spokesman, who accuses Barack Obama of hanging around with anti-Semites – and that would be plural. This was mostly about Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar from the University of Chicago who Obama toasted at his retirement dinner, who is rather harmless and rather obscure. The right is outraged. Sanchez asked if that was it, or was there another guy, as Goldfarb asserted? Goldfarb clammed up. Sanchez pressed for a name. Goldfarb said, oh, you know who I mean – everyone knows who I mean. Sanchez said, no, I really don’t. Goldfarb just smiled and said everybody knows, everybody knows. Sanchez seemed puzzled – he really didn’t know. Goldfarb said again, everyone knew. And that was that.
Yep, you think of Joe McCarthy and his hearings back in the fifties – who said he had the names of communists at the highest levels of our government, but he wouldn’t reveal them – same sort of thing. That’s where this sort of thing leads.
Goldfarb looked like an ass, and one nasty piece of work.
Kevin Drum was not impressed:
John McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb is one of the creepiest of the creepy gang of attack dogs that inhabit McCain’s dysfunctional communications shop. The guy seems to have about the maturity level of a sixth grader and the social skills of your average Unix programmer. Every time McCain lands in hot water over something or another, Goldfarb is always there to vomit up a statement even nastier and more boorish than whatever he said on his last outing. He’s a real piece of work.
Which means, long story short, that I was happy to see this bit of comeuppance. What a jackass.
But Goldfarb may have helped McCain, with the discriminating, so to speak.
As for Rashid Khalidi, see one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:
I took a graduate seminar with Khalidi here at Columbia and he is writing letters of recommendation for my PhD applications. I can unequivocally say that not only is Khalidi no anti-Semite (a laughable charge for anyone who actually knows him), he is undoubtedly one of the most respected Middle East scholars in the field, and even derided as being “too moderate” by many of my classmates. I encourage everyone who suddenly feels empowered to belittle him to actually crack open one of his books. Lastly, the thing about being a spokesperson for the PLO is a pure fantasy. He was allowed to be an advisor at the Madrid talks specifically because he wasn’t part of the PLO (the US and Israel refused to negotiate with them directly).
Read all about the guy here – his anti-Semitism is a myth, but yes, he has a funny name and is from Palestine. Discriminating people know what is what.
Let’s clarify how McCainism is different than McCarthyism: McCain is tapping into people’s racial fears. And the thing that hasn’t gotten much attention in all of these stories about Obama “being an Arab” and “palling around with terrorists” is that his kind of racism has real impact on people’s lives. Hate crimes against Arabs, South Asians, and anyone with brown skin are perpetrated by the same kind of racism. Distrust of people who look like that affects employment, neighborly relationships -and the kind of hate innocent children have to face at schools.
This isn’t a senator calling people to testify on Capitol Hill. This is insidious in a far more subtle, and therefore far more impactful, way.
That is what happens when you do your sorting, deciding what goes into which pile, like with your dirty laundry.
Then there is the new McCain campaign ad that argues that Obama will negotiate with Iran’s Ahmadinejad about the total elimination of Israel and the withdrawal of all our troops from every country in the Middle East, which is, as Andrew Sullivan noted, “disgusting, stupid, inflammatory and, in its use of Arabic-sounding music, bigoted.”
But it is discriminating, even if you have to accept both the negative and the positive connotations of that word.
Over at the Time site Swampland, Joe Klein looks at it this way:
There is so much desperate, crapulous spew from the McCain campaign right now that it’s hard to keep track of it all – but this ad, via Andrew Sullivan, marks some sort of low. Yet again – in a last, desperate attempt to scare the elderly Jews of Florida – McCain posits Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the “leader” of Iran, even though he has no control over Iranian foreign or military policy. (Ayatullah Ali Khamenei is the guy in charge in Iran, which is why they call him – you guessed it – the Supreme Leader.) Yet again, McCain brings up the notion of “preconditions,” only now the preconditions are Ahmadinejad’s: namely, that the U.S. would have to leave the Middle East before he’d be willing to talk.
It’s all inflammatory nonsense, of course. Obama has said that he would meet with the Iranian leadership without “preconditions” – namely, the Bush Administration requirement that the Iranians stop processing uranium. Of course, the Bush Administration doesn’t seem so set on that precondition anymore, either. Again, this is a purposeful effort to mislead on Obama’s actual position: he would begin lower-level negotiations with the Iranians, and see how much progress could be made. That is a position supported by many of McCain’s own diplomatic supporters.
But that’s not really what this is all about: this ad – with its Middle Eastern music – is all about implying that Obama isn’t one of us, that he’s one of them. It is shameful, in the extreme.
It’s also really bad policy.
It may be bad policy, but the gamble here is that more people will see that this is a matter of having the moral discrimination to separate the totally evil (them) from the totally good (us) – McCain can do that, and Obama clearly cannot. That’s the strategy.
It’s the same with tax policy and cries of socialism. There’s much on that here and, John Judis makes the case that the McCain campaign’s argument about “spreading the wealth” and “socialism” and “redistribution” – all that stuff – is ultimately about race. Judis sees the argument “is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe ‘spreading the wealth’ as giving their money to blacks. It’s the latest version of Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ argument from 1980. If it works, it won’t be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them.”
Steve Benen concurs:
When McCain tells white working class undecided voters that Obama wants to “take your money and give it to someone else,” he doesn’t say who “someone else” is, but he probably hopes he doesn’t have to.
… McCain has been using the word “welfare.” He’s used it in his stump speech (Obama, McCain says, wants to turn the IRS into “a giant welfare agency”), and he’s used it in his television ads.
And why would McCain tell white working class undecided voters that Obama’s tax policies constitute “welfare” and “take your money and give it to someone else”? Here’s a wild guess – it has something to do with exploiting racial fears.
Benen notes that Michael Crowley pointed to this exchange from CNN between McCain and Larry King:
KING: Concerning spreading the wealth, isn’t the graduated income tax spreading the wealth? If you I and pay more so that ‘Jimmy’ can get some, some for him – or pay for a welfare recipient, that’s spreading the wealth.
MCCAIN: That’s spreading the wealth in the respect that we do have a graduated income tax. That’s a far cry from taking from one group of Americans and giving to another. I mean that’s dramatically different.
Actually, it’s not different at all. McCain’s argument is incoherent.
Put it this way: either McCain is deliberately trying to exploit racial fears or he hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. I’m afraid it’s one or the other.
As for the claim of socialism, in the New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg finds that whole thing odd:
As a buzzword, “socialism” had mostly good connotations in most of the world for most of the twentieth century. That’s why the Nazis called themselves national socialists. That’s why the Bolsheviks called their regime the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, obliging the socialist and social democratic parties of Europe (and America, for what it was worth) to make rescuing the “good name” of socialism one of their central missions. Socialists – one thinks of men like George Orwell, Willy Brandt, and Aneurin Bevan – were among Communism’s most passionate and effective enemies.
The United States is a special case. There is a whole shelf of books on the question of why socialism never became a real mass movement here. For decades, the word served mainly as a cudgel with which conservative Republicans beat liberal Democrats about the head. When Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan accused John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of socialism for advocating guaranteed health care for the aged and the poor, the implication was that Medicare and Medicaid would presage a Soviet America. Now that Communism has been defunct for nearly twenty years, though, the cry of socialism no longer packs its old punch. “At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,” McCain said the other day – thereby suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.
Matthew Yglesias moves this forward:
The whole thing is, I think, totally meaningless as campaign rhetoric. But politics takes place on both mass and elite levels. And the socialism kick does illustrate something interesting about the divide among American political elites. To most liberal opinion leaders (including myself and, it seems, Hertzberg) the major Continental countries like France and Germany are models that have some admirable aspects along with some problems, and the smaller northern European countries like Denmark and the Netherlands are really admirable examples of a balance between individualism and dynamism on the one hand, and economic security and social equity on the other. “Socialism” and “social democracy” are not words we use or want to see used in mass politics because they’re not part of the American political vernacular, but the latter at least represents a reasonable aspiration.
Conservative elites, by contrast, are absolutely convinced that France and Germany are dystopian cesspools and that Scandinavia can no more exist than a round circle. If the government starts giving people health care and building trains, next thing you know we’ll all be … well, it’s not clear exactly what we’ll all be like. But it won’t be good!
And that’s why Obama – who says that maybe we should talk about all this – is so dangerous. Obama refuses to keep things simple.
Over at the Washington Post even George Will is getting exasperated:
Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain’s question for his briefer was: “So, who is the villain?”
Steve Benen comments on that:
This is amusing, but it’s also important. McCain’s appreciation for policy complexities doesn’t exist. Maybe he’s impatient, maybe he’s easily confused, maybe both. But McCain not only prefers to see the world as black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, he needs this dynamic to make sense of current events. Subtleties, nuances, and depth are inconvenient, and therefore dismissed.
Indeed, we saw this clearly just a few days ago. Criticizing Obama’s policy on nuclear energy, McCain described the security of spent fuel, the storage of nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation as – and I quote – “blah blah blah.” Don’t bother him with details; just tell him who the enemy is and which direction to start attacking. Intellectual seriousness is for wusses.
Benen sees three problems making everything simple, or a cartoon:
First, it’s about the single worst quality a president can have, especially in a time of crisis.
Second, it helps explain why McCain’s attacks against Obama have been almost entirely personal. Obama, as far as McCain is concerned, “is the villain.” He doesn’t deserve respect; he deserves, McCain seems to believe, to be destroyed.
And third, McCain’s style is so similar to Bush’s worldview, it’s frightening. The only key difference is Bush, who famously boasted that he doesn’t “do nuance,” generally approached politics with a genial attitude. McCain likes to “reduce controversies to cartoons,” but with angry and erratic temperament.
But there you have it – the core difference between Obama and McCain. McCain is forever saying that he knows the difference between good and evil – he gets it and Obama doesn’t, as Obama is naïve. And you must never waver, or think too much and get all tied up in ambiguities – you fight evil. That has its appeal.
Obama is saying it’s never that simple, and maybe it is wise to figure out what is really going on, in detail, then wise to be pragmatic and see what can be done, given all we now know. That also has its appeal.
We’re being offered an interesting choice. What should the discriminating voter do?