The Obama Memo

Didn’t you get the memo? That’s the ultimate putdown in the business world – you’re a fool who has no clue about what’s really been going on, and things have changed dramatically, so you’ve been marginalized and will obviously be fired tomorrow. You didn’t get the memo? Well, you didn’t hang around with the right people, so they saw no need to include you in the big plans – and dimwitted losers get left behind, or casually tossed overboard. Yep, you didn’t stay late to shoot the breeze with the movers and shakers, and they moved and shook without you. Things get decided by a few key people between nine and midnight – they always do – and you were too dumb to figure that out. You went home to be with your family. And now the new department manager is laughing at you – and that is a kindness, because he doesn’t have to do even that, considering your complete insignificance. You may have had good ideas and done fine work, but there are all the cool people, the right people, the in people – and you’ll never be one of them. Yes, the corporate world is a lot like high school, but with major money on the line. And of course everyone is dressed nicely – none of you is fifteen anymore – not that it matters.

By the way, you didn’t get the memo because there was none – it was, shall we say, an implicit memo. You just should have known. And now you’re screwed.

Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has seen this play out, perhaps twice a year, year after year, like clockwork. You get used to it, and when you sense that no matter how you’ve gamed it you’ve been cut out, you float your résumé around. There’s not a whole lot else you can do. You move on, and tell yourself that the next time you’ll laugh at the right jokes, and go drinking with the guys after work and tell your own, and make fun of the people you’re supposed to make fun of, and tell some other asshole, over and over, how much you admire him. You might find yourself at one of those small, late night meetings, deciding big things. If not – you move on again.

And then you retire, and sit quietly and wonder what the hell all that was about. Then it occurs to you that all of life is like that, sophomore year in high school, over and over and over.

But sometimes there’s a big change and, wonder of wonders, there had been a memo. The guy we elected as president has been saying it since Boston in 2004:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.

Since then it’s been variations on that – left wing liberals are wrong, the conservative right is full of people who also want what is best for our country, and we disagree on how to get there, and sometimes the Europeans got things right and sometimes we did, and people in the Islamic world want what they think is best for them, and they’re not, generally, murderously crazy. Our opponents, and those who simply disagree with us, are real human beings, trying to do what’s right, not cartoons or monsters, or cartoon monsters.

That was the memo. It seems Fox News didn’t get the memo, or for economic reasons ignored it, as ratings really do matter. But everyone else got the general idea, even if hardly anyone on the left or right finds it easy to think that way.

This will take some time. Liberals get pissed at Obama for taking the right wing nuts seriously, for having Rick Warren do his thing at the Inauguration, and for generally “caving in.” The right is forever pissed at Obama for always apologizing for America and not sneering that we’re the best and everyone else is dirt – it’s a matter of pride and patriotism. What they see as apologies, however, were outlined in the memo. If the other side has an idea of how things should be, let them lay it out. We’ll listen, in good faith, and then we’ll lay out what we think, and see what happens. Some, like Dick Cheney on the matter of torture and war, or the far left on the issues of gay rights and abortion, scream that this is pathetic weakness, or madness. Others see that as strength and confidence, and rather sane. It sort of depends on how hard it is for you to gradually stop generating cartoon monsters.

Of course it helps if most of your family is strictly conservative and won’t forgive Obama until he tells Sonia Sotomayor to go away and nominates Sarah Palin to the Supreme Court, or, if that won’t fly, Sean Hannity, or maybe Glenn Beck. You’ve known these people all your life. They’re family, and you get it – they have their reasons for thinking this way. They’re angry and worried, for reasons you know all too well, and they too only want what’s best. You just happen to disagree with them on how to get there. But they’re family, even if they get over-the-top irate about such things. That will pass, and the grandkid’s birthday party will be fine. And of course what Obama is proposing is the same thing, writ large.

But it’s hard. Everyone got the memo, but not everyone has that sort of family experience. That’s why, over at Red State, Erick Erickson writes something like this:

You only thought leftists got excited when American soldiers got killed. As I’ve written before, leftists celebrate each and every death of each and every American solider because they view the loss of life as a vindication of their belief that they are right.

What? Hilzoy (Hilary Bok) comments:

“Some” leftists, perhaps: there are a lot of people on the left, as there are on the right, and thus I imagine you could find members of either group who do any number of loathsome things. But Erick Erickson didn’t write “some leftists.” He wrote that “leftists celebrate each and every death of each and every American soldier.” All of us.

Even those of us who are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who have family or friends there. Even those of us whose family or friends have died. We all got excited. We celebrated. Each and every time a soldier died.

Duels have been fought for less.

But she is careful to make it clear she has no interest in responding by making him into a cartoon monster, saying that “he’s on the right, so of course he says idiotic things.” That goes nowhere:

Treating his opponents as one big undifferentiated cartoonish mass is part of what makes what Erick wrote so objectionable, and I have no interest in following his example. Nor is hyperbole a good explanation: it’s not true that everyone on the left is happy when soldiers die, but that we don’t go so far as to celebrate.

But Erickson just didn’t get the memo:

I think we can rule out the possibility that he believes this in good faith: that he asked himself, before writing this, “Is this really true?”, thought about (for instance) the 44% of military voters who voted for Obama, liberals presently serving in combat, or the liberals on VetVoice, asked himself whether they actually celebrate when one of their own is killed in combat, and answered: “Yes.”

He might be a pure hack, like those expert witnesses that the tobacco companies used to trot out to testify that nicotine is not addictive. But I suspect he’s not.

The alternative is that he believes this in bad faith. Maybe, for him, writing blog posts has become a game: you score points when you can, and whether or not the things you write are actually true has ceased to be a concern. Or maybe hatred has got the better of him…

But bad faith arguments made in anger are dangerous, and lead to dark places. It was in the Obama memo, and she says it’s also in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Well, with the help of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, we’re getting there rather quickly, or as Hilzoy explains it:

If you give in to “the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible”, it’s easy to see how you could end up thinking things about them that it is implausible to think about any group of human beings: for instance, that when a nineteen year old who enlisted because he wanted to serve his country gets blown up by an IED, your enemies think that that’s cause for celebration. Your opponents become cartoons in your mind, and the normal duty to be charitable and generous, or even realistic in your views about other people, seem not to apply to them. You stop thinking of them as fellow human beings, and start thinking of them as enemies.

And she gives an example of that:

I suspect that this is the state of mind in which people laughed along with Rush Limbaugh when he said that Chelsea Clinton was “the family dog.” No one who laughed at that could have been thinking of Chelsea Clinton as an actual adolescent girl whose looks were being ridiculed by the biggest talk radio host in the country. Had they done so, Limbaugh’s sheer cruelty would have been obvious, and the only people who would have laughed are the kind of people who would laugh if they saw a dog being set on fire.

But Chelsea Clinton wasn’t a human being; she was an opponent. And Limbaugh was scoring points. And the thought that an actual girl, and one who had never asked to be in politics, was being made fun of on national radio probably never crossed their minds, any more than the thought of actual human beings who are liberals and who are, or care about, soldiers, crossed Erick’s.

But she is careful to be even-handed:

No one – not liberals, not conservatives – should forget that their opponents are human beings. And no one can afford to start down the road Lewis describes, in which you allow yourself to be disappointed when your opponents aren’t as bad as you first thought, or want them to be as bad as possible.

That’s where it pays to be the one liberal in three generations of an extended family – you learn. You got the memo.

But given what is happening in Iran, people will still hammer on Obama, like at the National Review, Peter Wehner:

How President Obama deals with this matter – whether he takes actions that show tangible support for the forces of liberation or whether he sits passively by as events unfold, nervous to offend cruel regimes – will tell us a lot about him and his core commitments.

Andrew Sullivan is exasperated:

Oh, yes, obviously Obama wants the uprising to fail. Jesus, these people are shameless.

No, they’re just in need of cartoon characters, a pathetic Neville Chamberlain, or John Wayne on a big horse declaiming Shakespeare, the “band of brothers” speech from Henry V. And Gary Kamiya covers it all in Salon. It’s the neoconservatives:

Although they have been figuratively stabbed, poisoned, shot, garroted and drowned, they somehow keep standing, still insisting that history will vindicate George W. Bush’s glorious crusade. In a world governed by the Victorian moral code conservatives claim to uphold, they would be shunned, shamed and forbidden to appear on television or write Op-Ed columns. But because Beltway decorum apparently requires that disgraced pundits be given a permanent platform to bray their discredited theories, the rest of us are condemned to listen to their ravings. …

Outraged that Obama has not behaved like their hero Bush and begun loudly rattling his saber, the neocons have denounced him as — you guessed it — an appeaser. In a piece titled “Obama’s Iran Abdication,” the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, that bastion of unreconstructed neocon lunacy, attacked Obama for not supporting the Iranian protesters more vigorously and derided his “now-familiar moral equivalence” in citing the 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh.

And he rolls on with example after example. It’s all at the link. But he’s most appalled by this piece in the Washington Post from Robert Kagan:

Titled “Obama, Siding With the Regime,” it argues that because Obama wants to begin negotiations with Iran as soon as possible and does not want to appear “hostile to the regime,” his “goal must be to deflate the opposition, not to encourage it.” In other words, Kagan is saying that Obama would prefer to rush into a deal with a repressive, anti-Western Iranian regime than do what he is in fact doing, which is to recognize that U.S. meddling is counterproductive and wait and see what government emerges from Iran’s current turmoil. That Kagan adduces no evidence for his bizarre assertion is hardly surprising, because there is none. Kagan’s real purpose is to smear Obama as a craven appeaser, and the only way he can do that is to paint a ludicrously crude caricature of Obama and the foreign-policy realism he has embraced.

And so it goes. We do the same thing with those on the right. In this case the neocons are “demanding righteous outrage, and claiming that Obama’s failure to deliver it is a sign of cowardice, moral relativism and even anti-Americanism.” Some, like Charles Krauthammer, say Obama is ambivalent about America – maybe he hates America, and hates us all. It’s a bit mad.

Andrew Sullivan says here that now “the first and absolute requirement of all Western governments” is not to recognize Ahmadinejad as president. And in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt finds that absurd:

I can understand the sentiments behind this view, and I hold no brief for Ahmadinejad or the clerics behind him. But how far is Sullivan willing to take this? Suppose the existing regime survives the current turmoil and remains in power – which is likely – and that Ahmadinejad winds up serving as president for another term despite what appears to be clear electoral chicanery? Are we to have no dealings at all with Iran, despite the many issues of contention between us and them?

Yep. You might want to think things through – life is not a cartoon. It was in the memo.

And on another matter, from the left, there’s Markos Moulitsas:

The Republican belief system, at its core, sanctifies the individual, elevating personal success and accomplishment over the well-being of society at large. It’s a selfish outlook, one proudly and openly hostile to empathy as a valid political value. One doesn’t have to look very far to see this hostility in action – witness the conservative talking points against the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Yet young voters, like most human beings, wholeheartedly embrace empathy.

He goes on to run the stats, and he’s right. But is he fair? Elsewhere he says this:

While Democrats see government as a way to improve people’s lives (acting on empathy for the less fortunate or entitled), Republicans saw government as the enemy and sought its destruction, leaving people to sink or swim on their own.

It wasn’t too long ago that, seeing their deficiencies on this front, that a presidential candidate named George W. Bush and his Svengali Karl Rove co-opted the concept of “compassionate conservatism.” They had correctly surmised that Republicans were seen as heartless, selfish, and unconcerned with the plight of the less fortunate. Understanding that winning as the part of entitlement and privilege would be tough, they set out to pain themselves as empathetic, or “compassionate” (same thing).

9-11 spared them the trouble of having to reprise that approach in 2004, when the election focused on scary terrorists under everyone’s beds. But it’s probably a safe assumption that without Bush’s adoption of the “compassionate” label, he probably would’ve never come close enough to Gore to have the Supreme Court select him president.

Now that the GOP is wildly out of sync with America on compassion, and losing the youth, women, and (ethnic and sexual) minority vote because of that value, their biggest hope would be to bring back the “compassion” thing and hope people fall for it again. Yet in a stroke of good luck for our side, Republicans seem to have universally concluded that Bush failed because of his attempts at “compassionate conservatism.”

Yep, one cartoon generates another:

The GOP’s “compassion gap” has put them in an electoral hole almost impossible to dig out without radically changing its core philosophy, yet the conservative base and intelligentsia blame ‘compassionate conservatism” for Bush’s failures, despite the fact that Bush likely got the White House in the first place because of his “compassionate conservative” campaign.

Expect former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to return from China (where he is now serving as Obama’s ambassador) wielding a variation of the “compassionate conservative” message for his 2016 presidential campaign. Whether Republican primary voters are ready to give electability another shot after eight years of Obama remains to be seen. I’d put my money on “no” – not when they blame compassion/empathy for the biggest presidential failure since Herbert Hoover.

Wait, wait, wait… was Hoover that bad? Maybe, see the just published Herbert Hoover from The American Presidents Series by William E. Leuchtenburg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz, and this excerpt:

Hoover’s policies toward distress – in the drought-stricken counties or across the nation – reflected an aversion to the omnipotent state and a belief in “local government responsibilities.” Even more important was the tradition of private giving, especially understandable in one raised within the Quaker tradition of philanthropy. Grants from Washington, he contended, would impair the character of recipients and would deny benefactors the opportunity to sacrifice. The poor could always count on their neighbors.

That sounds familiar, and it led to this:

By autumn 1930, cities were staggering under mounting unemployment, and the countryside was devastated. When the president of General Electric urged him to call a special session of Congress to “request it to issue a billion dollars of bonds to allay the tragic circumstances of unemployment,” he was incensed. Sometime later he received an accurate accounting of why federal relief was imperative: “Communities are impotent; state governments are shot through with politics…; local charities are jaded, discouraged, bankrupt, disorganized, discredited. Their task is too great. Their support is gone.”

Hoover could barely contain his response: “This nation did not grow great from feeding upon the malignant pessimist or calamity mongers or weeping men, and prosperity for all our people will not be restored by the voluble wailings of word-sobbers nor by any legislative legerdemain proposed by theorists.” He decided to abbreviate this note rather than give full throat to his fury.

It seemed everything had turned into a cartoon. That was deadly. It’s still deadly.

But note that Schlesinger and the others look at where Hoover was coming from – the Quaker thing, and person to person philanthropy. Hoover wasn’t a cartoon monster. But he was defensive and angry. No good comes of that, and here we are again. That Obama wants to break the cycle of cartoon anger is commendable, even if it may be impossible.

But it’s worth trying.

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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 Cartoon Politics, Common Decency, Demonizing Your Enemies, Obama and Empathy, Obama and Mutual Tolerance, Obama as the Grown-Up, Obama Respecting Republicans, Obama Win Changes How We Think. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Obama Memo

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Two little things:

    First, I’m surprised you didn’t connect Rush Limbaugh’s calling Chelsea Clinton the “family dog” to David Letterman’s jokes about the Sarah Palin daughters, in the news this week.

    I wasn’t crazy about finding myself siding with the Palin camp during all this, and was pleased to hear that Letterman had apologized, but once I saw it, I wasn’t quite satisfied. He seemed to be apologizing for his “misunderstanding” — he thought he was trashing the older daughter, not the younger one — when, in truth, he shouldn’t be making tasteless jokes about any children of candidates, since they have no say of their own as to whether or not they will be “celebrities.” Pick on Sarah, if you wish, especially her philosophy of child rearing and teaching “abstinence only,” but you should leave her kids alone.

    So if there is a difference between the old way and new way, it shouldn’t be that now it’s us picking on their kids instead of them picking on ours, it should probably be a whole new set of rules that proclaims that picking on an opponents’ kids is out of bounds.

    Second, there’s this business of “celebrating” the deaths of soldiers as a “victory”. Maybe instead of working so hard at “framing” an issue, we should just try to figure out what is going through the minds of the other guys.

    In this case, I think it’s true that there is a liberal tendency to try to drive home how senseless wars are by dwelling on the number of American soldiers who die in them, thinking that if the American public were only made more aware of these tragedies, it would work a bit harder at ending these wars.

    Conservatives, including many soldiers and their families, aren’t quite sure how to deal with this, but they do see all this publishing of lists of casualties and photos of flag-draped coffins as a liberal attempt to make a political point, and so they resist allowing it. They see the death of a soldier in battle as what sometimes unfortunately happens when brave people do what their country asks them to do. Soldiers presumably know what they are getting into, they know the risks and are willing to take them, and so just as doctors look for sick people to heal and firemen look for fires to extinguish, soldiers look for battles to fight. They see fighting on their country’s behalf as honorable, often feel it has little or nothing to do with their personal politics, and they resent someone politicizing everything they do.

    Liberals can’t seem to understand that, but I suppose if there really were no such thing as Red America or Blue America, they should try to — just as that right-wing pundicrat who accused liberals of “celebrating” every combat death as a victory would ratchet down his own hyperbole and try to understand that liberals don’t celebrate the death of American soldiers any more than he does.

    But what would be the fun of that?

    I think I have to disagree with Obama on this one. There really is an American left and American right, and maybe that’s just the way it should be.

    Rick

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