The Value of Lacking Passion

Just down the street there’s that giant fiberglass frog. That’s Kermit the Frog on the roof of the old Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea, currently the home of The Jim Henson Company, as in the Muppets, as in Kermit the Frog. He’s up there on the roof, dressed as Charlie Chaplin of course.

Yep, it’s not easy being green. And that was Kermit’s song – ah, those problems with identity and the failure of individuality and shaky self-worth, and how it’s so sad no one will celebrate diversity. Ray Charles recorded a cover, and so did Frank Sinatra. Around 1970 Sesame Street was onto something – most people, even Frank Sinatra, feel they don’t fit in. And Chaplin based his career on that premise of course – Chaplin filmed “The Kid” (1921) and “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936) at those studios now sitting under that sometimes disconsolate frog. That corner of Hollywood is all about feeling everyone else is one way, and you’re not. Tap into that and you can make a lot of money.

But if it’s not easy being green it’s also not easy being Czech. No, really.

Here’s the deal. You see, even after a few generations in America we all retain more than a bit of our heritage. Italians are passionate, Brits are cool and ironic, Scandinavians are dour, and Lutherans of course, Germans absurdly efficient and precise, and Russians are always talking and talking and happy, and looking for an edge, and the Irish are sentimental and oddly proud of it. And everyone grows up in a family where there’s just a way one approaches things. No one teaches you that. Any child watches how the folks deal with life – flying into rage or effusive enthusiasm, or into steely resolve, or into sloppy sadness, or into snide irony – and the kid assumes that’s how it’s done. You fall into it.

And Czechs are the oddballs in the mix. Crises are met with skeptical detachment, not passion. Life is absurd and navigating it requires one not get caught up in obvious nonsense. So passion is out. And so is sentimentality. It’s best to go with playful but thoughtful skepticism, and not commit to impressive certainties, because certainties always have a way of coming back and biting you in the ass. If you’re ever in Prague visit Kafka’s apartment and think about that. And of course the most Czech of Czech novels is the one from Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being – and the title says it all. Mix that French existential stuff – life is tragically absurd and one must battle heroically to create one’s own concept of meaning in dark emptiness – with a bit of classic happy Humanism from Erasmus – and tell that dead-certain Nietzsche guy to go fly a kite – and you get the idea. Don’t get all excited. Do your best. Enjoy the ride. Watch the Ivan Passer film Intimate Lighting – that captures it nicely.

Of course this makes the current political situation in difficult for those of us who are Czech-Americans, even second or third generation Czech-Americans. Everyone, more than ever before, is peddling big, impressive certainties – Obama is a socialist-fascist-communist-Nazi would-be dictator, and illegitimate, because he must have been born elsewhere, or the right has become a bunch of unhinged crazies who want to get rid of government itself, and blacks and Hispanics and gays if they can, and let Jesus rule – and thus Obama can do no good, or he can do no wrong, given those who oppose him are bat-shit crazy. But above all else he’s too cool. Yeah, he does sensible things, almost all the time, but he should show more passion, damn it. And some of us, the Czech-Americans, find all this beyond puzzling. That’s not how things are done. That’s not how we were raised.

Joan Walsh gets into this a bit in an item at – Does Obama feel the Gulf’s pain?

What kind of question is that? Here’s the problem:

I’ve been struggling to understand the rage at President Obama about his handling of the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf. I just haven’t felt it. I don’t see what more he can do, or could have done, to stop the continued oil leak or clean up the spill. So the anger, on right and left, seems strictly political, designed to benefit either one party – Republicans – or one particular point of view. From the left, it’s that Obama is too cozy with corporate interests. And from Democrats in the region, like James Carville or Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, it’s that the president hasn’t made this his highest priority in the last 39 days. If I lived there, I might well share that feeling. That doesn’t mean it’s justified.

We’re certainly not seeing any playful but thoughtful skepticism. We see people wanting him to be Italian or something:

From cable television, 24/7, we’re told that even if there’s nothing more Obama and his administration could do to stop the leak and contain the damage, he’s at fault because he’s just not feeling our pain. On MSNBC Friday morning I watched former Rep. David Bonior, last seen peddling John Edwards to Democrats, complain about Obama’s cool. “He’s got to get emotional,” the Democrat (who was there to balance the anti-Obama ranting of Pat Buchanan) insisted.

He’s got to get emotional? The Czechs got rid of the Soviets by refusing to get emotional. They got sly and ironically subversive – their first post-communist president was Vaclav Havel, who had been a playwright specializing in subtle symbolic satire, and a good friend of Frank Zappa. There was no outraged ranting, just clever and often hidden chipping away at the old system – because getting emotional doesn’t get things done. Over here it never worked for the ant-war left, for all the massive demonstrations, and it’s not exactly working well now for Glenn Beck, as his almost daily tears on Fox News are starting to embarrass even those who buy into each and every one of his conspiracy theories. Emotion doesn’t get things done. Getting things done gets things done.

But Walsh points out that this doesn’t seem to matter these days:

So Obama traveled to the Gulf today, to examine damaged beaches and wetlands, reassure the region, and emote a little. “I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone,” the president told Gulf residents. “You will not be abandoned. You will not be left behind.”

She asks if this will be enough to stop the carping. And she knows the answer:

Probably not. We’re a silly people sometimes.

Let me amend that: Our Beltway opinion makers, the folks the great Digby named “the Villagers,” are a silly people. They want our president to be our daddy. They need Daddy to emote, to be a SNAP – a sensitive new age president. But also an angry, avenging daddy.

Some of us, a very few of course, just want him to be a little more Czech. But he’s not, of course.

Walsh goes on to discuss how the criticism from the right isn’t surprising, and it isn’t particularly hard to refute:

The loopy Peggy Noonan wrote one of her loopiest columns of all time today, predicting that the oil spill will mark the end of Obama’s presidency. But she loses her train of thought almost immediately. Americans aren’t angriest about the oil spill, but about government spending and the government “gushing dollars,” a tone-deaf metaphor while the Deepwater Horizon is still gushing oil. Noonan never really tells us exactly how the spill dooms Obama’s presidency; she’s hoping we’ll be too caught up in her gauzy, fact-free prose to ask.

Now that was an interesting column heralding nothing less than the end of the Obama presidency just a year and a half – “The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration…”

Andrew Sullivan is amused:

Seriously? Her evidence for this? She claims the Democrats don’t love him. The latest poll of polls shows over 80 percent support. She claims that he is “weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support.” Really? With unemployment at near record highs after a deep recession, Obama’s approval ratings are stuck just below 50 percent – and have been remarkably stable for months. At this point in his presidency, Obama is about five points more popular than Reagan, who was poised to drop to 37 percent approval by January of 1983. Clinton was lower than Obama in June 1994. In today’s polarized climate and awful economy, Obama is remarkably resilient. He has a favorable rating over 52 percent, and his unfavorable rating is at a six month low of 39 percent. This is Obama’s political end?

But Sullivan is an excitable fellow:

The premise of Noonan’s moronic column is that the federal government, especially the president, should be capable of ending an oil-pipe rupture owned and operated by private companies, using technology that only deep-sea oil companies deploy or understand. And if such a technical issue is not resolved by government immediately, it reveals paralyzing presidential weakness and the failure of an entire branch of political philosophy. Again: seriously? It’s Obama’s fault that under Bush and Cheney, government regulation of oil exploration was so poor and corrupt, corner-cutting appears to have been routine? And this, Peggy, is what governments do, even when run by crazy-ass liberals. Governments do not dig for oil; they merely regulate those who dig for oil. That the government failed to do so under the previous administration does not seem to me to be proof that this administration has failed.

And then Sullivan really gets on a roll:

For Noonan, the American public is concerned only with spending, illegal immigration and the federal government’s inability to stop an oil leak. For Noonan, the steepest downturn since the 1930s never happened. For Noonan, the flaws of the healthcare system – like, er, millions have none – do not exist. For Noonan, the massive debt – almost all of which Obama either inherited or built in the emergency attempt to stabilize a global economy heading into an abyss – is evidence that government does not work and that Obama is incompetent. For Noonan, actual difficult practical tasks most adults understand are complex to grapple with – how to prevent a Second Great Depression, how to police thousands of miles of border, how to stop an oil leak deep in the ocean floor – are easy. Just do it. Or be labeled incompetent and doomed.

Well, that is what she said. And Walsh did say we are a silly people. But Sullivan wishes we were not:

This is utterly unrelated to the reality I have witnessed these past two years, or the slow catastrophe of misgovernment that really did unfold in the last ten. Maybe that says as much about my cocoon as Noonan’s. But I doubt it. What I have also learned these past few years is that the right seeks merely a narrative to lead themselves out of the hole they dug for all of us, reality be damned. The job of the rest of us is to insist that reality matters and that these fools be exposed.

And Daniel Larison is on the same page as Sullivan:

If a President does not actively “take charge” and is not seen as “doing something,” he is ridiculed as weak and ineffective, when according to any vision of a less activist, less interventionist, less intrusive government the President would not involve himself closely in most events similar to this oil spill.

It is a bit more absurd in the conservatives’ case. They are horrified by the tyranny of the individual mandate, but most otherwise seem content to demand the firm smack of a strong executive and the protections of an omnicompetent managerial state.

Having mocked Obama’s more enthusiastic supporters for wanting him to be a savior of sorts, some Republicans seem genuinely annoyed that he has not been able to work miracles.

Yes, it makes no sense. And if emotion doesn’t get things done, it also doesn’t help you think more clearly. But Noonan is almost weeping herself – she wants things to be different, and says everyone wants things to be different, and that’s what matters. How would they be different if she had her way? That doesn’t seem to be something she chooses to deal with. It’s the emotion that matters. And she’s not even Italian – she’s just sensitive, all aquiver. In a Kundera novel she’d be a comic figure, treated sympathetically, but a minor figure, because such folks are a bit useless.

But that’s the right. It happens. But Walsh claims there’s a somewhat parallel problem on the other side:

The complaints from the left are a little harder to refute, but even there I see a frenzy to lay blame I don’t entirely understand. Obama compromised his ability to stay untainted by the oil spill when he flip-flopped and endorsed opening up new areas to offshore oil drilling. Now he’s not merely cleaning up the mess of the oil-friendly Bush-Cheney administration, but a mess that’s a byproduct of drilling policies he supports. It’s also inaccurate to blame the corruption of the Minerals Management Administration on Bush-Cheney appointees; Elizabeth Birnbaum, the leader who walked the plank Thursday, was appointed by his administration 11 months ago, and the corruption of the agency has been well-known for years. There’s no evidence the Obama White House acted with any urgency to clean it up.

So I see reasons to lament Obama’s change of policy on offshore drilling. But the current frenzy feels like piling on. I watched my friends Ed Schultz and the Huffington Post’s Roy Sekoff go nuts on MSNBC Thursday, lumping together disappointments on healthcare reform and Wall Street with the president’s actions in the Gulf. I don’t see the comparison.

And she recommends Joe Romm of Climate Progress writing in Salon that there’s really nothing more Obama can do to stop the spill. Her summary:

Calls for the military to take control ignore that the military has no expertise in handling this kind of catastrophe. Building floating barriers to protect the Louisiana coast and wetlands from contamination won’t necessarily work – or it will work by dispersing the spill to the coasts of other states. Romm argues that the only opening for Obama is to use the crisis to make the case for a climate change bill that eases our reliance on fossil fuels – but that won’t clean up this mess in the Gulf.

There’s no quick fix, or actually no fix. It’s like something from Kafka – waking up to find you’re a cockroach or something like that. But think of Kundera and Havel. Forget the big important certainties. Don’t get all excited. Do your best.

But Walsh notes people will take the easy way out:

The real problem, for left, right and the media, is that it’s easier to blame the White House and to criticize Obama’s demeanor than to report on BP’s role in the mess – the corner-cutting on safety in the lead-up to the Deepwater Horizon accident, and the company’s woeful lack of preparedness for such a disaster. Of course, some media outlets have done great work: CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which showed that BP and rig-owner Transocean ignored evidence that the blowout preventer was itself blown out, when technicians found chunks of rubber from its sealant in drilling mud; this week, the New York Times’ revelation that BP used the riskier of two choices to seal the well before the blast; just today, the Wall Street Journal, on the lack of preparedness by BP and for a crisis of this magnitude. But they’re the exception.

Of course they’re the exception. People are passionate. And there are far too few Czechs in the world. But of course there is that question. Aren’t you outraged?

But some of us have an answer to that. Yep, I was, but I thought better of it. It seemed better to fix the problem. And for some of us passion is a private thing, and not political. And oddly enough, we’re beginning to think the Birthers may be onto something, and Obama may not be an American after all. Damn, he could be secretly Czech. Cool.

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 Crazies on the Right, Gulf Oil Spill, Obama Calm and Steady, Obama Too Cool, Obama's Katrina, Passion in Politics, The Czech Attitude and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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