Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Audacity of My Hope for America (part 1)

"Human Greatness" is an unusual energy coupled with straightness, the direct shooting mind, it is incompatible with a man's lying to himself, it does not indulge in petty pretences.

Ezra Pound (GK, p. 106)

Pound had Mussolini. Norman Mailer had JFK. We, I, have Barack Obama.

I first began to like Obama when watching him handle himself in confrontations with Hillary Clinton, whether in real-time debates or in his responses to journalists about her most recent attack. He has a way of accepting the facts (where they are not obviously skewed) and taking a position on the real point of contention. Also, like Pound's Mussolini (which is to say, a larger than life statue of the man), Obama seems to display a "swiftness of mind ... in the speed with which his real emotion is shown on his face" (GK, p. 105).

So I was eagerly looking forward to reading his book, The Audacity of Hope. Now, my eagerness here was obviously tempered with the certainty that I would be largely disappointed. Mailer, let us remember, would be "forced" to admit that, by ordinary standards, Kennedy did not write well (imagine Pound having to comment on Mussolini's poetry!). But there is still better and worse writing, and I think Mailer offers us a good model for an analysis of The Audacity of Hope in his review of Lyndon Johnson's My Hope for America.

Of course, a book written by a high official must not be judged by average standards, or one would be forced to say, for example, that Jack Kennedy was not a very good writer and that Bobby Kennedy, at last reading, wrote a dead stick's prose—his style almost as bad as J. Edgar Hoover's. But even at its worst, the prose style of Jack Kennedy (and his ghost writers) is to the prose of L.B.J. (and his ghost writers) as de Tocqueville is to Ayn Rand. It is even not impossible that My Hope for America is the worst book ever written by any political leader anywhere. (Cannibals and Christians, p. 48)

Now, even Obama's title is better than Johnson's. And its source, the Rev. Wright, is of course much more interesting. It should remind us that part of Mailer's hope for Kennedy was that he could "play fair" with Castro. In his open letter to JFK, Mailer articulated the theme of the "imperfect union", let's say, that is the United States. This was in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs.

You are in trouble. Your best troops now fear that you are not deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. And if you are not, the country will deaden a little more, even as it increases in its fevers, and the imagination of the best will will begin to harden into the separate undergrounds of a New left and a new Right, ready to war against the oppressive, flatulent, and totalitarian center of our beleaguered land.

Do not hold to that center, Jack, it is the pusillanimous sludge of liberal and conservative bankruptcies, a pus of old jargons which will whip into no militant history, but may be analyzed eventually by the chemists as the ingredient which smudges the ink on such mothers of the center as the N.Y. Post. (The Presidential Papers, p. 78)

Of course, Obama has not yet been in a position to screw up the invasion of a country whose music he did not understand (Mailer's analysis of the Bay of Pigs). So we can use this warning as an audacious expression of our hope for Obama, namely, that he is deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. The next president of the United States will, arguably, either be that deep or destroy us (at least the vital parts of us). If Obama succeeds, he will have to defeat the "totalitarian center" of US politics. (Interestingly, McCain offers more hope in this regard than Clinton.)

I generally like Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech. I think he manages to avoid the worst pitfalls in his "condemnation" of the Rev. Wright's opinion of America, which, like many European, left-leaning, intellectual types, I find much less objectionable than his American critics. I was disappointed, around eight minutes into the speech, to hear Obama say that "the problems of the Middle East ... emanate from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." That's a pretty simpleminded thing to say. It's the sort of thing a presidential candidate arguably "has to say", so we can forgive it in its way. But Obama's appeal to me has so far been his ability to avoid saying what a candidate has to say. And even this he seems to acknowledge when he talks about "a candidacy as imperfect as mine".

After 9/11, Le Monde famously declared that "We are all Americans". Indeed, in the years that followed we all got our versions of the Patriot Act and of "home grown terror cells". Even before 9/11, I was arguing among my friends that we should give up the European Union and subscribe directly to the US Constitution, that Denmark should become just another state in the union. That would, for example, allow us to vote on who should become the Leader of the Free World. That is the audacity of my hope for America.

If Obama is not elected, my hopes will be diminished. I am going to spend a few posts on this topic.

8 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

On p. 223, he argues against gay marriage.

He is also against the Sermon on the Mount as a political reality.

I like what Obama said against radical Islam, which seems to me to be right on the money.

If only he would see that Reverend Wright is what's wrong with African America, too. It's the hate.

You have to build resources from within, and to do this, you have to build the idea of restraint, and care, from generation to generation to generation.

But I think the main difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats don't trust their own families to be a source of support so they turn to the government. Republicans do trust their own families.

Centrists like me want local government to be democratic, but national government to lean Republican.

We want the taxes down, but we still want benefits. I'm just one generation off the farm, and my sympathy is with the rural poor.

However, most of my actual friends are outright communists. I've borken ranks, but only intellectually.

Thomas Basbøll said...

My hope for Obama lies not in his positions but in his relations. It is not his position on the Rev. Wright, but his relation to the Rev. Wright, that he manages to keep interesting.

I think part of what I wanted to say here is that Obama is going to be predictably disappointing in many of his positions ... and as predictably "on the money" in the eyes of others, course.

What makes him different, and gives me hope, lies in the relations he is able to establish between the available positions. So, for example, p. 223 is not the worst page in the book.

Kirby Olson said...

What has Obama (or any of the top 3) said about Mugabe or Tibet -- the two most pressing situations of our time?

Nancy Pelosi did speak up in favor of Tibet.

But why hasn't she said anything about Zimbabwe, or has she? The depressing theft of yet another election, while the racial situation for the white farmers -- already having been dispossessed of some 4700 farms and only some 300 left, is horrifying.

I wonder if Obama will only choose politically correct situations to exploit.

Did he speak up about the lacrosse incident at Duke University?

I don't think we should try to have a relationship with a white knight in politics. Politics is ineluctably dirty and real, and you have to get your nose in their deep and smell the poop in order to be even slightly realistic about it.

People are just plain wicked, and politics brings out the very worst in people. Evil squared.

I don't think political saints exist. But then, I don't think that saints exist, either.

Jesus did, but he's the only one that I accept.

Everyone else who comes down the road isn't Jesus, but is some kind of preposterous imposter.

But you've gotten me interested in reading Obama's book more fully. One place where I agree with you: the man is quite intelligent.

McCain doesn't have quite as much upstairs but he has something else: he has a kind of gut instinct, and he has guts. I doubt if Obama really has any gut instinct, or any true grit. I can't imagine him holding up in Vietcong prison for five years.

(Not that I could, either -- I'd be gone in half a day.)

Thomas Basbøll said...

It would be interesting to tell the story of some US state or county (or whatever the comparable unit of analysis might be), in, say, the mid eighties in the midwest, in which 4700 hundred privately run farms were "rationalized" into 300 corporate, industrial "facilities".

I think your "no political hero worship" line is generally right. That's (ironically) more or less what I mean by the Obama, Kennedy, Mussolini line. Still, it's there. One respects Mailer's hero worship. The more one looks into the history, one understands the audacity of Pound's hope for Italy. So one begins to take Obama seriously. As one's hope for America.

At this distance. One can indulge.

Kirby Olson said...

Obamania is a huge and thriving concern in the US. I think this can quickly turn into demagoguery, and it makes me queasy. But enjoy it, I guess.

JFK was a mess. Mussolini was a horror show.

We have to temper hope with realism, I think.

In Germany, a lot of people hero-worshipped the moustache for about a decade there in the 30s. Somehow we do look for a savior, I suppose, and some look for it even within the political realm.

I find that dangerous, but somehow still human.

You at least seem to have a sense of humor about it.

I have about as much hope for Obama as I would have for Mugabe or for Papa Doc Duvalier or for the leadership of China. There is a complete disconnect between words and life, much as there was in deconstructionist circles at a certain time.

I have a little more faith in those who aren't very good with words: W., and McCain, and even Hillary to a great extent.

Hillary just isn't smooth. I truth that to a certain extent. She also is responsible for helping higher education in a much bigger way than Obama (Obama is 55th in the Senate in support of higher education, whereas Hillary is 5th).

Hope is a funny thing. What is it exactly?

Kirby Olson said...

Have you heard his latest gaffe. He says that white rural people are bitter because of jobs disappearing so they cling to guns and religion and hatred.

He thought he was talking in a protected environment in San Francisco, but now commenters on every channel are saying that he's cooked his goose.

Oddly, I am now starting to like him. Not because of what he said, but because everybody hates him now.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for drawing this to my attention. (I don't follow the news as it happens.) It looks like a good example of Obama doing what he's so good at. First of all, it's completely inappropriate of the media to make anything of this. Looking at the transcript he's obviously talking to people in a closed forum, very informally. Any number of things, taken out of context, could be embarrassing.

And that's the question. What does putting "they're bitter and they turn to guns and religion" back into its context do to our interpretation of those on the face of it ill-considered words?

Here's the relevant passage:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

“I’m a southern boy myself,” Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders tells CNN. “I don’t have a gun because I’m bitter, it’s because I’ve always had one. I don’t pray to God because I’m bitter. I pray to God because it makes my life better.”

But that's a non-sequitor with spin on it. Obama is offering a menu of reactions to real frustration not bitterness. Bitterness is one option. Clinging to religion or a gun are other options. As are a number of "sentimental" responses. Obama is not reducing rural Americans to bitter, gun-toting religious fanatics. He's describing them as a varied bunch. Some get bitter. Some get a gun. Some get God. Some get racist sentiment. Etc.

Nothing in what Obama said calls for Saunders corrective. Obama obviously did not say that all the guns and godliness in rural America is based in bitterness.

Right, this may become a post tomorrow.

What I like about Obama's response to this is his insistence on the truth of the idea he was presenting.

Kirby Olson said...

Oh, alost everybody else has backed off this and Obama's ratings have been nudged down.

But you like it? That's interesting, and will make an interesting post.

McCain, and Hillary, both hammered him for it.

And ALL of the news channels have been shooting flak at him for 48 hours. Even CNN and MSNBC and those with usually very liberal commentators and the normal television news stations such as ABC and NBC.

And the line being drawn is back to Rev. Wright, and to Michelle Obama's statement that she is finally proud of America for something.

The idea is that Obama lives in a separate world inhabited by the elite that attended schools like Harvard, and believe that all the answers are easy ones.

"All you need is love," type of answers, is what he is now being accused of giving to the embittered middle and lower middles.

Today it seems that almost nothing that the candidates say -- even int heir sleep, even in their dreams, will not go unreported. Everything is fair game.

It would be interesting to know the content of their dreams. In dreams begin responsibility, someone could natter.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see what you do with this new tidbit.

I still think he will win the Democratic nomination. But I believe he should choose Ward Churchill as his running mate. Wouldn't that make for an amazing race? Barack and Ward versus John and Condoleeza.