Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Audacity of Unsentimentality

Still, Lyndon Johnson must be given a vote. Because My Hope for America contains one good sentence, one more than Barry Goldwater could claim. This sentence reads: "...the wall between the rich and poor is a wall of glass through which all can see." It inspires a corollary whch is almost as good—the space between hypocrisy and honest manner may not forever insulate the powerful from the poor.

Norman Mailer

Kirby's keeping me abreast of developments on the campaign trail. It seems Barack Obama has said something that could be taken out of context. And taken out of context it was. And off we go.

Let's begin with the spin. "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.” The implication is pretty straightforward: Obama has said that rural southerners pray to God and own guns because they're bitter. But is that actually what he said? Of course not. He said:

...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 said in my last post that Obama's strength is not to deny facts; in this case he does not even deny interpretations. His damage control on this includes an insistence that he meant the first three words of what I just quoted. According to Obama, this is the truth. And it remains the truth even as the affair hits the news.

Obama's crime here is to be unsentimental about poverty. Poverty sucks. It humiliates people and makes them less human. It is not saying it that is humiliating (especially not within the four walls that Obama was saying it); it is the actual 25 years without real opportunity. It makes people bitter. It brings them low. Makes them mean. Turns them into brutes. For a left-leaning liberal (i.e., a democrat), that's the goddam reason to get rid of poverty! Obama is saying that you're not going to get rid of poverty in America unless you do something about the forces that create poverty.

He was explaining to his supporters what he also talks about in his book (page 249-259). He was trying to get them to understand the complexity of the situation. Consider this similar passage in The Audacity of Hope. He is has just described what the hard work and determination of one man, Mac Alexander, has done for Chicago's West Side.

But travel a few blocks further in any direction and you will also experience a different side of Mac's world: the throngs of young men on corners castings furtive glances up and down the street; the sound of sirens blending with the periodic thump of car stereos turned up full blast; the dark, boarded-up buildings and hastily scrawled gang signs; the rubbish everywhere, swirling in winter winds. Recently, the Chicago Police Department installed permanent cameras and flashing lights atop the lampposts of Madison [Street], bathing each block in a perpetual blue glow. The folks who live along Madison didn't complain; flashing blue lights are a familiar enough sight. They're just one more reminder of what everybody knows—that the community's immune system has broken down almost entirely, weakened by drugs and gunfire and despair; that despite the best efforts of folks like Mac, a virus has taken hold, and a people is wasting away.

Okay, the "rubbish swirling in winter winds" is not a great image, and not a little sentimental, but here's my point: Is there anything offensive about this description of urban poverty? Would an urban version of 'Mudcat' Saunders say, "Hey, I'm from the West Side! I'm not wasting away in despair!"? Would that be anything like a critique of what Obama is saying? Of course not.

Obama is not saying that people who believe in guns or always keep God at their side are forced to do so by poverty, despair, and bitterness. What he is saying is that if one approaches poverty without a good sense of its social, structural causes (perhaps because one has given up all hope that social structures will change after 25 years of joblessness), then one may become bitter, and in that bitterness one's faith in God, one's insistence on holding a gun, one's conviction that another faith or another race is to blame, is a mere sentiment. It will not change things.

"Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment," said Mailer in his review of LBJ's My Hope for America. I don't want to say that The Audacity of Hope doesn't have a single a sentimental page. A book written by a man who wants to be president must cover so much ground that he is bound to express an emotion every now and then that he does not really feel. But I am generally impressed with his honest manner, with his lack of hypocrisy. And he is not, in particular, sentimental about the poor. He is outraged.


Kirby Olson said...

Last night in his debate with Hillary he said that he would cut poverty in half within ten years.

Why only half? Why won't he eradicate it from the face of the earth?

Why not by a third, or by two-thirds?

If it were me, I'd say that I would cut it by exactly three-sevenths.

Jesus never promised to eradicate poverty. He said, "The poor shall always be with us."

But at least Barack will cut it by half. That's better than doubling it, or tripling it, or adding to it infinitesimally.

He has talked a lot about reparations. Perhaps that's one way he's going to swing this budget ax into the meaty ogre of poverty.

I have an aesthetic concern. The Little Match Seller will no longer have a clear referent. In Denmark, in fact, there is no longer such a reference, is there? At least in Finland there are no people at all who live on the street. Everyone has a home.

The Little Match Seller is as historical in such places as the wolves that once walked through Paris.

Kirby Olson said...

In Chicago however you do see street people. But Barack is only going to help half of them, or is he going to take the poverty of each citizen and cut it in half, so that they are only half as poor, and only half as crazy, to boot?

Poverty makes you crazy, and craziness can also make you poor.

So he's also going to make the poor only half crazy?

Thomas Basbøll said...

There are important differences between Jesus and Obama.

I think "I would eradicate poverty from the face of the earth" is, well, kind of sentimental. It is bombast. Nobody believes they could do.

Jesus, in his way, was also not sentimental about the poor. Obama would cut poverty in half in over ten years. Jesus would wait forever and let the meek inherit the earth.

Different perspectives. Different horizons. The dreams of different fathers, if you will.

Notice something important about Obama's statement: ten years is longer than a two-term presidency. That is, he would implement structural changes. He would change the direction of policy on poverty.

He understands the problem. I don't believe he will work miracles. But during his term in office, well, it will be easier to talk practically about how to reduce povery ... also in the rest of the world.

Kirby Olson said...

I wonder if he's feel comfortable with homeless people in his house while he's traveling for the presidential gig. He's not using his house right now.

Let Goldilocks use it.

I think part of my reason for being against Obama is that I fell for the left ticket when I was a kid. Ginsberg turned out to belong to NAMBLA, the yippies were borderline personalities, Marxism came to a thunderous crash in 1989 after 60 years of destroying whole societies (the massacre of the Tibetan people during the Cultural Revolution), and so on.

I just don't believe anything that Obama says.

But i do believe in unsentimentality. Right there, we have a common term. I like it.

Kirby Olson said...

There's been some discoveries concerning Obama's dad. In Kenya he was apparently a parallel to Zimbabwe's Mugabe. He wanted to dispossess the whites and Asians of Kenya in order to increase the holdings of the blacks. Now people are making a link between the title "My Father's Dreams," and whatever it is that Obama has up his sleeve.

I think I would like best a president who promised to do as little as possible. Too many of the candidates have gigantic dreams, which translates into ego. He did this! Some pyramid or another they want to build for themselves with taxpayer's money.

I'd prefer a president who just played checkers with the nieces and tried to keep Al Qaeda from blowing us up. I'd like a quiet retreat from Iraq while trying to continue to help them rebuild their own institutions.

I'd like some potholes filled, and perhaps a few speed bumps put in.

Otherwise, cool it with all the megalomania, is what I'd like to say to the candidates. You can't remake America in four years. Please don't try to do that. Try to do as little as possible while drinking pink lemonade and playing checkers with your nieces.

If I was to run for president, I would promise to do absolutely nothing.

Kirby Olson said...

Hillary's leading by about 5 points going into Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. It's widely thought that Hillary won the last debate. Obama whined that Hillary had stuck it to him using the gaffe that was reported by an Obamanite after the SF talk concerning his low opinion of the rural white voters in places like Altoona who are embittered hunters who cling to their religions and hate immigrants. He was suggesting himself as an alternative.

Clinton emphasized that she actually believed in God, and wasn't embittered about it, and that hunting to her seemed like a fine thing to do.

However, bloggers brought up that Clinton years ago was talking about the rural white poor of the south and said to Bill, who was concerned they wouldn't vote for him, Screw'em Bill, they won't vote for you no matter what.

But she needs every last vote this time around if she's going to make her miraculous comeback and steal Christmas from Obama like some sort of Grinch, disappointing the people of color all over the world.

Kirby Olson said...

The vote today may decide something.

Kirby Olson said...

When I read his autobiography if that's what it is, I thought it should be retitled, "The Audacity of Vagueness." He shyly makes a relatively clear principle and then quickly backs off, and makes it more and more unclear, erasing it, as it were, until you can't figure out what the f. he's saying.

Tolerance for anything that will help him get elected, so his wife can be proud of him.

What a weird race this is.

The Audacity of Vagueness versus It Takes a Village of Vagueness, versus the Bald Guy from Arizona who is running on having been tortured in Vietnam.

At least McCain has said he won't cut and run in Iraq.

And he's tied that to human rights world wide.

At least it's one clear principle.

I can't find any principles any longer among the Democrats. Nothing at all is clearly stated.

It's like they have an aversion to stating cleanly what the f. they think about anything at all.

The thing is, I've always been a Democrat, and would probably vote if someone sensible like Gore was at the top of the ticket (I voted for him last time, although I think Lomborg is probably far more accurate), at least Gore has a few notions up his sleeve that seem to him to be true enough to make a film about, even if it is full of lies.

The Democratic top contenders since Kerry have just been pretenders of something called toleration, which I can't really visualize. Does it mean tolerance for the continuing torture of Tibet? Does it mean toleration for the torture of not knowing what the heck they're talking about, and toleration for Kerry's triple-negatives and passive constructions, and his wife's bizarre hair?

I can't tolerate the lack of specificity, I must say.

As you read his book, The Audacity of Vagueness, notice how he makes a kind of principle. For instance, he says he thinks the Sermon on the Mount doesn't make good military policy. Well, well. Clear enough. But then what does? He doesn't say.

He says he's against gay marriage, but then he says, but maybe I'm wrong.

He says he's against the Iraq war, but then says, I will have to listen to the generals.

He never really quite says anything at all.

Please notice this, and think about why it might drive me bats. I mean, in terms of echolocation, I can't find any there there.

There, there, his interlocutor responded.

Even in terms of Tibet Obama waited until last in order to quietly say something, but if you think about it, even when he did say something, you have no idea what the f. he means. Never.

It's just this vague word: Hope.

Which is about as vague as you can get. Perhaps it's a Rorschach. Fill it in with whatever the f. you hope for, dude.

It might work in terms of hoodwinking the people into voting for him, but I think he's just a slyboots without a plan who's trying to make his wife proud of him, since she was never proud of him for anything he's ever done before this. She must be a kind of Lady MacBeth.

But I don't know. After two years of him running, I have no sense of him, or of anything he believes in. He claims he didn't buy his pastor's thought. He claims he doesn't buy into Marxism or liberation theology.

I don't know what he means by anything. If anything, he's even more vague than Kerry.

The audacity, indeed!