Archive for September, 2009

Farewell to the ‘godfather.’

September 19, 2009

Arts and Letters Daily, your daily nudge in the ideological ribs, today links to a bunch of fawning encomiums to the late Irving Kristol, dead Friday after a lifetime of boosting “neoconservatism,” a term he himself coined.

The best I can say of Mr. Kristol is that he wasn’t Norman Podhoretz (my vote for the single worst American “intellectual” of the last century, a man utterly without redeeming value), and that he wasn’t his odious son Bill Kristol, whose know-it-all smirk will probably continue to blight the cable news channels for decades to come. But to read these tributes — offset by not even one dissenting voice, unless the New York Times’s chatty, disinterested obit counts — you’d never guess that Kristol’s “ideas” had been utterly disastrous. Their consequences, virtually without exception, have led to ruin. These “ideas” were not based on “reality,” as well-meaning Andrew Sullivan puts it today; they were based on a cranky and misanthropic view of humankind and a barely-concealed adoration of state power.

There was one thing Kristol shared with his conservative offspring: tolerance for the most degraded populism. “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocably anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” That’s Kristol in 1952. Since the “spokesmen for American liberalism” presumably included the Truman administration, which had just dragged the United States into a horrific and bloody war in the name of preventing the spread of communism from one puny Asian nation to another, we are entitled to doubt Kristol’s sincerity. We can be excused, perhaps, for thinking him an opportunist and a liar.

Unlike, say, William F. Buckley, who never abandoned his lifelong suspicion of government power, Kristol only disliked an overweening state when it did something he didn’t like. In truth, Kristol and his neoconservatives never quit being “Trotskyites.” They continued to harbor contempt for the ignorant masses and call for the enforced return to the old Victorian virtues. Beneath the neoconservatives’ professed disdain for programs that might help ordinary people lay a barely concealed terror of what might happen to their own social status and specialness — their closeness to the crooks in power — were the ugly masses to ever rouse themselves and overthrow the ruling class, as the fundamental principles of the Republic itself dictated. That is why neoconservatives sided with the authoritarian Nixon administration over the mild-mannered McGovern campaign in 1972. What did Nixon’s attempt to wield dictatorial powers matter, when his opponent’s faction included gays and feminists?

Kristol was the quintessential American intellectual. He pretended to lionize the virtues of “ordinary people” while detesting everything about them. He complained about the overblown state while dining at the White House and accusing war opponents of hating America. He was a man who complained about liberals ignoring reality and then helped foist supply-side economics on the country, ruining the economy in the early ’80s and wrecking God only knows how many lives. As Newt Gingrich himself acknowledged today, Kristol’s true legacy was the malicious and hypocritical modern Right, which drowns itself in social issues (gay marriage, abortion rights, pornography) and applauds official spying while pretending to disdain government intervention into private life.

What remains of the conservative “movement”? Nothing save apologies for the Republican Party, which has done its best to uproot and obliterate political liberty and blight the hopes of ordinary people for three decades, replacing the Republic with a brutal Spartan state in which military triumph is the highest of all virtues and individual dissent “treason.” No wonder they called Kristol the “godfather.”

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The future is unwritten.

September 2, 2009

Should we measure a president by his cultural impact, or by his political decisions? Judging by the country’s reaction to Obama, we’ve decided on the former. The Right’s pseudo-populist assault on “Obamanomics,” despite some lone voices of principle, reeks of desperation. The New York Times’ current nonfiction Top Ten bestseller list includes no fewer than four right-wing attacks on Obama, but there’s something second-hand and shoddy about the bile-slinging — as with Reagan, most of the attacks bounce off the president’s smile. The crazy conviction with which the Right attacked Clinton (a conviction made all the crazier by Clinton’s gradual swerve to the right himself) isn’t here. If Obama weren’t trying to steerhead a change in the country’s health care policy even he admits is radical, these books would plummet to earth unread.

The Left, meanwhile, attacks Obama from the left — and the rest of the country meanders somewhere in the middle, still unwilling to feel too cynical toward the man. The magic of the election and the inauguration hasn’t quite lifted — above all, perhaps, of that night when Obama began: “It’s been a long time coming … but change has come to America.” Even those who didn’t recognize the allusion to Sam Cooke’s great 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” — a sermon of sorts that seems bolder and louder and more wrenching and joyful every time you hear it, so firm and unyielding that you can’t believe segregation lasted a second longer than its release date — felt the chill and grace of that moment. The much-lampooned word “change” itself, so empty and meaningless in political speeches for years, at last meant what it said. Every syllable hammered a nail into the coffin of the distant evil of the American past, the evil that still made its presence known when anonymous McCain supporters barked out “He’s an Arab!” (“Arab,” here, stood in for a term that no Obama-hater would have dared say in public.)

Already that moment seems strange and far away. Obama has proved himself every bit the “pragmatist” he campaigned as. Already it’s easy to be reminded of the hints — his tacit alliance with Boss Daley, his praise for Truman’s “sensible” foreign policy. We never should have expected Obama to be Russ Feingold — if we did, we allowed ourselves to be taken over by the wondrousness of the moment. I did that myself. The Obama who confessed that Malcolm X’s autobiography spoke more deeply to him than any other book and the Obama who complained about the “smallness of our politics” are the same person as the man who looks to each side during his speeches and then, slyly, indicates that he isn’t really in the club with either of those crazy extremes, even though he perfectly understands where they’re coming from, because after all, America is… And on, and on, and on, and on.

But if Obama is (probably) a deeply safe sort of politician, the response to him isn’t safe or predictable at all. He’s sent surges of political hope through the populace of a sort that haven’t been felt in a long time — not since the progressive era, perhaps. He’s ended a political regime whose daily message, delivered with cold relentlessness, was that some people didn’t belong in the country. That is not nothing.

Ever since the inauguration, with the painstaking scrutiny and unforgiving relentlessness of Tom Paine (who blasted George Washington himself as a tyrant), Glenn Greenwald has tracked Obama’s political achievements and betrayals with the assumption that none of this matters, that a president (like any politician) should be judged by his deeds alone. Reading him, I sometimes feel my skepticism slumping, something in me rebelling against this assumption. Surely this isn’t all Obama is, I’ll think — surely his good qualities add up to more than a prudent stance on Iran, a couple of good speeches here and there. But how does one measure a gut feeling? Does it have any real-world relevance at all?

Writing in Dissent, Charles Taylor damned Obama’s critics for failing to see the mystic aspect of the president, the side that no political critique could possibly touch:

Just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone. … Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.

This is an extremely seductive view — the view that critics are always missing something, some intangible thing that can’t be reached through regular channels, but only through the subjective lens of culture, of sex and race and everything and anything but politics. (Taylor, by the way, is the former movie critic for Salon who declared that anyone who couldn’t see the genius of Brian DePalma’s flop “Mission to Mars” was only parading his ignorance of the cinema.) It’s seductive and it’s dangerous, because it means suspending our disbelief to the point of childishness. If politics means the use of power, then “the visionary aspect of politics” is nothing more than boilerplate, apologist hooey. Rereading this passage, I’m inclined to think it is.

And yet.

I’d be lying if I said I was sure what Obama would look like three years from now. If he fails to pass health-care reform, the fallout throughout the country — the fury and despondency — would be shattering. If foreign crises come upon him unbidden, that could change the entire game — as it did for so many other presidents before him. So I won’t pretend I have any settled impression of him or an opinion that couldn’t change in a week. For the first time in decades, politics doesn’t seem hopeless — and that is not nothing.