Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Scattered thoughts on the election

I've spent months deferring writing anything about Barack Obama and the presidential campaigns. I've been short of time, yes, but the truth is that it would be all too easy to write a long post detailing all the problems with Barack Obama and why I'm wary of the excitement others have for him and why I don't think he offers what this country needs at this time (which, frankly, is drastic change, decades late, in the form of some kind of bottom-up non-capitalist socialism or communism; see, incidentally, this mostly excellent video lecture explaining the economic crisis, from Professor Richard Wolff of Amherst, in which he proposes just that. Link via the new blog Marx and the Financial Crisis of 2008 (thanks to Infinite Thought for pointing to this blog), video first seen at Lenin's Tomb).

But, sadly, it's pretty clear that Obama is just about the best that the two-party system can plausibly come up with for a Presidential nomination. He's a vastly better candidate than either Gore or Kerry were (which is not to say that he is substantially different from them). And people are genuinely excited about him, which is something. Excitement is not something to be dismissed lightly, though, again, I'm wary that people expect things of him that he's not prepared to even attempt to deliver. (I remember being excited about Bill Clinton, it saddens me to admit.) Regardless, it remains mind-boggling that, for example, anyone could view any of the debates between Obama and McCain and conclude that McCain is worth supporting or voting for.

(By the way, the morning after the final debate, I was making just this observation to one of my bus-riding companions--that I have numerous problems with Obama, but find McCain repellent in every way, utterly and always devoid of integrity, incoherent, and so on, and inconceivable that anyone could have watched the debate and decided that McCain was their man--when another rider interrupted and wanted to know what I didn't like about Obama. I started off with his odious foreign policy, that he's a serious hawk whose version of "leaving Iraq" doesn't look much like leaving, etc . . .I didn't get very far, because he interrupted again and asked if I thought the United States should just pull its troops out of Iraq. Yes, in fact, I said. No, he countered, and said further that the United States must stay in Iraq because the major conflict in the world today is between the Christian world and the Muslim world and the U.S. is needed to stop terrorism and has been spreading democracy in the region, witness this or that election, etc. etc., blah blah blah . . . I didn't know what to say. I could have had a conversation with someone arguing that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq, as wrong as they'd be, but I wasn't expecting this kind of argument--I didn't know that normal people spouted reductive versions of Samuel Huntington's stupid, racist, discredited "clash of civilizations" thesis. What can you say to that? I can talk to people with whom I disagree, but some positions are so wrong that I often simply don't know where to begin and I either say nothing or try to say too much in too short a period of time, which only contributes to the trivialization of discourse. Is it my job, on a ten-minute bus-ride, to hold court on recent geo-political history? It is not. I held my own as best I could, but have to admit that I did indeed sputter incoherence at least once.)

(Regarding that last debate, I will say that I learned one good thing from McCain. It was news to me that Joe Biden had voted against the first Gulf War. Good for him! For McCain this was just one time among many when Biden was wrong about foreign policy, it being naturally one of the few times he was actually right.)

Anyway, though Obama is the best the two parties can come up with, he remains a center-right figure of limited vision. But he nevertheless pays lip service to worthy values, and it is these values that matter to his supporters. And it is this, along with the ongoing lunacy of the Republican Party, that makes his candidacy worth supporting. Steven Shaviro made an excellent argument along these lines in two posts from September. In the first one, he writes:
no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are [...] — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons [...]. As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

We should vote for Obama because
we should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes.
Shaviro's second post is a discussion of the idea of evil, in the wake of the discussions that took place in the comments at his blog, and also in response to two posts by Jodi Dean and subsequent discussions at her blog.

(For the record, I voted for Ralph Nader in each of the last two presidential elections. I have no trouble with either vote, nor do I have a problem with people voting for Nader again this time, or for that matter for Cynthia McKinney. I've considered writing a lengthy defense of both those votes and of Nader himself and his candidacies, in part because it keeps coming up: Liberals keep dragging Nader and Nader-voters through the mud; each time something awful happens, be it a terrible Supreme Court decision or a certain military action, you can still see blog comments blaming Nader for it. An argument that Nader and those who voted for him are somehow responsible for the Bush presidency is not one that can be fruitfully defended if one is interested in the facts. I intended to explain why, at interminable length, and also why I still believe the 2000 vote in particular was the right thing to do at the time, but I don't have the heart for such an endeavor anymore--or possibly I'm just tired of being accused of "not getting it", or worse, of being a racist by tiresome, over-indulged commenters at other people's blogs.)

(Before concluding, let me offer yet another parenthetical and say that there have been some things I've liked about Obama. I was very impressed by this speech about religion, for example. I was less impressed by the much-ballyhooed speech on race, though he did say many important things worth saying in it, dragged down as it was by the awful boilterplate about Israel and fact-challenged distancing from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. On the latter, I'd meant to point to a few analyses I found of value way back in March, but I got bogged down and distracted. Here are two: Tim Wise, in CounterPunch, typically excellent on Obama, Wright, and "the Unacceptability of Truth" to white America; and I Hear a New World's brilliant post linking Wright's oratory to African American popular music, including linking the now-infamous "God damn America" phrase to Nina Simone's classic "Mississippi Goddamn".)

On Saturday, we attended another Iraq Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier event, at 2640, followed by a not well-attended anti-war march. One of the panel members at the event was Michael Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University who's written articles appearing at TomDispatch, Z, Asia Times, and others, and has written a book titled War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (which I'm currently reading; it's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good). Towards the end of the Q&A session, the panel was asked whether there was any glimmer of hope with the upcoming election; that is, would there be any substantive change in policy, in terms of the continuation of the war and occupation? Schwartz replied that the only glimmer of hope he could discern was that the economic crisis would get so bad that the United States could literally not afford to keep troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, whether combat or occupation, and be forced to withdraw. I think it's fairly clear that he's correct. Now, Obama is invested in the American imperial project--he merely believes he can manage it better--and he is a proponent of neo-liberalism (with figures like Robert Rubin and Paul Volcker as close advisers, why would we think anything different?), and so on. But the truth is that, with Obama, under such circumstances one can at least imagine him being able to modify his policies and move toward more genuinely populist positions, however difficult they might be to implement. One can imagine no such thing with John McCain.

1 comment:

Matt Christie said...

excellent post.

to pick up only on your last line, that's just the point, isn't it? To have a President/administration who are at least representatives of the possibility of "a future...some future." One could make a case that the most effective progressive Presidents of the past were not originally that way...just open, and not least of all, responsive to popular pressure (i.e., they had a conscience.)