Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Obama Malaise

I need a little break from student papers.

David Bromwich of the London Review of Books has written a first rate analysis of the current American political impasse (tip of the hat to Digby). Here is a generous sample:

The Republican Party of 2009 is a powerful piece of contrary testimony. It has become the party of wars and jails, and its moral physiognomy is captured by the faces of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, faces hard to match outside Cruikshank’s drawings of Dickens’s villains, hard as nails and mean as dirt and with an issue still up their sleeve when wars wind down and the jails are full: a sworn hostility towards immigrants and ‘aliens’. The anti-immigrant bias – from which George W. Bush and John McCain were free, but which both were powerless to counteract – is an underground stream of the party that makes it a bearer of racist sentiments no longer avowable in public. I have been studying the ante-bellum South, for a course on the career of Abraham Lincoln, and have been struck by the resemblance between the Republicans today and the pre-Civil War Democrats. The model of the Republicans today is John C. Calhoun, the political theorist of the slave South and deviser of the rationale for local nullification of federal policies.

That the central lesson about his domestic enemies has not yet been learned by Obama is the mystery of the first eight months of his presidency. He has acted as if he were the leader of no party; as if patience and benignity of temper could bring out the best in everyone. This is part of a larger inward confusion about his role. He seems to speak at once, or rather he seems to speak at different times, as organiser and as mediator, national leader and national healer. There is something strange about the alternation of postures, from the point of view of empirical prudence. On the largest issues that he himself raised in his opening months – his decision to close Guantánamo, to press for a two-state solution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to reform healthcare with a national plan – his pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at stage centre, followed by months of silence. He has left his agents or his advisers or his party or both parties to mind the details. During the protracted delay, the very features that give the impress of his intention are sanded away. Thus, a new kind of pressure on Israel and a resolve to create a Palestinian state appeared to be signalled by his Cairo speech in early June. It was a thoughtful speech, and a courageous one, even if you took it as a series of propositions uttered at a certain time in a certain place. Simply to address the Muslims of the world without condescension was sure to make him unforgiving enemies on the American right – including the considerable body of Christian Zionists in the Southern and border states – and Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech knowing that. Yet the four months since have seemed much longer than four months. Israel has sapped and undermined the settlement freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu gambled that he could trespass against objections by Obama’s negotiators, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, and the gamble has worked. The American desiderata were never backed by a sanction, and the Netanyahu government approved thousands of new units for the expansion of the Israeli colonies. This the Americans called ‘not helpful’.

I think this passage is particularly insightful:

Malthus’s doctrine on population and the necessity of many living in adversity, Hazlitt wrote, was a gospel ‘preached to the poor’. Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by the liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality. Since the Reagan presidency and the dismemberment of the labour unions, America has not known a popular voice against the privilege of the large corporations. Yet without such a voice from below, all the benevolent programmes that can be theorised, lacking the ground note of genuine indignation, have turned into lumbering ‘designs’ espoused by the enlightened for moral reasons that ordinary people can hardly remember. The gambling ethic has planted itself deep in the America psyche – deeper now than it was in 1849 or 1928. Little has been inherited of the welfare-state doctrine of distributed risk and social insurance. The architects of liberal domestic policy, put in this false position, make easy prey for the generalised slander that says that all non-private plans for anything are hypocritical.

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