Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fannie Mae Landed on Us!

Yesterday I had a phone conversation about the Presidential campaign with another old friend -- not the same one I wrote about in the previous post, but one I've known for almost as long -- that clarified something I'd evidently been confused about.

My friend (another ambivalent Obama supporter) explained to me that whatever Obama might actually stand for or believe, he has to come across in his speeches and in the debate with McCain as a "moderate": he can't be too harsh, too critical, he can't actually call McCain on his lies, or he'll be perceived as an Angry Black Man. So he has to take a "centrist" position, he can't go too far to the left. A little light went on in my head, and I realized what was going on, not just in my friend's mind but in the minds of many other Americans. My friend was confusing "moderate" political positions with "moderate" personal presentation, or "image."

So I tried to explain this to him. In the first place, of course, Obama is not going and has never gone "to the left" at all. He'd have to swing sharply to the left even to be a centrist. His positions, as I argued here yesterday and earlier, are significantly to the right of the majority of Americans. In the course of the campaign he has made this more and more explicit.

Obama's political success, however, depends on his image, that of a black man who doesn't want to make white people feel guilty or otherwise bad about themselves, who denies that white racism is deeply rooted in American society, who is hopeful and upbeat and optimistic and will bring about the change 'we' need without seriously inconveniencing any white people. I told my friend that I don't expect Obama to do a Malcolm X imitation (he laughed at this and quoted Malcolm's "Plymouth Rock landed on us" line); it's not his style and image that I object to -- it's his political positions, the things he says he will do, that concern me.

As I've said before, this is one reason I find it useful not to watch TV or video clips of Obama's performances: so that I'm not swayed by his manner, but can attend to what he's actually saying. This puts me beyond the political pale, I know. Most Americans, despite paying lip service to "the issues", really don't seem to care about anything but the personalities (as they come across in the media) of the candidates. (Or of anyone else: I've often encountered respectable academics, for example, who respond to the careful arguments of their colleagues' publications in terms of their personalities. One, for example, dismissed a book by saying that it sounded to him as if the writer were struggling with mid-life crisis.) Because Obama has diligently crafted this non-threatening affect, both his fans and his enemies see him as liberal, even far to the left. I have to suppose that for many people, that's what "liberal" and "left" mean -- and remember that I'm talking not about the uneducated people so many liberals love to despise, but about college-educated, often professional people, including media professionals who supposedly are qualified to guide our country through the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, I suspect that if Obama (or anyone else) did occupy a real "left" position purely in terms of issues and policy, he would be perceived as an Angry Black Man no matter how gentle and mild his presentation. Case in point: Martin Luther King, Jr., a consistent advocate and practitioner of nonviolence, nevertheless scared the living shit out of most white Americans while he lived. After he was safely dead, however, even the most reactionary whites reimagined him as Mr. Sweetness and Light, who never wanted to make white people feel guilty or otherwise bad about themselves, who denied that white racism is deeply rooted in American society, who was hopeful and upbeat and optimistic and sought to bring about the change 'we' need without seriously inconveniencing any white people.
(Bill Cosby can indulge in denunciatory rhetoric without being branded an Angry Black Man, probably because his polemic is directed at his fellow African-Americans, not against whites. His earlier -- Sixties and Seventies' vintage -- criticism of white racism has been forgotten, not least by himself.)
Another case in point would be Ralph Nader, who (from the few video clips I've seen of him) isn't particularly angry or threatening in his presentation. Certainly his actual positions are threatening to the corporate interests that dominate the US political scene, but personally he's not a raving maniac. His political positions, of course, are virtually unknown to most people, but they know he's just an egomaniac who cost Al Gore the 2000 election, who doesn't care about anything except making a public spectacle of himself at the cost of the well-being of the body politic and his own dignity. It's not surprising, I guess, that people would prefer to caricature people they disagree with in this way (though I don't see how they know that they disagree, given their carefully-maintained ignorance about the others' opinions), but it says something that they choose to do the same with people they like: if I like you personally, your opinions, whatever they are, must be good ones. What would good opinions be? Who knows? Only an angry extremist would even think about such things.

This morning I found the problem well-described by M. Ioz:
Consider our situation. Barack Obama won last night's debate by speaking clearly, fluently, and like an adult about things that were palpably untrue, while John McCain kept implying that I am his friend. Obama terrifies me: an intelligent, thoughtful, well-prepared, capably extemporaneous man ascribing a future holocaust to some sort of non-existent, fantastical, steroidal Iran; talking about unsanctioned cross-border incursions into Pakistan because we found bin Laden, or some such, and must "take him out"; warbling around about "main street" while, in a lawyerly, circumlocutory way signaling that he's ultimately going to get behind hundred-billion-dollar cash bailouts to institutions that ought to be dismantled, destroyed, scattered to the wind. He wants GM to make electric cars. He wants the American people to know that he will appear before them to make extravagant xenophobic declarations in order to assuage their insecurity about the rise of other competing economies. He does this all in a calm, perfectly reasonable manner, with a convincing boardroom demeanor, and judging by the reactions of my liberal friends, with whom I listened, this was basically pleasing to them.

McCain is of course out of his mind: forgetful, vicious, reactionary. And his ideas are even crazier than BO's, but there's a certain comfort in the fact that their insanity is laid so plainly and mercilessly bare by the grinning psychopath's delivery. He provides no quarter for those who want to convince themselves that by Killing People for Their Own Good we are not actually killing them, or that by suborning corporate malfeasance we are combating it, or that by desperately seeking to maintain the geography of radial sprawl and the automobile we are seeking "energy independence."
That pretty well sums it up. I'd only stress once again that if Obama didn't express those lunatic and highly dangerous opinions, but expressed sane and constructive ones in the same calm, well-modulated boardroom manner, he'd be denounced immediately by Ioz's liberal friends (and by the corporate media, and by the Democratic leadership) as a angry man, a crazed egomaniac wacko like Ralph Nader or, say, Noam Chomsky. But not to worry: a candidate who advocated sane and constructive policies would never get past the first few primaries. I have to conclude that Americans don't want such people in politics. Once again I'm reminded of the broadcast pundit who said after the 2004 Kerry-Bush debates that Americans don't watch the debates for the candidates' stands on the issues, but to get a feeling for which one they'd want to invite home to dinner. I don't know if that's true, but if it is, we're doomed.