Friday, April 1, 2016

An American Obsession

An old friend of mine posted:
If the people who swore, twice, that they'd leave the country if Obama won, had actually gone, we wouldn't be dealing with the Donald today.
I replied:
And if the people who swore, twice, that they'd leave the country if Bush the Lesser won, had actually gone, we wouldn't have had eight years of Obama.
I added a wink emoticon, since I thought she was at least partly in her standup-comedy mode when she wrote the original post.  I guess I was wrong, because she riposted:

That doesn't sound like a good thing to me. Personally, I think Obama is one of the best presidents we've had in my lifetime. You are entitled to think differently, but just so you know.
To which I replied:

Oh, I know. "We wouldn't have eight years of Obama" can be either be good or bad, you know. I'm not really sure what it would mean that Obama was one of the best Presidents we've had in my lifetime, though. The competition isn't impressive.
It went downhill from there, and I'm thinking over how to answer her latest response.  What I want to say here is that I don't think it's an effective move for my friend to say that she considers Obama the best president we've had in her lifetime.  (She's a decade or so younger than I am.)   I think it's willfully irrelevant, a distraction or an attempt at distraction, the kind of move that people often resort to when they have no pertinent rational response to make.

First, as I said, the competition for the best president in my lifetime (since 1951, that is) isn't all that impressive.  I'll freely agree that Barack Obama is the best president we've had in this century.  But second and more important, I don't believe it's possible to rate presidents, or anyone else doing complex work.  The more I look at the detailed records of highly placed political figures, the more I conclude that it's impossible to rank them on a single (best-worst, for example) linear scale.  It's sometimes possible to do so on specific tasks and issues, but what if someone who's good in some areas is terrible in others?  (And how do you evaluate a politician who deliberately triangulates: does or says something that will please his base after doing something that angers them?)

A notorious example is Lyndon Johnson, of whom it's often said that he was a great president in domestic issues and disastrous in foreign policy.  Yet his foreign policy, like any president's, had domestic effects.  The Vietnam War took a great toll on the lives of the soldiers he sent to fight in it; resistance to the war fostered division among Americans; and the immense cost of the war did harm to the US economy and the quality of life here, diverting money that should have been spent on the War on Poverty or the enforcement of Civil Rights laws to military use and abuse.  That's not to minimize the terrible cost to the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, only to point out that foreign and domestic policy can't be neatly separated.

Finally, I think that ranking presidents as my friend wants to do may be a peculiarly American fetish, akin to ranking sports teams, universities (whether as academic institutions or as "party" settings), locales ("the best cities to live in America"), and so on.  It probably connects to the faux-meritocratic fantasy that everybody can and should be ranked by merit, and the American religion of competition, where everything is put in terms, as Alfie Kohn put it, of who's beating whom.  I think that many Americans think about their politicians and other leaders almost exclusively as fodder for such rankings.  It's an easy diversionary tactic when specific criticisms are made, no matter where they come from.

My friend replied:

I don't think your comment was neutral since you made an analogy between Obama and Donald Trump by rephrasing my statement. I notice you never miss an opportunity to disparage Obama. I don't think it's accidental. Is there anyone you admire? Does anyone do a good job or try to in your opinion? If so, it would be nice to hear, for a change. Also, I don't recall people threatening to "leave the country" if any candidate, including W, was elected to the extent that they did regarding Obama, which I see as blatant racism.
I decided to wait before saying any more, to avoid escalating the exchange, and I procrastinated not only in replying to her but in finishing this post.  For now I think I'll give her the last word on Facebook, partly because I'm sure we're going to cross swords over Obama and the Democrats again during the long election season ahead.

So: I rephrased my friend's joke (and I do think she was in standup mode, but she got serious when I replied), not to compare Obama and Trump or even Obama and Bush, but because I routinely plug different variables into such remarks.  I find it a useful way of testing whether a statement is a matter of principle (in which case it should be true for all sides), or just a partisan declaration of faith (where what's good for me is definitely not good for thee).  But I was less interested in Trump and Obama than in the foolish things people say in the heat of an election season, and I have made fun of Democrats who said they'd move to Canada if Bush was elected no less than of Republicans who said they'd move to Canada if Obama were elected.  I have no figures for the relative numbers of either group, but I doubt my friend does either; if she noticed fewer Democrats doing this, it was probably because we tend not to notice the foolish things said and done by people on our side.  The conscientious person will make a special effort to notice them.

It is not true that I never miss a chance to disparage Obama; I pass up many chances.  But disparaging a Dear Leader at all is intolerable to the true believer.  I disparaged Bush when he was President at least as much.  It wasn't "accidental" either.  (When he first took office, I remarked online that I pledged to treat him with as much respect as Republicans treated Bill Clinton.  And I kept that pledge.)  My Republican and generally right-wing friends also complain that I pick on their side all the time, never noticing that I criticize leaders and spokespeople and proponents of all persuasions when they say things that are false or wrong.  I pick on leftists, on liberals, on gay people, on atheists.  And it doesn't matter which group -- none is interested in addressing criticism seriously, so they all accuse me of singling them out for meanness and snark.  It's so much easier than responding responsibly.

Not only that: I've often defended Obama (as I previously defended Clinton) against the dishonest attacks made on him by right-wingers.  I largely gave up on that after he was revealed to be lying about the Affordable Care Act, thereby undercutting and insulting all of those who'd defended the bill, but I still feel the reflex and give into it when appropriate.  I do also miss some opportunities to disparage right-wing Christian racists, because otherwise I'd have no time to do anything else, but that's just as true of disparaging Obama and the Democrats.

I also disagree publicly with people I regard with the highest respect, people I've learned from the most: Robert Heinlein, Noam Chomsky, and Walter Kaufmann, to name three obvious examples.  This is not because of murky Oedipal desires to Kill the Father (another popular diversionary claim), but because I learned from them to be skeptical and critical, and not to turn off my intellectual faculties when examining the ideas of anyone, them included.  I have a responsibility to disagree and criticize accurately, of course, but that's not acceptable among the faithful.

Is there anyone I admire?  Does anyone do a good job or try to in my opinion?  These are also diversionary questions that I and others have been asked before.  Of course there are people I admire.  Chelsea Manning, Rosa Parks, and Bree Newsome come to mind, and I could lengthen the list easily.  But in no case does my admiration exempt them from criticism.  If Rosa Parks joked about killing children with predator drones, if Chelsea Manning supported horrific dictatorships with money and weapons, if Bree Newsome put the New Deal on the auction block to try to appease Republican opponents, I'd criticize them as harshly as I do Obama.  "Or try to" is notably dishonest here: I suppose Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush "tried to" do a good job, by their lights, but I doubt my friend would cut them any slack for it.  Nor are these questions ever deployed when official enemies are being vilified: there's no need to look for good things done by Hitler, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein.  Or even by Donald Trump.

Those who've followed this blog long enough may recall that I made a point of looking for and mentioning things I thought Obama was doing right from the beginning of his administration.  That was of as little interest to his cultists as the fact that I'd voted for him, twice.  Such people aren't interested in facts, or logic; they want total, uncritical devotion for their chosen one.  But they aren't going to get it from me.  It's going to be a long election campaign.