Hopelessness and Barack Obama

Dissident Voice first published this essay on 9.19.2009. The version given below is identical to the original save for fixes applied to a typo and grammatical mistake I had missed.

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Denial is common occurrence among human beings. So also is paranoia. Whether directly or indirectly considered, both make an appearance in America's news reports every single day. For instance, 'authentic' Americans, believe reality is for sissies. Uncle Sam is no sissy, of course. He makes reality. So, why not "Drill baby drill…."

Still, it is also common to consider denial and paranoia irrational responses to the world. They earn this accurate characterization because the world mostly proves to be significantly stronger than the phantasies that would completely or partially replace it and because denial and paranoia reflect psychological positions and cultural objects that are a part of the world but which do not make the world as such. The human imagination is surely creative and often powerful; but it is far from being omnipotent. It can easily imagine beings of all sorts; it just cannot create being as it pleases. Consequently, there will always be a need of and a place for those committed to living in the world as they find it, who willingly reject the naïve metaphysics of the deeply frightened and the power-hungry. Similarly, the reality-challenged will often have the opportunity to learn that they were and are mistaken, that the Earth is neither flat, the center of the universe nor damnable matter, that it can never be made wholly subject to humanity's will and intentions. Whether the reality-challenged want to and can learn from their experience is another matter.

In other words, reasonable people reality test their imaginary constructions, and strive to tolerate the results produced by their testing. They take up this often frustrating chore because they wish to be free of illusions and in order to make a success of their projects, which any consistent refusal to recognize the world as a whole or in part would threaten with failure. Although the disconfirmation of dearly held truths can be considered an advance if not a practical advantage, it is, as most human beings know, one often painfully gained. Worse still is the possibility that the pain produced by the process of self-enlightenment might sometimes overwhelm the advantages gained in the end. Human beings tend to be pain-adverse. And they need not value truth for the sake of truth. They certainly may prefer comfort or security to truth. Thus the presence of so many who prefer their illusions to a disconfirming reality. They favor holding fast to their wishes even when they can never be satisfied; they prefer them to the experience of disappointment that often accompanies their partial satisfaction. They want to feel complete, whole, full. Yet, they rarely or even never find themselves satiated. For those who cannot tolerate dissatisfaction of any kind or degree, living in an imaginary world can compensate for the ambiguities and dissatisfactions to be found in the actual world. The imagination can 'prove' the lie contain within the wish by providing a devious kind of satisfaction. Naturally, such a life is often untenable and, paradoxically, painful. Madness is a probable consequence for those individuals who give themselves over to this form of life. An individual must draw from his or her strengths in order to tolerate the limits within the human condition that produce unavoidable dissatisfaction. All in all, therefore, it is unsurprising that the willingness to reality test one's wishes, phantasies, thoughts, etc. is thought to be sufficiently valuable that having it can be considered an essential feature of the "good life." By good life I do not mean a life lived beyond the imagination but, rather, one that draws from both the imagination and the world that surrounds that imagination. Furthermore, the complement to this point is also true: A lack of this willingness to test can be considered a privation for the one afflicted by it, and thus a feature of a "life lived poorly."

This kind of talk should sound familiar to most Americans who are known for the pride they derive from their pragmatic approach to life. Fact-mindedness and goal-directedness, dependence upon common sense and "a willingness to do what it takes to get things done" — these are essential components of the American creed and of pragmatism broadly considered. Verification of this point can be found not only in the writings of America's pragmatic philosophers (C.S. Pierce, W. James and J. Dewey) but also in the honor American culture bestows on its often famous inventor-industrialists (T. Edison, G. Westinghouse, A.G. Bell, etc.). Yet, the pragmatic ethos might receive its greatest and broadest endorsement from that iconic figure in American history, the freeholder farmer, who struggles with nature, society and self in order to live autonomously and productively. If America can be considered a civilization, it should be dubbed the "pragmatic civilization." Thus considered, the term "pragmatism" is merely a high-priced word that refers to what most Americans deem to be "good old common sense."

Given the place and strength of this ethos in American culture, along with the material successes the country has enjoyed throughout its history, it is surely ironic that Americans are now getting a concentrated dose of phantasy-challenging experience by an obstinate world. The irony here issues from the world's refusal to confirm the beliefs Americans commonly have about their country, especially their belief that the United States is unique or an exception to the norm, that it is indispensible, a dependable seer of the future, a just wielder of the sword, the winner of every war it fights and the true leader of humankind, or even that it is the best at those things at which it would want to be the best. Clearly, the pragmatic civilization has its myths. Some of the important ones date back to the first European settlers. As founded by those Puritans who would not have anything directly to do with the religious oppression they encountered in England, the first migrants to America held fast to the messianic conviction that the new world would be "the city upon the hill." They meant their trek to achieve a utopia and thereby to establish a public presence for righteousness. Having burdened themselves with an expectation of this kind, Protestant-Americans could judge their nation a success only if they could believe their way of life embodied God's will on Earth. As practicing Calvinists of one kind or another, Americans were disposed to equate worldly success with Godliness. Their achievements were signs as also were their failures. Their leaders had to be "natural aristocrats" whose wealth, honor and power served as rewards for and symbols of their virtue or, for the theistically inclined, their election. Armed with these beliefs, the settlers and their descendents tended to consider success self-legitimating. To be successful in America nearly entailed the rightful possession of those goods that expressed the presence of this success. America, to be sure, has made a great success of itself, a fact-supported normative judgment that helps to confirm the nation's grandiose identity. More ominously, social Darwinism, the Prosperity Gospel and American exceptionalism lurk within this kind of thinking, American imperialism and the Washington Consensus too. The City of God would often prove brutal in practice.

Currently, however, Americans may learn, if they wish, that their country:

  • is a global empire which is now moving towards collapse;
  • has a security-surveillance apparatus that is costly and oppressive, nearly useless but also a provocation to the rest of the world;
  • drives its economic system with debt accumulation, mass consumption and weapons production, but also with a near-full employment economy ("the great American jobs machine"), each of which look unlikely to continue as they have in America's near-term future;
  • is no longer the leader in the development and implementation of productive technology and consumer goods;
  • will eventually or even soon lose its leadership position as the global lender of last resort and the provider of the world's hard currency;
  • is shacked to home-grown political institutions that seem as receptive to rational reform as Brezhnev's Soviet Union proved to be in the 1980s.

Briefly put, Americans now have the opportunity to learn that their country is dispensable but dangerous, myopic, sterile and a foot-dragger!

They also may soon learn that it is no longer prosperous.

Obviously these points, if true, do not validate America's messianic conceit. Nor do they affirm the secular version of this self-conception, namely, that the United States is the capitalist democracy, the model which its competitors should emulate if they want to make a success of themselves. As a matter of fact, they render both vain and thus preposterous. The American dream is dying.

Although these criticisms are not commonplaces among Americans, they also are not propositions contained within an esoteric form of knowledge. Nor are they available only to an elect, an avant-garde or a privileged class. An exacting ritual does not guard their purity. The acolyte need not learn a special language before enlightenment sets in. Finally, they cannot be debunked by a dubious critique of their class origin or by pointing to the actual or imagined resentment of the critic who airs them in public. If a typical American wishes to learn of these things, he or she needs only to be literate and to pay attention to the world in general. The opportunities to acquire this knowledge are there to be had.

To be sure, attention-paying and reality-testing suppose a prior willingness and capacity to learn from one's experience and from others. It also requires a commitment to participate in reasonable discussion and to use evidence to settle matters that can be settled. Learning requires receptivity to the world, an open-minded attitude towards experience, reflection and change. It also means putting every relevant certainty into abeyance. Consequently, attention-paying and reality-testing entail a willingness to take a risk. With respect to the issues discussed here, this risk-taking gesture quickly leads to the asking of what most Americans would consider unsettling questions. These include: "Can America learn what it needs to learn?" and "If it learns these unavoidable truths, how will this knowledge sit with the average American once the members of this proud nation realize that America is neither innocent, grand nor more powerful than its competitors?" "How," in other words, "will Uncle Sam cope with being fallible, damnable and impermanent, with, that is, being merely human?" "Can he and his brood live without these myths?" "Can he successfully manage his second childhood?"

These are the local problems and questions the United States now confronts. If it and the world only had to confront them…. But it, like the world at large, also faces global problems and crises. The latter, unfortunately, are truly frightening. Managing and resolving them will prove difficult. They include:

  • a growing global population, the existence of which will intensify;
  • ecological crises like global warming;
  • resource depletion crises (generated by a lack of adequate top soil, water, minerals, etc.) and thus the wars that will be fought over these increasingly scarce resources;
  • massive food and water shortages.

Scarcity of the greatest sort looks to return to trouble every fraction of the world. War and famine, mass migration and death — these possibilities haunt the near-term future. I believe this because they compose a plausible future the causes and features of which do appear in the world today. We are watching, then, a global emergency while it gestates, the origin of which is due in great part to human practices and their limits. While it remains an open question whether or not this emergency will eventually define humanity's collective fate, its pre-history makes up a significant feature of the contemporary situation humanity must address if it wishes to thrive or even survive as a species. It and its components make evident the need for a political project meant to prevent the disaster.

It is not as though no one ever dares to mention these local and global issues. They have their place in public life, and are discussed by those individuals, movements and organizations most concerned with their consequences. Yet, discussion by the comparatively few individuals concerned with such issues does not seem to be enough to solve problems of this kind and magnitude. Small talk is insufficient because of the immense complexity and scope their solutions would have. Global problems demand what amount to global solutions. Therefore, the greater crisis they pose derives from something which lies beyond the existential threats they express, considerable as these may be. This something which lies beyond: These global crises have failed to provide the kind of motives Americans and humanity as a whole need if they want to address and resolve the threats as such. Stasis should prove to be self-defeating over the long-term.

Although concerned movements and an international public do exist, they mostly lack influence. They suffer this lack because the powerful remain unreceptive to and thus unmoved by the calamity in the making. Denial and paranoia make an appearance here.

Their appearance is unsurprising. Who among the powerful wants to grapple with disastrous possibilities like these? Who would confront the nihilism inherent within them? Or, the sense of powerlessness they evoke? Which member of the elite would choose to radically alter the world they govern in order to save it from the practices, institutions and knowledge from which they draw their power? Very few, it seems. The powerful tend to be masters of survival within the world they know. And it is because there are so few of these men and women that committing the world to creating sensible, peaceful and sustainable forms of life is not a high priority for those who make what amounts to a global agenda.

A prudent person would thus not expect the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh to produce a feasible program meant to avoid these disasters in the making by pursuing highly advantageous goods like sensible, peaceful and sustainable forms of life. Rather, the Summit, if it accomplishes anything, can be expected to work to stabilize the world system already in place, that is, to maintain by adjusting the system now heading towards a disaster. Their refusal to take responsibility for the world they lead, should it come to that, would be significant inasmuch as some of these threats carry speciescide as an effective possibility. The quality of the threat only intensifies the motive it places on the threatened once the threat becomes known as such. Power, of course, implies responsibility, for no one is obligated beyond what he or she can do, according to an ancient legal maxim, and the powerful can do — or prevent — much. Their powers stand as one limit condition that constricts humanity as a whole. Their actions are thus decisive in the short-term.

Over the long-term, on the other hand, the social origin of the solution is unimportant. This is because reform — decisive, systemic and therefore radical reform — ought to define humanity's project if the situation conforms to the gist of the description I offered above. To be radical, reform of this sort must be both feasible (the reformers first identify a problem and then a path meant to resolve the problem identified), adequate (the reforms can solve the problem they were meant to fix) and consistent with a generous concept of human well-being. Additionally, radical reform must intentionally address a global threat that is local in origin and consequence. It must be an inclusive project; it must have beneficial system effects. Yet, it must not end with a totalizing catastrophe founded on an abstract and impossible utopian idea.

It is interesting and somewhat surprising that some observers of the American political scene concluded the United States took a step towards contributing in to a reform project of this sort when it elected Barak Obama as its president last fall.

They may have concluded they could expect reform of this kind from the new president because he had earned his mandate by promising change and offering hope for the future. His political enemies also augmented the euphoria by warning the country about Obama's radical inclinations during the election season. It seems candidate Obama's promises did not sound empty to everyone who heard them. It helped a lot that he appeared able to meet these high expectations. He had credibility in their eyes. Obama is, after all, intelligent and articulate. More importantly, he seemed forthright and decent, at ease with the people he met and the policies he discussed. He was neither a wonk nor a baby-kisser. Although different in many ways from the stereotypical American, Obama had the common touch, for he made his own success as a child of relative poverty, of a mixed marriage and of divorce. Success surely was not given to him, nor the presidency. Candidate Obama became president by running a strong and ultimately successful campaign, one forced by the history of his country to overcome the racist and nativist biases deeply rooted in its culture. Obama is just another Frank Capra story. And, most importantly, he certainly did not strike anyone as being Bush or even Bush-like, which is to say that, he appeared a humane and competent replacement for The Decider puppet and his master.

His mere presence in the campaign thus encapsulated a diffuse hope that had been dormant among common folk. It suggested that progress was possible, that the would-be president could lead the country to better days if he were elected to the office. Obama, his supporters believed, truly could get "it" done, whether "it" referred to health care reform, ending Bush's senseless wars, putting a stop to torture, resolving the financial crisis, etc. He was a "regular fellow" who also radiated gravitas — a mixed-race Jimmy Stewart. Candidate Obama thus exuded the kind of charisma for which lesser politicians would trade their souls. Voting for him was an easy choice that many Americans gladly made. They wanted change — progress, actually.

Obama has held the presidency for less than a year. It is unfortunate that, so far, he and his administration have changed very little about the state and society they govern. Progress has been deferred yet again. In fact, the Obama regime has mostly held the course on policies that were proven failures (Bush's wars) and moral outrages (Bush's torture, detainment and secrecy policies) before he took office. He has stood by Wall Street and finance capital in general even while the bipartisan bailout program he supported encumbered Americans for generations. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the new administration quickly turned "transparency," an electoral buzzword meant to highlight the differences between Obama and Bush, into a cliché, mostly because of the obscurity it created when handling national security and financial matters. Word and deed, image and reality parted company not long after the election.

Obama's tenure has already imposed adverse consequences on the new president: The Obama administration has pursued policies and acted in such a way that it has undermined the basis on which candidate Obama built his case to hold the office of the president. His positive charisma erodes a bit every day. We can learn this just from the fact that Obama's approval rating is falling at a historically fast rate. The new president is thus acquiring the taint of illegitimacy.

In this regard Obama can be compared to some degree to George W. Bush, who, as we may recall, reached his popular peak as president immediately after 9.11 but who collapsed thereafter, should have been impeached and ought to be awaiting trial for the crimes he committed while responding to that catastrophe. It is no exaggeration to judge the second Bush presidency the epitome of an illegitimate American president. The Bush administration had earned this judgment for so many reasons and on so many levels that his recent escape to Texas along with the freedom he enjoys there damns the mainstream media and the Congresses who colluded in his deeds. Bush's very freedom screams the question: "How has he gotten away with so much?" While Obama is no Bush and his defenders may wish to explain his approval ratings by using the crises of the day as a shield for the new president, I believe the Obama administration has, just like its predecessor, advanced the corruption of America's political culture. This corruption is implied by the political and social paralysis it sponsors. This 'achievement' is no small potatoes given the all-encompassing criminality of the Bush regime that preceded it. Yet, the new president could not avoid this result when his administration opted to affirm so much of the status quo ante and accomplished this by following the triangulation playbook written by Bill Clinton and Dick Morris in the 1990s. Obama staked his personal credibility on this strategy. This is astonishing because Candidate Obama ran against the Bush record and against the man whose shadow now follows him as if it were his own. President Obama merely governs as if he were another one of Dubya's crisis managers. And, like his role model, Bill Clinton, Obama looks to be squandering the opportunities for reform history gave him. He wasted them because he was careless in the goals that his administration pursued. The goals, of course, were those taken from his predecessors, goals he would have jettisoned if he were prudent and a reformer.

What are some of the more immediate and dangerous consequences that can be attributed to Obama's political failures? Hopelessness is one, cynicism another, passivity a third. Each depends upon Obama's failure to conform to the realistic expectations the electorate had for his administration. Each sends distress signals: Reform has been defeated; the 'good guy' is a fake; we've been fooled again. And each reflects the floundering of a president who has wasted an opportune historical moment that may be collapsing as the days pass.

One can easily identify the Obama administration's most notable and, perhaps, most politically destructive failure so far. It can be found in the president's inability to lead the country in a determined effort to secure an obvious and feasible public good like single-payer health care. The episode is instructive. It forces the observer to look closely at the president and who he represents. It provides the lens through which to examine a flawed reformer.

The administration's performance during the health care debate has been that poor that it has even failed to push the inferior ideas now current in Congress past his political enemies on the right and far right. Obama has instead mostly ceded ground to his blatantly irrational critics on his right flank, much to the material and political detriment of those who voted for him in good faith last November. In this Obama committed one of the cardinal sins of politics: He allowed his political enemies (and what sensible person doubts that they are a disloyal opposition) and the opportunists in Congress (who mostly follow their paymaster's directions) to set the terms of the debate on a key issue. It is they who are defining the Obama presidency. By giving his opponents this kind of power, a gift that depended upon the triangulation gambit, Obama committed a second cardinal sin: He betrayed his supporters by publicly affirming the position of his enemies. Here, then, one can locate the sources of Obama's credibility problem, of his growing legitimation deficit. It can be summarized as: "President Obama has failed to assure America that he will deliver "change they can believe in."

Obama's election happened not too far in the past that it is in any way difficult to recall that it took the votes of the disenchanted to inflict a humiliating defeat on the McCain-Palin ticket and on the Republican Party as a whole. The Republican defeat was rightly construed as an event 'meant' to steer the country in another direction. Indeed, Obama's victory even suggested a repudiation of the Reagan Revolution along with the policies and myths that are essential features of that Revolution. Yet president Obama chose to preserve much of the thinking and practices of the despised Bush administration, the government he ran against, the program which attempted to complete the Reagan Revolution and secure the imperial presidency. It is because Obama made this choice that he placed himself somewhere to the right of the center position in the United States! (Naturally, his move to the right has failed to silence his red-baiting critics!) Why would he do this? Why would he betray his supporters?

One answer: His conservatism in office is attributable to the services he has already provided to the FIRE sector of the economy, which had spent so much to help him gain the presidency, and to the security-surveillance apparatus that sits within and besides the federal government, which no ambitious American politician would dare cross. These commitments are both significant and commonly found among American politicians. They point to the fact that Barack Obama is a system politician. By system politician I wish to refer to the president's commitment to America as he knows it but not to his real or supposed loyalty to the American constitution, the rule of law, democratic governance, economic justice, national and global system rationalization, etc. All things considered, Obama is committed to saving an evolved, mature, ossified but brittle system now in decline. It can be said, I believe, that Obama is at home in Bush's America, which is also the America given to us by Clinton, Reagan and Nixon. This is the America he wants to govern — to save. And, to give credit where credit is due, Obama might be the kind of political operator one would want to have as a president if the times were stable and plush. But, they are neither. It is because times are unstable and insecure that what counts the most is Obama's inability — or unwillingness — to rationally address the problems and crises enumerated above. The global crises especially are too pressing and dangerous to ignore. I say this because global warming is a public bad if anything is! It demands attention — immediate attention. It also demands a solution. It produces these demands because the mechanisms and processes generating the global warming event mostly reflect the workings of Mother Nature and cosmic time. They are not directly fixable. There will not be a magic bullet. They may even conclude with species suicide. Yet, it is shocking that credible efforts meant to address this crisis have yet to appear. It is as though the world wishes to passively await fate to make its presence known and then deliver its final judgment.

For Americans, this lack reflects poorly upon the president, the political entity that represents the sovereignty of the American people, the unity of this nation-state and a longer historical timeline which reaches beyond the founding to the English Revolution, the Magna Carta and the Roman Republic. When considered with respect to this grand horizon, what degree of confidence can one place in a president who cannot achieve a victory for a popular, sensible and much-needed program like single-payer health care? Not much, I would say, especially when one considers the healthcare reform debacle with respect to the significantly greater obstacles Obama would face if he were to take up the path of radical reform and global leadership.

In other words, I would say that Barack Obama's failure to master the healthcare issue emits a potent warning signal which should be heard by everyone who believes this president must deliver a lot more than mere health care reform. It strongly suggests that they should trust only in those powers they can generate on their own. For the reform-minded in the United States and elsewhere, Barack Obama should become the politician they will lead, not the president who leads them and, because he is the president of the United States, the world.

The upshot: America now stands before an impasse of its own making. Americans can neither restore the country to something akin to what it once was (the wealthy, secure superpower), turn it into the country it wishes to be (the authentic and blessed "city upon the hill") nor quickly make it into the country it would choose to be if it practiced a rational politics (a just democratic polity). The local struggle to achieve the third option (a just democratic polity) is the task given to those Americans critical of their country and its pathologies. It is a task of political enlightenment and system rationalization. A rational politics can only be a responsible politics, a politics open to the present and the future, which refuses to shirk lifting the burdens it needs to carry or learning the truths it must have within its grasp. As such and given the situation today, a just democratic polity in the United States would also be a society that would take up the burden of overcoming the problems and crises that now threaten the world. Such is the reality of the present that the United States cannot avoid this task. No one can. Denial and scapegoating are not options. Obama's America, insofar as we already know it, appears unwilling to take this path. It has refused to shoulder this burden, which is to say, it has chosen illusion and paralysis. The Obama way brings only hopelessness.

1 comment:

Foxwood said...

Do you believe the Constitution is the rule of law?
Do you believe in the original intent of our founding fathers?
Do you want to reform Congress? If your answer is yes, we have
to work together to make this happen.