Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dear Heidi, Democracy Is a Failed Enterprise

In 1995, when I was 17, I procured some funds from my school to go to South Africa (then a newly minted democracy). Ostensibly, I was to study the roles of Asian and Muslim subgroups in the anti-Apartheid movement, but really, the expectations were pretty low: if I came back and showed some nice pictures in a slide show presentation at assembly I'd have satisfied my charge--which was fine by me, because, given my tender years and unshakable nature, I wasn't really one to labor over anything anyway.

Truthfully, I was going only because I wanted to be there in that improbable country in that astonishing moment--not because I wanted to write up a report for school. Mandela had been transformed from prisoner to statesman, and, I don't know--I guess I just wanted to live in the milieu, amidst all that gathering hope. For me, South Africa was rife with vague possibility, and I became fixated with it. In my grant proposal I think I said something to the effect of never having lived through the 1960's, I couldn't really know what it was for a democracy to be born, and so I could but only take it for granted.

More than twelve years later, Mandela's handpicked successor has shown the world what it is to take democracy for granted: he has bungled his way through a deepening race and class divide and has denied prevailing medical science as HIV ravages sub-Saharan Africa. He's become so unpopular that he was unseated by a notoriously corrupt bigamist whose achievements include resisting a rape conviction (and doing so only after asserting that a woman wearing a skirt invites sex, and that once sex has been purloined from such a woman, one need only shower in order to stave off HIV). This is modern democratic South Africa. This is the country that Mandela's efforts gave birth to, and that my youthful, exuberant feelings of hope were pinned to.

But I shouldn't pick on South Africa. Our own country is in a state of severe indifference about that which we have wrought in the decaying world: We de-Baathified Iraq and disbanded its army and squeezed the Iraqi people dry to the bone, and then reelected the President who perpetrated these acts and said of them, "Freedom is on the march"; we say now that he's led us into disgrace, but we do nothing to punish his unrepentant enablers; we call for men and women of ideas to lead us, yet we're spasmodic with joy when ideas are traded for watchwords and hollow platitudes; in fact we refuse wholesale to process ideas, and we punish those who dare run for office solely on the basis of them.

As the embers of the World Trade Center scatttered about New York City, we were driven to bloodlust, and Susan Sontag said, poignantly and most bravely, that we are not a mature democracy. She was excoriated for this, but the fact remains we don't care about our democratic institutions, and so we've stood watch as they've eroded.

And this brings me to the Presidential race. Although New Hampshire and Nevada have not gone his way (well, at least not the popular vote in Nevada), now comes Barack Obama with promises to end all this malarkey. South Carolina, a bellweather state in the primary season, aims to vault him to the nomination, if polls are to be trusted. (I'm being insincere--we know polls are not to be trusted, and we know his opponent is an intensely disciplined campaigner who will parry his every move.) And If my generation and its Ritalin-addled, Playstation- atrophied collective mind is to be trusted--and of course, we know it too is not to be--he's a symbol of hope, an agent of change, and on these wings he should glide into the White House, but I confess: he leaves me wanting and sad.

Firstly, it should be pointed out, that I don't care at all about character. Serious people are able to see that a man who has had an affair, or one who moronically provided receipts for pricey salon care, or one who has snorted cocaine as a teenager can govern this broken country. Serious people do not stand around with "Oh, no, he di'n't" placed firmly on the tips of their tongues should a hoarse candidate emote oddly into a microphone. And serious people don't base their vote on what they think their unserious colleagues think about a candidate's chances--that is, on the tyranny of electability. I don't object to Barack Obama because of nebulous ideas about his character; nor, conversely, do I care if nebulous ideas about his character make him appear like a man of consequence. In this regard, however, he does not sway me and I'm bewildered by those who are inspired by his speechifying. I care only about the substance of what he has to say, and to date he has said little that gives me hope for the future of our country.

He has declared open disdain for the sovereignty of Pakistan, a country that has been torn asunder by refugees and pro-Taliban forces, people who were driven out of Afghanistan in the first place by Bush's War on Terror, saying, "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will." The extent of the naivete of this statement is staggering: it is true that Musharraf has over-reached in myriad ways the last year or so, and hangs on by a thread, but there are no viable political parties left to contest elections, and the Pakistani electorate is seething in frustration--yet one of the Democratic front-runners thinks that it's in America's interest to further galvanize dispossessed Pakistanis by making reckless claims about how he'd proceed in a post-Bush world. Some have called this an extension of the Bush doctrine, but at least Bush understands now how dumb it is to assert your will on to countries that can bite you in the ass.

Now, I'm not naive. I understand that if Osama Bin Laden popped up on the grid in a hut outside of Peshawar, whoever's President's going to take him out, but announcing to the world--unprovoked--as Obama did, that he has no interest in preserving our tenuous ties to the Pakistani government shows that he misunderstands basic geopolitics--and he misunderstands what American interests are. Musharraf's an asshole, but if you alienate him, where exactly does he go to make alliances? Obama is willing to score the easy political points by running to the hawkish center, but as he promises to cowboy his way around dangerous and complex regions of the world, I'm left wondering--this, this, motherfucker, is the politics of hope?

I understand that this issue is simply irrelevant to the masses of Americans who want to resist Clinton-Bush imperial succession and that I'm uniquely interested in it; I understand also that many of us want to credit Obama for his early resistance to the War on Iraq, and we want to celebrate his progressive bona fides because he was a community organizer and led get-out-the-vote efforts, but shouldn't the Presidency require more? What does it mean to oppose the War from the beginning--like, by the way, I did and virtually everyone I know--and then to vote unwaveringly in financial support of it once you've arrived in the Senate (in a fashion identical almost to Hillary Clinton)? What does it mean to
stand for health-care reform but eschew a universal mandate , thereby excluding millions of Americans
? What does it mean when your great healthcare triumph in Illinois was brokered through insurance companies? What does it mean that you've established yourself as a moderate in the Senate, voting to confirm three of Bush's judicial nominees? And what does it mean when you've declared Ronald Reagan as your political role model?

There can be wide-ranging debate about these questions, but I think if, like me, you see the Presidency as something more than just a repository for rhetorical hope, then you have trouble swallowing the notion that Barack Obama will lead a progressive renaissance in the Executive. I don't want the next President compromising out of the gates with lobbyists, and I don't want him or her continuing to promote the failed notion that carpet bombing is the best way to deal with beleaguered and humiliated Muslims. (Hint: the best way is to take a page out of Hezbollah's book and build hospitals.) And I don't want the next President selling me bipartisanship and calling it hope. I want the next President to be pissed off and brimming with hell-fury about the ways in which common Americans have been cheated, poisoned, and lied to by our government. And most important, with the fracturing of the Republican coalition, I want the next President to eviscerate the other side, to expose it as the haven for rank, moneyed hypocrites that it is. I want the next President to answer to no God but the people. Maybe like the Americans Susan Sontag saw in the wake of September 11th, I'm immature--I've been called it before--but that's what democracy looks like to me. And since I know it's not what's in store for us (or for South Africans or for Pakistanis), I can't help but think democracy is a failed enterprise.


E said...

is this to commemorate the 1-year anniversary of this blog? i think it'll take me another year to read this.

Heidi said...

Serious people understand that politicians like Obama inspire greater participation in this here democracy---and that's something we desperately need.

He's not perfect, and in fact reading the piece on how he worked with insurance companies for health care in Illinois made me pretty disappointed with him. I understood his opting not to go for mandatory health care as an effort to make a single-payer system more likely, but now i doubt his commitment. (In response to Krugman's short-sighted piece, I'd say if you're still worried about the cost of insurance premiums, you're not seeing the bigger picture: we need a single-payer system, and the more power you give to insurance companies by guaranteeing them new customers--as was done in my home-state, unfortunately--the harder that will be. So, although Obama loses "character" points on this one--which don't matter to you anyway--I still like his plan better than the others.)

And then I have to quibble with your point about taking out Bin Laden in Pakistan: as you say, we all know that any president with actionable intelligence would do it. Are you suggesting that Musharraf doesn't know that? Obviously he does. So I don't really see what's wrong with being honest about it.

You've extrapolated a lot of shit from Obama's voting record, including, oddly, the claim that he has established himself as a moderate. But the link you direct your reader to says otherwise ("During his two years in the Senate, Obama has been among its more liberal members." "Of the four Democratic senators who are running for president, Barack Obama of Illinois had the most liberal score in 2006.") Hmm... Anyway, I didn't find the voting record very illuminating. As for Iraq, one way of dealing with the mess that Edwards and Clinton authorized Bush to get us into is to stop funding it. It's too bad he's not doing that, but the questions, I think we all agree, are a little more complicated now that we're there. And then who are these judges he voted to confirm? I smell blog-post filler, here... why should I assume that he should have voted against their confirmation? (FYI: not all of Bush's nominees are terrible--- didn't I tell you about the rockstar who has just joined the 7th Circuit? I mean, who knows whether he's a great jurist. But I think he likes Death Cab for Cutie.)

You say the presidency requires more than committing your life to community service. I say, well, hmm, i think that's pretty damn good. It sounds like you're changing the rules of our little debate: let's compare candidates, not imagine the ideal one. And I'll take the community organizer over the trial lawyer and the first lady. As for the Reagan thing... wow... so much for substance over rhetoric.

I don't think Obama will save America from much of what it has become. But his policy positions are the best of the candidates, and more than just speechifying it, he symbolizes change.

cold4thestreets said...

I don't know what "symbolizes change" means, and this is one of the major differences between me and those who support Obama. I'm happy that he inspires you and myriad others. I wish I could share in that, but please take seriously that that statement resonates not in the least with me.

As for your comment that Obama was just being honest about Pakistan, so, essentially, who cares. I think I've made it clear that I care, and so do millions of Pakistanis who saw newsreel of Obama saying exactly what he said and were immediately flabbergasted. Perhaps we are feeble-minded people who want to be lied to, but should Obama become President he faces a quagmire of his own design. It's not that Musharraf's feelings were hurt--it's that Musharraf's hands will be tied. That's why what he said was reckless. And the fact that he couldn't see that scares the shit out of me.

As for the article I cite to that notes Obama's liberal creds, I believe it is noted therein that he is the tenth-most liberal member of the Senate, which, if you're honest with yourself, means he's a centrist. Such is the nature of the political spectrum in that august body. (The same journal ranked Kerry and Edwards 2nd and 4th, I believe--neither of whom are all that liberal.)

Your reaction to the Reagan thing is unwarranted. What, I can't mention it because it was a statement fundamentally without substance and I've put myself out there as someone who cares only about substance? What of the fact that the man asks to be judged on his words?

And, by the way, I get it. He meant that he wants to build bridges like Ronald Reagan built bridges, but when a man asks to be judged on how inspiring his words are, on the idea that he embodies some sort of idea about change, I have every right to express puzzlement over the notion that he identifies Ronald Reagan as a political role model.

John Edwards joined a hedge fund that, unbeknownst to him, had ties to the subprime lending industry. He was slammed for this because he put himself out there as someone who care about the American middle class. A higher standard applied to him because of how he ran his campaign. Should the same not to Obama and his campaign of words?

I will end on a conciliatory note: I enjoyed Obama's words in memory of Martin Luther King. Although South Carolina looms, he expressed his disappointment in the bigotry that prevails in much of the black American community. That is no small thing, and touched even this hard soul.

Heidi said...

i haven't seen the speech, i'll check it out.

for the most part i'm referring to his race when i say he symbolizes change. but it's also that he doesn't come from an established political camp. and symbols matter (andrew sullivan, nicholas kristof, and i think e's boy brooks have written some good stuff on this.)

look, if your source says he's one of the "more liberal" members of the senate, and you interpret that to mean he's a centrist, that's fine, but it does not persuade me, nor does the label really matter for my decision (which, incidentally, i already made, thanks to early voting in illinois).

as for the reagan thing, you said you care only about the substance of what he has to say, so i don't understand why you focused on a statement that has nothing to do with his policy positions. serious people do not advance paul krugman's alarmist knee-jerking on a comment that doesn't even come close to endorsing reagan's approach to governing. it was about galvanizing broad support to win an election and get a mandate for change, something no one can deny reagan achieved. again, who cares?

and this relates back to the pakistan point. obama doesn't worry about knee-jerk responses to the reagan thing just as he doesn't hide the ball about what would or wouldn't happen if we knew where bid laden was. he's unorthodox.

maybe it's naive. we'll find out soon enough.