No Politician is Holy – or Unholy
Conservatives have called out worshipful Obama supporters for ignoring their hero's obvious moral flaws. But similar hardheaded criticism can and should be leveled against the right, too.
March 30, 2008 - 2:36 am
John Derbyshire says Barack Obama is a “socialist” who is “full of hot air” and thinks anybody who likes him didn’t learn anything from the 20th Century.
Sean Hannity thought that the weak reply he got from a few Obama supporters who were asked to name an accomplishment of the Illinois Senator was proof positive that they were all stupid. Are we to believe that an analogous room full of average McCain supporters when asked the same question could barely have stopped exclamations like ‘The McCain-Feingold Act!’ and ‘The Detainee Treatment Act!!’ from escaping their lips?
If the indignation from conservatives and Republicans over their ability to see through the messianic “hard-left” smokescreen of Barack Obamania doesn’t stop soon, they should expect only to perpetuate the farce that the current president has made of their politics over the past 7 years.
It isn’t because their charges against the Barackers are without merit, mind you–there is far too little skepticism of personality cultism and fervor for charisma on the Obama side.
The reason this choir voice of contempt from the right sounds so absurd is because, as they so rightly say of Mrs. Clinton’s proclivity to cherry- pick from her husband’s career, it begins to sound like ‘everything bad is his, everything good is ours.” The fact is, both sides have some bucking up to do in the department of B.S. detection if the general election is to be anything but malodorous.
Anyone who has been paying attention to messianism in American politics over the last several years has noticed that, while the charge of a burgeoning “American theocracy” is overstated, the current administration has waged a war on science education and research, and has conducted Christian prayer services at important governmental meetings that should be governed by the establishment clause. It has also–to put it mildly–not taken care to see that its charity work in places like Africa and the Middle East is carried out by organizations whose sole aim is humanitarian aid rather than the dissemination of particular religious doctrines. Would that the conservative camp have been so clear-sighted and skeptical while all this was taking place.
Instead, the most dominant strains of conservative media and opinion have conflated atheism with Nazism and Communism and religiosity with patriotism–as if no atheist could be a patriot and as if Nazism and Stalinism didn’t resemble religious cults themselves. Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly never tire of these tropes, whether debating Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Never do they mind that in the process they have been distorting or burying the historical facts of the American founding. After all, only the most blinded by partisanship and ideology would suggest that texts by Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu conditioned the minds of our founding fathers less than the verses of the Christian Bible. Had that been the case, Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of abridging the Gospels to pamphlet size until all their affronts to Enlightenment rationality had been purged to his satisfaction.
So bravo to this new-found eye for the uncritical zeal of the masses, but it’s long overdue and should invite scrutiny, since it appears mainly to serve the utility of disparaging party opponents. None can try to claim this as a virtue that conservatives will be able to tout by voting for a man who flip-flopped on his willingness to associate with a religious bigot like Jerry Falwell. The differences between Falwell and the repugnant Mr. Farrakhan are slight. Obama has not–and isn’t likely to–openly put aside his differences with the leader of the Nation of Islam and give a speech at one of its functions. McCain, on the other hand, did just this by smoothing over his differences with Falwell and delivering a commencement speech at Liberty University.
And while Barack Obama is rightly being held to account for his ties to the inflammatory Chicago reverend Jeremiah Wright, conservatives remain conveniently mum about McCain’s buddy John Hagee. Wright thinks 9/11 was retribution for American foreign policy while Hagee believes hurricane Katrina was New Orleans’ just desserts for having let their city descend into a “level of sin that was offensive to God.” Isn’t blowback at least a more sophisticated theory to preach from the pulpit than that of morally indignant weather phenomena?
The real lesson to take away isn’t that these choices reflect on the true beliefs and character of the candidates. Cozying up to Hagee and Falwell was and is politically smart for McCain. It’s also not that different from Obama’s relationship to Trinity Church in Chicago. These are political calculations; collusions with superstitious demagogues for access (Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, not only wears bio-electric amulets, she’s been known have psychic conversations with the spirits of long-dead first ladies. No need to consult with lunatic cranks if you are one yourself.)
The truly critical eye would notice that both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama are equally capable of logical inconsistencies and populist pandering. A prime example of this was their exchange over Iraq that took place when it seemed apparent that the general election would be a match between the two of them. Mr. Russert’s question to Obama at the Cleveland debate was phrased as a hypothetical that clearly implied an insurrection or civil war had been absent prior and had resurged. Obama’s singling out of Al-Qaeda merely name-dropped the group that would be most likely responsible in that event. McCain’s dig at Obama (“I have some news…”) was made possible only by ignoring the semantics that both men most certainly understand and that McCain hopes his supporters will neither catch nor comprehend.
By the same token, Obama’s retort that ‘there was no Al-Qaeda in Iraq before we invaded’ is total hogwash and takes advantage of his audience’s blindness to sheer fact. Musab al-Zarqawi fled to Iraq after being wounded in Afghanistan–a theater Obama openly (and rightly) concedes was worthwhile. Zarqawi’s operation in Iraq existed before it’s 2004 formal declaration of allegiance with bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which was itself an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam. The shift from Ansar to JTJ to Al-Qaeda had to do with little more than nomenclature. The same people with the same goals, the same enemies and the same ideology had indeed been there before the U.S. arrived and only welcomed the chance to escalate their holy war. One imagines that McCain and Obama aren’t showing their stupidity by making these claims, but instead are merely showing their willingness to employ identical rhetorical tactics against their opponents to the disrespect of the intelligence of their supporters.
As for Obama’s “hard” leftism, one wonders how many hard leftists the folks who make this charge have known or spoken with seriously. I know for certain that somewhere around zero percent of those would ever proclaim Israel’s security to be “sacrosanct,” nor would they utter a positive adjective anywhere near the name “Ronald Reagan” or the word “Republican.” If Obama has ever been a hard leftist, it’s safe to level the flip-flopper charge on him as well.
Despite my general distaste for George W. Bush and his politics, I have spent the better part his last presidential term defending the man from hyperbolic and passionately hateful charges that he was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler or worse than bin-Laden. No matter how, or to what extend the hard left disagreed with Bush, there was no denying that most Americans had friends, family, neighbors and loved ones who would have acted very similarly to the way Mr. Bush did in office. That hardly meant that they endorsed the wholesale and bloody removal of Jews or non-believers from the Earth. The same principle must be applied to Obama. If indeed he has (or has had in the past) sympathies or ties with groups like the Weathermen, then while this is a stain on his record it does not elevate him to treasonous, fifth-columnist status any more so than Bush’s ties to the PNAC made him the “same as” some of the worst mass murderers in recent history.
If the right side of the spectrum wants us to be on the lookout for the worshipfulness of the Obama camp, that is music to my ears. But that tune is muted somewhat by the simultaneously insulting implication that such intellectual clarity escapes liberals and Obama supporters. There are at least as many Obama supporters who are dismayed by their fellow boosters’ infantile fandom as there were Bush Republicans who squirmed as they watched the administration they had supported run a worthwhile war effort and the institution of the presidency into the ditch. The guilt-by-association argument that judges Obama the candidate according to the audience who cheers him will not a more informed electorate make.
McCain and Obama supporters should acknowledge that politics is war, that in each there are direct strikes and there are covert operations, and that the object of the game is not purity but hopefully the largest measure of goodness. McCain’s audience will allow him to say some things that Obama’s will not–things they both know to be true, like that immediate withdrawal from Iraq isn’t even a remote possibility. Obama might know this but know he must be covert, while McCain can be direct. McCain probably didn’t like Falwell any more than Obama–who has openly referred to his upbringing as “humanist”–likes Farrakhan, bin-Laden or any other hateful religious cretin. But McCain tucked his tail and bowed to Falwell anyway, knowing that an outspoken critic of the religious right would have as hard a time winning the GOP nomination as a liberal candidate who conceded the unquestionable need to secure Iraq from descending into absolute chaos before withdrawal.
Surely the ‘change we seek in Washington,’ as Obama is fond of saying, is not a return to isolationism. It isn’t progressive, it’s regressive to say, as he did in Cleveland, that money spent on eliminating dictatorship abroad would be better spent on American bridges (news flash for Derbyshire–most hard left socialists of the 20th century who were worth their salt were internationalist opponents of fascistic regimes). Call it the audacity of hope, but surely a candidate who chose as an advisor one of the foremost intellectuals on ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence knows better. Hope in such an instance is also a form of respect for both Obama and his supporters. It will take a bit more convincing until I fully believe that millions of Americans do not comprehend the notion that a rushed retreat from Iraq will fall into the long list of victories that radical Islamism believes it has won, from the mujahideen’s defeat of the Soviets and the lame U.S. response to Hezbollah activity in the 80′s, to the Kenyan embassy bombings, U.S.S. Cole, and Blackhawk Down incidents of the 90′s, to 9/11, 7/7, and the Madrid and Mumbai attacks. Sadly, though, hope will only last for so long as an option in that department. We should be ready to accept that many Americans and perhaps a wildly popular candidate for president do not realize this. Still, we shouldn’t be so hasty in assuming they don’t, nor should anybody be bending over backwards trying to connect dots that don’t actually connect.
The contours of dishonesty are a given in politics, just as the dynamics of persona dictate the rise and fall of junior and senior Senators alike (witty war-hero or eloquent, multi-ethnic savior, take your pick). Both conservative and liberal, pro-Obama and pro-McCain voters would do well to keep in mind that honesty and clarity aren’t the exclusive domain of their party or candidate, but that critical vigilance is the only safeguard against tyranny of all stripes–including of the majorities. Focus in that department will provide the only compass for gauging who will be less the scoundrel upon their exit from the Oval Office and how much better or worse off we’ll be as a nation once all is said and done.
Josh Strawn a writer and musician based in New York. His band is Blacklist.