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Humor vs. Contempt: Obama and the Question of Character

April 19th, 2010 - 10:32 am

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s claim to have been “amused” by the nationwide tea party demonstrations on Tax Day last week. Really, he told acolytes at a Democratic fundraiser (expected haul: $2.5 million), “they should be saying thank you.”

Applause. Cries of “Thank you.” Laugh track?

I believe that the editorialist for Investor’s Business Daily got it exactly right about the second part of Obama’s response to the rallies: “Thanks for What?” he asked.

Why should they [the tea partiers] be thankful? As the president himself said on his weekly radio address a week ago, “one thing we have not done is raise income taxes on families making less than $250,000; that’s another promise we kept.”

In fact, that wasn’t his promise at all.

Here’s what candidate Obama really said in September of 2008: “Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

Got that? “Not any of your taxes.” The claim of no tax hikes on those below $250,000 as a result of the current administration’s policies is completely and utterly false.

A report from the House Ways & Means Committee’s GOP members notes that, since January 2009, Congress and the president have enacted $670 billion in tax increases. That’s $2,100 for each person in America. At least 14 of those tax hikes, the report says, break Obama’s pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than $250,000. Roughly $316 billion of the tax hikes — 14 increases in all — hit middle-class families, the report says.

This comes in addition to recent data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showing U.S. spending and indebtedness growing at an alarming rate. Government spending now totals 25% of GDP, a quarter above its long-term average. By 2035, it will hit 34% of GDP at current trends — a 70% increase in the real size of government in just 25 years.

Ha, ha, ha. Very amusing, what?

What should we make of Obama’s merriment? What does it tell us about his sense of humor? What does it tell us about what an earlier age would have called his “humor,” his character?

The first thing to notice about this moment of hilarity is how consonant it is with other Obama rhetorical eructations. For example, how similar in spirit it is to his challenge to Republicans after Nancy Pelosi managed to ram the presidential health care legislation through Congress. Instantly, there were calls to repeal the law. “My attitude is,” Obama told a crowd in Iowa, “go for it” — as if it would get them anywhere!

Obama’s amusement at the spectacle of dissent was also consonant with the remarks of candidate Obama disparaging all those “bitter” folks who “cling to guns or religion” instead of getting with the big government, progressive leftism espoused by Barack Obama.

Indeed, in one sense Obama’s comments are simply natural coefficients of a basic presumption of that progressive attitude, namely, the conviction that the left-liberal view of reality is not a political view but merely the view that any enlightened, reasonable person would have. It is only dissent from that view that is political, warped by self-interest, etc. If only everyone were sufficiently enlightened, everyone would (so this fairytale goes) have essentially the same ideas about all contentious issues. Which is to say, there would in the end be no contentious issues, for to dissent from the progressive narrative would be evidence of (depending on the nature of the regime) heresy, treason, or stupidity. Ultimately, contention would not only be stigmatized as counterproductive, it would be proscribed as criminal or insane.

The popularity of this view, as I’ve noted elsewhere, owes a great deal to John Stuart Mill. It was Mill who assembled the seductive arguments and inveigling rhetoric that convinced susceptible souls to look forward to a future in which, for the first time, “general unanimity of sentiment,” “firmly grounded in reason and in the true exigencies of life,” would make dispute about any important matter otiose. What if you dispute Mill’s notion of what counts as rational? What if you think he erred in defining “the true exigencies of life”? What if you think the whole utilitarian calculus is deeply flawed and in fact elides essential dimensions of human endeavor? Then you are a candidate for re-education, restraint, or ostracization.

If you care to test the traction of this dimension of the left-liberal consensus, you need only contemplate the way in which its spokesmen in the media and political establishment treat the tea party demonstrations. It wasn’t so long ago that Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, dismissed the tea partiers as members of “the Brooks Brothers’ Brigade,” i.e., mostly middle class folks who, alarmed at the statist initiatives undertaken by the Obama administration, organized to proffer a competing point of view but who did so peaceably and with respect for the rule of law.

That was back when Obama, Gibbs, et al. could regard the tea parties as an impotent nuisance. In recent months, it is clear that the tea party has become a nuisance that, far from being impotent, might well be an electoral game-changer. Hence the establishment’s rhetoric has shifted drastically. You no longer find Barbara Boxer sneering about tea partiers being “well dressed.” Nowadays you find tea partiers accused of racism, violence, and disloyalty, never mind that the left-liberal establishment can point to no examples of these torts. The thing to grasp is that those making the accusations do not feel called upon to offer examples. The guilt of the tea-partiers transcends anything so pedestrian as actual behavior. Tea partiers are like “class enemies” under Stalin: guilty by definition.

Which brings me back to Obama’s merriment. Why did he find it “amusing” to contemplate the anti-tax rallies undertaken by (let us remember) the people he serves? Where was the humor? Let me add that I like a leader with a sense of humor. It was something that Winston Churchill, for example, possessed in spades. Clement Attlee, he said, was a modest man who had much to be modest about. Ronald Reagan had the same gift. Having been shot by John Hinckley, he said to the doctor: “I hope you are a Republican.”

But it’s one thing to have a sense of humor. It’s quite another to regard one’s opponents with amused disdain. One key difference is the presence of contempt. Obama’s modus operandi excels in the deployment of contempt. Is it part of his instinctive embrace of Saul Alinsky’s “rules for radicals“? I do not know. But in some ways Obama’s habitual expression of contempt is the most alarming component of his style of governing. Together with his evident self-infatuation and notorious sensitivity to criticism, it bespeaks a character that is volatile, heedless, and disengaged from the palpable realities faced by the people he represents. Hence his suggestion — meant, I feel sure, in all earnestness — that the people who rallied against bigger government and higher taxes should thank him for . . . for what? For not taxing them into penury?

Obama doesn’t see this, of course. He really cannot twig why everyone is not lining up to thank him for being their leader. Such imperviousness is worrisome, for it betokens a disconnection from reality. But it looks now as if the dissatisfaction represented by the tea partiers is growing by leaps and bounds. It is not dissipating, as many predicted; it is gaining definition and ever-more broad-based support. There will come a time when Obama will find it impossible to avoid acknowledging this. That is the moment when we really have to fear the reaction of this supremely disengaged connoisseur of contempt.

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