William Hazlitt on Barack Obama, Or: Why the Ridiculous Is no Laughing Matter

“Those who lack delicacy,” Hazlitt observed, “hold us in their power.” All rumors to the contrary, and despite the principle enunciated by Jorgé Luis Borges that allows us to speak of such prodigies as Wordsworth’s influence on Milton, Hazlitt was not writing about Barack Obama. Yet he might have been, just as he might have been writing about Obama and his administration (calling you, Eric Holder) that “gentlemen are no match for blackguards.” The reason is not far to seek. “The former,” Hazlitt explains, “are on the their honour, act on the square,” while the latter, . . . well, you know.


A gentleman, for example,  does not lie under oath. On September 7th, 2011, Eric Holder denied to  Darrell Issa’s congressional committee that knowledge of Fast and Furious, the convert gun-walking program that left dozens of Mexican’s and U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry dead, reached “into the upper levels of the Justice Department.” “I don’t think,” said the attorney general, that is is “supported by the facts.”

Oops. Issa’s committee obtained copies of six wiretap applications and, gosh, what do you know? They “show that immense detail about questionable investigative tactics was available to the senior officials who reviewed and authorized them.” So Holder back-pedaled a bit on that. As he has back-pedaled, retracted, withdrawn so many statements about who knew what when and how.

Now, Eric Holder may well be headed for a contempt of Congress citation.  What would happen then is anyone’s guess. We know what would happen if you or I lied to Congress.  But we’re just the little people. When we don’t pay our taxes, the IRS gets cross. But then we’re not the secretary of the Treasury. We can take it for granted that Eric Holder flies somewhere above the law. But we do not possess the moral altimeter that can tell us how far above the law he flies. Is lying under oath to a congressional committee OK?  I guess we’ll find out.


But speaking of gentlemen, and of the political advantages of lacking delicacy, what do you think of someone who is having difficulty raising funds for his reelection but whose supreme sense of entitlement authorizes him to suggest that you forgo a wedding, anniversary, or birthday  gift in order to contribute to his campaign? I suppose it’s despicable.  But it is surely also risible in a pathetic, contemptible sort of way.  And yet that’s exactly what the president of the United States, Barack [don’t mention his middle name] Obama, has just done, much to the delight of Twitterdom. Really, the official appeal on the “Obama-Biden” web site is something special:

I, too, snorted in disbelief when I first heard about this. What a tacky, indelicate thing to do! In one stroke, Obama has made himself a laughing stock, rendered himself ridiculous, and assured that he will be the butt of comedians for weeks if not months.

But here’s the thing to remember. We often assume that someone who is ridiculously contemptible is therefore not dangerous. History shows that, on the contrary, the ridiculous can easily cohabit with the malevolent. The fact that someone is a preening buffoon provides absolutely no assurance that he is not also a grasping egomaniac. The last few weeks have not been kind to Barack Obama. The skies are filled with chickens coming home to roost. The scent of panic among Democrats is palpable as the gaffes multiply, the economy lurches, and the money-machine dries up. We can expect greater and greater exhibitionist spectacles, orgies of moral browbeating, and Chicago-style gutter ad hominem attacks.  Some of this will be simply preposterous, like the AttackWatch web site (remember that?) or the suggestion that we forgo Junior’s new bicycle and instead send the dough to the president’s reelection campaign. But don’t be lulled by the preposterousness of these gambits of desperation into thinking that their perpetrators, because ridiculous, are therefore harmless. It turns out that, in the world of politics, what is ridiculous is often no laughing matter.




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