The Power of Payback
I have believed in the power of the goddess Nemesis (“dispenser of dues”) ever since I was introduced to the concept as a teenager studying classics, especially in the texts of Hesiod, Herodotus, and Sophocles.
Some of you know her also as a variant of eastern Karma, or the folk notion of ‘what comes around, goes around’, or the now common "ain’t payback a bitch"? We all agree on the symptoms: overweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis—who ensures your ruin. At Rhamnous on the Attic coast there is a beautiful temple to the goddess, proof of her ubiquity and power.
Obama as all-knowing Oedipus
As sure as sun rises, you readers knew that, as early as 2007, Obama’s fiery rhetoric about the disaster in Iraq and the good war in Afghanistan was not only disingenuous, but would come lurking back to haunt him—especially given the efforts of the talented David Petraeus, and the myriad challenges of the age-old tribalism in Afghanistan.
And so it has. He now owns the “good” and “necessary” war that, according to Obama, we supposedly wrongly “took our eye off of.” Now at last Obama is free as he wished to go into Pakistan in hot pursuit of terrorists (and as he once boasted in the debates amid the trashing of the then big-target Bush administration.)*
Snap My Fingers—Guantanamo Closed!
Remember Guantanamo? He could have said in January: “Tough call. Eric Holder once thought it was fine. Where else do you put non-uniformed murderers, who are sort of foreign soldiers in a global war unlike domestic criminals, but yet not soldiers either as we have traditionally defined them at Geneva? We will have a long look at the facility, get bipartisan input from the Bush administration and the Congress, and then choose the bad rather than the worst choice.”
Nope. Instead, we got the hope and change soaring cadences about shutting it down within “a year” and “reset button” inanity—ad nauseam. That will prove to be impossible. Already he is throwing his Guantanamo czar under the bus, even as Mr. Craig blames (you guessed it) the Bush administration for his inability to depose of the detainees. (Did he really think that divine-sounding Germans and British leftists who shouted that we were running a Stalig would really want their own terrorists back home rather than in Cuba under lock and key?)
Snap Twice—Europeans Hypnotized
In fact, most contemporary meltdowns involve Nemesis. Did Obama imagine that he could wow cynical Europeans with diversity stories about Chicago, as if they were props at a campaign rally or guilt-ridden college deans? Yes, it worked in 2008, but already then his fatuousness was gaining the goddess’s attention. (I am careful when doing European interviews; even sympathetic Euros have at best an ironic streak, at worse a sort of delight in embarrassing you, given their world weariness and suspicion of anything that sounds of idealism or naïveté (cf. the old trope of ‘innocents abroad’). Obama should have learned all that from his Brandenburg Gate/Victory Column stunt two summers ago. (When he stands next to the smaller, but more significant Sarkozy, Obama now seems almost pre-teenish.)
And Then There is Always Letterman to the Rescue
Ditto David Letterman. It was not just that he indulged in the same sort of behavior as the butts of his jokes serially enjoyed, but that such jibes naturally turned attention to his own supposedly exempt lifestyle. If a Clinton or Edwards got caught up in the vanity of power, and needed the ego-boosting or enjoyment that younger flesh might impart, why did Letterman, given his similar character, think he was any different? Did he think the goddess was snoozing when he libeled the 14-year daughter of Sarah Palin as a dugout tart?
The Greeks remind us that when success and bounty arrive, then, especially, it is time to be self-effacing, modest, generous, and forgiving. If not, retribution follows—whether because human nature dictates that the crowd wishes misfortune upon the haughty, or, as I confess that I believe, there is a sort of divine force that seeks to remind us of our own folly and can only do that in appropriately dramatic and timely fashion.
If it were true that the financial meltdown of last September and the tough time in Iraq were reminders to the Bush administration that once around 2003, coming off Wall Street surges and easy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, they should have calmed down, and treaded softly (rather than ‘mission accomplished’ and ‘bring ‘em on’), so too Obama should have feared the goddess last winter.
Nemesis Was Watching, watching...
Nemesis has caught up with him in oh so many ways. From what we can tell, he was not a serious student, but rather a glib and politically astute observer, who rode affirmative action, identity politics, and campus trends (I am now gleaning this from his own autobiography) right through Occidental and Columbia to Harvard Law—without much scholarship. He was given much more attention at Chicago Law School for what he represented than what he accomplished. He arrogantly thought he could glide into the racist cauldron of Trinity Church, and glide out as an authentic African-American organizer of the Jesse Jackson sort.
His Senate career was similar—long on soaring rhetoric, in perpetual campaign mode, predicated on white liberal guilt and ease with a charismatic “other”—and short on actual accomplishment.