Thoughts, Past and Future
As I wrote in the past, the real issue is no longer whether one has confidence that Obama will prove a gifted leader, but rather to hope that he does. I think most readers wish well for our country—and thus for our President-elect. Here are some more observations on problems ahead.
1) There has to be an end to these serial bailouts—financial, the insurance companies, now cars, next cities and states, and soon mortgage holders (we will de facto punish those who struggle to pay their mortgages on time on homes with negative equity, but reward with reductions those who are late or don’t?).
Aside from the fact we are broke and are $10 trillion in debt (a large aside), there is an existential problem here. Without a concept of failure, there can be no success. If we always offer the excuse “too big to fail” to save corporations and firms that were run into the ground by greedy or stupid CEOs, brokers, and traders, or that defaulters always were victims rather than occasionally foolish or even sly (e.g., 2nd and 3rd mortgages taken out for consumer purchases, or as efforts to flip houses), then nothing changes. Learning, as Aeschylus says, comes from pain. All our childhood admonitions from “failure breeds to success” to “try, try again” are rendered null and void. We don’t want to live in a T-ball limbo where there is neither success nor failure, but just an endless slog in between.
2) There is now no journalism as we knew it. It died during the campaign. And so we have no mainstream media audit of politics other than the vestigial shrill warnings about the last three months of the dangerous Bush administration. From the New York Times, NPR, PBS, or Newsweek, we will hear little whether Obama is choosing a good or bad team, or said silly things or contradicts what he promised. They simply have lost all credibility and now the republic is left largely with bloggers, talk radio, and a few newspapers as mostly partisan auditors. This puts the mainstream media in a terrible bind. If Gitmo is not closed immediately, are the victimized detainees there suddenly redefined as terrible killers who can’t be let out? If adhered to, does the Petraeus-Bush withdrawal plan to leave Iraq by 2011, suddenly become sober and judicious? If not tampered with, do FISA and the Patriotic Act morph into reasonable measures? Does the economy suddenly improve on January 21, and Afghanistan become stable? Will anyone believe a Katie Couric, Chris Matthews, the front page of the New York Times, or listen to Andrea Mitchell when they speak of Obama? The media has bet that there was no efficacy to Guantánamo, the Patriot Act and similar provisions, and Iraq. But the fact is in the same period we were not attacked. If there were a connection between the two (and many of us think that there was), then shutting down Gitmo, repealing the Patriot Act, and getting quickly out of Iraq could be done within the first year easily and without risk. But will it happen, and if so, what would be the reaction following another 9/11-like attack?
This is not my concern, but rather what advisors to Obama are currently mulling out. Again, traditional journalism as we knew it —the big dailies, the weekly news magazines, the networks, public radio and TV—no longer exists. Death by suicide. RIP—around March, 2008.
3) I am still baffled about the exact role of race in the past election and the new Obama Presidency. Like everyone, I am pleased to see that race has been proven to be no bar to the highest office. But is the real triumph simply that the first African-American is a man of the Left? Few cared about the path-breaking career of Clarence Thomas other than to demonize him. Harry Belafonte called the first African-American Secretary of State “a house slave.” No one really praised Sec. Rice’s unprecedented career. She, unlike Obama, was an African-American with a long familial history of racial struggle; Obama in contrast is half-white, and the son of an African national and did not grow up with the vestigial racism in the South. His success is remarkable, but why did other landmark careers go unnoticed? The answer seems to be not race per se, or being African-American even (given that Obama is of half African ancestry)—but that apparently someone of mixed racial ancestry was elected President from the Left (accomplishing what no other northern liberal Senator had done since JFK). That is all I can come up with. Had Colin Powell run and won in 1996, defeating Clinton, Inc., I don’t think he would have enjoyed anything akin to the present worship.
Thoughts on a recession
I remember the recession of the early 1980s well and it was not pretty. In 1979 I applied for an academic job and was told there were 4 tenure-track openings nationwide in my field and 150 active candidates with Classics PhDs competing for them. When I then turned to farming, the first crop loan I co-signed on was in fall 1980 and taken out at an interest rate of 16%. By 1983 the price of raisins had fallen from $1,400 a ton to $480 in a single year. The local raisin cooperative went broke, and renounced their capital debt to their own members (we lost $70,000) whose vineyards had just plunged in value from $15,000 an acre to $4,000.
Things, in other words, when one measures inflation, interest rates, and unemployment, were far worse then than now. I used to wonder why my grandfather had saved two barrels of used, rusted bent and worthless vineyard staples in the back of the barn amid rat nests and spider webs, salvaged from an old vineyard that was uprooted in the 1950s. By 1983 I was reusing them all to mend vineyard wire. We may get to that, but so far we are not in such a mess yet, despite the Great Depression/FDR rhetoric.
But even more importantly, there are already self-correcting mechanisms under way. Oil has crashed like no period in history. Gas is below $2 a gallon and getting even cheaper. The country is already saving over $1 billion a day in imported fuel costs from its former highs and that affects everything from transportation to manufacturing.
Talk about stimuluses—if such a $2 gallon savings from previous highs continues, the average commuter may save $1500 a year. That not only saves consumers billions, but means our enemies and rivals in Iran, Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela suddenly have billions less to spend on terrorism, new weapons systems, and general mischief. (They may become more desperate and adventuresome, but will still have less wherewithal).
Housing prices for young people in states like California are suddenly affordable for the first time in decades. The war in Iraq is less dangerous for Americans than are neighborhoods in our major cities. Not all is doom and gloom as we read. Capitalism is no more dead than it was supposedly in 1980, 1991 or 2001. The world is less dangerous now than in 1979. There was a reason we were not attacked in the seven years after 9/11—though it will take a decade from now for most to fathom why.
Why blame the Mormons?
All the exit polls suggest that the notion of gay marriage was rejected in California, largely by huge Hispanic and African-American majorities, enhanced by recent Obama voter registration drives. Why then do activists picket churches, when the larger anti-gay marriage constituency could be found in East Palo Alto, South Central Los Angeles or Parlier? Wouldn’t it be better to bus gay activists into those communities to do teach-ins and public demonstrations?
Many cited Ann Coulter and others as proof of right-wing hatred. Two points: first, as polemicists they are balanced by and in the same business as Michael Moore or a Keith Olbermann et al. But my drift was altogether different. I was talking about a mainstream culture, not polemicists—publishers like Knopf issuing a book about killing Bush, Hollywood losing billions on serial movies about supposed American criminality in Iraq, documentaries about shooting Bush, etc.
Second, the vast majority of scholars and academics is on the left. Polls, surveys of campaign donations, interviews—they all reflect the reality that professors are far more predictably partisan than are hedge fund directors or Wall Street investors.
Voicing doubts about Obama by an historian is only controversial in the sense I was not voicing doubts about Bush (and I have in the past on issues like first Fallujah, failing to cite the congressional 23 writs of October 11-12 to go into Iraq, illegal immigration, excessive spending, etc.).
When scholars critique Bush, they are “engaged,” and “seeking to shed light from the past on contemporary issues”; when one questions Obama, one apparently becomes a hack. I note another difference: when I get paleo-right criticism on the war, for example, usually it is differentiated and not so ad hominem; but the Obama supporters tend to send in pro forma “you’re a hack” puerile groupthink. Throughout this campaign, almost every column that expressed worry about Obama was within 24 swarmed by Obama partisans, all either beginning and ending with ‘you’re a ———————.
PS. I wrote a version of the following the other day for the NRO corner, and I think it sums up this dilemma for the new Obama administration discussed above:
For much of the last few years, and especially the last few months of the campaign, we have heard a familiar narrative. Guantánamo was a virtual Stalig, where far more innocents than terrorists were unjustly incarcerated. Given that this gulag served no useful purpose, it should be summarily shut down, and the unfairly detained suspects at last returned to their families back home. The FISA laws and Patriot Act were aimed more at bogeymen than jihadists, and what little advantage they gave us was not worth the shredding of the Constitution.
The ‘fly-paper’ theory of Iraq—thousands of belligerents flocked to Iraq, were killed and defeated, discredited radical Islam, and, their loss of face, coupled with a constitutional Iraq, made the region and the U.S. safer–is a puerile reductive fiction. What bellicosity we experienced with supposedly rogue terrorist-sponsoring states such as Syria and Iran was largely due to George Bush’s juvenile cowboy rhetoric—‘bring ‘em on’, ‘smoke ‘em out, ‘dead or alive’—and his refusal to defuse tensions and misunderstandings through reasoned diplomacy.
The promotion of democracy was a neocon pipedream, in which partly through violence, partly through cultural arrogance, we tried to clumsily project our values on deeply religious, traditional, tribal—and in the end, deeply different—societies, whose own alternate politics cannot be so crudely dismissed by our rather arbitrary standards.
American unpopularity in the Middle East had nothing to do with globalization, westernization, age-old envy or the newfound ability via instant communications to see how much worse life was in an autocratic Arab world than in a free West, but was largely a phenomenon of George Bush’s Iraq War and his neocon advisors’ crude tilt toward the Zionists. “The War On Terror” was largely a construct to wage perennial war, impugn the patriotism of critics, and scare the American people, through false consciousness, into voting against their real economic interests.
I think that is a fair enough appraisal of the opposition’s view of the Bush anti-terror philosophy. And as is true of all theories, we will soon perhaps see the extent to which it proves the more accurate in the real world of the next administration.
So the closing of Guantánamo, repeal of the Bush anti-terrorism legislation, rapid withdrawal from Iraq (though we are already past Obama's original target date of March 2008 for withdrawal of all combat troops), cessation of pressure to democratize and the end of hectoring against Arab authoritarianism, soothing rhetoric from a new Chief Executive, renewed diplomatic reaching out to Teheran and Damascus, more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and rejection of the notion we are in some sort of war, much less one of a “global” nature, should ensure greater American popularity, win-over our critics, defuse tensions with Iran and Syria, and ensure another seven years of safety from a major terrorist attack at home.
So come late January and beyond we shall see, and we all should genuinely wish the Obama administration well in their promised radical departure from the past, since the stakes are high for us all.