Now that I’m a certified bachelor in the art of integrating stuff, or more precisely studying how to integrate it, there’s time to re-integrate myself into the civic life I’ve been reading about for the last several months. A big-picture question jumps out at me: is Obama in the midst of a long-term plan to demonstrate that he needs to make big changes? Or is he failing to realize the dire necessity thereof? As Spock might say, insufficient evidence to make a judgment at this point.
Three viewpoints I connected with recently were Dan Froomkin, who discussed the decision point Obama’s approaching on health care, Frank Rich’s “Guns of August” about the gun-toting wackos at the town halls, and Kevin Baker’s “Barack Hoover Obama”, which Harper’s has made freely available. I can’t help quoting gratuitously from Baker, whose flavor throughout is sardonic but measured, overall a really enjoyable and thought-provoking article even by Harper’s standards.
Instead [of imaginative liberal initiatives], we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for “trying to do too much,” as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.
The common thread of discussion goes that current events are putting the question to Obama. Will he show what believers think is his true self and become a new progressive hero? Will he shed what they think of as his protective coating of connections to the rich and powerful to emerge as a populist, defiantly leading the vast majority of us against the ramparts of established privilege? Or will he be, in fact has he already been, co-opted?
If you’ve read Ryan Lizza’s article in The New Yorker as you should, you know that this question didn’t arise for the first time as Obama came onto the national stage. Early on he showed a talent for gaining support from established money for a candidate with a funny name, a big smile, a great jump shot, and impeccable academics. He made non-obsequious overtures to the right people, he presented a different yet non-threatening face, he made people feel good about themselves, and he managed to goose along a bit of progress by doing so. A Great Black Hope for whom at least some rich white folks could root. If a few wondered whether he was leaving behind where he came from, it’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise when someone rises as far as quickly as Obama’s talents took him.
The moment approaches, however, so the thread goes, and rapidly, at which Obama will have to decide whether he goes with what believers think his gut tells him, or with the forces he rode into office. As Baker puts it in Harper’s:
President Obama, with a laudable respect for the separation of powers, has left the details and even the main tenets of his agenda to be worked out by these same congressional Democrats. This approach looks like an exercise in democracy drawn from his days as a community organizer, the sort of strategy that helps a neighborhood to decide whether it wants, say, a health clinic or a youth center. What he doesn’t care to acknowledge is that, in the case of the U.S. Congress, he’s dealing with a neighborhood where maybe half want a health clinic and the rest are holding out for grenade launchers and crystal meth.
Which brings me, oddly enough, to my old friend Machiavelli. As I’ve repeated here and elsewhere past the limit of polite excess, Old Nick did not advocate the kind of behavior he described in his most famous work The Prince; rather he described the behavior required of one who would be a prince, speaking with the experience of being tortured after the republic of which he was a part was overthrown by the returning Medicis.
The more you read Machiavelli the more you appreciate his wit. Sure, he sounds ruthless in a realpolitik fashion.
Whenever those states which have been acquired as stated have been accustomed to live under their own laws and in freedom, there are three courses for those who wish to hold them: the first is to ruin them, the next is to reside there in person, the third is to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you. Because such a government, being created by the prince, knows that it cannot stand without his friendship and interest, and does it utmost to support him; and therefore he who would keep a city accustomed to freedom will hold it more easily by the means of its own citizens than in any other way.
I’m flashing on the British in the Middle East…
But he had a sense of humor too, or at least I see one two paragraphs later in prose I imagine Hunter Thompson admiring.
But to come to those who, by their own ability and not through fortune, have risen to be princes, I say that Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and such like are the most excellent examples. And although one may not discuss Moses, he having been a mere executor of the will of God, yet he ought to be admired, if only for that favour which made him worthy to speak with God. But in considering Cyrus and others who have acquired or founded kingdoms, all will be found admirable; and if their particular deeds and conduct shall be considered, they will not be found inferior to those of Moses, although he had so great a preceptor. And in examining their actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.
What brings Old Nick to mind is an idea that puzzled me for a long time, but is becoming clearer as years advance. He postulated the existence of three basic entities in social life, the crown, the nobles, and the people, a division I imeediately objected to on several grounds. With consideration, I’ve come to think that Machiavelli is, as usual in The Prince, not telling us what ought to be, but what is, attempting to help us deal with it.
Since arriving at this conclusion, I’ve been seeing applications of the tripartite social scheme everywhere. In the current socio-economic atmosphere of struggle, some recommend fixing the economy before undertaking something as big as health care; others say health care reform helps the economy; and historians point out how many times this argument has happened before.
With businesss/labor/government replacing nobles/peasants/crown, I find myself in the modern equivalent of the peasant petitioning the king for relief, a petition that grants the de facto if not the de jure legitimacy of the king’s superior position. In this sense I understand the rebellion of the militia types and anti-government folks in general. I don’t want the Queen of England marching into my house and telling me what to do; and I don’t get my legitimacy from the government, rather the reverse.
Centrally, though, much of the health care debate seems to me to lack awareness of the corporate influence on the situation; and this is especially true among those most vociferously warning that government hands be kept off their Medicare. Quite obviously we already have the death panels they fear so much, in the private unaccountable hands of insurance and drug companies. Thirty minutes with a decent search engine should demonstrate in detail that the issue with health care is quite straightforwardly corporations versus the rest of us.
Who will bring into the political arena the basic idea, that corporations are destroying us all? And how long before they’re shot?