January 16, 2010
Obama as Greek Tragedy

At the recent BARBARian gathering the subject of politics arose, as it tends to do. This group originally got together to bitch about Bush in person rather than virtually.

There was, therefore, a good deal of excitement during the 2008 election, and not a little dissension about which Democrat to support. I was one of the few, possibly the only one, who wasn’t used to voting for Democrats at the national level.

Once Obama was elected, the mood ranged from imminent utopia to relief and reasonably high expectations. Plus my cynicism, which never felt unwelcome but was certainly out of place for several meetings.

So it’s both depressing and validating to find that the first meeting in several months exhibited little enthusiasm for the Obama administration or the current Democratic leadership in general. I wish I’d been wrong in predicting that Obama would be no better than Clinton, but you surround yourself with Rubinites and you don’t have a prayer of doing anything that doesn’t destroy the country in economic terms. You believe the hawks in the military and the punditocracy and you lose any chance of ramping down the empire consciously and intelligently, rather than perforce. I.F. Stone quotes Lord Salisbury:

If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome;
if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent;
if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.

And if you believe the historians, nothing is new.

What surprises and depresses me is not the bad policies that Obama has adopted, nor his unwillingness to fight for anything but the interests of the worst corporations and the super-rich; that’s what he’s always done. I mean, this guy converted to Christianity as an adult, the same year he entered Harvard Business School. I gave up on Pelosi years ago, before she was Speaker, and haven’t voted for her for decades. And Harry Reid has an impressive life story but I can’t imagine how he ended up as the leader of anything. My guess is that he was the milquetoast to whom the fewest Democrats objected; and if that’s how you’re choosing leaders you’re not headed anywhere, you’re just trying to stay in power.

No, what surprises me is the abject ineptitude of the political calculations. Obama took off the table the single-payer idea that would have carried him through if he’d been what people thought he was. Congressional Democrats went along because they remembered the lesson they mis-took from 1994. Entering a negotiation with the express purpose of passing something, any bill at all, leaves you with no leverage. You’ve already agreed to fail, all you need is some face-saving band-aid. Who wins a negotiation? The party who can walk away.

Imagine for a moment that President Obama had made one of his best speeches on national television, like he’s done for major issues in the past. In this speech he’d called for universal health care like other developed countries have. Not universal insurance mandates, but universal health care, government-managed like other countries’. Single payer, which a majority of Americans have favored for decades. What would his poll numbers look like? He wouldn’t actually have to achieve such a lofty goal; but if he took the lead in negotiations, and he entered with that position, he’d get something close to it if he wanted such an outcome. Clearly he didn’t.

It’s particularly sad because Obama had a rare chance to do something historic and game-changing. It’s the classic Greek tragedy, in which the hero’s character flaws lead directly to the denouement. If only he really was the progressive community organizer people thought of him as being. Of course such a person wouldn’t be nominated by the Democrats, or allowed entry to a Republican gathering.

What would have gotten at least something done was a fighter in the mold of LBJ, someone willing to go into a caucus and threaten to cut peoples’s genitals off politically if they didn’t go along. We needed Obama to say, Here’s what I’m going for philosophically: a public option. I might fail and it would end my career to do so, but I have enormous public support. Those who get in my way will feel my wrath, and I will make sure the public knows which side everyone is on. We needed the modern equivalent of FDR welcoming their hatred. Instead we got what Obama’d always been, a intermediary between the corporate Democrats and the progressives they want to co-opt, to offset the wingnuts and fundamentalists the Republicans depend on.

Imagine what a President might accomplish in this magical time we inhabit were he willing to say, as FDR said about the Citigroups and AIGs of his time,

They have begun to see the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.

What the country needs, as Nader’s said for decades, and reports that his father said to him, is a not a third political party but a second one. I would denominate it the Anti-Corporate party. Wealth would not be the target per se, but the concentration of unaccountable power that corporate wealth brings definitely would be. No corporation should ever be able to dictate to the community, yet today many Americans can’t imagine it otherwise. As Bill Greider says in his newest, Come Home, America:

More important than all the other losses is that people are also denied another great intangible — the dignity of self-directed lives. At work, at home, and in the public sphere, most people lack the right to exercise much of a voice in the decisions governing their daily lives. Most people (not all) are subject to a system of command and control over their personal destinies. They know the risk of ignoring the orders from above. Not surprisingly, many citizens are resigned to this condition and accept subservience as “the way things are,” and their lives are smaller as a result. Many find it hard to imagine that these confinements could be lessened, even substantially removed, if economic organizations were informed by democratic principles.

We find it hard to imagine that democratic principles could inform our lives because television and cinema fail to show that happening. It happens in real life, as Greider has talked about at length, especially in Who Will Tell the People? and The Soul of Capitalism. But anything that needs corporate media to create, distribute, or promote it will be filtered through the idea that corporations naturally control the sources of everything, water, air, algorithms, genetic codes, and all. We need to free our minds.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 16, 2010 07:27 PM
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From a poem in the New Yorker last month:

"...and quit worrying so much:
they can't help themselves, they're like abused dogs
And they're going to react to affection and kindness

"With uncontrollable savagery. Just tell them,
You're out of your mind, pal. You're out
of my mind. Either that or I'm out of yours.
That'll keep them brain-chained to their trees."

Brain-chained describes what Chuck is talking about if I read him right. Not just liberals, the Tea Party too (classic "abused dogs").

Posted by: CCRyder on January 16, 2010 11:28 PM

Very much so. And I don't understand precisely why in psychological terms, at least with the Democrats. The Tea Party grass roots seem to be the classic low-information voter types, who have largely formed their political views from their childhood experiences, which apparently weren't pleasant.

But what's up with the Democrats?

I have friends who claim that Obama fears for his life, not from racists but from the State itself, and therefore does nothing to upset the status quo; but I consider that view naïve psychologically. My take is that Chomsky is right in saying that you can only gain political power in the US if you believe that the United States is unique in history in acting purely from altruistic motives. Of course every other empire in history believed the analogous meme, and of course they were all proved wrong.

We're good, and the rich are the nation.

That's brain-chained, if I understand the metaphor correctly.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on January 16, 2010 11:45 PM

I continue to believe that we are the ones who have to compel the change, and Barack Obama will not initiate it without being compelled. This is what FDR required, in fact. He said to a group of reformers, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

So make him. And as for my own level of satisfaction, he kept his campaign promise to call off the federal interference with state medical cannabis laws. I may disagree with him on much else, and do, and will say so, but I neither regret supporting nor voting for him.

Posted by: mahakal on January 16, 2010 11:50 PM

Sadly, I think that you overestimate the American population. Obama could have given the best speech in history, but there is way, in my opinion, that it would have made any difference. In fact, a good argument can be made that the only reason that we have any health bill at all is precisely because Obama didn't put anything out there at the beginning that would have given critics a target.

The sad fact is that Obama is probably the best that we can hope for, given who we are as Americans, who we've elected to the Senate and House, and how the Senate has structured itself.

Posted by: Mike on January 17, 2010 4:25 PM

I have a theory about the health care issue. It might be expensive at first, as it is now as those of us who pay for it now know. Mine just went up $70.00. But if too many people can't afford it, there will have to be a massive infrastructure created to deal with the non payers.

What will the Republicans do then? Create a huge additional government infrastructure? Or will prices come down? Or will it force the government to find ways to create jobs. All those things might well happen.

And there will be tremendous pressure by the people to push down the doctors salaries. They are too high, massively high in some instances, which is part of the reason, really the main one, that the cost is so high, as a previous post by Jerry noted.

So bring it on. The Democrats will own it then, but their will then be a tremendous pressure to keep the costs down. As well as keep from creating that infrastructure to punish people who can't pay. And the only reasonable way to deal with that might be to create jobs for every American. So hang tight. History may or may not be repeated according to the historians. But humans have a remarkable ability to adapt. And we will, whatever they come up with. But we aren't going to get single payer right now. We've seen that. We created thing government we have. But we can recreate it in time.

Maybe that makes me an optimist. I don't like the way the thing has been done more than you do. But maybe that's all we can get now.

As to marijuana, you might be smoking it mahakal. But I ain't. I never liked it much when I did. If it was legal I might have liked it more. It made me paranoid.

But I have a bad back and I'd like to try it see if it helps with the pain. But not here where I live. They'd lock me up.

Maybe I'm a fool, or just an optimist. But it ain't hard to leave this country. Joe Bageant is having a ball in Mexico right now.

Posted by: Buck on January 17, 2010 7:41 PM

I think we have to compel the President to act, as FDR requested we do. The thing is, if we all marched in the streets, threw out the Congressional Democrats or Republicans, or did whatever else we might do, would Obama listen and allow himself to be forced to act against those who paid for his rise and preeminence? FDR was beholden to no one, and LBJ knew where the bodies were buried. BHO equivocates, it seems.

Still, the point is well taken that only the people can fix the country's problems. Government is helpless, and corporations and the rich are opposed to the common interest. But we constitute 95% of the population and can thus vote in anyone we want, should we happen to put down our remotes, get off our couches, and act.

Motivation, cognitive psychology tells us, comes from action. Not the other way around.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on January 18, 2010 1:00 AM

No, we cannot vote in anyone we want. Sorry, it doesn't work. The rich have an effective veto, through ownership of the media if nothing else.

But we can act, directly. Not through politics, but through our own empowered choices in our own lives. I do not want to put too fine a point on it, but the one thing I wanted from Barack Obama, I got, and that is all I need to fix everything else, and without which nothing else will be fixed.

We need a new economy. And that's all I can say about it here and now.

Posted by: mahakal on January 18, 2010 10:01 PM
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