Posted tagged ‘cynicism’

Looking for hope in a hopeless world

June 10, 2008

Put aside your Obama-fatigue for a few minutes and read this:

http://www.esquire.com/features/barack-obama-0608#

A long excerpt (bold emphasis is mine):

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is — or, as a right, ought to be — about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and the lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country’s name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.

The ownership of the people over their politics — and, therefore, over their government — had been placed in quitclaim long before the towers fell, and the president told the people to be just afraid enough to let him take them to war and just afraid enough to reelect him, but not to be so afraid that they stayed out of the malls.

It had been happening, bit by bit, over nearly forty years. Ronald Reagan sold the idea that “government” was something alien. The notion of a political commonwealth fell into a desuetude so profound that even Bill Clinton said, “The era of Big Government is over” and was cheered across the political spectrum, so that when an American city drowned and the president didn’t care enough to leave a birthday party, and the disgraced former luxury-horse executive who’d been placed in charge of disaster relief behaved pretty much the way a disgraced former luxury-horse executive could be expected to behave in that situation, it could not have come as any kind of surprise to anyone honest enough to have watched the country steadily abandon self-government over the previous four decades. The catastrophe that is the administration of George W. Bush is not unprecedented. It was merely inevitable. The people of the United States have been accessorial in the murder of their country.

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

Most of the damage was in plain sight in 2004, when Barack Obama became a political star by giving a speech in which he told America what a great country it was, and what great people were in it, and then the country went out and reelected George W. Bush anyway. Then came even further revelations — of warrantless spying, of a Justice Department turned into little more than a political chop shop, of torture and black prisons, of the length and breadth and sheer audacity of the lies that led to a seemingly endless war. The Democrats even took over the Congress in 2006. And nothing, it seemed, changed. Nobody was held responsible. White House aides simply ignored congressional subpoenas. Documents vanished. E-mails were accidentally deleted. The sound of the shredders working in a hundred different offices in the executive branch of the government must today sound like the starting line at Daytona five seconds before they drop the flag.

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost.

That is the election that the cynic thought we’d have in 2008, an epochal choice of wisdom over stupidity, energy over apathy, grimly serious business over shiny trivialities. He was no less a sucker than any of his countrymen for appeals to the better angels of his nature. But this time around, he wanted those angels to be carrying flaming swords. He thought he’d measured the wreckage, walked through the ruins, and counted the cost. He didn’t think he was smarter than his countrymen or shrewder about his politics or wiser in the ways of the world. The cynic simply thought he was adequate to the times, and he didn’t want to be “moving on” just yet. He didn’t want an election that offered absolution without confession, without penance.

Instead, he got an incredible collection of clowns on the Republican side; he was at one debate in which three of them, 30 percent of the Republican field, declined to state publicly that they believed in evolution. (Looking at the bunch of them on stage, the cynic began to have his own doubts.) Mitt Romney of Massachusetts spent an entire campaign revealing himself to be the Piltdown man of American politics. Mike Huckabee, a likable preacher who played bass guitar, was an appealing fellow with dangerously loopy ideas. In the end, the Republicans settled on John McCain, who’d traded his shiny armor from 2000 for a tattered choir robe, and who was promising to run on being better at everything at which George W. Bush had been bad. The cynic had spent time with McCain almost a decade earlier, and he had liked him tremendously, and now the cynic didn’t recognize him at all.

On the other side, an equally sizable field thinned itself down pretty quickly. Hillary Rodham Clinton was bright and enthusiastic, and her campaign seemed to be doing everything correctly, but she was engaged without being particularly engaging, her campaign something out of 1972. Barack Obama, as the tennis coaches say, wrong-footed her almost from the start.

The cynic had been in the hall for Obama’s big speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was beautifully written, impeccably delivered, and its rhetoric was thrilling. Obama took the crowd through the incredible ethnographic stewpot of his upbringing — Kenyan father, white Kansan mother, a brief stint living in Indonesia, high school in Hawaii, and then Columbia and Harvard Law — and when he got to the peroration, the cynic knew that Obama had won the country as surely as he had lost the cynic himself.

“Yet, even as we speak,” Obama said, “there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spinmasters and the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.”

(A month later, at the Republican convention, the cynic saw fat little delegates and their fat little wives wearing Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock John Kerry’s war wounds. He saw the Swift Boat ads. The country bought it. The country moved on.)

“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America.”

(Three months later, the cynic watched black voters be systematically disenfranchised in key precincts all over the country. There was no anger. There were no demonstrations. There was no great rising in defense of a fundamental right. There was, instead, nothing. The country bought it. The country moved on.)

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans and blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. We are all of us one people, all of us defending the United States of America.”

(Over the next several months, the cynic watched as the Republicans masterfully used the threat of gay people getting married to gin up turnout where they needed it the most. It was a creepy, shabby election that wasn’t about anything that was really happening in the country. The country bought it. The country moved on.)

So when Obama caught fire in Iowa this year and then moved along through the process, bedeviling the Clintons and selling out the halls, the cynic wondered when he was finally going to measure the wreckage, walk through the ruins, or count the cost. Obama was critical enough of what had happened over the previous seven years; his early opposition to the war in Iraq gave him an unbeatable trump card against Edwards and Clinton and tremendous cachet with younger and more liberal voters. But as Obama’s campaign gathered strength, the cynic kept hearing that 2004 speech again, in bits and pieces, in every stump speech Obama gave, and he saw that what Obama was offering was exactly what the country did not need. He was offering absolution without confession, without penance. In 2007, when asked about the possibility — just the possibility — of impeaching George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney, Obama scoffed at the idea, not entirely because it was constitutionally unsound but also because it was impolite and a nuisance and might make many people angry at one another, and he was, after all, running to help save us from ourselves.

“We would, once again, rather than attending to the people’s business, be engaged in a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, nonstop circus.”

He was offering a guilty country a nolo plea. Himself. Absolution without confession.

The cynic declined the deal. There were not enough people in handcuffs yet.

And another:

[Obama] talks forever about “change.” Change from what? the cynic wondered. Obama never really says. He criticizes Bush, and his people, and his policies. He runs through the litany: Iraq. Katrina. The collapse of the subprime mortgage industry. The overall economy, now barely clouding the mirror under its nose. He’s tough when he does it, and smart, and shrewd. But it ends there. Obama never addresses the era of complicity, the fact of the country’s accessorial conduct in its own murder. He just tells the country that it’s really better than all that. And the cynic’s questions are never really answered. And he talks forever about “hope.” The cynic hears it and remembers the legend of Pandora. Hope was the jewel left in the box after she’d opened it, but Pandora never noticed Hope until she’d loosed all the demons onto the world.

Wow. A fantastic bit of writing, in my never humble opinion. The asides on Huckabee and McCain alone are worth the price of admission. I pushed for the library to get Esquire because I knew Bill James and other authors I respect have historically published there. The first issue I read, though, was pure drivel–a rich man’s (literally and figuratively) Maxim. The Obama cover caught my eye, though, and I’m glad I got to read this. I’ll have to see if Charles P. Pierce, the author, is always this good.

The essay lead me to a bout of surprising self-realization: Obama does inspire hope, even in my cynical self, but he’s more imperfect than I’ve previously allowed. The truth is, he’s just the best of a bad lot–better than the gag-inducing choice of Bush and Kerry last go around, to be sure, but not an ideal candidate. In a world where Kucinich or even Nader or Dean are realistic candidates, I think I’d dismiss Obama as a wonderful speaker and source of idealism but a weak presidential candidate, lacking in experience and perhaps too idealistic.

By my reckoning, Obama is a risk–he could be just the president we need or he could be ineffectual in any number of ways. With my support/vote I’m betting on the chance that he does manage to inspire real change in this nation. It’s a case of prefering the devil I don’t know, to the one I think do (Hillary) or thought I did (McCain).

Leaving that aside, Pierce also brings to the fore something I’ve repressed lately: “There were not enough people in handcuffs yet.” Damn skippy. I’m outraged by the lack of outrage. Though, truthfully, my anger is sputtering out: I’m too much the cynic to think the criminals will ever be brought to justice, and so I just get depressed instead.