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Barack and Power

December 17, 2008

Part 1: Throwing the Baby out with the Tea

Many of the articles for this week seek to find in what ways our own policies reflect or reject the legacy of Europe. In some ways we act as the younger brother who strives to prove that he is bigger, better, etc. American human rights have always displayed a bizarre sort of amnesia, a selective morality that lingers from the era of slavery. What we do, in our own homes is private, and the domestic labor and parts of the Third World (particularly Latin America) that we think we own or possess (America’s backyard) are immune to our overtures of peace, democracy and freedom. Halper’s book warns us that the major tool of the Bush administration; the “Big Idea,” is responsible for this amnesia. We should be skeptical of these claims, because they “create false realities (and)… lead to truncated thinking.” 

American exeptionalism is the founding principle of our country. Whatever we are, we are not Britain and we are not George III. “The plate at right, from 1776, depicts American liberty as Hebe, the goddess of youth, who treads on chains, a key and a scepter- symbolic objects of the old world.” Why don’t we have cool political art anymore? The class discussion about federalism vs. renegade states brought the image to my mind of the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake. The message of this snake, from the 1780’s, is that the 13 colonies must stick together in order to survive. Perhaps more enduring images could be marshaled during our campaign?

Part 2: A New Historic Race for a New and Inspired Generation filled with Transformative but not Radical Ideology

Barack Obama’s campaign positions him as the “movement for change.” “The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders,” Obama said. “It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it is not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future.” It is not clear however, whether Obama in fact stands for the past or for the future. His website is full of references to American history, from Patton to Pearl Harbor. His “Change” coalition, therefore, hopes to jog American memory about the beneficial and nostalgic moments of their past in order to imagine a similarly rosy future. 

My first question in researching Barack was to find out at what point he decided to become a politician. I knew from reading his autobiography at my Grandpa’s house over break that he had had a rough childhood, being abandoned by his father and struggling in school. Then he moved to New York for a sort of Zen-like inner cleansing and re-dedication to work. He then entered Harvard Law School where he met his wife Michelle Robinson. The autobiography had a weird phrase here, like so on and so forth, therefore it made sense for Barack, when it came time for him to choose a wife, would choose a high- powered black woman. This is a quote from a friend of his, who knew him at the time. For, after all, they are running for the post of the American President, a poster- family- something which Bush has done with aplomb, in scenes from the Crawford Ranch, his daughters attending designer shows and parties with David Lauren and the strangely silent and robotic Laura, the Chanel- wearing Stepford wife. In a bizarre sense, they are a microcosm of the American family. Lately, Mr. Bush has reflected on his drinking days. As a biracial man, Barack chose to become black in a way that only he could. His voice is always deeper than I expect, he can be sharply mean but is also vulnerable in an odd way. 

Barack has a BA from Columbia in political science and international relations. His thesis was on Soviet nuclear disarmament. It was in Chicago, then, that he decided that he could make a bigger impact of people’s lives as a politician than as a community organizer. At Harvard, he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, in a cut- throat competition. He later joined a historic black church in Chicago in order to be a more effective leader. His journey from sensitive young man to shrewd (or scripted) politician is very interesting. Why does campaigning cost so much money? Are all the ads, press conferences, speeches, holding babies, etc. really worth it in terms of voter loyalty or allegiance? In recent news, Barack Obama has denied taking special interest money but is spending it anyway. He is part of a network of black entrepreneurs, from his basketball playing days, all of whom now make sizable donations to his campaign. 

Previously, the reforms in the primary process that limited campaign spending and allowed each candidate to receive funds from the government. Is it still necessary to receive celebrity endorsements, and private donations? Or is it something like a glorified popularity contest, with groups weighing in with their opinions…. The air of scandal and propriety. Are further primary reforms necessary? 

Part 3: “Entirely Unmerited Authority.”

My major question in this campaign, however, is foreign policy. I carefully scrutinize every word that Hillary, Barack and (until lately) John Edwards make about the war on Iraq or the global economy. Since I like to read the New York Times, there was an article recently about the end of the US era as superpower to the world. “Those yearning faces beyond our shores” may not, in fact, be so yearning anymore. This, for me, is very exciting because I have always felt our position on this end of the world to be precarious as the increasing pace of globalization alters and links our allies and enemies together in ever differing ways. The same article emphasized the US’s need to develop a diplomatic corps capable of functioning in the new multi-polar world. 

The Menand article, however, hit a sensitive issue spot on. It is true, based on whatever I know of people’s political habits, that a large majority of voters never consider the nuanced issues involved in the selection of their president or other elected officials. Whether they are too busy, lazy, unintelligent or self- absorbed, most voters go to the polling place with ” opinions that are essentially meaningless… derived from no underlying set of principles.” This might explain the power of Bush’s “success.” If “49% of the population believes that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution,” then why can’t he and who is going to stop him? This is problematic because Barack Obama’s campaign promises a politics that “no longer settles for the lowest common denominator.” How are they going to do that? He also will “finish the fight on Al- Qaeda.” But how? I am annoyed that he supports Israel, but then again, so does everybody. If voters care about the issues over parties, but take only a minimum of time to research and consider those issues, does it really matter what a candidate stands for at all? A candidate’s ideology must be broadly palatable to the electorate yet different enough to distinguish him from the others.  “For among the means of power which now prevail is the power to manage and to manipulate the consent of men. That we do not know the limits of such power, and that we hope it does have limits, does not remove the fact that much power today is successfully employed without the sanction of the reason or the conscience of the obedient.” Mills does an excellent job of tracing the murkiness of real politics behind it’s smooth facade. Between what we desire and what we think we know lies an army of little clouds, each ready to rain on our parade or to shower us with silver. “Some men are indeed much freer than others.” This truth about the nature of power flies in the face of our American Dream. The presidential hopeful, therefore, is in the strange place of belonging to that elite while having to cultivate the background and the conscience of someone who is (has) not. Our democracy is “more a fairy tale than a useful approximation.” I would like to return to Mill’s suggestions for a true democratic society in crafting our imaginary candidate. 

Something that really annoys me about this country is everyone’s “meaningless opinion;” pundits expounding forth on issues like foreign policy, terrorism, free trade. They are encouraged by waves of books and tv specials that purport if you read it or watch it, you too can be an expert. Think tanks and public policy institutions and also even many university seminars fail to educate the American public. “Those who attended left with their prejudices intact. The event was less a seminar than a pep rally with croissants.” So then, my candidate’s views on education and the media will be very important as well. Perhaps I can explore this in my next paper. 

So my lingering question is why does politics, and human nature in general, have to swing back and forth between prejudices, between blundering and recovering, between the old generation and the new? Is there some way that we could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and not “become our mothers” or are we hooked to the cycle because it is our desire to find balance and that somehow in going back and forth we are advancing a little? I think I’ve asked this question before. To Be Continued… 

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