How to Destroy Obama, Part I

Dinesh D’Souza brainstorms his smear against a potential nominee Obama (“Ten Truths About The Election,”, 31 March 2008):

If Obama is the nominee, this is the GOP campaign commercials I envision. It begins by showing the rantings of Wright: America deserved to be attacked on 9/11, the government sponsors the Ku Klux Klan, AIDS is a federal plot, God damn America! These images are accompanied by a voice-over noting that Wright is Obama’s longtime mentor, and that Obama has attended this church for two decades. Then we see Obama saying he will no more disavow Wright than he would disavow a family member. Finalloy we see pictures of the two men embracing while a voice says, “Is this the man who is going to bring America together and stand up to our enemies?” At this point, it’s done!

Of course, I am busily thinking up my own ideal hit piece against Senator McCain and I can imagine throwing in a little religious wackoness and we deserved September 11th from the right, so I guess all’s fair. Just set aside any hope of a clean campaign. The 2008 general election will be the Bush doctrine as cornered animal. Expect it to bite.

And number ten of Mr. D’Souza’s truths about the election: Hillary Clinton will have a President Obama killed (no insinuation regarding Vincent Foster, this is the respectable right here, not the loonies).

Campaign Doldrums

Way to go laying out the calendar for the primaries Democrats. Here’s George Packer on the effect (“Stop Shouting!,” Interesting Times, The New Yorker, 25 March 2008):

What we are witnessing is a controlled experiment in modern campaigning: eliminate policy differences between two candidates; space out the primary schedule so that it remains empty for seven weeks, thereby creating a political-news vacuum in which the candidates and their supporters continue to give speeches, hold press conferences, or blog nonstop; and subject every word to the scrutiny and amplification of the twenty-four-hour news machine. The predictable result is that two appealing politicians will quickly start to lose their lustre, until, by the time Pennsylvania gets to vote, on April 22nd, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will seem like the smallest, meanest, dirtiest, lowest, most dishonest candidates ever to run for office in the United States.

A Tale of Two Elections

My thinking on the election at this point has been twofold. First is that a Barack Obama-John McCain matchup is good on either theory of campaigning, base mobilization or capture the middle. Senator McCain fails to mobilize the base, but has a lot of crossover appeal. However, the base just won’t give him a break so the need to throw them red meat will be endless and in his desperate attempts to mollify the base, he will sacrifice whatever crossover appeal he has. Senator Obama also has crossover appeal, but with a base more than enthusiastically behind him, he will be free to concentrate entirely on capturing independents. That’s an equation that just works for Democrats.

On the other hand, I’ve thought that 2008 could see an election in which spending by 527s could dwarf that of the actual candidates campaign committees. In 2004 the John Kerry and George Bush campaigns together spent $957 million and independent advocacy groups spent another $436 million. In 2008 it is anticipated that the 527s will constitute an even larger portion of total campaign spending. The candidates’ message could become only one of many voices, lost in the din. Their ability to shape their message could be totally lost amidst the interest groups with only limited commitment to the candidate’s agenda and no organizational connection. For instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth specifically said that even if the Bush campaign or the RNC has asked them to desist their attack ads, they would not. John McCain has said that he wants to run an honorable, respectful campaign, but that may be out of his hands. Barack Obama may want to avoid any divisiveness, but similarly he may only have partial say in that.

These two thoughts are at odds because a wildly out of control, dirty campaign could end up mobilizing that right wing base that had originally resolved to stay at home. Adequately convinced of the depravity of Senator Obama, Senator McCain might start looking pretty good. The sentimental types have a hard time acknowledging this about the American character, but hate is a far more energetic motivator than affection. Similarly independents, always unsure about this black man, could be easily swayed once the flowery rhetoric is displaced by the images of an angry radical. I believe it was Karl Rove who said watch political commercials with the sound off to understand their true impact. Language is only going to get Senator Obama so far.

And so Kevin Drum gives me pause today (“Why Hillary Fights,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 30 March 2008):

Of course Barack Obama can win against John McCain. And I still believe that.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the Jeremiah Wright controversy has shaken my confidence a bit. This has nothing to do with the substance of the thing, which I think has been wildly overblown, but by the conservative reaction to it. Go scan The Corner and you’ll find Mark Steyn and Victor Davis Hanson and the rest of the gang still in an absolute lather over Wright. Ditto for other conservative sites. They have no intention of allowing this to die, and I have no doubt that it will resurface with a vengeance in every last swing state this fall. When Obama continues to fail to denounce Wright thoroughly enough — and believe me, no denunciation will ever be enough with this crowd — then eventually the crossover Republicans who were singing Obama’s praises after Super Tuesday will, sadly but inevitably, use this as an excuse to switch their support to McCain. Can’t vote for a guy who doesn’t have the balls to disown an outraged black guy in a dashiki, after all. Ditto for a lot of political moderates who have fallen under the Obama spell but are really more anti-Hillary than they ever were pro-Obama.

Now, my guess is that, in the end, this won’t work. The polls taken after Obama’s race speech showed, gratifyingly, no reduction in his support, suggesting that a sleaze campaign will have a harder time working against Obama than it did against John Kerry. Still, it’s out there, and it’s pretty clearly part of the game plan for the fall campaign. I think Hillary’s folks are wrong to believe that Obama is doomed, but I’m not sure I think they’re delusional any more. There’s every sign that we have an ugly campaign ahead of us.

I just wish that once in my lifetime the Democrats would nominate someone legitimately hungry and angry, someone who had justice in their veins and realized that instituting in the world was going to require blood and who was willing to destroy the forces that stood in their way. I want the Dean scream, I want the crazy Al Gore circa 2004. I want Lyndon Johnson. Instead we get these wheedling, whining, preening milktoasts who think that an election is a word-emitting contest. I don’t know, maybe I’m a lunatic partisan at this point.

I too still think that Senator Obama will win, but it’s going to be ugly and Senator Obama still looks to me like a guy with a lot of on the job learning to do about the workings of a national campaign.

Destroy This Mad Brute

H.R. Hopps, U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster, "Destroy This Mad Brute — Enlist", 1917

Jill Filipovic at Feminista and Erica Barnett at The Stranger both think the cover of the April 2008 issue of Vogue (above, right) is some weird racist adumbration to King Kong (“I Know Vogue Isn’t Exactly Racially Conscious, But…,” 15 March 2008; “The LeBron James Vogue Cover Controversy,” 26 March 2008, respectively). In comments a lot of people discount the idea by pointing out the faint resemblance and go on to suggest that making such a leap when the source material is so vague is suggestive of some racist machinery at work in the minds of Mses. Filipovic and Barnett. SLOG has made it a poll with 88 percent of respondents — in crunchy Seattle even — declaring it not racist.

Every time I’ve walked past this issue of Vogue it has caught my attention — it’s a striking, if not attractive, photograph — but I haven’t been able to say why and just dismissed it as some visual itch that I can’t scratch. Then I read Ms. Barnett’s post on SLOG and recognized it immediately. Mses. Filipovic and Barnett are right about what’s going on here, they just have the wrong source material. The resemblance to the King Kong cell may be distant, but it is more than unmistakable that the reference to this poster is intended. The posture, the facial expression, the basketball in place of the club, even the color of Ms. Bundchen’s dress all match. In fact, to get such a resemblance I imagine that Annie Leibovitz must have had to show them the image that she was trying to recreate.

While fielding PC service calls at in the late 1990s I came across this H.R. Hopps U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster hanging in someone’s office (the 4th floor of the 2nd and Pike building) and immediately fell in love with it. It’s one of those images has managed to distills the worldview of an era into a single flash of the eye. And it rewards deeper viewing. I have had it hanging in my bedroom for years now and careful consideration rarely fails to inspire some new thought about the perversities of the American worldview represented therein.

In the distance the crumbling ruins of old Europe, strangely suggestive of the outcome of the air power attacks still 30 years in the future. A gorilla with a Kaiser Wilhelm II mustache and a German Pickelhaube emerging from presumably the Atlantic Ocean onto the shores of America. The helmet says “Militarism,” the bloody club “Kultur.” That Europe is portrayed as decrepit, barbaric and militaristic. What can it mean that culture is considered on par with militarism among the horrors that this mad brute visits upon the shores of America? Or that the proper metaphor for culture is a bludgeon? Is it any wonder that Americans are such philistines with a history like this?

And race imagery was common in these old propaganda pieces. Witness the exaggerated, flabby lower lip on the gorilla above (do gorillas even have large lips?).

It’s fairly obvious that this imagery derived parts of its power from tapping into that same set of ideas as the verbal formulations of white mans’ burden, mission civilisatrice, the dark continent, et cetera. People imagined a spectrum running from Christian, white European civilization to black, pagan African barbarism. Much of the dialog in the segregated U.S. partook of this scheme with a considerable discourse around the relative levels of sexuality, animal vigor, impulse control, intellectual capability and moral sociability of the races.

So whenever the time came for the denigration and dehumanization of an enemy people, this stock of tropes, civilization and barbarism, Europe and Africa, white and black was rolled out. And to add to the sense of barbarism and the anxiety of the viewer, an image of sexual peril was often thrown in. Here you have Germans depicted as an Africanized gorilla. During the Second World War depictions of Japanese in the propaganda posters were routinely made with what were then referred to as “negroid” features — dark skin, large lips and broad, flat noses — though today we might conceive Asian people as being farther down the spectrum from Africans than are Europeans. The depiction of Japanese as posing a sexual threat to white women was also a common theme.

One of the brilliant aspects of this propaganda piece is its ironic turn of the civilization and barbarism narrative against the Europeans themselves. White Americans have always considered themselves superior to their European forbearers. Set apart by the Atlantic Ocean from the corrupt realpolitik of the Continent, protected by its manifest destiny from the national compromises foisted upon a people by the necessities of maneuver against peer competitors, the United States could cultivate virtue and prosperity in peace. Purified of the distractions of vulgar kultur, America would be the new Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill. Against this development, Europeans were the first gradation of barbarism on the way to Africa. And within Europe there has always been a discourse regarding the relative levels of civilization of the various white races with the Germanic and Slavic people on the defensive. So depicting the Germans as African was natural in this context.

These are all tendencies that persist to this day. Witness the uproar over Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of “old Europe” or the dialog on the right where the characterization of the United States as “the last, best hope for humanity” has become a constant cliché (President Bush used the phrase in a Commencement Address at Ohio State University on 14 June 2002; William Bennett used it for the title of his two volume history of the U.S.; John McCain has used it about three dozen times on the campaign trail). On the true right — and its mirror image in fundamental American culture, the left — Henry Kissinger is reviled: a German import: too much Metternich and Talleyrand for America.

It is exactly this cultural reservoir that the imagery of the propaganda poster and through it, the cover of Vogue magazine draw. Ms. Bundchen smiles, easing the element of sexual peril — at least on the part of the participants, if not all viewers — but Mr. James lowers himself from the upright, slender man that he is to the same hunched-back incoherently yelling thug of a century ago.

Are our race perceptions so firmly entombed in the past that it’s safe to break out such images, tongue in cheek? With media spectacles of dog fighting and sex with underage groupies even among the economically successful in the African American community, horror movies depicting Eastern Europeans and Central Americans dismembering innocent Americans on vacation and constant real life stories of nice young blond American girls going missing amidst the brown peoples of the world still sewing questions in the minds of white people, does Vogue really feel that homage to some antique propaganda dredged from a crude and anxiety ridden past is in order? Or do they just channel the Zeitgeist? It would seem to me that just below the level of official or explicit statement is a raging discourse of symbols and narratives, whose points lay between the lines, regarding race which is not too far removed from the uglier, more explicit discourses of the past.

Whenever something like this happens — some ridiculously non-PC image making it into the mass media — I wonder how it was that it came about. Is some smarty-pants photographer pulling a fast one on an under-educated editor — intentionally selling them a bill of goods? Or was everyone in on the joke — it’s just that everyone top to bottom signed off on it. Or are there just cultural coincidences of this magnitude? Is it like some mental urp of the collective unconscious? Or — most likely — are our media mandarins really so cynical that something like an homage to a gang rape à la the Dolce & Gabbana advertisement seems like a good way to move product. No publicity is bad publicity.

I can understand LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen being too dense to see what’s going on in this poster, but how it is that Annie Leibovitz participated in the production of such an image is completely beyond me. I seriously wonder what Susan Sontag would have had to say about it. She certainly wouldn’t have discounted such visual allusions. Oh, to know what the state of discussion was around their apartment.

The Committee to Save the World, Ten Years On

The Committee to Save the World, Time Magazine, 15 February 1999

It’s mostly consigned to the past, but it increasingly seems to me that the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and the attendant reaction of U.S. economic policy makers was the watershed economic event of the present era. The economic handlers of the time, most outstandingly Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers came as close to the rank of heros as economic policy makers are allowed (“the committee to save the world” in Time Magazine’s famous formulation). During the period 2 July 1997 through 23 September 1998 — the floating of the Thai baht to the deal to bail out Long Term Capitol Management — the Federal Reserve held rates steady at 5.5 percent, then in September, October and November made a succession of impressively restrained off-committee 25 basis point rate cuts. The firebreak held and the U.S. economy got another 24 months of economic growth, crossing the line to become the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in U.S. history in February of 2000. On such a basis is the formidable reputation of Alan Greenspan built.

But the unenunciated strategy of Greenspan, et. al. during this period was to stave off the spreading crisis by converting the vast and voracious American body of consumers into the buyer of last resort for the world. The countries in crisis would be propped up through IMF aid packages, but also through the newly enhanced competitiveness of their goods on the U.S. market. This was accomplished through the aforementioned interest rate cuts, but also at Treasury through the strong dollar policy.

U.S. trade deficit, 1991-2005

Source: Wikipedia; U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division

The broadest mechanism by which interest rates work is through home mortgages. As interest rates decline they set off a wave of home loan refinancing, liberating spending previously sunk into housing costs. That combined with the (psychological) wealth effect of the stock market and a historic credit binge came together in the person of the American consumer to pull the world back from the brink. A glance at the above graph of the trade deficit shows that 1997 was the inflection point.

In so far as the way that the U.S. opted to combat the global spread of the anticipated “Asian contagion” was to transform the U.S. consumer into the buyer of last resort through loose credit, the collapse of the housing market bubble is the continuation of, or the knock-on effects of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. It could only be postponed, not avoided; transformed, not stopped. Old wine in new bottles.

It was fairly apparent to most observers during the late 1990s and 2000s that the Federal Reserve was struggling to stave off a crisis and did the best that it could, but was merely kicking the can down the road. There was plenty of commentary at the time that the Fed was merely letting pressure off one bubble by inflating another. And inside the Fed they were fully aware that this was what they were doing, but they had to deal with the crisis at hand and figured that they would cross the bridge of the iatrogenic consequences of their policies when they came to them.

In this sense the ultimate cause of the present economic crisis is a structural imbalance in the world economy that has a tendency to generate crises. One portion of the world, the developing, produces without consuming and as a result experiences a glut of savings. The other, the U.S., consumes by borrowing the surplus savings of that other portion of the world. Witness the current account deficit of the United States with China and the strategic fallout thereof. The problem is political-economic in nature and the ultimate solution lies in the realm of politics, not behind the scenes financial wizardry.

The Final French First World War Veteran

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War

The obituary this week in The Economist is Lazare Ponticelli, the last French veteran of the First World War. He was born in Italy on 7 December 1897 and enlisted in the French army at the age of 16. He died on 12 March 2008, age 110. The Economist chooses the theme of memory and — strangely more significant — the forgotten for its elegy (“Obituary: Lazare Ponticelli,” 19 March 2008):

Mr. Ponticelli wanted none of that: no procession, no racket, pas de tapage important. He was grateful for his belated Légion d’Honneur, which he kept with his other medals in a shoe-box. But he was keenly aware that he drew such attention only because he was the last.

What had become of the others? The stretcher-bearers in the Argonne, for example, who had told him they didn’t dare leave the trench for fear of German fire. The man he had heard from no-man’s land, caught in the barbed wire and with his leg severed, screaming to be rescued, until Mr. Ponticelli ran out to him with wire-cutters and dragged him back to the lines. The German soldier he tripped over in the dark, already wounded and expecting to be killed, who mutely held up his fingers to show him that he had two children. The comrades who helped him, because he could not read or write, to keep in touch by letter with the milkmaid he had met before the war. Or the four colleagues who held him down when, after the battle of Pal Piccolo, the army surgeon gouged out of his cheek a piece of shrapnel already lodged in gangrene.

With each new round of shelling, he said, they all expected the worst. They would reassure each other by saying, “If I die, you’ll remember me, won’t you?” Mr. Ponticelli felt he had a duty to try, but struggled. These were mes camarades, les gars, un type: faces, not names. And as he faded, even those faces lost their last hold on the living.

Increasingly, however, people wanted to talk to him about the war. He always courteously obliged them, though by the end his thin, scratchy voice came out in gasps. It was as important to him as it was to them to underscore the horror and futility of it. More than anything, he was appalled that he had been made to fire on people he didn’t know and to whom he, too, was a stranger. These were fathers of children. He had no quarrel with them. C’est complètement idiot la guerre. His Italian Alpine regiment had once stopped firing for three weeks on the Austrians, whose language many of them spoke; they had swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and taken pictures of each other. To the end of his life, Mr. Ponticelli showed no interest in labelling anyone his enemy. He said he did not understand why on earth he, or they, had been fighting.

On March 17th he had his wish, or most of it: a state funeral for all the poilus at Les Invalides, and then a simple family burial. The government badly wanted this last foot-soldier to be memorialised; but he preferred to be uncelebrated and ordinary, even in some sense forgotten, and thus the more symbolic of all the rest.

The passing of the last French veteran of the First World War is most significant in that the French are considered the most outstanding participant, as both victim and hero, of that war, perhaps the most outstanding war in modern history. As the New York Times obituary notes (Martin, Douglas, “Lazare Ponticelli, France’s Last Veteran of World War I, Is Dead at 110,” 13 March 2008), the passing of the last German veteran of the war, Erich Kästner, on 1 January 2008 went unobserved. There is no honor in villainy, even when it’s as inadvertent as the corresponding heroism.

Americans like to ridicule the French for their recent military fortunes. “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is the phrase. It’s always easy for the young to get the better of the old. By the time the First World War came about, France was a country in the full of relative decline. By the time it faced the blitzkrieg, it was a nation exhausted.

Perhaps it was easy too for the United States to roll Germany because by the time we showed up on the scene French and German casualties had already passed a million on each side. Total U.S. casualties in that war were 117,000 — less than were killed among the French in some single running battles. The French suffered 161,000 killed between February and December 1916 at the Battle of Verdun; 50,000 killed in action between July and November 1916 during the Somme offensive; and 95,000 casualties (killed and wounded) between July and August at the Second Battle of the Marne.

When you consider that in the Twentieth Century France sustained 2,262,000 killed blunting the German onslaught, compared to 409,000 for the United States — a fifth the French number — our boasts seem pretty hollow. G.I. Joe looks a little Johnny Come Lately. We installed the keystone and take credit for the entire arc. But the big wheel keeps on turning and the United States is no longer a young country. Our day to be elbowed aside by a young upstart is in the works already and our dotage will be similarly unhonored by youth.

The Second World War, Fascism and Social Learning

The Second World War is an anomalous war insofar as it doesn’t easily fit into any standard international relations theory explanation. To explain the Second World War the most obvious tact is to turn to social psychology. Explanations about security or territorial gain make less sense than the idea that an entire nation was made a cult to a single man, Adolf Hitler. The problem to which the Allies set themselves and for which warfare was the solution was to destroy the madman and disabuse the citizenry of the captivated nation of their enthusiasm for him.

It is anomalous in that it is a war whose circumstances are unlikely to be repeated and hence the study of the large issues of the war offer few lessons to future generations. Looking forward from the war to today one finds little of use by way of general principle, but looking backward from the war is another story. One can see a number of modern developments converging to a nexus and culmination in the Second World War. The emergence of the nation-state, the view of the ruler as embodiment of the will and the wellbeing of the nation, the rise of mass communication and its opposite, the mass audience, the emergence of the mass movement.

Graham Robb in his recent and acclaimed The Discovery of France puts a pleasant, sentimental face on the story of how in Nineteenth Century, France underwent the transformation from parochial to mass society. One does not tell a similar story of Germany with the same quaint geniality. There it’s all Bismarck and blood and iron and Prussian militarism. The record of the Terror, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the words of The Marseillaise should give Francophiles pause.

The Second World War came about owing to the naivety of people in the face of the developments of mass society. The motivating ideas were still new and, at least from the standpoint of the majority, unblemished. With little experience with them, they could be embraced with great élan. And people accustomed to a more simple, intimate world were enchanted with technology and the scale of society. Their enthusiasm carried them away.

But nations learn and peoples have a historical memory. Around a historical experience a society will build a series of institutions, both official and unofficial or informal, they compose narratives that emphasize certain experiences or perspectives or ideal types over others and whose telling passes on certain values. The most outstanding example is that the First and Second World Wars seem to have legitimately taught the Western world something about the nature of industrialized great power war. One finds very little of that vitalist dialog about war being the health of the state or of soldiering as a proving ground and refinement of the manly virtues of honor, bravery, uprightness, et cetera, so common before those wars.

Another outstanding, if smaller scale example is peoples’ constant evolving immunity to new marketing strategies. It’s well observed within the advertising sector that a new advertising strategy has a shelf-life, after which people start to see through, tune out or even hate the particular tact on display. When the iTunes commercials, each featuring a really great song, first hit the airways I loved them. I downloaded each song and listened to it to death like I had been commanded by the group unconscious. And being so featured could make an upcoming artist. But as of Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” in the ad for cable radio, I find it annoying. I’m still totally addicted to the song, but I have identified the tactic as a tactic and it has grown a little long in the tooth. I imagine that soon enough only the downscale marketers will use the tactic and rather than being a leg up for an artist, will be the kiss of death. Call it the anti-Thomas Frank thesis a la The Conquest of Cool: rather than giving the capitalist marketing machine an in, the nomadic nature of cool prevents it from ever getting too firm a foothold.

And so one of the positive outcomes of the Second World War is that people in the Western world have inoculated themselves against the tendencies of modernism that were once so captivating and allowed the likes of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini to transfix nations.

Everyone can smell propaganda when we’re exposed to it and the clumsiness of the grey-hairs in government and corporate bureaucracy tires us. Jokes to disarm any propaganda spring up almost immediately. Think here of how much humor was spawned by the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign. For us, new technologies are an entitlement: we’re not overawed by them, we expect them. And we’re all adept at using them so no one is about to get an asymmetric advantage. In fact, the early adopters tend to be subversives, with the bureaucracies of management only catching on too late. Some denigrate the internet as nothing but a medium for juvenile jokes, but juvenile jokes serve a public good: they cut down all the tall poppies. Witness the frustrations of the anti-war movement: we find the spectacle of mass demonstrations to be a snoozer today. Monumental architecture can impress, but we’re all familiar with big buildings by now and to some extent architecture has taken to making a mockery of itself. Increasingly monuments are seen not as reputation-enhancing but as another opportunity for a busybody clusterfuck.

The speed with which we denounce one another for fascist tendencies is perhaps not indicative of rhetorical laziness so much as a society in a heightened state of guard against fascist tendencies. And we are all policing each other every day, hoisting our widely accepted norm upon all minor deviations. Social satirists may refer to Goodwin’s law, Jonah Goldberg may decry the speed with which people (liberals in his book) reach for the fascist epithet and national greatness conservatives like David Brooks may decry what they call the coarsening of political debate, but cynicism, anti-joinership, a disinclination to take ideas seriously, obsession with the trivial (e.g. Hollywood) and a lack of civic capital are quite possibly the antibodies that our society has developed as an immunity against future fascism.

Which is not to say that we’ve got the authoritarian tendency beat. Our bulwarks against fascism were not intelligently designed. They are the result of a large number of experiments carried out by the disparate groups of society without any overarching design or intelligent coordination. A writer decides upon his next book, a teacher chooses a lesson plan, a producer chooses this script over that, coworkers at the water cooler opt for a particular rhetorical strategy in a political discussion. Through meme evolution in an environment shaped by the widespread encounter with fascism, some tendencies survive, strengthen and multiply, others wither. But the process is blind.

And just as people’s resistance to authoritarianism is learning and evolving, so the tactics of would-be authoritarians is evolving as well. They’re shouted down and humiliated in debates and, smarting, go home to hit the books and refine their rhetoric. Or having learned from numerous failed frontal assaults on the citadel, the tactic of a feint or a Trojan horse is adopted. Or the experiential environment shifts in the face of great events.

In some ways the very characteristics that inoculate us against fascism threaten to become the ones that could enable a renewed authoritarianism, more savvy to Twenty-First Century society. For instance, the widespread obsession with the trivial has allowed the Bush administration to fly beneath the radar on a lot of its authoritarian power grabs such as the abnegation of the Geneva Conventions, the attacks on the writ of habeas corpus, the advancement of the theory of the unitary executive, the proliferation of presidential signing statements and the packing of the Supreme Court with Article II worshiping justices. Media balkanization has allowed each team to have its own set of admissible facts and has enabled the return of the big lie, this time on a new foundation.

And so at least for now, in part owing to out knee-jerk tendency to resort to ad homonym attacks on anything bearing even a superficial resemblance to authoritarianism, we occupy a polity with a widespread and severely anti-authoritarian norm.

The Prisoners Are Also the Jailers

Dan Savage devotes his column today to gay teenagers struggling with the closet. To one recently out lesbian highschooler stuck in a small-minded town he writes (“How to Cope in the Closet,” The Stranger, 13 March 2008):

The shits conspiring to make you miserable, TALI, are unlikely to have lives anywhere near as interesting as the one on which you’re about to embark. Your classmates are making you miserable now because they know, deep down in their little black hearts, that their lives are going to be duller than day-old douche water compared to yours. Their lives aren’t going to be dull because they’re straight, TALI, but because the value they place on conformity — that’s the reason they feel they have a right to abuse you now — is a prison they’ve constructed around themselves.

Contra The End of History and the Last Man, someone should make a study of that other force in the composition of humanity, every bit as fundamental as thymos, the demand for conformity. It would seem to be the central front of resistance to the march of liberalism. One can imagine that in socially oppressive countries the world over it is some deeply felt need for everyone to cohere, the tendency to see any difference as a personal affront to one’s self — among the politically powerful, but among the masses as well — that is the cause of the oppressive culture.

I’m not sure how adequately I have characterized it here as the demand for conformity. I’m not sure that is the fundamental feature. Perhaps a certain commonality is required to execute that similarly fundamental impulse, the us-them distinction. Or perhaps conformity is required for adequate mirroring. Again, I think that a study, informed by all the human sciences, is in order — its cognitive and evolutionary source, its logical structure, its sociological operation, its historical and political consequence. As a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche, its suppression, like so many other human blights, must be subdued anew each generation. But having made a more thorough study we might forge more effective weapons to the cause. To suggest the Foucaultian point, to make a study would itself be to forge one such weapon.

Northwest Emergency

The morning change of the tide, Big Beef Bay, Seabeck, Washington, 6 March 2007, 10:45 AM

I’m on an emergency trip to the Northwest right now because my father is having valve replacement surgery. I’m spending all my time in the hospital this week so posting will be light.

I managed to get away from the hospital long enough for a brief get-together with fellow blogger K. tonight. J. was unavailable as he was stuck home dog-sitting.

Above is a picture of the bay where my parents live. I rushed out the door with the camera just too late to capture two great blue herons beating the tar out of each other with their wings and jumping around like Baryshnikov. Every time I come back I am amazed by how beautiful it is here. I don’t remember being able to see the mountains so exposed and from so many locales as I have noticed this time around. On the other hand, I can’t stand coming back because it’s dismaying how eager everyone in this area seems to be to destroy everything that makes it such a wonderful place. Really what the peninsula could use is fewer such vistas and instead another strip mall.

A few more observations from the trip:

  • On my flight back here I ended up missing a connection so ended up with some extra layovers as part of the reroute. While annoying, the extra legs allowed me to observe more closely the gradation of people from stodgy and formally to kicked and outdoorsy as I traveled from East to West. Judging by the dress and carry-on luggage of the people boarding the plane for the Salt Lake City to Seattle leg, Salt Lake City is like some Los Vegas of the outdoor adventurer.

  • Hillbillies are everywhere. When I was growing up in the Northwest, it seemed like there were the hillbillies and then a bunch of normal suburban people. That must have been some attuned, contextual distinction for which I no longer have the sensitivity. Everybody here seems like a redneck to me now. The urban areas are even populated by the townie brethren of the hillbillies.

  • Bureaucratic language abuse abounds. When my dad had some minor complications that didn’t admit obvious explanation, the anesthesiologist assured us that “unusual events are common the first day of recovery after a surgery.” The hospital garage has a sign over one of the exits that says “Do not enter.” Do you mean do not enter the outside? Wouldn’t that be do not exit? Well they don’t make a do not exit sign. So the do not enter sign will have to do? A sign at the post office reads “Service Animals Only.” So the humans have to wait outside while their animal agents do all their mailing for them?

  • Things are unbelievably cheap around here. I was out to dinner tonight and ordered a cocktail, a glass of wine, salad, an entrée and dessert. I thought that I had gotten totally carried away and was unhappily anticipating the check to be something like the usual $50.00 it would be in D.C. Nope, $23.00. Amazing. That’s what I remember eating out being like — and for a dining experience consistently better than that in D.C. even.

Big Trouble in Denver

Last night’s Texas, Ohio, Vermont, Rhode Island primary outcomes were very bad news. I say this in part because I am coming around to Barack Obama — he has shown some wonk and some fight — in part because I am seriously put off by Clinton campaign racist nastiness but mostly because I am a political realist: at this point, Senator Obama has the advantage.

Senator Obama is up around a hundred delegates and the Democratic primaries divvy up their delegates proportionately. With the electorate split nearly evenly, delegates will continue to be divided 51-49 between the candidates and while Senator Obama may go up or down a few delegates each primary, his approximately 100 delegate lead becomes structural.

What I think is really bad is what the Clinton end game has got to look like. Earlier in the primaries there was a lot of talk of the super delegates overruling the will of the people by voting en mass for Senator Clinton even though Senator Obama came to convention with the majority of the regular delegates. A lot of commentators tried somewhat successfully to dispel this idea, arguing that the super delegates wouldn’t do that, that they mostly follow the will of the people, that Senator Obama is having no problem picking up super delegate pledges himself.

Grant that the super delegates will follow the will of the people. What happens if the situation above plays out: say Clinton wins the remainder of the primaries and so has “momentum” and perception once more on her side. But the 51-49 wins keep up so that the Senator Obama’s 100 delegate lead more or less persists. Going into convention in this situation, there simply wouldn’t be a “will of the people” for super delegates to ratify, or at least they could overrule Senator Obama’s regular delegate majority and plausibly say that they weren’t involved in some act of anti-democratic treachery, that Senator Clinton in fact was the latter day choice of the Democrats.

The means of turning the super delegates as well as those remaining primaries will be an increasingly negative campaign. We end up with the first convention battle since — what — 1968? There will be a huge convention fight over whether or not to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations. That and the tremendous expenditure of money and effort spent by two Democrats hammering away at each other could be trouble for the eventual nominee.

But I don’t think necessarily. A convention battle could garner all sorts of free, exciting news coverage that could cement the Democratic candidate’s name in the minds of many an undecided voter and the pathos that accrues to the eventual winner could make for a compelling narrative. That and people constantly under-estimate the WWF factor in U.S. politics.

I happen to think that a Clinton victory in this scenario is highly unlikely because Senator Obama is having little trouble picking up super delegate pledges himself. And where he lacks the backroom advantage, he will have the likes of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry — both super delegates — working that angle for him. Nonetheless, this is the strategy that the Clintons are playing by staying in.

The certain danger is that Democrats forfeit precious time. John McCain has proven an lackluster fund raiser, has allowed his political persona to go off the rails and is really in the squeeze between the need to bring out a less than enthusiastic base and regain his independent appeal. As Carl Bernstein pointed out that night on CNN, what John McCain needs is time and by not dropping out, what Senator Clinton has given him is just that: time. Time to store up some cash, time to continue to pander to the base without having to worry about a dedicated opponent making hay about it and time to get his personae back on track.

And then there’s money. Barack Obama raised $50 million last month, Hillary Clinton raised $30 million. If Senator Clinton would drop, Senator Obama couldn’t capture it all, but could start to approach $80 million months. As it is, all that money is going to be blown on Democrats pillorying one another.

The dramatic high point of last night was Barack Obama’s speech. First of all, this scenario caught him unaware. A couple of minutes into his speech, I asked a viewing companion, “Is he just going to deliver his standard stump speech?” I imagine his campaign having prepared some magnanimous speech complementing his opponents on a campaign hard-fought and honorably conducted, outlining a vision for the future of the party, etc. only to have to abandon it at the last minute for some tweaks to what they had on hand.

Second, Obama was visibly pissed. His eyebrow smoldered and his eyes flashed angrily as he delivered the speech. It was quite an impressive display.

But Senator Obama continued his recent strategy of meaning John McCain when he refers to “my opponent” and “Hillary who?” Act like the winner and people will respond accordingly. Again, some fight.