Voting Your Anxiety

In light of recent debate surrounding Barack Obama’s comments about rural bitterness being the cause of gun culture and fundamentalist religion, I have been wanting to locate a certain passage from an article and fortunately Kevin Drum turns it up for me (“The Culture Wars,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 15 April 2008). Turns out it was Garance Franke-Ruta (“Remapping the Culture Debate,” The American Prospect, 16 January 2006):

Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

We’re still in the realm of arguing that ideology follows material circumstance. People vote their confidence and their insecurity. I loved Thomas Frank’s book, but have had reservations that it’s too facile. He argues that people don’t vote their material interest owing to effective right-wing propaganda, but he fails to take into account certain aspects of people’s material situation.

This also sweeps in the George Lakoff-type point insofar as this interpretation poses problems for the model of liberals chafing for the nanny state and always eager to swoop in and save everybody from everything versus strongly independent conservatives just wanting to be left alone to live their lives. People on the right socially are every bit as eager for the government to prop up their lives and communities and offer all sorts of inducements, it’s just that they want their government support to be punitive and compulsory.

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The Destruction of Barack Obama, Part III

Some might characterize Barack Obama’s 6 April 2008 comments as standard What’s the Matter With Kansas sort of stuff. Not William Kristol. For him it rings more reminiscent of Karl Marx (“The Mask Slips,” The New York Times, 14 April 2008):

I haven’t read much Karl Marx since the early 1980s, when I taught political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, it didn’t take me long this weekend to find my copy of “The Marx-Engels Reader,” edited by Robert C. Tucker — a book that was assigned in thousands of college courses in the 1970s and 80s, and that now must lie, unopened and un-remarked upon, on an awful lot of rec-room bookshelves.

My occasion for spending a little time once again with the old Communist was Barack Obama’s now-famous comment at an April 6 San Francisco fund-raiser. Obama was explaining his trouble winning over small-town, working-class voters: “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This sent me to Marx’s famous statement about religion in the introduction to his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”:

“Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”

This isn’t completely inconceivable. When I read What’s the Matter With Kansas I was struck by a certain Dialectical Materialist tendency, but similarity is not identity. Barack Obama as Marxist dialectician? Can Denish D’Souza be far behind with a comparison between the Senator’s remarks and some musings from one of Osama bin Laden’s videos?

The grounding in sound judgment of the imaginings of the right aside, at this point I would say that whatever crossover appeal Barack Obama once had is gone. The vitriol towards him on the right is now every bit as unhinged and hysterical as that over Hillary Clinton. I regularly get forwards from my tap into the right-wing psyche describing his as “scary” and a socialist with lurid scenarios about how he will wreck everything that is decent about the U.S.

I argued early in the primaries that anticipated perceptions of the right shouldn’t be a factor in Democratic deliberations about their candidates because the right wing mentality is not one with which there can be any negotiation (insofar as the personal characteristics and voting record of a candidate are our negotiating position). The tactic presently on display is not one that takes careful stock of the facts about a Democratic candidate and reacts accordingly, but a stock tactic which, when the facts of the matter don’t fit the stereotypes on offer, simply doubles down on the demagoguery and looks twice as hard for minutia to link candidate to cliché. It was inevitable that eventually Barack Obama would end up looking about as attractive as Hillary Clinton. Lest anyone need any reminding, in 2004 a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart and a conscience was made the dishonorable one and a cocaine using draft dodger was lifted up as the one whose record honored the military.

This is perhaps the central point that Democrats need to learn about the operation of the right today. It doesn’t matter what candidate we choose: the resultant smear campaign will be the same. The thing is that the Republicans are a one trick pony, so you might think that Democrats would have caught on and developed a counter strategy by this late date. Apparently we don’t even have one trick.

Hillary Clinton: Reloaded

Hillary Clinton throwing back a brew, Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge, Crown Point, Indiana, 12 April 2008

Hillary Clinton hesitating over a shot of Crown Royal, Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge, Crown Point, Indiana, 12 April 2008

For the last few years it’s been kissing your way to the White House. This year for a few days it seemed like it might be sobbing your way to the White House. My hope is that it might now turn to drinking your way to the White House. After a dry drunk as president, this is a welcome change. Words won’t help you now Obama. Time to pony up. You’ve done coke so showing this old lady up should be no problem. Or maybe it’ll be like Marion Ravenwood drinking a bunch of Nepalese tough guys under the table at her bar, The Raven, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Campaigning at Bronko’s Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Indiana, Senator Clinton was polishing of a brew when someone offered “You want a shot with that?” John Stewart mocked her for her choice of Crown Royal. But if you watch the video, when it’s suggested that she drink a shot she says, “I want something sweet.” It turns out that her idea of something sweet is actually the sweat end of bitter. When most people say “something sweet” what they mean is a Mellon Ball or a Lemon Drop. When Hillary Clinton say “something sweat” what she means is a sweat whiskey. I’m sold.

I was so amused by this that I actually can’t decide which picture I liked the most. So here she is, both a beer and a whiskey. More at The Gawker (“A Shot in the Dark: Hot Hillary Clinton Party Photos!,” 14 April 2008).

Falafel Quest

Pennsylvania working class aren’t the only bitter ones. Matthew Yglesias is bitter as well (“Bitters,” TheAtlantic.com, 13 April 2008):

I’m bitter about the way Meridian Hill Park and the street design in Adams Morgan makes it so difficult to get from my house to the Amsterdam Falafel Shop even though it’d be really close if I could fly.

I hear ya, brother! I live on 18th Street. Amsterdam Falafel is on 18th Street. Were it not for a gigantic gorge jutting out from Rock Creek Park between Irving and Harvard, it would be a straight shot. As it is, 18th doesn’t run through and I have to go a bunch of blocks east, then south, then jog a bunch of blocks back west again. As a result, I go to Amsterdam Falafel a lot less than I would like.

Global Versus Bilateral Nuclear War: The Good News (And Some Bad)

People persist in saying things like that the post September 11th security environment makes us pine for the simpler, more straight forward time of the Cold War or that the nuclear danger is worse now. The simple answer is that one madman trying to smuggle a poorly constructed, untested, low-yield weapon into the United States is a word of improvement over the second most powerful country in the world with 30,000 high-yield weapons on hair-trigger alert.

But prospects are better in another way, even in the face of more widespread nuclear proliferation. Consider what would happen if there actually was a nuclear war. The Cold War was global, with each country having drawn a security perimeter and established hundreds of red lines. The United States and the Soviet Union had scores of counties under their nuclear umbrella through what was called extended deterrence. “Credibility” was on the line. The crossing of any red line by the other would have initiated an escalatory path that could have lead quickly to the outbreak of full scale nuclear war. And were war to ensue, the targets would be global, preemptory and without provocation. The SIOP up through the late Nixon administration called for the destruction of targets throughout the communist block, including Eastern Europe and China, regardless of the cause of war. If the Soviet Union invaded Saudi Arabia, we were going to destroy Beijing, Warsaw and Pyongyang later that day, no matter what. Similarly, if the United States went to war with China over Taiwan, the Soviet Union could have ended up destroying Paris, Tel Aviv and Ottawa.

People talk today as if North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil or Argentina possessing or acquiring nuclear weapons is a cataclysmic problem. The fact is that these countries aren’t involved in global struggles with their strategic competitors. Were nuclear war to break out between any such pair, the target list would be limited not just by technological capability, but by political consideration. Were India and Pakistan to come to nuclear war over Kashmir or some other border dispute, they would concentrate their fire on one another. India may keep some weapons in reserve to prevent China from taking advantage of the situation, but they wouldn’t simultaneously launch attacks on 50 additional countries. Similarly, hypothetical hostilities between Israel and Iran would remain regional, provided a certain third power could keep a lid on its apocalyptic enthusiasms.

And this arrangement may be systematic. In the past, a war might have caused peripheral powers to come running to the conflagration, thinking that they too might have some interest served by tilting the outcome one way or the other. But nuclear war is so devastating that only powers with a direct mortal interest in the struggle would participate. Peripheral powers might be sent scrambling, doing everything in their power to cordon off and avoid involvement in such a struggle. They might be totally preoccupied with limiting the problems of fallout, refugees and other passive damage.

The bad news is that the nuclear danger has become much more chaotic and laden. The world is more shot-through with it. The good news is that should the danger be realized, the number of weapons and the portion of the world under threat in any particular conflict is significantly less. The potential for the escalation of any given nuclear war to global war has decreased. In other words, though the probability of war may have risen, the consequences have been greatly reduced.

The key to keeping these struggles and their potential wars limited and regional, is to avoid the trap of extended deterrence. External powers may feel tempted to try to manage these regional struggles by enhancing the deterrent power of one country over another. This should be avoided, for extended deterrence creates the network by which a regional problem spreads. It’s the geopolitical analogue to the problem of fourth generation warfare, where a weak adversary can use the tight systems integration of its stronger opponent as a force multiplier. An otherwise localized attack is spread far and wide by networks (e.g., power, communication, fuel distribution, etc.).

The Cold War was a worldwide ideological struggle between two powers whose reach spanned the globe. The strategy employed on both sides was the construction of a preponderant alliance and global encirclement. Extending deterrence to the pawns and over the battlefields of the world made sense. Kashmir is not such a situation. In trying to bring home the problem of extended deterrence, strategists used to ask, “Will the United States really trade New York for Paris?” The aim of the question was to underline the difficulty of asserting that the answer was “yes.” In the case of the question of whether the United States will trade Los Angeles for Riyadh, the answer should be easy: absolutely not. If Saudi Arabia and Iran destroy each other we will bare the burden of high energy prices before we risk the sting of losing a city.

What nuclear weapons do afford these regional powers is capability against their regional competitors, but also neutralization of an opponent’s network of allies; that is, deterrence against the involvement of external powers. And the primary external power that most nuclear aspirants have in mind is the United States.

That the United States will no longer be able to afford getting involved in every dispute, managing the strategic balance of every sector of the world, bending each to our advantage, is the real reason for the manic urgency of writers who see the likes of Iran and North Korea as such a problem. That it threatens U.S. global primacy is the cause for the hysteria. It is also the case for the urgency of a U.S. anti-missile system. ABM is the top-line U.S. primacy-preserving weapons system. Without it, U.S. hegemony withers and dies; with it, it can be extended a few more decades.

It is also the cause of the continuing enhancement of U.S. nuclear capabilities: global strike, the OPLANs, enhancements to yield, accuracy and fusing for hard-target kill, the reliable replacement warhead program. Whatever other factors idealists may identify, the hard calculation of interest and history — and the cynicism engendered of folly — suggests continued modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even if carried out under the guise of numerical reduction. There is wide agreement that the current goal of the U.S. nuclear establishment is to achieve a high level of confidence in the conduct of a disarming first strike. And the political cause of this objective is to avoid being locked out of regional conflicts. These are not the tools of national security, but of continued meddling and foreign adventure.

The policy preferences of the United States are probably moot here, as the forces in play are larger than can be controlled by any country. We’re going to be run out of certain regions, whether gracefully or humiliatingly, like the British and the French after the Suez crisis of 1956. Most likely the latter. The notion of a unified global order is breaking down to one of regions, regional powers and internecine conflict. And nuclear weapons will be of a piece with this transformation.

(Sorry, the title promised good news with some bad as a caveat; it turned out to be mostly bad news. At least the whole world isn’t under threat all at once anymore!)

How to Destroy Obama, Part II

With this most recent gaff, following on the press stampede over his bowling abilities, I’d say that all the pieces are in place to plop Senator Obama firmly into the standard media narrative of the elitist liberal. Last week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine story (Sokolove, Michael , “Change Makes a Call on Levittown,” 6 April 2008) was essentially sympathetic and by a liberal supporter, but it was a toe in the water of the narrative.

Now we just need a story associating the Senator with some characteristic liberal elitist consumer good. Sacre bleu! Senator Obama welds a mean crocket mallet! Or that Malia Ann and Natasha were raised on Baby Einstein when heartland kids were running around in the woods with bb guns. Or hell, there’s nothing like the golden oldies: maybe there’s a picture of him windsurfing somewhere. Crocket playing, Baby Einstein watching, windsurfing liberal elitists! Then all that will be left is for Maureen Dowd to bless it with a few of her trademark witticisms and it will be off to the races.

Combine the Reverend Jeremiah Wright story, the budding liberal elitist story has got to be causing a lot of relief over at the McCain campaign. For the first time since his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Senator Obama is looking beatable.

What supporters of the Senator don’t get is that an election is not an occasion for a candidate to speak truth to electoral power. It is a contest to see who can flatter the electorate most vociferously without going so far as to sound insincere (special thanks to Mitt Romney for helping to demarcate the outer limits of this phenomenon). Every prejudice in the country must be honored, no matter how ill-founded or small-minded and no matter how much in conflict with the interest group to whom the candidate read a litany of promises just last week.

This is the problem with young, idealistic and first time voters as your base. They have no idea why it is that old politicians are so bland and cynical. It’s because that’s how one gets to be an old politician. The problem with Senator Obama is that he has had too many positive experiences telling the truth — or, honestly, well hedged and carefully parsed truth — he’s not exactly getting up in your face with it — and it has gone to his head. He started to think that he was invincible, that the sort of stuff that liberals say in their publications or to each other in closed-door strategy sessions could be said for mass consumption too. He hasn’t had enough chastenings like the one that he is presently receiving. These are lessons that most politicians learn on the small stage, before acceding to the national stage. This is what people mean when they say that Senator Clinton has superior experience.

It’s quite possible that this was the inevitable story that a month in Pennsylvania was going to generate and he would have been better off to have avoided the state altogether. But he’s in, so now he’s got to do something. The primary night election analysts are going to be zeroing in on the class, income and race demographics of returns and it will be the primary story of the night, even before the Clinton campaign begins to spin this aspect of the story hard the next day. One can already see the rumblings of the liberal elitist narrative, but the actual voting could be the story that finally gives it legs.

Now this is me playing instapundit. It’s the perception of the hour and one of the phenomenal aspects of Senator Obama so far has been his ability to come back strong. On the other hand, a similarly surprising aspect of the Senator has been his excess of conciliation with mortal opponents — witness the Samantha Power imbroglio.

Hillary Clinton’s pending win in Pennsylvania is going to do a lot to resuscitate her campaign. If she can plausibly dovetail it to a narrative about how she can win in the difficult states, that’s going to pose a real threat. Senator Obama has got to kill this. Apologies and some words about how he misspoke aren’t going to cut it.

Dan Savage’s Mother

I think that, like just about everyone else, I view my life as a series of cycles running Monday through Sunday. Some may pick Sunday through Saturday, but whatever the case, somewhere back in the mists of time someone arbitrarily picked the seven day grouping as the next most basic division after the day and with all the institutional reification, we just think that way. No TGIF for me: the high point of my week is Thursday morning. I get coffee and a baked good on my way in and just as soon as my work PC is booted up, I bring up the website of The Stranger and spend the most coveted fifteen minutes of me week immersed in the wit and wisdom of Dan Savage and the depravity and befuddlement of his correspondents. Hungry pervert that I am, this is indisputably the highpoint of my week.

I followed my normal routine this week with the usual growing anticipation. It started slow — a lot of Mr. Savage’s own words — I usually prefer the columns with more of his own writing than that of his advice seekers, but I was waiting for the punch line, but there wasn’t one this time (“At a Loss,” The Stranger, Vol. 17, No. 31, 10 April 2008).

I thought I could bang out a column today — a regular column, a column about my readers’ problems and their freaky fetishes and all those asshole politicians out there. You know, the usual.

The day my son was born, I managed to slip out of the maternity ward and write a column; I wrote one the day I was indicted by the state of Iowa for licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs. (I was actually indicted for voter fraud — on a trumped-up charge, your honor — but Bauer’s knob needs all the attention it can get.) I’ve written columns on days that I was dumped and on the morning of 9/11. So I figured that I could bang out a column today.

I opened my laptop and started reading your letters. I love reading your letters — I do. But I couldn’t get into it. I just don’t have a column in me this week. I’m disappointed in myself. I write this column at Ann Landers’s desk, for crying out loud, and the old lady banged out a heartbreaking, truncated column when her marriage collapsed. If Landers could bang one out under that kind of emotional strain, then I could damn well bang one out, too. Just do it, right? Just fucking do it. But I just fucking can’t.

My mother died on Monday.

S. and I have read both of Dan Savage’s personal books. We read The Kid one after the other at the recommendation of a coworker (thanks Donna). I read The Commitment to S. as she drove on a number of five hour trips back and forth to her parents’. We laughed and laughed and got angry and were provoked to numerous discussions and had some sentimental moments. We have pushed these books on anyone we judged sufficiently edgy and open minded to enjoy them as well. (I have previously commented here.)

One of the standout characters of these books has been Dan Savage’s mother. I have vague imaginings in my mind’s eye of the Chicago home where Mr. Savage grew up, where the kitchen must have been situated with respect to the rest of the house (the referenced learning to bake cakes), what the back alley must have looked like, et cetera. She was alternately a voice of calm and reason intervening at the apex of a crazy moment, or someone humorously driving Mr. Savage to such a situation in her humorously pillared idiosyncratic insistence — especially so in The Commitment.

There is also something deeply weird about my sad response. My first inclination is to blame my emotional involvement with a complete stranger on the exhibitionism and voyeurism of the Internet age. But I imagine that people have been becoming emotionally involved with famous people, national leaders, writers who have used their biography as source material, et cetera for generations. Perhaps it is a phenomena of the wider age of mass media.

Whatever the case, I feel like Dan Savage is a friend of mine — if not exactly in the usual meaning of “friend” — even if I’m a complete stranger to him. His books have taken life’s milestones as their subjects and given them a contemporary, tradition-defying take. I am hoping that coping with death — certainly one of life’s milestones — may be the subject of his next book. And maybe it can be a platform for how an atheist cops with it.