On the Whistle-Stop Tour the Action is at the Caboose

As I posted again and again and again on the bizarre and sublimated love affair of Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, Jr., and in the interest of being fair and balanced, and because I’m a prurient ass hole, I have no choice but to post on this photo:

G8 Summit, President Obama and Brazilian Junior Delegate Mayora Taveres, 10 July 2009

Forget about all that stuff about how photos lie and what the video shows. Liberals need to offer a full-throated defense of the President in this situation. So, in the President’s defense, I offer that that is a hot piece of ass! And this is not just any piece of ass we are talking about here: this is Brazilian ass. I mean, a piece of Argentinean ass was enough to suck out the brain of Mark Sanford, leaving him a drooling, misty-eyed, blubbering microcephalic. So long as President Obama refrains from inflicting upon us tales of a fuchsia dress circa 2014, whatever (could “junior delegates” be the new interns?).

More impressive than President Obama is that dastardly, self-satisfied look on the face of President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Mephistopheles standing next to the virtuous, but naïve — especially in the mechanics of love — American, pleased with his handy bit of work in tempting the America naïf with the fruits of colonial adolescence. I don’t think President Sarkozy is so much admiring this Brazilian can, as looking at President Obama, enjoying a moment of male recognition, reveling in the fall of one of his fellows.

How do you pick a title for a post like this. I don’t know which political-strategic-cum-sexual pun to go with: interceptor missiles, emissions, some play on G8, what?

The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson

[Editor’s Warning: elitist liberal moralizing to follow]

Dan Savage:

The Iranian regime has accused the CIA of killing Neda in order to win sympathy for the protesters and create disorder in Iran. I accuse the Iranian regime of killing Michael Jackson to end all coverage of the protests in Iran on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

(“The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson,” SLOG, The Stranger, 25 June 2009)

It’s unfortunate that the public and the media are so transfixed by the solipsistic, bread-and-circus phantasmagoria. Entertainment trumps world history every time.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

The Approaching Moment of Decision

A terrible moment of decision is rapidly approaching where the outcome of the revolution in Iran will be determined. It has been said — and I largely agree — that the fate of Iran is for the Iranians and there is little that the United States can do. But little is not nothing and should the prospects of the dissidents begin to dim, that little will become much greater in stature. The Obama administration faces a dilemma here — a real dilemma that leaders in the real world face (discouragingly, one must add this last qualification because on the right there is no acknowledgement that our means are limited and our objectives trade-off here). The United States presently has two objectives with respect to Iran:

  1. We would like to do reach an agreement regarding their nuclear program. The best situation would be that they abandon enrichment altogether, but one where they pursued a nuclear energy program, but verifiably ruled out weaponizing their nuclear material would suffice.

  2. We would like to see a liberalized, less theocratic Iran. This is in part the traditional, principled position of United States, but it is also practical. A liberal democratic Iran will have a moderating effect on the rest of the Middle East, that epicenter of that global war on terrorism that we are fighting. And a liberal democratic Iran will presumably be less likely to provide support to militant elements in Palestine.

Presumably if two obtains, that will be progress toward one. A new, popular, modernizing régime looking to distinguish itself from its predecessor will be much more willing to deal with the United States and the Obama administration will have much less problem with its domestic constituents in dealing with such an Iran.

Alternately, no matter what the United States does, should President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei succeeded in their bid to retain power, it will have become considerably more difficult for the President — any president for some time to come — to make progress on the nuclear issue. However, should the United States throw its weight behind the second objective and the Iranian dissidents fail, then the prospects for future progress on the nuclear issue will be even worse still than if we hadn’t — perhaps lost altogether. Not only will it be extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with Iran, the Iranian government will return to the siege mentality of the 1980s and will perhaps — evidence that foreign powers will act to destroy the régime in hand — conclude that a nuclear deterrent is a necessity if the régime is to survive.

I have generally agreed with the position of restraint that the administration has taken. This is the Iranians’ struggle and strong words only make us feel puffed up — they do nothing for the Iranians. But that time may be coming to a close. Indications are that the Iranian government is moving with increasing forcefulness to suppress the dissidents. This is an effort that the government will win. Dissidents can route the police when it’s rocks versus batons. When the machine guns come out, it will be a different story. We cannot decide this conflict, but we can tilt the balance. The international community can make the government of Iranian aware that the consequences of suppressing its citizens extend beyond its own domestic politics. And perhaps — perhaps — this could bring them to the tipping point, or cause them to draw back from what they are about, or change the calculus of costs where a compromise solution becomes desirable.

But the United States and the Obama administration have to carefully weigh its principles and its objectives, its possibilities of success versus its consequences of failure. I’m not going to game it out here, but the range of options, consequences and rewards and probabilities attaching to each one should be fairly obvious. The nuclear issue is real and momentous and it would be terrible to sacrifice what possibility for progress exists chasing pie in the sky. But our principles are real too. It would be terrible for us to sacrifice them to cynical realpolitik over meager tactics when another world is possible. But not everything is possible and the future is uncertain. Judgment and luck are all that there is.

Protests in Other Countries

Businessman protester, Tehran, Iran, 13 June 2009

What’s amazing about protests in other countries is what pedestrian affairs they are. Look at this protester from Iran. In his right hand is a menacingly large piece of concrete. Obviously you don’t throw something that big and hard without intent to do serious damage. But look at his left hand. He’s got his briefcase and a folded up newspaper. And look at his outfit. He’s wearing his kakis and a work shirt. And are those the earphones of his iPod in front of his face? (I can just see Apple’s next iPod commercial: colored silhouettes of protesters in street battles, their white iPod earphone cords snaking about them as they hurl rocks and overturn cars strangely in time to, say, Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy) This is like the Office Space of protesters. He’s in the middle of his commute when he decides that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It was the same way with the lawyers’ protest in Pakistan where you had all these black besuited rock-hurlers.

Contrast this with the United States. If our black-robed mullah’s pronounce on an election, we all just roll over and take it. Meanwhile there’s a designated social class who participate in protests. They have a special set of tropes that includes a special garb, preferred hairstyles, a prescribed set of protest products. You go to a political protest in the United States and you could be excused for mistaking it for a 3k walk for breast cancer.

The Last Trace of 1968

The last of the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination riot damage, 14th Street NW, between N Street and Rhode Island NW, 24 April 2009

When I first moved to D.C. in 2003 I set out to explore. My aunt had told me that it was unwise to go east of 16th Street but I did anyway. I remember walking up 14th Street NW toward U Street and it being obviously a neighborhood in transition. There were a few new places, but much remained burned out and deserted. The middle class people who were there were the homosexual vanguard of gentrification.

I simply thought of it as the usual urban decay and renewal, but it turns out that 14th Street had something unique about its desolation. Here’s the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, Fourth Edition, 2006):

The Logan Circle / Shaw area declined gradually until 1968, when a series of riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. dealt a devastating blow. Angry mobs set fire to businesses that refused to close in mourning of the slain civil rights leader, and the physical and psychological scares of that tragic period are still evident in various corners of the neighborhoods. (p. 268)

Fourteenth Street wasn’t just any urban decay, but was where some of the most notable of the rioting and arson had occurred in 1968. The damage to the buildings that I was witnessing was the damage that had been done then and the area was only now, 35 years later, starting to be repaired. The scars were those rent in anger over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have lived in Washington, D.C. for six years now and during that time the 14th Street corridor has gentrified significantly and the street of which it would be unwise to go east has moved significantly further eastward. At this point 14th Street is more or less a continuously nice street from the Mall all the way up to Columbia Heights and on to … I don’t know where … probably where 14th Street terminates at Iowa Avenue out in the early generation suburbs (I’ve commented previously on the transformation of 14th Street at Columbia Heights here: “The Future of Columbia Heights,” 25 February 2007). The last remnants of the 1968 riots is the block between N Street and Rhode Island NW (pictured above) and now even it is being refurbished. When they are done there, the last physical remnant of the 1968 anger will finally have been erased.

In a city of monuments, I almost feel as if they should leave it as a monument to the end of an era, to a bad year, to a time when the populace wouldn’t take it, when misdeeds were met in kind and to the city that was. Cities need to change, but they need to show their history as well. When this refurbishment is complete, the District of Columbia will have gained a few thousand more square feet of places to go and to live and a few thousand dollars more in rent and taxes, and a neighborhood blight will have been eliminated, but the record of 1968 in our everyday, non-nostalgic, non-consciously historical lives will be gone.

The Iconography of Barack Obama: The First American

26 January 2009 The New Yorker and 14 February 2009 Economist, both with Barack Obama as George Washington

See what I’m sayin’. A lot has been made of President Obama’s appropriation of Abraham Lincoln, but why stop there. Obama is the every-president. The 26 January 2009 issue of The New Yorker put Drew Friedman’s illustration, “The First” on the cover and the 14 February 2009 issue of The Economist has for its cover a parody of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, both featuring Barack Obama as George Washington.

Presidential Restraint and Congress

As a part of my Whig Liberalism, I believe that Congressional supremacy is part of the Constitutional design of our system and I consider Andrew Jackson a villain of history and good governance insofar as he was able to go farther than any other president to reverse this proper ordering. The array of images, gestures and protocols that presidents have at their disposal to reify this Constitution-turned-upside-down version of tripartite government is myriad.

Among them, and one that constantly annoys me, is the protocol of congress-president relations. The president deigns to speak to Congress once a year, and then only as a pretext for a television spot; the president is never required to submit to Congressional questioning; when the president wants to influence Congress, he stays put at 1600 and sends some flunkey down Pennsylvania Avenue; but when Congress wants to deal with the president, not just some charging, but the members themselves go, and then not some junior Representative, but only the highest ranking members are allowed to participate. It sends a clear signal of executive supremacy and Congressional supplicancy. The king keeps his court. Presidential aloofness is a show of presidential authority.

I have been impressed with President Obama’s first week in office. On Wednesday he suspended military tribunals; on Thursday he ordered the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, acts of confidence in the U.S. judicial system to handle these issues and a surrendering by the executive of the power of judgment and justice to its proper place in the Constitutional order. One branch accuses, another adjudicates: that is the division of powers. Also on Wednesday he ordered full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and rescinded former President Bush’s order allowing the executive branch to resist normal declassification of presidential records. (Glaberson, William, “Obama Orders Halt to Prosecutions at Guantánamo,” The New York Times, 21 January 2009; Mazzetti, Mark , “Obama Issues Directive to Shut Down Guantánamo,” The New York Times, 22 January 2009, p. A1; Stolberg, Sheryl Gay, “On First Day, Obama Quickly Sets a New Tone,” The New York Times, 22 January 2009, p. A1)

But of the things that have impressed me so far, none has done so much as his visit to Congress today to meet with the Republican caucus to explain, to answer questions and to advocate for the administration’s stimulus plan (Zeleny, Jeff, “Obama Visits Capitol to Press Republicans on Stimulus Plan,” The New York Times, 27 January 2009). This is how a president should behave toward Congress: as a co-equal branch.

I fear that Congressional Republicans plan on dealing the Obama administration a souring lesson on partisan intransigence in Washington, D.C. and that the administration will revert to presidential maximalism, but I hope (there’s that word again) that this is the start of a presidency of true consultation and of executive restraint. Such an example would be an accomplishment of its own.

Freedom Safely Delivered to Future Generations

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Listening to President Obama’s Inaugural Address with the variable sound quality on the Mall, I thought it was okay. An inaugural address should be more high principle and values than policy specifics and argumentation. Does the President know that he has a State of the Union Address in like 20 days? Save all of the detail and proposals and the laundry lists for then. And there was a too much of the boilerplate political rhetoric about our children and the future and freedom, et cetera.

But on a second listening, the rhetoric remains a little too detailed, but the overarching structure of the Address stands out to me, and within their context, a few lines become brilliant. The Address is constructed as a meditation on Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (above; higher resolution version here).

As SLOG’s reporter onsite Christopher Frizzelle points out (“A Review of the Speech from the Third Row,” 20 January 2009), the Address is bookended by images of storms and ice. The new President starts by saying,

The words [of the oath] have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

And ends with similar imagry:

… in this winter of our hardship … let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come

Mr. Frizzelle characterizes it thus:

He is doing there what poets, namely the Romantic poets, used to do better than anyone — expressing the emotional / psychological plane of reality in terms of weather, pastoral phenomena, landscape.

The coda of the speech, the closing invocation of ice and storms, is a description of one of the darker moments during the Revolutionary War. In July of 1776 the British had landed on Staten Island and for the remainder of the year dealt a string of defeats to the Continental Army, capturing New York City, driving the Continental Army into retreat up Manhattan, across New Jersey and across the Delaware river into Pennsylvania. Washington’s army had been reduced from 19,000 to 5,000 and the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia anticipating British capture when the campaign season resumed in spring. It was, as President Obama described it, “a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt.”

The Continental Army encamped at McKonkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania where General George Washington plotted a surprise attack back across the Delaware River. It was an especially unconventional move as the British had assumed the campaigning season over and established winter quarters. As President Obama relates, prior to the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River General Washington ordered that a reading be made amidst the soldiers. The words are not General Washington’s, but those of Thomas Paine. Mr. Paine had been traveling with the Continental Army and his pamphlet, The American Crisis had just been published. It was this from that General Washington judged that the night’s inspiration would be drawn. The line that President Obama quoted from Paine is this:

Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

The victory won at the Battle of Trenton resulted in a turn away from the flagging morale of the Continental Army. When the British attempted to retake Trenton on 3 January 1777, they were outmaneuvered and quite nearly driven out of New Jersey.

The central arc of President Obama’s speech, set between the two snows and storms, reflects Thomas Paine’s image of “the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive.” Since it’s Barack Obama, the hope part goes without saying at this point, no? So the body of the speech addresses itself to the virtues by which the country will meet our “common danger.” Here I would like to make a list of examples, but the surprising thing about rereading this speech is how his description of the various virtues defies a simple list. They are often painted in contrasts, or without directly saying their name. I think something like constancy is a good example. “We are the keepers of this legacy.” “… the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.” For an obvious example, he says,

Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.

Even when listing other values, constancy — “these things are old” — underlies them all. One of the best parts of the speech for me, especially as a leftist, was the President’s paean to workers, especially “men and women obscure in their labor.”

Among all these virtues, one receives particular recognition: unity, self-sacrifice, the common good, the gaze toward something greater than one’s self. “[Our predecessors] saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.” The cynics have forgotten “… what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose …” “… more united, we cannot help but believe … that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve …”

Look again now at Mr. Leutze’s painting. It’s most outstanding characteristics are an imposing river of ice between the Continental Army and the New Jersey shore, a tumult of citizen soldiers raging in boats and on the near shore. In the midst of this chaos and struggle rises the figure of General Washington, unperturbed, resolute, beyond the fray, his face fixed on distant goals and illuminated by the bursting sky.

Then study the crew of the boat. It is a microcosm of the colonies. The two oarsmen in the bow of the boat are a Scotch (note the Scottish bonnet) and an African American. There are two farmers in broad-brimmed hats toward the back. The man at the stern of the boat is quite possibly a Native American (note the satchel). There is an androgynous rower in red who is perhaps supposed to be suggestive of women. “… our patchwork heritage is our strength.”

Return now to President Obama’s Address. In this winter of adversity what persists are our virtues, above all unity. The icy currents of the bookends of the speech are the Delaware River, the middle arc of the virtues of the nation are the boat with its diverse crew of rebel irregulars. And consider the last line of the Address, “… with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” It is a description of General Washington, father and symbol of the nation, rising out of the clamor of peoples — out of many, one — illuminated, gazing toward the future of freedom safely delivered over to the other side.

I’m not exactly a nationalist or a collectivist. I’m not so hot on all the unity talk. I more prefer an individualist, contending interest groups theory of politics. We are most markedly not one people and to say otherwise is the propaganda of an agenda. But if you dig Romanticist nationalism, then President Obama in his Inaugural Address is your artist-president, poet-in-chief.

American Ecumenicalist Pluralism

Charles Blow tells an amusing story about the essential ecumenicalist pluralism of the United States (“Heaven for the Godless?,” The New York Times, 26 December 2008, p. A25):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

The full study results are here (“Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” 18 December 2008).

I suggest that this means that Americans are essentially communitarian, consequentialist and anti-foundationalist in their moral outlook.

For the fundamentalist religious person, right belief about metaphysical and factual matters is paramount and right behavior secondary. Right belief is often seen as being of such a higher order of importance that it alone is sufficient and gross moral deviance on the part of the righteous is perfectly acceptable, hence modern day religious fanaticist terrorism. But for most Americans it is the reverse. The conception of the good is primary and they bend the rest of their beliefs around this. The particular beliefs that lead to the right behavior aren’t all that important, just so long as the result is someone who is a good person. (I think here of Aristotle’s suggestion in the Nicomachean Ethics that for he who has “been brought up in good habits … the fact is a starting point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” §1095b)

But if Americans don’t believe that right and wrong consist in adherence to a particular book of maxims, then where do they think they come from?

People decide right and wrong prior to religion — at least logically prior, if not chronologically prior. Most people think religion an okay source of moral instruction for children, but eventually attain a level of ethical sophistication where they use their own standard of right and wrong to judge religious teaching, rather than vice-a-versa. It’s Daniel Dennett’s point that many more people believe in belief than actually believe. Chronologically, I imagine people probably go through something like Kierkegaard’s three phases of the slave, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith. People develop an idea of good from their upbringing, a host of stories in the culture, their moral exemplars, their conception of their own life, their own moral experimentation and so on. Moral discourse is an equal opportunity endeavor. Armed with that, they recognize fellow good people based on an intersubjective or commonly held standard — differing one person to another, but demonstrating “family resemblance.”

The Christian right attempts to bolster the case for its monolithic policy preferences by arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, that it’s becoming more religious or that religion is essential for morality. To the degree that any of these are true, it’s not in a way that helps the case of the right. Americans are essentially pluralist, tolerant, even polyglot, pragmatic and not particularly concerned with the finer points of principle — exactly what one would expect from a real liberal democratic polity.