Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

Obama’s Debord-ian Dog Whistle

I have previously suggested that in not releasing the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, President Obama was deliberately seeking to break out of the logic of bin Laden and the Bush Administration’s war of dueling spectacles (“World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton, 20 October 2011). I made this suggestion somewhat farcically. Has President Obama set himself against the spectacle? Effectively he may have — and that’s intriguing in itself — but has he done so consciously, intentionally? Has the President read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Or does the President have some ideas whose provenance is unknown to him? Are French Marxist theories of capitalist propaganda and false consciousness influencing U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism? It doesn’t even rise to the level of surmise.

But then last night I was listening again to then candidate Senator Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech (Wikipedia | YouTube), delivered in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy (National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008), where he says the following about racial controversies (starting at 28:56 in the video):

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Two points:

  1. In common use, the word “spectacle” is an indefinite noun. People who aren’t invoking the theories of Debord would say, “We can tackle race only as a spectacle”. “Spectacle” used without an article, or “the spectacle”, with an article indicating a proper noun, are how people with Debord on the brain use it.

  2. As a brief explanation of the machinations of the spectacle, one that appeals to common language and experience, this is not bad.

At this point I think it is within the realm of possibility that President Obama has consciously and intentionally set himself against the spectacle. Of course President Obama is not a radical, but a meliorist and an incrementalist (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”). He is not about to explode the spectacle tomorrow. Audacity is apparently formal; it is for hope, ambition, dreams. Small opportunistic (almost Clintonian) victories are for real-world policy. But I think when the opportunity presents itself, President Obama does seek to reject and counteract the logic of the spectacle.

I don’t want to throw fuel on the right-wing illuminati — this is like my own little D’Souza-esque conspiracy — but how strange would it be if President Obama were engaged in covert acts of sublimated high philosophy, if the ideas of Guy Debord were actually influencing the President’s thinking about strategy in the war on terrorism and cultural narratives in media? If the U.S. had actually, explicitly (at least in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief) broken with the logic of dueling spectacles, to — I don’t know what — something else, it would as if Nietzsche’s “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” (Beyond Good and Evil §285) were playing out right here in the Capital today.

The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.

Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

President Obama Between Exceptionalism and Primacy in Afghanistan

I thought that President Obama’s speech last night was extremely diptych1 It was a continuation of his tendency to split the partisan difference on the substance of the matter, with no one getting all of what they wanted, and then throwing all parties concerned a rhetorical bone. For instance, this part of the speech was all paleoconservative, Andrew Bacevich, Christopher Preble, The American Conservative, Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy. He even invokes the patron saint of the movement, Dwight Eisenhower:

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.

On display is a recognition of multifaceted national objectives that trade off, of the need for choice in the face of scarce national resources, of real limits to the exercise of power, that conserving ones strength is an important means of cultivating it.

But then President Obama goes on to say the following and I hear Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, perpetual U.S. primacy, the Bush Doctrine and the neoliberal agenda forever:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions — from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank — that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades — a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.

The trite rhetorical temptation here is to write something like “So which is it going to be, Mr. President?,” but there’s no reason it’s got to be one path or the other. An incremental, experimental approach is possible and 30,000 seems as good a number as any — this is on top of the additional 40,000 soldiers that President Obama already approved in March 20092 — a not insubstantial commitment. Ideologues argue that while it’s all fine in practice, does it work in theory? But pragmatists tend not to be ideologically pure. President Bush disappointed many of the most maximalist elements when he announced the numbers for the surge in Iraq. The right wanted more, but the surge seemed to work. I’m aware that there’s a dispute as to whether the surge worked on the substance of the matter, but even if it didn’t work on the merits, it at least succeeded politically.

Notes

  1. President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eisenhower Hall Theatre, United States Military Academy at West Point, West Point, New York, 1 December 2009

  2. Cooper, Helene and Eric Schmitt, “White House Debate Led to Plan to Widen Afghan Effort,” The New York Times, 28 March 2009, p. A1

I Know There Must be an Iron Fist Somewhere in All Obama’s Velvet

Upon a second watching, the thing that’s so striking about President Obama’s speech tonight is just how magnanimous and in-touch it was. Listen to the whole arc about the Kennedy letter: it’s almost all high principle and his concessions to capitalism and the notion that government action and the realm of individual freedom trade off is fairly surprising. But I think that he is right about where the American electorate is right now, whether they know it or not (i.e. have been intentionally misinformed).

But if the Obama administration is right about where the average American voter is ideologically, then this is a terrible indictment of their political strategy. That they are losing the P.R. war on what should be a popular policy is a powerful demonstration of the ineptness of the Democratic party.

In the afterglow of a well-delivered speech like this it’s entirely too easy to get carried away by the rhetoric. But the imperturbability of President Obama’s insistence on a reasonable tone in Washington, D.C. is remarkable. It seems as if the President is sincere about his desire to transcend partisanship. If Barack Obama manages to pull it out yet again on the base of steady-handed, even-keeled reason, my political cynicism will have been dealt a heavy blow.

On the other hand, this bipartisan talk is really tactical. Tomorrow it’s going to be balls to the wall. There’s going to be a full court press against the blue dogs and Olympia Snow. Healthcare reform passed along straight partisan lines through the budget reconciliation process will be in the mix as a negative inducement and as a real possibility (to Congressional fence-riders what the public option will be to the insurance companies). The speech was potentially the last of the nicie-nice.

Or a third possibility, with so many plans now in play (the House committees, the Senate HELP plan, the Republican plan, the Max Baucus plan, and now the administration plan), perhaps this was merely the opening move of an intensified, second round of horse trading. Perhaps President Obama is a nervy bastard playing the long political game.

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?