Monday, June 29, 2009

Straw Men Wanted, Apply Within

That Brian Coulter believed (at least ostensibly) that his straw man arguments in the Saturday June 27 edition of the Longview News Journal would prove effective with readers was patently insulting. That he may be right in his assessment of (many) of those readers is...well, just sad. But the straw man gambit is one of the oldest tricks in the rhetorical book: charge someone with a specious, fabricated offense, rail against it as though it were real, then claim a Pyrrhic victory and pretend that you've just done something significant. However, reality waits in the wings to dismantle just such fancies as these.

In a column appearing under the heading "Obama Is His Father's Son," the writer opens with a lengthy and unsourced quote which he apparently viewed to be "scandalously socialist." The quote, we come to find was spoken not by President Barack Obama, but by his father, Barack Obama Sr. The quote, which Coulter identifies as the theoretical musings of a Harvard-educated economist and "avowed Marxist socialist," seems rather mild in the reading, a fact which does little to quiet the paranoid jeremiads of the extreme right. His point of course, is that these socialist ideas were handed down from father to son.

First of all, it's comical to state a benign fact with overly ominous fanfare. Whose son could Obama be if not his own father's? Secondly, anyone acquainted with even the barest outlines of the President's story knows that the Obamas were divorced when the President was still a very young boy, and that his father was known to have visited his son only once in 1971 very briefly. I find it hard to believe in the few short weeks that Obama Sr. spent with his son, that he possessed either the will or the wherewithal to transmit to his young son's mind, the entirety of his socialist, economic philosophy. Nor does it seem possible, as Coulter seems to suggest, that said philosophy lay deep, dormant and patient in the convoluted strands of the President's DNA.

But such a tenuous connection is apparently no impediment to the unquestioning mandarins of laissez-faire capitalism who easily blow it out of all proportion into a complete embrace by Obama of the main tenets of socialism. Again, pesky facts say otherwise.

If Obama is a socialist, it's news to Billy Wharton, editor of "The Socialist" magazine, appearing on Common Dreams on March 14, 2009: "Obama's No Socialist. I Should Know." In his piece, Wharton states succinctly, "The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies."

Wharton goes on to demonstrate through issues of national banking policy, health care, and the prosecution of wars just how far Obama is from his notion of a socialist leader. So how has he morphed into a harbinger of socialism in the minds of neoconservative wing-nuts, Libertarians, Randians, and some of the other unhinged members of the ultra-right? Its hard to say exactly, but the fact that few of these people are knowledgeable about what socialism actually is, clearly plays a large part.

Journalist/author Richard Wolff concurs: On Common Dreams, he gives a detailed list with descriptions of the main types of recognized socialism, concluding that "Obama has endorsed precisely none of these major definitions of socialism: not Marx's -- focused on the social organization of the surpluses in production, not the Soviet or Chinese models of state ownership of most industries, and not the European notion/model of significant state intervention (e.g. state production of gas, oil, transport; state subsidization of education and national health care; subsidized housing, and so on).

In an irony certainly lost on the writer, Obama is every bit (and quite possibly more) the capitalist that Coulter is himself. The socialist tag seems to have emerged from the strangely desperate final days of John McCain's failed campaign for the presidency. In classic conservative fashion, the socialist smear has gained traction simply through the myopic, zombie-like force which phrases sometimes gain through mere repetition. It matters little that Obama is as committed a capitalist as the next guy.

Which may explain why Obama is so frequently attacked and savaged on the World Socialist Website. The strong denunciations of Obama found there might prove to be an eye-opener for Coulter should he ever risk taking an unblinkered look and listen beyond the insular world of his beloved conservative echo-chamber. The loss of dearly held illusions is difficult but necessary. Everyone should attempt it at least once in a while. This would deny the writer his phony platform from which to kick around the President. It would also beg the question, if he's not attacking Obama for being a socialist, why is he attacking him?

The President is no leftist, which shouldn't be surprising since he never claimed to be one. None other than [the conservative scholar and writer], Kevin Baker has recently confirmed this in a piece written for Harper's magazine, July 2009. In it he criticizes the President not for being too radical, but for not being radical enough to suit the times. Stunningly, as Coulter and others of his ilk castigate the President for being much too radically egalitarian in his policies, Baker, [the great eminence grise of the Republican Party], indicts the President with the charge of "timid incrementalism." He writes, "The question is not what can be done but what must be done."

Finally, John R. MacArthur gives the lie to the "crypto-socialist" charge that Coulter et al. are selling. Writing in The Providence Journal, he calls the claim absurd. Obama, in his estimation is no raving left-leaning liberal. Like Baker, he sees the President as a creature of the center of American politics, ultimately unwilling to challenge the accepted ecomonic wisdom laid out by conventional "experts." Thus, Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin and others who played significant roles in the policies (or lack thereof) which led to the economic collapse, take center stage in creating the policies needed to get us out of the ditch. Socialists? I don't think so.

The harsh truth that Coulter just cannot seem to face is that if Obama is, as he believes, a socialist (he's not), then the election proves that the American electorate desired a bit more socialism in their lives. If he changes tack and raises the specter of the President as a kind of "stealth socialist," he runs a serious risk of being consigned to the conspiracy fringe that quaked and quivered unnecessarily over Obama's imaginary "stealth Muslim" status.

Which brings us at last to the real antecedents of Obama's predilection for egalitarianism and compassion. To explain it, readers need look no further than the main thrust of the progressive values of both the left and right, with perhaps a bit of religion thrown into the mix. Obama has never signed up to be a member of the American Socialist Party, but he has been a practicing committed Christian for many years. Perhaps what we see reflected in his policy agenda (conventional as it is) are the values he gains merely from being a Democrat and a moral man.

Granted, it may not be nearly as sexy and conspiratorial as the craziness offered up by Coulter, but chances are it's the truth.

Coulter's column in its entirety is at the site below


Update: An earlier version of this post had identified Kevin Baker as "None other than the conservative scholar and writer" and "the great eminence grise of the Republican party," but I was confusing him with another writer, Kevin Phillips. Baker is a novelist and "a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine as well as a columnist with American Heritage magazine, and a regular contributor to The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review." from My apologies to the readers of this blog.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Lost In The Wilderness

In our wildest imaginings following the 2000 election and during the subsequent 8 years, could anyone have predicted the massively horrible, yet oddly entertaining death spiral of today's GOP? As we gawk in amazement at the bizarre ongoing Republican sojourn in the wilderness, certain questions spring readily to mind. Where is the famed noise machine by which republicans maintained a reign of terror which kept the democratic leadership cowering and/or running for cover for years? Whither the swaggering, cowboy ethic that proved so impenetrable to reality, logic, and the exigencies of politics at the dawn of the new century? I guess liberal prescience found vindication when the misery factor (war, hurricanes, torture, phone taps, economic Armageddon...) finally overwhelmed the smoke and mirrors of Karl Rove's message machine, bringing an awakening that has proved to be very rude indeed.

As Barack Obama and his coalition of democrats, independents, liberals, and a few disaffected republicans attempt to clean up the foul mess left in George W. Bush's wake, it can be said that none have done more to bring about this sea change than rigid, shortsighted conservatives themselves. With such unbridled power at their disposal, could anyone have doubted the inevitability of the GOP landing us in dire straits? Regarding Bush, the past, as they say, is prologue, and he had pretty much failed at every endeavor he'd undertaken before becoming president. It's amazing how the abject fear attending the thought of another four years under a criminally inept executive can focus the mind of the electorate. If the GOP is experiencing a spot of bother as they seek their erstwhile mojo, perhaps it's merely a function of truth's well known bias against blatant phoniness.

The mandarins of the right are on to something, one feels, when they wring their hands and mutter and mewl about their failure to take seriously the implications of demography. The young shifted in droves to the democrats in the last election, and the reason is that Obama fired the political imaginations and hopes of an entire generation in 2007. In the heady aftermath of electoral victory, they seem sufficiently engaged to remain a force to be reckoned with for decades. Name almost any demographic group, and Obama bested the republicans with said group in 2008: women, Hispanics, African Americans, college educated and working class whites. Indeed, the only group staying home for the GOP are Southern social conservatives, the same group that Richard Nixon advised that the party "nurture" in his so-called "Southern Strategy." Now republicans must sleep in the shrunken bed they have made. It is good to keep the base happy, but everyone knows that you can't win national elections with the base alone. The GOP's dilemma lies in the fact that if they moderate their crazy rhetoric at this stage in order to reach out to independents, they run the risk of losing the base. They have been hoisted on their own petard.

Going forward, I see one danger. Our system is one that relies on a healthy if occasionally contentious conversation between the party in power, and the loyal opposition. Because conservatives have painted themselves into a very bad corner, the administration may get the idea that it can do what it pleases. Regardless of who is at the controls, that's not a good scenario. Liberals have watched in dismay as the administration has made decisions which run counter to our values. Obama seems to have made purely political calculations on questions of torture which leave out a vigorous pursuit of accountability. He has sought to suppress photographs which would give a clearer picture of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" engaged in by our intelligence agencies. He can do these things in large part because of the ineptitude that has stricken the loyal opposition. Democracy requires grown ups on both sides of the aisle to keep everyone honest. While I can admit to the guilty pleasure of watching the GOP stumble in the dark attempting to find political true north, at some point it is in everyone's best interest that they right their veering course.

I just don't see it happening in the foreseeable future.