Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Faded Memories of a More Idealistic Era

with 18 comments

Written by gerrycanavan

November 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm

18 Responses

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  1. I think much of what she says is right, but the problem isn’t that there’s no substance, it’s that the substance isn’t what some people want it to be. It’s not that Obama didn’t make any promises about Afghanistan because he didn’t want to be held to anything. He explicitly promised to shift our military efforts towards Afghanistan. Hell, he even promised to take out terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan if the Pakistani government couldn’t or wouldn’t act.

    These kinds of discussions also get bogged down in the details of the substance. It’s argued that people co-opt the imagery of some idealistic iconography, but the people making the argument may just as well be doing the same thing. Martin Luther King isn’t here to endorse any particular set of political positions today. Nor is FDR or RFK or Gandhi or anyone else. (If they were, maybe they’d be opposed to gay marriage.) And a particular ideal – color-blindness, equality, whatever – does not easily lend itself to some clear policy vision in the current moment. Using that kind of iconography isn’t a declarative statement of fact about what you stand for – it’s an argument that what you stand for is consistent with those ideals. I guess we can engage that debate on those terms (“no, MLK would not be opposed to affirmative action on the grounds of color-blindness and equality”), but it requires delving into substantive detail and, more often than not, is besides the point.

    Shankar D

    November 30, 2009 at 12:30 pm

  2. No, that’s all true. I think some people were hoping he was lying about Afghanistan — I was* — but they own that disappointment, not Obama.

    * Specifically, my hope was that the hawkish rhetoric on Afghanistan was calculated to legitimize his position against the Iraq War.


    November 30, 2009 at 2:02 pm

  3. but naomi klein’s whole argument is just that Obama’s use of leftist tropes (si se puede, MLK, FDR) does consist of symbolic ‘arguments’ that “what you stand for is consistent with those ideals” – and since people have all kinds of different opinions over what those figures would have done in X situation, using them conveniently corrals everyone’s good vibes without having to offer any rational justification that could be criticized after the fact. the marketing campaign was calculated to encourage just this sort of projection. Particularly easy to do given that most peoples’ memories of the above consist of prefab television memes (New Deal, Civil Rights, etc.).

    It’s not much different (in theory) from selling factory farmed, chemically altered butter with pastoral imagery on the box.

    as a secondary point, it’s pretty hard to believe that Ghandi or MLK would have been pro-escalation in Afghanistan.

    and as a tertiary point, he did actually backtrack on some things, like consolidation of executive power. but it’s easy to overlook these few important slip-ups, ironically because of the relative volume of the legalistic debates over what Obama really promised on whatever the preselected big issues of the moment happen to be.


    November 30, 2009 at 3:13 pm

  4. But isn’t this just how democracy works in a mass media culture? It’s not like Obama invented this sort of thing. I can’t think of a single national politician who *hasn’t* relied on this sort of contentless brand marketing; Obama is just better at it than most.

    On the question of consistency with historical heroes (both the fantasy version and the “real” version), I think Obama *is* consistent (in the main) with the left-liberal past. That is, he shares the goals but embraces a different strategy, which he calls “visionary incrementalism.” We can certainly criticize him on the durational ambition of this incrementalism, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work — but it’s not as if his long-term goals are fundamentally reactionary or rightist. He’s a liberal in a country that hasn’t elected a liberal in three decades and hasn’t elected an effective liberal in three-quarters of a century; it takes a lot of effort to turn a ship like the USA around.


    November 30, 2009 at 3:28 pm

  5. Traxus –

    Sorry, to clarify, my second paragraph was more directed at Paul Rosenborg’s broader blog entry, not the Klein excerpt therein. We all seem to agree that the use of the imagery is meant to make an argument, but you seem to be following Klein in suggesting that the argument was unfalsifiable because there was no “rational justification.” To liberals who seem to think that Obama was somehow cloaking his true policy beliefs during the general election, I’ll say the same thing that I said to conservatives who made those claims: read the damn website. It’s all there in black and blue and white. You can argue that the stated policy positions were inconsistent with the sweeping rhetoric and imagery (nothing more than chemically-altered, factory-farmed butter, as it were), but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that there was some kind of misdirection going on.

    As to your secondary point, that may be true, but is precisely why I say at the end of my prior post that it’s all “besides the point.” I don’t think any rational, thinking person should approach the current question over Afghanistan by simply asking “what would Gandhi or MLK do?”

    As to your tertiary point, yes, but not much. Executive power is pretty much the only thing I’ve seen anyone make a sound argument on.

    More generally, I guess I’d attribute disillusionment to a few factors, none of which I really “blame” Obama for: (i) a mediocre understanding of what positions Obama campaigned on; (ii) a mediocre understanding of the political and legislative process; (iii) an underestimation of the impact and import of the changes actually underway (see, e.g., health care reform); or (iv) impatience.

    Shankar D

    November 30, 2009 at 5:47 pm

  6. thanks guys, and sorry for any misinterpretations on my part.

    i feel like there’s always a funny sort of circularity to these kinds of debates. i’ll try to sketch out how i think it works. the various criticisms of obama tend to center around his failure to be exceptional, that his actions are effects of a structural process that goes beyond him. then the defense says he never claimed to be, and that what he’s doing was always unexceptional. at this point there’s a subtle shift in the ground of the debate, away from structure to obama as an individual operating within constraints, albeit usually with a promise of future/covert exceptionality. this also constitutes a separation between means (the structure/constraints) and ends (contained by obama the individual).

    but the idea of obama as an exceptional individual, the beginning and end of all analysis, along with the separation between means and ends are themselves the targets of good obama critiques. if obama has a left-liberal master plan then great, but there’s no reason why anyone should give him the benefit of the doubt when it produces center and center-right results in the ‘short term.’ i can only assume those to the left of his administration continue to give him the benefit of the doubt because of his brand. which is why good critiques of obama attack the brand over and above any specific policies.

    i know it’s not customary to give the same weight to emotionally directed advertising as we do to official, authorized statements. but i happen to think we should – why not consider a successful branding campaign as just as open to moral, political, sociological, or whatever criticism as any statement of intent? especially when the whole campaign is based on appropriating leftist imagery and history for diametrically opposed purposes. why should criticism hinge on its protagonist’s guilt or innocence, or whether anything about it is surprising?


    November 30, 2009 at 7:39 pm

  7. i.e. if the marketing goes in one direction and the policy goes in another, that is misdirection.

    ‘what would Gandhi or MLK do’ might actually be a better start than current war policy ideas…


    November 30, 2009 at 7:43 pm

  8. I’ll try to return with a more thorough response when I have time, but for now, let me just make one point – I think what a lot of people (like myself) think of as liberal, progressive, whatever is considered by other people to be centrist or center-right. E.g., when people call the current health care reform ideas percolating around as incrementalist or centrist, I think I have a vastly different frame of reference. This is the unspoken tension that frustrates some of these discussions.

    Shankar D

    November 30, 2009 at 9:15 pm

  9. I know what you mean, Shankar, but health care seems like a not-great example of this. Doesn’t anything short of single-payer seem centrist/incrementalist when compared to single-payer?


    November 30, 2009 at 9:30 pm

  10. there’s certainly a sense in which the house health care reform bill is revolutionary. that everyone in the u.s. may end up with guaranteed coverage (even if it’s just in theory) is a tremendous accomplishment. as a strictly relative indicator, the generic spectrum necessarily misses this. it’s pretty much incapable of grasping ‘importance.’


    December 1, 2009 at 3:42 am

  11. er, relative most of the time it’s used, anyway. this is a problem in itself.


    December 1, 2009 at 4:01 am

  12. I can’t decide whether or not I want to quibble with the word “revolutionary” there, traxus, for the same reasons I just can’t see the health care reform bill as “progressive.” It’s certainly big — we might even call it a “Copernican Revolution” in health care — but otherwise it is essentially revolution’s null set. This is a reform that attempts to expand coverage and cut costs while changing almost nothing about the fundamental operation of the health care market. It’s hard to imagine a reform that was *less* revolutionary than this one.


    December 1, 2009 at 9:53 am

  13. you’re right. counterrevolutionary. i get sentimental at 4 in the morning.


    December 1, 2009 at 1:48 pm

  14. Gerry – I think your response suggests that health care is a perfect example. Isn’t it completely arbitrary to declare single payer to be “liberal” and define anything short of it to be “incrementalist”? Why isn’t single payer incrementalist relative to socialized health care? The difference between SP and the current bill in terms of coverage is smaller than the difference between the current bill and the status quo.

    By these standards, I’m not sure that there has ever been a progressive/liberal accomplishment in American history, other than maybe the 13th-15th amendments and the Civil Rights Act. Maybe the Wagner Act.

    On a somewhat related note, I’ve come to loathe the left-right spectrum labels more than almost anything about popular political discourse because they’re so amorphous and indeterminate.

    Shankar D

    December 1, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  15. Isn’t it completely arbitrary to declare single payer to be “liberal” and define anything short of it to be “incrementalist”?

    I don’t think that’s what I actually did. My point was just that health care is an area of policy where left-center-right are not especially amorphous or indeterminate. We can lay out the policy options on an agreed-upon, more-or-less linear spectrum, and when we do we find Obamacare is pretty much square in the center, certainly to the right of either single-payer or a public option open to all.


    December 1, 2009 at 11:47 pm

  16. one problem arises from taking the spectrum metaphor too literally. positions different enough to warrant different labels constitute distinct ideologies. a reform that expands coverage and cuts costs without altering the fundamentals may still help lots of people (and therefore be important, morally compelling, etc.), but from a left perspective (like mine) it doesn’t make enough of a change in how health care is apportioned, paid for, or controlled. any of the proposed health care reforms would help lots of people. the better ones would do so by establishing a progressive base in sustainable public ownership, rather than by selling our future to insurance companies. centrism is too ‘pragmatic’ to be distracted by such matters.


    December 2, 2009 at 1:08 am

  17. Gerry – I think that’s precisely what you’re doing. Even if we can agree on a more-or-less linear spectrum (and I think traxus is right, that it’s not helpful to), all that does is allow you to define things relative to each other. So that means you can say that “Obamacare” is less liberal than single payer, but I don’t see how it means you can say that it’s “pretty much square in the center.”

    I’m trying to evaluate things relative to the status quo, the impact on individuals, and the history of social policy in this country. In that context, whenver this bill gets signed, it’ll be a major progressive achievement. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be fighting for a more “liberal” bill if, like you and me, they think that’s more desirable. But shrugging this off as a tepid reform strikes me as a pretty tone-deaf POV.

    Traxus – I think you’re right that qualitative characterizations and assessments are much, much, much more useful and insightful than trying to chart things along an oversimplified linear spectrum.

    Shankar D

    December 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

  18. […] I use that term “centrist” here quite advisedly, taking Shankar D’s point from the comments that it can sometimes obscure more than it reveals. But here again I think the term is meaningful and useful: “centrism” designates an […]

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