February 29, 2008

Barack Can Dance

You've maybe seen it by now, on YouTube or cable news: Barack dancing a little on Ellen DeGeneres's show, either in person or by video hook-up while he was at a campaign rally. It doesn't go on that long in either case. He's a little too cool for that, but here's the thing: the guy can actually dance. If it comes to pass, if the stars align correctly so that he's inaugurated next January, then the unthinkable will have happened: America will have a President who can get down.

I know it's a cliche: White Man's Disease and all that. No finer exemplar than the incumbent. If you saw any of that footage of Bush in Africa dancing to a tribal beat, you know what I mean. Even the memory of it makes me cringe. It looks as though Bush is suffering from the end stages of some horrible degenerative nerve disease. He makes a face like a blowfish, hunches his shoulders and starts waving his arms around, pointing at the tribal chief, bobbing his head. It's a horrible sight. You wonder why someone doesn't grab a tranquilizer gun. I realize the idea is that Bush is being a "good sport," and not too much should be made of it. But that's hard to keep in mind when you realize how scary it must have been for small children to see.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have a basketball teammate, an all-star, Af-Am athlete, who straightened me out at a young, formative age. This friend (I'll call him Fred because that was his name) watched me on a dance floor one night, shook his head and uttered four crucial words: "Don't do too much." Fred's idea was simple and immediately grasped. It has saved me from a great deal of trouble at high school dances, college parties, wedding receptions. In the modern free-form dancing that came to dominate the rock 'n roll era, a guy is supposed to just be out there. The women bust the moves, know the fancy steps, do the spins and dips. If you'll think back, you'll remember that there was nothing sexier on God's Green Earth than watching a girl who could cut up. A guy moves with the rhythm, turns a little bit side to side. And the other critical part of Fred's guidance: whatever you do, not too much with the arms. The upper body should be still.

Bush, by contrast, always looks like a man trying to wave down a passing automobile while rolling a log in a fast-moving stream. I would not want him on my basketball team or dancing next to me at the prom. The dude's an embarrassing spaz. On the other hand, Barack does just what Fred said you should do. Subtle, suggestive, cool. His arms are bent at the elbows, he turns a little side to side, he moves on the beat. That's it. A guy who can look cool on the dance floor can command respect and calm everyone down. After watching Bush's African spectacle, how can we regard him as a leader? Why would we ever think he could have a good idea about anything when he does that?

I'm not saying that at state dinners, with foreign heads of government in attendance, that they should clear the East Room floor while Barack does a Travolta number to a BeeGee beat. Or maybe I am saying that. Yeah, I'm definitely saying that. I really wish he would, as long as he doesn't do too much.

February 27, 2008

The arbitrariness of conviction

In reply to those who claim I don't really know much about Barack Obama, I answer: true. I don't really know much about Hillary Clinton, either. I didn't know much about Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Only staffers and campaign managers, who hang out with these people, know much about them. They see them in day-to-day situations, watch how they react to surprises and contingencies calling for a decision, and they gradually form realistic appraisals about them. That's what we call human beings "knowing" someone. We don't have the insiders' vantage point. I've never seen Barack or Hillary in person; they exist as pixel images on my flat screen TV; in a close-up, I'm guessing they're represented at about a 1:2 scale, but they only have two dimensions. I listen to them, but they're mostly reformulating sentences they've said hundreds of times before. They're not actually engaged in a give-and-take with me. Maybe if I hung out with each of them for thirty days or so, and we talked for a few hundred hours about just anything that occurred to us, and went to a ball game and to a bar, and played chess or Scrabble and watched Jeopardy! together, maybe shot some hoops, and I got my guitar out and we sang "Margaritaville," and then I asked each of these lawyers for help on some complicated legal issue I'm working on...well, then I'd probably actually have the basis for an opinion.

The odds of those things happening aren't very good, are they? I suppose when the Founding Fathers put their ideas of democracy together, the structure for it, the connection between candidate and electorate was much closer to what I've just described than it is now. The operation of the town hall was close to their experience; it was unlikely, in the Concord election of Selectmen in 1795 or so, that the local Yankees would put the village drunk in charge of their finances. As visionary as they might have been, there was no way for Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin to imagine the post-McLuhan Age of virtual reality. Essentially, we still use the same system they devised, but the candidates who succeed now are not necessarily the people who would do best at the level of one-to-one interaction I described above. They're the ones who are adept, under the guidance of their handlers, at manipulating the images they project to appeal to broad-based demographics. I think we all know that. When we express our preference for a candidate, however, we are not basing it on the appeal of their "image;" rather, we are using our intuitive powers of perception to imagine what this person would be like if we actually had the opportunity to get to know him/her. It's possible, if I ever had the chance at any sort of intimacy, that I would like Hillary more than Barack; she might be funnier, quicker with an insight, more reassuring in her comprehension.

I don't even understand very well what process finally produced these two as the "inevitable" candidates for the Democrats. I would surmise that it's not an accident that one is a woman and the other is African-American. Both seemed like plausible candidates. The mainstream media saw the "story line" implicit in their choice and began playing them up. Let's face it, it's a more compelling narrative than Joe Biden versus Chris Dodd. After they seemed inevitable, after their images were burned into the psyche of the American populace, it then became our job to form some kind of "commitment" to one or the other, even though we did not really have much of a role in narrowing our choices to these two.

That's how it works now in the World of Mass Media Man. Don't pretend it doesn't. You can come at me with your "arguments," and your "insights" into the candidates based on something you've read on the Web written by some special pleader; and I can counter with some obscure thing I've read somewhere else. And the truth is neither one of us will be very convincing.

February 25, 2008

The Discomfiture of the Caucasians

Now that Barack Obama appears to be the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, we are beginning to see the first signs of overt racism from what you might call the White Establishment. The form such racism takes is subtle, an obeisance to the "enlightened" age in which we live, but its telltale feature is the condescension of those who have always thought they owned the system to someone they view as getting above his place in society. I thought about this while speed-reading through William Kristol's latest steaming pile in the New York Times, called "It's All About Him." Kristol's "thesis," if you want to call it that, is that Barack Obama's reasons for not wearing an American flag lapel pin are "grandiose" (I kid you not), because instead of simply saying that he chose to discontinue wearing this decal, he framed it in terms of a "more patriotic" reaction to 9/11; namely, his resolve to "speak out on the issues." This, Kristol reasons, is in some way unbearably egotistical and a clue to an underlying personality derangement.

Of course, Kristol must know that the flag pin has taken on the sinister characteristics of the Death's Head in Nazi iconography -- it's worn by all the Neoconservatives, such as himself, as a clubby reminder that they own the franchise on nationalism and power. And as the soft, squishy, preppy scion of wealthy and highly-educated parents who saw to it that Billy attended the Collegiate Preparatory School in Manhattan before his matriculation at Harvard, who did things the old-fashioned way (by having the track greased by family influence), he's naturally impatient with anyone who doesn't see what a great place America is. Even if that someone is from a background where his forebears first entered the country in 1619 as slaves, where by a 1645 court decree an African could legally be held in captivity for life, with no recourse; where he was viewed, in fact, as 3/5ths of a person for some (white) purposes and as a nonentity for all other reasons. Even if the American black constituted one-third of the population of the slave states (4 million out of a total population of 12 million in the 15 slave states in 1860), they were essentially invisible. Go back through all the names and faces of the 43 American Presidents -- all white, all Northern European. What the hell is Barack Obama doing on the verge of becoming the President?

It's got guys like William Kristol very, very worried. It threatens the established order of things, the one where people like him always win, where class and privilege (look at George W. Bush!) carry the day versus talent and brains because that's the way things are supposed to be. The system has certainly taken care of William Kristol; all he had to do was attend elite schools and then go into his dad's business of selling conservative bullshit.

So it must be especially galling when an American Negro begins dissing his preferred form of patriotism, the gaudy display of symbols and insignia, and talking all this trash about "struggling" Americans who need government help. Kristol deplores the "nanny state;" the idea is to make it on your own, just like William Kristol did, through diligence and hard work. There's a great irony there, of course; those in the comfy class actually hate the idea that someone without their advantages, from the lower classes, could become president of the United States through skill, cunning and hard work. It's what they hated, really, about Bill Clinton. He outsmarted them. And now here comes another preternaturally gifted politician, a guy who keeps getting cooler and sharper as he grows into his role, as he realizes once again that he's just one of those guys who frigging win, even on the biggest stage of all -- and William Kristol and David Brooks and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and the rest of them are absolutely freaking out, because it's ten times worse this time around -- this guy's a Negro. What makes it worse is that Obama was absolutely right about the Iraq War (he called it a "dumb idea" before the invasion) and Kristol's most famous, most frequently quoted line is his howler about there "being a lot of 'pop psychology' that the Shia can't get along with the Sunni," as he assured us the Iraq War would be a cakewalk that would cost America virtually nothing.

Which means that Little Billy not only has to deal with the idea that Obama is hipper, sharper and better looking than he is - he has to come to terms with the inconvenient reality that Obama is smarter than he is, which in Kristol's pasty, dough-colored world was the only advantage he thought he had left. And now Obama won't even wear his merit badge.

I am reminded of the great line from J.D. Salinger's book "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters," in a footnote though it was, that sometimes the Universe is so bountiful in its sense of justice that one might believe "in a cosmic Santa Claus."

February 24, 2008

Nader's Run for the White House

At one level, admittedly an idealistic one, I would point out that the words "Republican Party" or "Democratic Party" are not found in the Constitution. The domination of American politics by these two parties results from a de facto monopoly, and their ownership of power in the United States makes it virtually impossible to dislodge them. They have been in power so long that they have changed the rules of the Senate, for example, with the "60 vote" rule, which is not a Constitutional feature, and it is assumed that all committee chairmanships and assignments are done on the basis of only two caucuses. The "independents," such as Lieberman and Sanders, simply choose which of the two main parties they wish to align with.

While we speak of liberals in the Democratic Party as being "left" or even "leftists," in truth the main political scene in this country does not have a Left in the sense that such a term developed in French politics (the designations "gauche et droit" dividing the Parliamentary aisle). In the way that Karl Marx or classical political thinkers would have used the term, Leftist referred to social ownership of the means of production, social services, etc., as opposed to private enterprise. The French still go through occasional spasms where industry or part of it is "socialized," e.g., reflecting the continued vitality of true Leftist thinking in that country. Neither of the two main political parties in the U.S. varies from a capitalist orthodoxy in any significant degree. The Democrats are a center-Right party, and the Republicans, increasingly, are a Far Right phenomenon.

Nothing in the Constitution, which we tend to forget about because of the long domination by only two parties (which we identify now as synonymous with "Government"), prohibits a person unaffiliated with the Republicans or Democrats from running for office. If he can satisfy the entrance requirements, Nader has the right to run. The objections, of course, arise from considerations of Realpolitik; Nader tends to draw votes which would otherwise go to the mainstream Democratic candidate. Nader's impact on the Florida vote count in 2000 was considered decisive in favor of Bush, although he disputes this conclusion with some logical arguments. Operatives in the Democratic Party resent his gate-crashing because he doesn't have a real chance to win, and because it runs the risk of giving us another Bush, this time in the form of the mentally unbalanced John McCain.

There is no way to dismiss the Democratic Party's complaint decisively; they're right, of course. In a tight race, Nader gets in the way of the Democrats. The arguments of the Democrats, of course, would be easier to take if they had used what power they had to block the excesses of the Bush Administration. For example, why didn't they use the 60 vote rule in the Senate to block Bush's tax cuts, which have been fiscally ruinous? Why didn't they use their majority ownership of the House to deny all funding for a continuation of the Iraq War? Why didn't they use the 60-vote rule in the Senate to refuse passage of the Military Commissions Act until habeas corpus was restored, and until the war crimes exonerations were removed? They had the clear, invincible power to do all these things. Their failure to do anything, to play ball with Bush when they didn't have to, validates Nader's central point.

In terms of the present race between Obama and Clinton, why does neither ever argue for a streamlined military which is commensurate with the nature of a true terrorist threat? Where are the calls, for example, for a 25% reduction in military spending? Well, as the Democrats will say, you simply can't do that. We'll look soft on defense. The American electorate isn't smart enough, they're saying with a wink, to figure out matters of detail and nuance. We have to keep spending way too much money just to keep up appearances. Then we look tough and resolved, even if it's a stupid waste of money. Same with the health care issue; it has to remain a business-for-profit in this country; hell, this isn't Denmark, they say.

It sure isn't. Nader does say all these things, of course, and the Democrats claim (correctly?) that he can say them because he can't actually get elected. So we're stuck, permanently, with two ossified parties that cannot react to reality. Is that it? Nader's idealism (not his megalomania, as Democratic operatives have it) impels him to run. He doesn't like accepting that cynical conclusion without a fight. No one has to vote for him, and few people do. But don't attack him for doing what he thinks is right.