July 09, 2009

Obama Explained

Strange paradox: I received an email from my buddies at the American Civil Liberties Union urging me to write a letter to Obama protesting the newest wrinkle on his "preventive detention forever" program, which is the "preventive detention forever even after you've been acquitted in a trial" program. Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll said. It was only about nine months ago that I was in Mangonia Park, Florida, as a precinct lawyer for O Himself, eating chicken and artichoke casserole with the poll workers and laughing with joy at the prospect of Obama's certain victory. In Mangonia Park, about 99% minority and most of that African-American, you could really feel the good vibe. Times were a-changin'. I preferred that feeling to the slightly sick one I get when I read an email from the ACLU asking me to help rein in the tyrannical excesses of the Obama Administration.

But I sent the letter as requested by the ACLU. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are about the only two organizations left in the United States who take the Bill of Rights and civil liberties seriously. They're the only hope for the Guantanamo detainees who have been imprisoned for years and years whether they're guilty of anything or not. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are doing what they're supposed to do, stand up for the due process rights of those without resources "at every peril to themselves," a professional requirement stated in the Canons of Ethics for lawyers. So it's the least I can do to write such a letter. Plus, I always keep in mind that old saying from Third Reich days, which ends, "When they came for the Jews, you were not a Jew, so you said nothing. And when they come for you, there will be no one left to say anything." So it's better to speak while you can. You never know. I'm only slightly paranoid; I don't think I'm going to wind up in an American concentration camp. But just in case, it would be nice to know there might be some way out.

I think Obama has modeled himself on the Kennedy style of "liberalism," updated to our very conservative and anti-Bill of Rights times. Which is to say, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not a liberal. It's hard to think of an American President, after FDR, who was a liberal, in the sense of the old idea of the intellectual, civil rights loving, secular humanist type of liberal represented best, perhaps, by Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy. In the Senate now we have Bernie Sanders, who's definitely a real liberal, and he's what the real deal looks and sounds like. JFK had disdain for liberals; in his book, they would rather lose nobly, never sacrificing their ideals, than win and actually do something. Adlai, Mondale, McGovern, Dukakis, all real liberals of the old school, and all losers. Eugene McCarthy was going to lose to Robert Kennedy in 1968, but lost instead to Hubert Humphrey, another real liberal and another loser.

Liberals, after FDR, were so badly scarred by the Joe McCarthy era of the 1950s that they never really recovered. The electable Democrats learned their lesson; they had to be as tough about national defense, as paranoid about the Commies, as the Right Wing, or no one would take them seriously. Above all, they had to be Realists. That was the school of thought into which JFK naturally gravitated. Thus, the Bay of Pigs and then the escalation of the Vietnam War. Whenever anyone talks about JFK's majestic handling of the Missiles of October, 1962, they tend to leave out the opening chapter, the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, an idea which Kennedy picked up from the To-Do List of the Eisenhower years. Is it so surprising that Castro, after being invaded (with his assassination as the end goal), cozied up to the Soviets afterwards, especially after Castro considered the CIA coup in Guatemala toppling Arbenz just five years before his own revolution in Cuba?

The U.S. was never any good at discriminating between nationalist wars and revolutions against colonial powers and dictators (as in Guatemala, Cuba and Vietnam) and the so-called Monolithic Threat of the Communist Bloc. But it was a willful kind of ignorance, as it is today with Islamic Terrorism, which has replaced Soviet Communism as the existential threat du jour. Treating Islamic terrorism as a monolithic threat is even crazier. We can fight all the local wars we want but we're never going to kill every last single gang that might successfully launch one successful terrorist attack against the U.S. You cannot even appreciably affect the odds with such wars. It doesn't matter. We need an existential threat in order to maintain a huge and inappropriate defense structure, one modeled on the Second World War, which we're never going to fight again.

So Barack internalized all that, because he's a very bright guy. Tough on the detainees, just as secret as Bush, escalating his own war in Afghanistan. When he's not giving a set-piece stemwinder, he's actually a little dull, a little monotonous. He kind of betrays his own boredom with what he's saying. I don't think he necessarily believes all this tough-guy crap. I think he likes being President more than doing the Presidency, because so much of it is inescapably fraudulent. But it's hard to go wrong if you stick to the basic playbook, which is: (a) Don't be liberal. (b) Recognize that Big Business is where the action is, the part of the American scene which pays the political bills. (c) Portray yourself as a tough-minded pragmatist on matters of national security.

In a way he and Michelle and the girls are the African-American version of the Camelot years: a nice family, some glamor (Gulfstream to New York), summer in Martha's Vineyard this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he looks for a spot down in Palm Beach pretty soon.

His rightward moves, such as following Bush in the upending of the Bill of Rights, are simply the modern equivalent of Kennedy's conservatism. You can go farther Right than Kennedy could during an age of greater cultural awareness and education, when Americans took the Constitution more seriously, when we had a Supreme Court that was reliably liberal on civil rights. In fact, you have to go further Right these days in order to impress all the Dittoheads and mouth-breathers, or they won't think you're a Realist. Anyway, no one much cares about the Bill of Rights, due process or any of that. It's a safe way to go, if not very principled. He can leave the Bill of Rights and the Constitution to the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, with their teams of lawyers, mostly Jewish, who remember that old adage from so long ago.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud8:31 AM

    "When they came for the Jews, you were not a Jew, so you said nothing. And when they come for you, there will be no one left to say anything."
    Remember this when legislation, which is in the works, is passed that targets people such as myself for hate crimes because I hold, and currently feel free to express, a Biblical view on certain sensitive cultural issues. I wonder if the ACLU, which is so concerned with the Bill of Rights, will come to my defense based on the "free exercise thereof" phrase in the First Amendment. Somehow I doubt that their commitment to rights will flow in my direction.