Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Moral Vacuum At The Top [Anthony McCarthy]

I agree with Echidne's post from last night so much that it's tempting to do what I've done several times when I find myself with something far lesser to offer than her or Suzie's Friday posts, wisely not present it to distract from theirs. But I'll add a few words, after advising you to read yesterday's posts.

Does Barack Obama have a moral center? Is there something that he, ultimately would be unable to compromise away because it is not a negotiable point? Is every value, every moral declaration fungible? An item of spiritual commerce to be bartered so he can, in the end, announce that he's not lost due to him agreeing to something with the Republicans?

The idea of morality has been made unfashionable in what we, by default, must consider the modern Western intelligentsia. That is the only success that what got called "liberalism" in elite circles has entirely succeeded in over the last century. In the quest for personal liberty morality has been progressively de-emphisized, then redefined, then ignored. Morality has come to mean, not only self-righteous nagging, but an attribute of the unacceptably old fashioned and uncool. The elevation of cynical "realism" as a replacement for the genuinely liberal virtues might be the most obvious evidence of a genuine moral vacuum, an absence of real morality. After more than two years of watching the presidency of Barack Obama, I can't believe he really believes in anything but his image as a savvy broker, a cool macho deal maker. Watching him trade away the enormous reserve of political power he was given by the voters in 2008, I have to conclude that the things he has bartered for the ability to say he won it seems as if the people who depend on those things aren't that big a concern to him.

A lot of that campaign against morality was an indiscriminate effort to get rid of the vestiges of 19th century prudishness, often by authors who wanted to cash in on sex and sensation, which, frankly, didn't take much in the way of intelligence or talent. The list of works championed by that effort are the most mixed of mixed baskets, most of which are garbage. But a lot of it was part of what has been identified as the centuries old effort to free fortunate individuals and families from the network of moral obligations to others, an abandonment of the perennial list of those in need of justice, the poor, the destitute, the sick, the prisoner, women and minority groups deprived of their needs and what is legitimately their right. While the habit of talking about that obligation is a tattered remnant among what gets called "liberalism", it is not seen as being the entire reason for liberalism to exist, the absolute essential requirements of democracy and a decent life. They have ceased to be a burning fire of conviction that can power liberalism to succeed on its own terms. It was in order to destroy the possibility of justice, of an informed electorate, of self-government and so equality and democracy that the slogan of "free speech" has been adopted by the Republican right.

I can't listen to Barack Obama's voice anymore. The bold confident presentation has become painful to hear. Listening to his stentorian presentations presenting the results of prolonged periods of capitulation as some kind of victory when, as Echidne says, he capitulated to start with, is one of the most infuriating experiences I've had in politics.

In a recent blog discussion someone pointed out that Barack Obama is to the right of Eisenhower on a number of issues. It came to me very suddenly that I couldn't imagine him calling out federal troops to enforce a desegregation order of the Supreme Court, as Eisenhower did. Would he? I don't know. But I find it impossible to imagine him doing it. Which is one of the most disturbing ideas I've had in a long time.

The problem for the left is that Barack Obama is what we've got. He is popular with enough people that no challenge from the left is going to deprive him of a nomination, not nominating him would alienate large numbers of people based on his symbolic position as the first black president, people who are an absolutely valued and essential part of our shared coalition. In Barack Obama we have about the worst of all possible dilemmas. He counts on us having no where else to go, though you would think that last fall's political disaster would have taught someone far less intelligent than he is that is a bad bet. I will, almost certainly, have to vote for Barack Obama next year. I won't like it but it is the least bad of the likely alternatives.

Personally, I take some lessons from this, one of which is that I will never trust someone who has never been to a public school, someone who is the product of the Ivy league, someone who doesn't have a long record of real courage in service to democracy and the common good. Barack Obama was a package, I think he consciously presented himself as one, the contents are not as advertised. I think he was always the product of an elite with the common ideas and expectations of that elite and never intended to extend his efforts past where that elite would be seriously inconvenienced and upset. He has certainly been a lot more concerned with pleasing his political enemies, those who represent the interests of that elite, than his supporters who are mostly the target of that elites' attacks.

You might want to read what Ezra Klein says about the deal that Obama announced had been reached and how it was announced. He implies that part of the problem is that Barack Obama isn't very politically skilled. I agree with that but the problem goes far deeper than that.