Sunday, February 18, 2007

In praise of passionate neutrality

Matt Taibbi has an interesting piece on Barack Obama's "passionate neutrality" (the term is my own, not Taibbi's).

According to Taibbi, Obama is "ripping off half of his campaign speech from a smorgasbord of '04 Democratic candidates." But so are his opponents, "a sorry collection of human saline drips that included Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd." I myself have criticized Obama for not standing up for anything; Taibbi appears to agree: His "entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind."

Although he doesn't appear to actually stand for anything, his presentation is passionate and powerful; he can "close his eyes and the clich├ęs just pour out of his mouth in huge polysyllabic paragraphs, like Rachmaninoff improvisations. In this sense he's exactly like Bill Clinton, who had the same gift."

Is all of this really bullshit though? Taibbi thinks so: the title of the article is "Obama Is the Best BS Artist Since Bill Clinton"; Obama "is exactly what is meant by the term bullshit artist... [a] Zelig-esque, Eddie Haskell, non-stick personality."

I'm suddenly not quite so sure.

If we are to apply the term "bullshit" to Obama, we should find either that he is unconcerned with truth or falsity or find that his presentation is entirely vacuous. But is it?

Again, I'm not quite so sure anymore.

Perhaps Obama's almost universalist inclusiveness is not bullshit, not vacuous, but a legitimate position in and of itself. I value tolerance and plurality, and one can say with confidence that Obama shares at least these values. I value restraint and careful thought; Obama is the very model of temperance and certainly intelligent.

More importantly, I get the sense that Obama, while tolerant and pluralistic, temperate and intelligent, really does care--like Bill Clinton--about the American people and the people of the world. I don't at all get the sense that he seeks the presidency just to sit in a fancy office and just do nothing at all.

And damn it, the man can sell.

Was Bill Clinton himself at heart nothing more than a bullshit artist? Sure, Clinton could sling the shit when he needed to--he was a politician after all--but was his presidency nothing but bullshit? I don't think so. He did a lot of things I disagreed with, a lot of things that I think have damaged the country, but he did a lot of things I did agree with. As peacetime presidents go, he was perhaps one of the best. Even when he did do things I disagreed with, I never got the sense that he was acting from the kind of callous arrogance and indifference to human suffering that has marked every day of the Bush administration.

I myself am hardly ideologically neutral or particularly tolerant. I have very definite opinions on what is right and good, on what I passionately approve of and just as passionately, sometimes violently, disapprove of--and I express these opinions without reservation. Sure, I would love to see a candidate exactly like myself--perhaps I myself should even be president. But given the passionate nature of my convictions, I might well be a terrible president. I therefore, with great regret and apologies to my millions of supporters, withdraw my name from consideration for the nomination.

Perhaps my own best choice of president is not someone exactly like myself, but someone who is at least willing to listen and take into account not only my own beliefs, but also the conflicting beliefs of my fellow countrymen, and fellow human beings and try to negotiate a thoughtfully considered, peaceful, rational compromise.

Perhaps someone exactly like Barack Obama.

Our political discourse has become polarized and acrimonious, especially over the last dozen or so years. Regardless of who is at fault (the conservatives), perhaps our best response--and by "our" I mean intelligent, thoughtful people who care more about the well being of our country, our culture, our world, and all the people on it than about being on the "winning team"--is to elect neither a red-hot leftist ideologue, nor a passionless bureaucrat, but someone who appears to be passionate about the antithesis of a religious attachment to ideological purity.

Perhaps someone exactly like Barack Obama.

I think Arthur Silber is correct in identifying a thread of American arrogance that winds through our entire history, through all our past presidents, Clinton included. And I don't think Barack Obama is the man to cut that thread--or, rather, eliminate that arrogance root and branch. But there's no one--not even Kucinich--who can or even wants to do so.

And perhaps we shouldn't so blithely uproot this arrogance. As much as I absolutely loathe the human suffering our arrogance has imposed upon the world, politics and economics are "ecological" in nature, and if nothing else the scientific study of ecology have shown us dramatically that we make any drastic change to an ecology--even the elimination of a vicious parasite--at tremendous peril of complete collapse.

This is not to say, of course, that because our arrogance cannot simply be eliminated that we should water and nurture it. But perhaps the best we can do today is to starve this arrogance as much as possible. And to do so, perhaps we should choose as our president a person who values tolerance, pluralism, restraint and thoughtfulness for themselves. Perhaps we should choose a person who appears, if not the perfect example of humility, one who at least does not display the worst traits of self-righteous arrogance. And perhaps we should choose someone who can sell these virtues with passion and conviction.

Perhaps someone exactly like Barack Obama.

Update: This is a pretty big "perhaps". Barack Obama will have to do more to make it a "yes".


  1. I think Arthur Silber is correct in identifying a thread of American arrogance that winds through our entire history, through all our past presidents, Clinton included.

    I think that arrogance comes from a certain teleological sense: As evangelicals for the "purest" form of national rule (capitalism plus republican democracy plus a bit of communal responsibility). Personally, I think there are far more parallels between the U.S. and Athens and Rome than go generally acknowledged. And you're right: We shouldn't toss it aside - the value of a teleological sense of history is immense.

  2. That's an interesting view.

    I'm not necessarily convinced myself that a teleological sense of history is particularly valuable; in any event, I don't think any of our current problems stem from too little teleology. Ask me again in a hundred years, or perhaps a thousand, and I might have a different view.

    In any event, my sole argument is that it's almost impossibly difficult to predict the consequences of any abrupt change--even a change that appears to be morally justified--and that it's perhaps justified on only that basis to prefer an incremental change.

    In any event, such an abrupt change is not in the cards, practically speaking, so incremental change is all we're going to get.


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