Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Obama Nibble Snowman

I was a sleepwalker as a kid. Apparently I made it down some stairs and back up again and into bed without a mishap and without waking up and did so on more than one occasion. I’m not sure why it happened, whether hereditary or environment or some odd combination of the two; this site which seems credible makes it look like sleepwalking is pretty normal. But I had a variety of phobias, a couple based on singular experiences – falling off a horse while riding in day camp and then not getting right back on, being chased by a dog who nipped at my shorts and who was unleashed with no apparent adult supervision so my brother and I just ran like heck till we got to our house. Then, accompanying those, there were some other fears that were entirely a product of my (perhaps tortured) imagination. So I wonder if the sleepwalking was a consequence of the phobias and trying to work them through. On the other hand, perhaps the sleepwalking was going to be there anyway and contributed to being more susceptible to the monster-in-the-closet type of fears.

A couple of those that I still recall, and here I won’t get the ages right at all, but my parents used to go out a lot on Friday night and at some point there was no baby sitter and no older sister to be with us. There was just me and my younger brother. We got to have the “treat” of TV dinners and Fizzies, eat in the Den rather than the Kitchen, and watch TV. All would have been bliss to the early teen or pre-teen I was at the time, but on occasion I would lose my nerve and be afraid to go upstairs (where the bedrooms were). Perhaps we’d have heard the house creak or some other unexplained noise or maybe it was just something on TV that made us jittery. Whatever it was, we’d wait downstairs till my parents returned before going upstairs, as if their presence alone would thwart the threat and then our confidence would restore enough to go up to bed.

The other fear I had on a recurring basis and this one makes no sense whatsoever but I’d bet it is pretty common. We lived in Bayside Hills (Google Maps on my old zip code 11364 calls it Oakland Gardens now, but centers it on the other side of the Long Island Expressway). It was a residential community of modestly sized individual homes. We were quite a distance from the Bronx, with the famous zoo, or from Central Park, with a good but not quite as spectacular zoo, or Flushing Meadows (home of Shea Stadium) in my borough of Queens which I couldn’t remember whether it had a zoo until I Googled it. But somehow I imagined that the lions would break out of their cages at the zoo, find the Long Island Expressway, the Oceania Street Exit and then track me down and come after me.

I grew out of these juvenile fears. I suppose most people do. Now when I read a story about a Tiger at the San Francisco zoo breaking out of its cage, it triggers no special emotional reaction. And there aren’t nightmares later on as a result. I still am fearful of a variety of things, for example I’m terrified of slipping on the ice in winter, but I’d term that a rational fear. There is both a proximate cause and, given my prior leg injury, a clear reason to be very concerned about a fall.

Yet I think it is wrong to conclude that we adults fear only in this rational way. As a kid in Bayside our house was the stop over for many international guests – friends and relatives whom my parents met on their whirlwind trip to Denmark, England, Israel, and South Africa in 1961. I remember one Israeli woman who stayed with us. Her name was Emma. She had never seen a thunderstorm before. (According to my recollection the ones in New York were mild compared to the storms we have now in Champaign, which are spectacular, even awesome, and quite frightening If you happen to be caught outside in one of them. ) As luck would have it, there was a thunderstorm while Emma was with us. Emma crawled under her bed to hide from the storm. I’ve never seen anyone else do that, child or adult, before or since, though our dog Ginger gets the shakes at the first inkling of thunder, and when the tornado warnings come on and the reports on TV or radio tell us to head to the basement and stay away from windows, that does cause some alarm in my kids even now.

Once the possibility of juvenile fears in adults is let out of the bag, it’s not much of a stretch to consider how others manipulate us by managing the specter of such fears. And from that, unsurprisingly, we can look at politics as fear mongering, a topic to which I now turn.

* * * * *

Mention the word “fear” in the same sentence as “Presidents of the United States” and many will think of FDR and his famous line, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, which is from his first inaugural address. (The linked Web page includes an audio recording of a selection from the address, including the famous line.) Literally speaking, Roosevelt was wrong with this utterance. In the throes of the Great Depression, many were hardly surviving, not knowing how to feed themselves let alone provide for their families. And the high unemployment that prevailed at the time made it ripe for employers to exploit workers as depicted in such films as Cinderella Man, Bound for Glory, and The Grapes of Wrath. There was plenty to fear – hunger, violence, and because so much of existence was tied up in the day to day, the unknown of tomorrow.

Figuratively, however, FDR’s idea was a master stroke. By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall. We could stay united but for fear itself. I think it important to note that the fear FDR referred to was not being caused by some enemy during wartime. It’s source was economic malaise, certainly more serious than anything we’ve yet to experience in the current downturn, but surely something to keep in mind now. United we stand is anti Darwin and his notion of the survival of the fittest. Human decency can triumph letting us get through the economic crisis relatively unscathed, but only if we don’t lose our cool by giving into fear.

FDR understood the task ahead of him and made a transcendent speech to galvanize the nation behind him for the work that had to be done. But this speech was the exception. The rule was exemplified in the 1988 Presidential race, with the Willie Horton ad, where the race card was juxtaposed with the soft-on-crime issue and where it did a great disservice to the facts regarding the matter. It’s hard to know how many Reagan Democrats actually were swayed by this appeal to their baser senses. Reagan himself was quite popular when he left office; the Savings and Loan Crisis was kept under wraps until the Bush Administration took over and though Iran-Contra Crisis was widely covered in the news it was not a pocketbook issue; so the voter perception might have been driven simply by the desire to stay with it when there’s a good thing going. But then why did Bush supporters need to run the Horton ad?

The world turns. We make “progress.” Bill Clinton’s attacks on Barack Obama in South Carolina were milder and they backfired. If Obama ultimately is undone on the race issue it will be of his own making, owing to his connection with Reverend Wright, ergo the speech.

The speech has been extremely well received, certainly by the Times’ pundits Nicholas Kristof, Bob Herbert, and from a variety of others. Many have applauded its adult tone and nuanced argument. Some have said its one for the ages. On the first I agree. On the second, I don’t. Here’s why.

Many people pine to have adult conversation and in a variety of contexts certainly, not just on the topic of race. I know I’d like to have that type of dialog with my teenage children but they are not quite ready yet. They likely have to leave home for college or elsewhere to learn to depend on themselves first and then return as an equal, not as an equal in waiting. They have the intellectual disposition so I believe they will get there. Others never will.

Adult conversation is either the antidote to the pandering to juvenile fears that has become the norm in political discourse, embodied in attack ads and other rhetorical distortions aimed at moving the electorate out of fear, or it becomes a separator between those who avoid the victimization and those who do not. It would be delightful to learn that Obama’s speech was antidote but I’m afraid it mostly will be separator, as Herbert’s column linked above argues. The rest of my argument is aimed at those who’ve found the cure.

Adult conversation is not one and done. It is ongoing and must stand the test of evidence as it is applied to argument. So if it succeeds it morphs and gets refined with experience and may emerge in a quite different form than it appeared at origin. And success is by no means guaranteed. Skepticism is good thing to hold until the outcome is determined. We call it healthy.

Obama would like to see a more hopeful future different from our imperfect past, where irrespective of our own race and family background we can appreciate the challenges of those with different histories and come together to form a more perfect union, an up to date vision of the FDR ideal. Many, including myself, would like to see that too. But can we get there and are we ready to try? William Kristol, who has adopted an interesting tone as the neocon in residence writing for the Times’ audience, argues correctly that Obama himself apparently saw neither need nor profit from advancing the case, and that the speech only happened because Obama was backed into a corner; so let’s not follow through with its promise to have a national conversation about race, because our nerve endings are too frayed and the likely outcome would be gridlock, not progress. I believe Kristol is wrong in this conclusion because the stakes are too high not to play the game, but he has a point and it needs to be considered and worked through.

The same fundamental question underlies not only the race issue but also the economy issue --- the issue the candidates must pay attention to, and to the international affairs issue particularly on the resolution of the situation in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. And that fundamental question is whether the game is fair or if instead it is rigged. We can’t act as one if it is rigged. Many feel it is rigged and that is the source of both anger and cynicism. Any resolution of the race issue will surely need to stand the test that the solution is consistent with what fairness requires.

We need fairness in the economic arena too. Paul Krugman’s latest was a good column where he argued the need to regulate the non-bank financial sector (even Treasury Secretary Paulson seems to be singing that tune) and to close tax loopholes for the super wealthy, particularly hedge-fund managers. But Krugman is not optimistic that either will come to pass, because the lobbyists don’t want these things to happen and the lobbyists usually win out. Politically there needs to be a counter force. The obvious candidate for that counterforce is fairness. So the race discussion, as important as it is as a thing unto itself, is bigger than that. It needs to happen and we need to find the cure, or at least to know we’re on the path to that cure. The economic argument can’t be won otherwise. (And essentially the same argument applies to the international affairs side of the equation.)

But on what might we base an optimistic view that we can succeed in this endeavor? Historically, an imperfect but relevant analog might be found by looking at Jimmy Carter’s efforts with the Camp David Accords. This piece is fascinating to read in retrospect for many reasons. Carter was the agent for change, playing the role that Obama has preached in the current campaign. Carter clearly played the strategy of making progress where he could rather than going for an overall solution straight away, and while the two state solution between Israel and Egypt has largely held since, a fact that seems to go unrecognized today, it has not begat other like solutions between Israel and neighboring states, and I doubt anyone feels that we’re closer to solving the Palestinian issue now than we were then. But most would attribute that lack of success to events that succeeded Camp David, particularly the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian President was himself ready for change and showed remarkable courage in negotiating and signing the Agreement. But some of his countrymen clearly were not ready and they were not passive in their resistance to change. One might ask whether if knowing the assassination would occur would we still consider the Accords a good thing overall. I believe the argument can be made both ways. If you support the no side of the argument, you are helping to make Bill Kristol’s case.

In retrospect, most have come to consider the Carter Presidency to have failed. He was already vulnerable before the Sadat assassination owing to the stagflation, largely a creature of the wage and price controls under Nixon and the oil price shocks from OPEC, neither of which he could control. And he was played by Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran Hostage Crisis, in my view largely because of this prior weakness. In toto these factors gave the appearance of impotence in Carter and gridlock on managing change.

Obama, if he does become the President, will start out with a greater mandate than Carter ever had. (See my post on The “L” Word that argues Ford would have won the election in 1976 if not for the Pardon.) And that mandate will be an asset, though the Obama popularity will surely stem in part from a rejection of all that is Bush rather than an affirmation of those things Obama, particularly those things where he has not yet fully articulated his position. The question is whether that asset will be enough.

Change comes with risk. That is the lesson from considering the Carter Presidency. Every theory of management I know says to go for easy wins at first to build strength and make progress. The flip side is that early defeats sap strength and weaken the chance for further change. Yet sure wins that don’t achieve much may not satisfy those who are impatient for real change. To keep the coalition intact there likely will be a need to take larger bites, even early on. This makes what Obama wants to do really hard.

The problem with ongoing conversation such as mine above, adult as it may be, is that gridlock might seem the likely outcome either way. It will take a lot of patience, courage, and persistence to thread the needle, all of which will be a hard sell. So it is tempting to want adult conversation but want it to be one and done. Unfortunately, that will not do. We either get real adult conversation, likely along the lines I’ve sketched, or we get more pandering to fear; today’s monster of choice is Yeti. Discussing him is what I’m really afraid about.

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