Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Contemporary American politics makes a great deal more sense in light of the realization that Barack Obama's most devoted fans and fiercest critics are united by a shared delusion: the belief that Obama is really, really interesting.

How this manifests among his supporters is apparent enough in the starry-eyed adulation he been able to inspire in so many people. How this manifests among his opponents was especially driven home recently by the now somewhat notorious Dinesh D'Souza article in Forbes, in which D'Souza argued that Obama's politics are the result of the anti-colonialist ideology of Obama's Kenyan father. As D'Souza summarizes:

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder...

For Obama, the solutions are simple. He must work to wring the neocolonialism out of America and the West. And here is where our anticolonial understanding of Obama really takes off, because it provides a vital key to explaining not only his major policy actions but also the little details that no other theory can adequately account for.

Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s...
Equipped with this window into the president's soul, D'Souza purports to explain a variety of Obama's political positions, from economics to his interest in using NASA for outreach to the Muslim world.

There are two problems with this thesis. (Three if one counts D'Souza's questionable attempts at psychoanalysis, which takes a somewhat troubled young man's youthful romanticizing of his absent biological father and turns it into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.)

The first relates to Obama's military and foreign policy. In the real world, where the sitting president of the United States of America is the actual Barack Obama and not a cunningly disguised George McGovern wearing a Barack Obama mask, Obama has maintained tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, significantly escalated military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan with considerable cost in human lives, and is loudly rattling his saber at Iran. If he's grieved by the fact that the United States has military bases spanning the globe, well over one million men under arms, and an annual military budget that accounts for two-fifths of the planet's military spending, he 's been remarkably restrained in his complaints about it.

If Obama really views America's military as "an instrument of neocolonial occupation," as D'Souza claims, that's actually a rather decisive refutation of the idea that he's driven by anticolonialism.

In his discussion of domestic matters, D'Souza is at least reasonably accurate about describing Obama's actual policies. (Though it should be noted that, contrary to both D'Souza and some of Obama's own apologists, the rich aren't Obama's only tax targets: Obama signed a bill that more than doubled federal cigarette taxes. Like most lifestyle choices that progressives cluck their tongues at, cigarette smoking is disproportionately common among people at lower income levels.) However, he is no more effective in making his case for Obama the anticolonialist.

D'Souza's claims about Obama's desire to use NASA as a way to forge closer ties with Muslim countries is nicely representative of how he goes wrong:
No explanation other than anticolonialism makes sense of Obama's curious mandate to convert a space agency into a Muslim and international outreach.
Please. This is generic off-the-shelf liberalism- government programs will bring people together in a United Colors of Benetton-esque fraternity of cooperation and mutual understanding. Give me half an hour at any university in this country and I could round up dozens of lily-white progressives who would think that using NASA as a way to reach out to the Muslim world is a splendid idea.

The problem is that D'Souza asks the wrong questions: Why would Obama blow hundreds of billions of dollars on a dubious "stimulus" program during an economic crisis? Why would he try to make banks that had declined bailout money due to the strings attached take it anyway? Why would he try to tighten the government's grip on health care? Why would he want to raise taxes on higher income brackets?

Why on earth wouldn't he? He's blowing hundreds of billions on the stimulus so that he and his political allies can fund pet projects, justify the exercise of greater influence and power over society and pass out government swag to friends, allies, and supporters. He's doing the standard, normal thing for someone with political power to do - he's just able to do more because of the circumstances he finds himself in.

He wants to raise taxes on higher income brackets? So does every other center-left politician cultivating his "friend of the people" persona. He wants to increase federal involvement in this or that sector of the economy? He'd be a bizarre anomaly if he was a major American politician who didn't.

The same can be said of questions raised by faltering or disenchanted Obama supporters: Why hasn't he shown interest in liberalizing drug laws? Why isn't he renouncing the Bush era's offenses against civil liberties and separation of powers? Why is he handing out wagonloads of boodle to big corporations?

Why would it be otherwise?

The problem D'Souza has- and that many conservative critics of Obama have, and that many liberal admirers of Obama have- is this: He thinks there must be some interesting, unusual, or complex explanation for what is actually entirely mundane, typical behavior with a mundane, typical explanation.

The conservative reaction to Obama's programs are remarkably similar to the liberal reaction to George W. Bush, which also tended to ridiculously exaggerate the novelty of what Bush was doing by acting as if incremental changes building on established precedent were new and shocking.

Torture? President Bill Clinton signed an executive order authorizing "extraordinary rendition" in 1995- Bush's innovation was the idea of having it done in-house instead of subcontracting it out to the Third World. Bush killed hundreds of thousands of people by invading Iraq... not at all like his immediate predecessor, who had the good taste and discretion to kill hundreds of thousands of people through low-key methods like starvation and water-borne disease. Bush's encroachments on civil liberties weren't just built on the foundation of past encroachments by past administrations of both parties- they were, in many cases, the same law enforcement powers that Clinton had tried and failed to enact after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing.

That's easy to forget, amidst all the hysterical squealing about Bush's supposed radical right-wingerness. In domestic policy, much of said squealing is the result of outright falsehoods- specifically, the ludicrous but impressively durable myth that Bush was a proponent of laissez-faire or presided over a reduction in the government's domestic size or regulatory power. This belief is actually very much like D'Souza's belief that Obama is anti-military- it's not only false, it's very obviously false, but the truth is incompatible with each side's mental image of the other side and so cannot penetrate their skulls.

Liberal treatment of Bush's foreign policy is generally much like D'Souza's interpretation of Obama's domestic policy- based on a reasonably accurate account of what Bush actually did but distorted into nonsense by the assumption that the Bush administration's polices and ideas, a Wilsonian crusade to spread the blessings of democracy through military force that would probably have met with the approval of many of the original Progressives, represented some sort of radical and novel right-wing extremism. (You don't get a vote in favor of your war from the number two contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and President Obama's current Secretary of State without bipartisan appeal.)

Bush was able to push the limits further than Clinton because Bush had a bigger, scarier terrorist attack. Likewise, Obama has a bigger, scarier economic problem than his predecessors, and that provides opportunity. Each man chose to avail himself of the opportunity not because there is anything unusual or special about either of these politicians, but precisely because there isn't. No need for any unique wickedness from either of them. No need for any sort of exotic political agenda, be it Marxism, anticolonialism, neoconservatism as it exists in the liberal imagination*, secret adherence to Islam, or the machinations of the vengeful shade of Saul Alinsky.

*(Not to be confused with neoconservatism as it exists in the real world, where it's a movement founded by New Deal-style liberals, Trotskyites, anti-Soviet social democrats, and technocratic center-leftists who started identifying with the conservative movement because they were were appalled by the New Left's antimilitarism, cultural radicalism, and hostility to Cold War consensus liberalism.)

Acknowledging the incremental rather than revolutionary nature of what you condemn is potentially awkward for people in the political mainstream, because doing so will entail condemning your own side in the process. Everything that both the mainstream Right and mainstream Left profess to oppose, they both helped to create and preserve. If you don't want to face that, or don't want other people to, or are so deeply immersed in mainstream political assumptions that ideas like "Republicans aren't consistent or principled supporters of the free market or opponents of big government and government regulation" or "Democrats aren't consistent or principled supporters of peace and civil liberties or opponents of the rich, powerful, and privileged" makes your brain start giving Bad command or file name error messages, you'll need to replace the most plausible, obvious, and parsimonious explanation with something more baroque.

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Scott said...


Great article with brilliant observations as usual.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, and right on target.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. I have had similar thoughts floating around my mind ever since I read the D'Souza piece, but you said it much better than I could have.

I am going to share this article with my friends and family (many of whom are precisely the type of people you are referring to in this article).

3D Face Analysis said...

Great blog! Found your blog on Google while searching something else, and surprised that your blog is also libertarian!