Monday, August 30, 2010

The Secret Behind Glenn Beck's Magic

On August 28, Glenn Beck held a rally on the national mall with the theme, “Restoring Honor,” tapping into the Tea-Party sentiment that something has gone terribly wrong in America. Beck was not clear what and whose honor we have lost, but he has definitely tapped into an atavistic American nerve - politicizing nostalgia.

Nolstalgia is the selective invocation of the past. It is probably the worst kind of historical reasoning used by romantics who glorify what we remember to be good (Mom and pie) and conveniently forget all that was bad (Jim and Crow). Because nostalgia is history without the guilt, it is the most comforting kind of political appeal. And since there is no guilt without details, Beck’s bumper-sticker speech communicated offensive content without offending.

In narrating our national declension, presumably since the March on Washington in August of 1963, Beck attacked the civil rights movement without appearing to do so. When Chris Wallace asked him on Sunday what message he was trying to send to Washington, he was deliberately ambiguous, "I don't know what they were trying to tell the leaders." Speaking for himself, he proposed: "Be your highest self. Stand in the fire because that is the only thing that is going to save us." That still didn’t answer Wallace’s question, and one wonders if it is because a direct answer would have been too offensive for national television.

"Restore America" is a slogan that implies, especially because it was articulated on the anniversary of an event most Americans are very proud of, that everything has gone to hell since the Founding. As Beck intoned on his website, "Help us restore the values that founded this great nation." Or as Sarah Palin chimed in, "We must not fundamentally transform America... we must restore America." We forget that the premise that our nation has been desecrated (and therefore in need of restoration) is no innocuous claim because it was first inoculated with sweet nostalgia. Beck wants us to be our "highest self" because he rejects collective action solutions, and yes, even the gold-standard of America's social movement history.

According to Beck, he had not intentionally timed his rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. But it surely benefitted his message symbolically that the theme of “Restoring Honor” would be articulated on the anniversary of an event which called on white Americans to own up to the sins of Jim crow, for it is clear that Beck wants us to stop feeling guilt (even if we should have in 1963) and start feeling pride, ie. "honor." And if that meant desecrating the memory of MLK's speech, so be it. Beck admitted nearly as much on his show, "This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement."

Add God (the Alpha and the Omega of history) to nostalgia and the potion could be too potent to resist. Beck’s demagoguery on Saturday would have been more blatant had he not invoked a counter-weighing appeal, God. The flatterer conceals his flattering when toward heaven his compliments turn into pious worship. In a recent change in his public persona, Beck is now more than ever before cloaking his anti-Progressive agenda with Christian values, linking our political decay with our moral decay, and thereby grafting the mostly libertarian Tea-Party movement with the Christian Right. (And that is how Beck, a mormon convert, has become a leader of the new fusionism in the conservative movement.)

The truth is, we have progressed from some Founding beliefs, as we have conserved its greatest ideals (both puns intended). It is simply ridiculous to suggest that the best way to conserve our highest ideals is to undo our progress from some antiquated Founding beliefs. But that is exactly what “restoring honor” advocates, in implying that everything that happened after 1963, the year of King’s speech, has been a tragic national tale of decline and declension. If Beck hopes to “reclaim the civil rights movement,” does he mean that he wants to take back the rights restored to (for they were previously stolen from) African Americans in 1964?

We seldom stop to think about the implications of our nostalgic thoughts, because the flattery and self-congratulation they offer is comforting to the point of being hypnotizing. Nostalgia can conceal or justify thoughtlessness, which according to Hannah Arendt is the banality that is Evil. And that is the magic that is Glenn Beck.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama's Leadership Gap

In recent memory, there was Al Gore , then it was John Kerry. It was a only a matter of time before President Barack Obama would be compared to the failed Democratic presidential bid of Michael Dukakis in 1988. According to Noemi Emery, Dukakis and Obama are "both creatures of the liberal Northeast and of Harvard, with no sense at all of most of the rest of the country; both rationalists who impose legalistic criteria on emotion-rich subjects; both with fixed ideas of who society’s victims are, which do not accord with the views of the public."

With the economy still struggling and the President insistently on the unpopular side of the debate about the Ground Zero mosque , Barack Obama has become the newest target of an ancient charge that Democrats are "clueless, condescending, and costly."

Abraham Lincoln once invited the nation to be guided by "the better angels of our nature." But when he said those words in 1861, the North was less than inspired and the South was surely unmoved. The nation did eventually come to the right conclusion about slavery by the end of the Civil War but it would take much longer (via the detour called Jim Crow) before we came close to the right conclusion about racial equality.

The civic education of a nation takes time, and Barack Obama should take heed. In a democracy, public opinion is king. And the king should either be obeyed (and this is typically the path of least resistance), or he should be educated (this is leadership). But Barack Obama has done neither. People say he has been too professorial. But maybe he hasn't been professorial enough.

For after endorsing the idea of the mosque near Ground Zero and resisting the path of least resistance, a day later, the president back-tracked, saying "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding." (As Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it.) Well done, Polonius.

If Obama was referring to the Declaration of Independence, he should have known (as Lincoln came to know) that even truths which are self-evident must nevertheless be said, resaid, and said again before stubborn majorities come to see the light. Obama should either have deferred to the majority against the idea of the mosque, or tried to convince the majority that their particular sensitivity about the location of the mosque was illegitimate . What he should not have done was perform the unhappy medium: tell people they were wrong but not wrong enough that the president himself would take up the considerable challenge (called leadership) of disabusing stubborn majorities of their ill-conceived conclusions.

If Presidents dare tell the American people that they are wrong, then they should also be brave enough to follow through with a thorough explanation. "I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there" is not an explanation. It is an abdication.

Where Gore, Kerry, and now Obama have fallen short is their failure to assume that that which is self-evident to them almost always demands explanation for others. And quite a lot of it, because our better angels have never popped up spontaneously like a burning bush. Ask the abolitionists, and the suffragists (and the best teachers): they of all people knew that intuitions feel utterly right and unassailable until they are brought under the prolonged and penetrating light of reason. We have always fumbled our way toward the right side of history because most of our leadership have bowed to public opinion whereas only the great ones have educated it. The worst kind of leaders are those who assert without explanation, as if they were absolute monarchs, and then accused their errant subjects of being bitter as they cling on to their guns. Such presidents are invariably cast and perceived as clueless and condescending and rightly so, because they were too quick to give up on the redemptive promise of their fellow Americans. The necessary price of democracy is that majorities matter, even and especially when they are wrong, because public opinion has no patience for the tyranny even of enlightened Democratic presidents.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque" and An Ode to Political Correctness

Last Friday, President Barack Obama communicated his support for the building of a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, saying, "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country." This seemed harmless enough until he found out that over two thirds of America disagreed with him. Chastened, the President went off-message while visiting the Gulf Coast on Saturday to control the political damage, saying "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque".

Tsk, Tsk, Barack Obama. He forgets that he needs to be sensitive to the hurt felt by the families of 9/11 victims, and it is not enough, apparently, for a president to merely recite our constitutional rights without acknowledging that what is constitutionally permissible may nevertheless be emotionally distressing to some fellow citizens.

The truth is, the American Left is in agreement, and zealous proponents of this principal of political correctness: that we should always err on the side of being sensitive to the emotional hurt felt by victims of oppression and injury. The Left is perturbed, for example, that statues of Confederate generals are allowed to remain in many Southern cities in the name of the freedom of expression. The Left argues that we should be sensitive to the emotional harm inflicted on the descendants of former slaves that live among us, and symbols of their ancestor's oppression ought not to be brandished with impunity.

Even though the Right tends to speak of “political correctness” in pejorative terms, their outrage at the “Ground Zero Mosque” is nothing but an exercise of political correctness. Everyone agrees that the developers of the mosque have the right to build the mosque on private property; most Americans believe that it would be insensitive to do so.

Usually, the Democrats are accused of being over-sensitive. Not so this time. It is the Left that is accusing the Right of exaggerating emotional harms and conjuring phantom injuries. Exactly what harm is being done to the pastor of a Southern Californian church if a mosque is constructed two blocks from Ground Zero? What has a mosque in America have to do with a bunch of Muslim terrorists who flew planes into buildings in the name of Allah?

About as much as a statue of a Confederate general can inspire memories of the institution of slavery in the minds of the descendants of former slaves.

It is a reasonable argument to propose that if we are committed to our fellow citizens, we owe those who have suffered certain injuries a measure of sensitivity, even when we free strongly that these emotional injuries are several times removed from a tangible injury. Whether this be the emotional harm felt by families of 9/11 victims (or the harm felt by conservatives who never knew but nevertheless feel connected to the families of 9/11 victims) or this be the emotional harm felt by descendants of slaves (or the harm felt by white liberals who feel they are kindred spirits with their African American friends), political correctness encourages the fellow-feeling that is necessary for the unity of a community.

To recognize that a constitutional right may not always feel like a moral right is to acknowledge that feelings matter. To concede that we need to be sensitive to each other’s emotional injuries is to say that we are all, at one time or another, members of the PC police. But, if we arbitrarily picked and chose who among our fellow citizens we would extend our sympathies to, then we are not being very good citizens at all. If we choose to be a government of men (above and beyond a legalistic, emotionless government of laws) we should extend our sympathies to all fellow Americans, not just those we find it easier to sympathize with.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Deep Politics of the 14th Amendment

In 2004, the Republican's hot button political issue du jour was same-sex marriage. 11 states approved ballot measures that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Last week, a federal judge struck down California's Proposition 8 (passed in 2008) because it "fails to advance any rational basis for singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license."

However, Republicans politicians are not taking the bait to revisit this hot button political issue, despite Rush Limbaugh's encouragement. One explanation is that Republican voters are already angry and motivated this year, and they are concerned about the economy and jobs. There is no need for Republicans to exploit a get-the-vote-out issue this year.

But, that is exactly what some Republicans have done, just not on the marriage issue. Instead, prominent Republicans like Senator Lindsay Graham and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty are directing their attention this year on repealing the 14th amendment, and in particular the provision guaranteeing birthright citizenship.

So is it or is it not "the economy, stupid," for Election 2010? I think it's about something even bigger than the economy. It's about the power of the federal government, which increased dramatically with the passage of the 14th amendment.

Consider that the first sentence of Section 1 of the 14th amendment ("All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside"), which established the priority of national citizenship over state citizenship. While there were references to citizenship in the Constitution of 1789, the Framers did not define the content of citizenship in part because there was little need, at the time, to consider the idea of national citizenship as opposed to state citizenship. The nation as we know it today was not fully developed until the Civil War.

Read in totality, the first Section of the 14th Amendment isn't so much a grant of birthright citizenship - the content of the first sentence - but a constraint on states' rights, the point of the second: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." We know this to be historically accurate. Since the 1930s, the "equal protection" and "due process" clauses have been used against state actors to extend the scope and depth of federal governmental powers.

Fast forward to the 2010, and it is no coincidence that almost everything up for political debate today and in November has something to do with the power of federal government versus states' rights, whether it be Arizona taking it upon itself to write its own immigration policy and the Obama administration insisting that immigration policy is a federal prerogative, or Missouri primary voters rejecting the federal ("Obamacare") mandate that all individual citizens must buy health insurance, or Californians deciding in Proposition 8 that only marriages between a man and a woman are valid in their state. If the unifying thread in these agitations is the perception of a bloated, out-of-control federal government, it is also worth noting that the major resource for the aggrandizement of the government has been the 14th amendment.

The Republican Party of 2010 is not the Republican Party of 1868, the year the 14th amendment was ratified. The GOP, back then, believed in federal preemption of states' rights. Democrats were the ones who were wary of federal power. The Republicans' switch today is the culmination of Reagan's successful Revolution. Now that even the 14th amendment is at least symbolically on the table, we can be sure that very fundamental, soul-searching questions about the very nature of the American union will be up for debate this election year.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama on "The View"

President Barack Obama knew that he needed to help his party out as Washington gears up for the November elections. And so, he went on day-time television.

According to Nielsen ratings, Obama had 6.5 million people tuning in to The View last Thursday. In his last Oval Office address on the BP oil spill at primetime on June 16, he enticed only 5.3 million to listen in. As a pure matter of strategy, the decision to go on The View would have been a no-brainer. With a bigger audience in a relaxed atmosphere and soft-ball questions, Obama had little to lose and much to gain by going on daytime tv. In fact, because people are tired of speeches from behind a desk (which is why speeches from the Oval Office garner smaller and smaller audiences the further we are from Inauguration day), people rarely get to see a president taking questions on a couch (which is why The View got .4 million more viewers on July 31, 2010 than on November 5, 2008, the day after Obama was elected).

People say the president's appearance on The View, the first ever by a president on a daytime tv show, "demeaned" the office. (People said the same thing when Bill Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall show.) Maybe this is true, and there is something undignified about taking questions while seated on a sofa. But one wonders if there might have been some sexism involved, that what was deemed "demeaning" was that Obama didn't think it was below his station to be flagrantly courting a minority demographic.

Demeaning or not, like a flower turns towards the sun, Obama is returning to his base in the summer before the mid-term elections. He must, because a large proportion of his base are women. Although 56 percent of women voted for Obama in 2008 ( and this was over four times the size of the gender gap between Kerry and Bush in 2004), about a third of these women have since jilted him. Obama was being more than honest when he jested that "I wanted to pick a show that Michelle actually watches."

Obama is rehabilitating his reputation because his party's fortunes are inextricably linked to his this November. More than any single factor out there, Barack Obama can enhance the size of the Democratic turn-out in November. And it is worth repeating that almost everything he has done in the last year and a half has guaranteed a sizeable Republican turn-out. As Republican candidates have also been successful in nationalizing local races, these voters are disproportionately angry, charged-up, and ready to do some damage to Democratic one-party rule in Washington. Democrats have one piece of good news in this: according to Pew Research, only 52 percent of Republican voters are anticipating their vote as a vote against Obama, compared to 64 percent of Democrats who felt the same in 2006, which suggests that the electoral slap-in-the-face come November might not be as stinging as some pundits have been suggesting.

If there is one thing we know Obama can do, it is to campaign. While that does not make him a good president, he remains a force to reckon with because the road to Capitol Hill runs through the White House. So on The View and on the road the president shall be.