Much in the way that my endorsement of Mitt Romney came the day before he dropped out of the race, my first and allegedly last post on Rev. Wright came within hours of Obama's big smackdown. My main consolation for such bad timing has been not having turned out rush copy like AP writer Mike Glover's:
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," Obama said of the man who married him.
Obama the gay Muslim -- wait for it. Meanwhile, however, indulge me while I push my aristocratic class analysis of Obama even further than I dared in that Lone Wright Post.
Whereas the main conservative criticism of Obama now seems to be that he's reversed his position on Wright so quickly and completely that one or both of them must have been a giant pander, Michael Young at Hit & Run puts forward a more superficially devastating criticism:
Is it me, or did you also feel that Barack Obama's responses
to the series of comments by Reverend Jeremiah Wright were overly
focused on, well, how Wright had personally dissed Barack Obama and his
[...] for the candidate to repeatedly suggest that the problem
with Wright is one of personal affront, of disrespect for Obama and his
campaign, is to miss the point that voters will see things in a
decidedly less self-centered light. For them, what Wright says reflects
a worldview, a worldview Obama apparently managed to live with for some
20 years. They won't see the episode as just a thing between Obama and
[...] His priority is clearly (and understandably) to save his
campaign, but much less to determine what Wright's comments really tell
us about the relationship between blacks and whites in America. But
that's what many voters are interested in, because Obama's attitude on
race relations will say a lot about whether he's presidential material.
Instead, all they see today is someone nonplussed that Wright showed so
little personal concern for him.
You can see how this attack presents the Giant Pander as simply one aspect of a more general and transcendent snobbery. (See also Phil Klein's take.)
I'd tell a different story about what happened. The main practical question facing Obama is whether his reaction, whatever its character, was enough to put the kibosh on Wright as a fixture of mainstream media attention. But the main theoretical question is whether his reaction had the right character. I think the answer is clearly yes. The reason why Wright's comments are so easy to reject is because they're almost completely irrelevant to race relations in America. True, ideology exercises a wildly disproportionate influence on American politics. But, just so, prying away its grip in this case simply involves dismissing those who agree with Wright as not worth taking seriously. Our discomfort with doing this, and doing it overtly, derives from our fear of seeming like snobs. Obama may have been reluctant, as I claimed, to condescend to go there; but go there he did.
And it seemed to me, at least, that he did so because he was personally angry at Wright, and that, in turn, because Wright made it personal. When Obama analogized Wright to his grandmother, he was being magnanimous. Exercising an aristocratic virtue like that is a recipe for being misunderstood in American politics. But magnanimity appears to be Obama's default mode -- he appears to actually be made uncomfortable by having to not be magnanimous. So you can hear that edge in his voice as he condemns Wright, as Young claims, less for Offending America (a silly charge that manages to be both incontestable and inconsequential) than for rejecting his gratuity -- that is, for offending aristocratic taste.
Whether or not one is a gentleman is made clear by one's particular human relationships, not by one's standing in the national rankings of public opinion. Wright is not only 'ungentlemanly' in terms of his political content -- the public, subsidiary consideration -- but in terms of his moral style, the personal and primary consideration that Obama rightly emphasized. Obama had the luxury of allowing the Reverend the right to his political opinions, however outlandish or sour. What was inexcusable was the opinion of himself that Wright revealed. He failed to know his place, and Obama's one job was to put him in it. The trick involved putting Wright in his place with some explanation other than "crazy black man won't shut up about injustice -- we must silence the crank." Indeed, that never could be Obama's explanation, as he reiterated. Obama couldn't directly accomplish what America now can -- that is, wiping out pro forma democratic respect for crackpot bigots, right or left. But in order to get the ball rolling, Obama had to set the example by sticking to the personal.
Early in this campaign, I criticized Obama pretty relentlessly for trafficking in therapeutic politics. Strangely, as the season has drawn out and criticism of the man has mounted, I've found the Obama behind the bromides to be far more compelling and defensible, a remarkable portrait of how aristocratic virtues might thrive once again in the soil of the democratic soul. If only he were right on the issues...
[John McCain is] wrong but it's not like he hasn't thought about this
stuff or is some small-time governor being manipulated by his devilish
speechwriters. These are his ideas and they're bad ideas and lifelong
Republicans who don't like these ideas and don't want to see them
implemented should support his opponent. -- Matt Yglesias
Bob Barr, I presume? A lot of hay has been made this week about the zombie-like return of Rev. Wright. But arguably the more interesting recurrence, in the wide view, is the persistent disappointment felt by large numbers of voters in both parties over the candidate field. Do not be fooled by the crossover potential this year (Democrats who'd vote McCain over Clinton, Republicans who'd vote Obama over McCain). This is a depth indicator of desperation and disorientation. Everyone's second choice appears to be Oh To Hell With It, and everyone's third choice Certain Doom.
Which is why Matt's syllogism hits a wall. Every Republican I know who doesn't like McCain worries that Obama will also run a 'neoconnish' foreign policy -- although every Republican I know who doesn't like McCain and plans to vote for Obama plans to do so because the difference between Certain Doom and Oh To Hell With It is withdrawing from Iraq.
Surely there are some Republicans out there whose idea of a good foreign policy excludes Obama's position on Iraq without including McCain's position on, say, Russia. (I can vouch for personally for the existence of at least one.) Which opponent of McCain's are these people supposed to support?
The key to cracking that code involves the recognition among as many powerful and intelligent people as possible that ideas are one thing and actions are another. I'll have more to say about this later.
I'd like to say something to the younger generation of Serbians: here is your house, here is your place. -- Javier Solana
Putting a nice embossed seal on fate:
The European Union has signed an agreement with Serbia that will pave the way for membership of the bloc. [...] The accord went ahead after objections from Belgium and the Netherlands
were overcome over Belgrade's failure to hand over war crimes suspects. After the signing Mr Tadic said Serbia "would like to become an official candidate by the end of the year".
Under a compromise agreed by ministers from the EU's 27 member states,
the pact known as a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) will
not be ratified nor its benefits become available to Serbia until it
fully co-operates with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Not likely. Mladic and Karadzic are about as likely to allow themselves to fall into Serb custody as the tooth fairy. Expect their seizure some time later in a suitably foreign jurisdiction. Maybe the Canary Islands.
Because he's a classic case of a guy who brings you down. Even when I'm slumming on the teen beat, there's usually some redeeming factor waiting at the end -- redeeming the topic of conversation, that is. I'd rather write ten columns on the plight of Miley Cyrus than even this one blog post on the Rev. Wright because Wright's attitude, his demeanor, his aesthetic, and his posture -- now more than ever -- all conjure up a not-very-classy and resentment-filled response: publicly sneering "Not my problem."
But we all know that since a guy like Wright exists he must be our problem, his problems must be recognized as problems. That's the message reinforced by our believe-the-whine culture, but it's also the result of our understandable if exaggerated and ultimately phony fear of shutting up a black man whose grotesquely caricatured indictment of America is, after all, inspired by a true story.
So on the one hand I'd very much want to associate myself with Ross's recent Hitchensian remarks:
[...] a pure creep straight out of an Augusten Burroughs memoir,
who's happy to sabotage a younger, finer man who might just be the
first black President of the United States in the hopes of feeding his
own ego and becoming ... what? The next Al Sharpton? The next Willie Horton? How vile and pathetic.
Yet on the other hand, I don't want to credit Wright with the recognition afforded by such gratifying and accurate criticism. I don't want to pay him any attention. There's a very fine line, for Wright and within his tradition, between the content and the style of the sermon, and between religion and politics, for that matter. It's deliberately played, too, for maximum public impact. And it inspires, in my gut, an urge to pay him the last attention he'll ever want -- to punish Wright by crediting the content of his experience as real but denying that I or anyone else should care. Because that, if anything, would cut through to the quick of the audacious, articulate persona, would make a mess of the proud ritual distance Wright has erected between his urbane-looking public self and the wounding issues of betrayal and contempt that anchor the history that produced him.
Yet what inspires revolted resentment from me in Wright inspires appreciation and instinctive affinity coming from Obama himself. Obama has had to cultivate and maintain his aristocratic qualities -- the casual ease with which he has trained and mastered his ambition, the cool sit-down delivery, the catlike indifference that Nietzsche would say comes from Obama's good digestion -- without breaking his ties to what he recognized as his tradition, a tradition that features Rev. Wright right at its center. He is only slightly less implicated in the dilemma that Wright personifies than Wright himself -- the dilemma of depending on a pathos of both distance and closeness. Yet my own feelings and judgment of the two men couldn't be further apart.
What nobody has really admitted yet should be said bluntly: Rev. Wright needs to negate and to sacrifice himself for the greater good. He needs to allow his experience, his perspective, and his voice to be replaced by Obama's. Obama says he can no more disown Wright than he can his own grandmother, and I understand what he's saying: because Grandma doesn't have a pulpit; she doesn't do the Press Club. It isn't about wiping away 'the black experience' and replacing it with 'the Obama experience', a watered-down amusement-park version of the same thing. It's about silencing one particular public man in favor of another. It isn't the equivalent of banning the Confederate flag; it's the equivalent of dumping Trent Lott.
Can we really expect Obama, knowing what we know about the character he has, to pick up the phone and tell Wright what it is I've just said? Disappear, America doesn't need you or want you anymore? Doing so requires dropping down to Wright's level, engaging him on his own terms, crediting his person with the respect of recognition. It also requires confronting the temptation that says dropping down in that way is worth the gratification of malicious victory. But there is at least one big difference here between Obama and me: I am not running for President of the United States. And the President of the United States, chief public servant in a large republic, inherits with the office a tradition of its own: mastering the democratic character while still respecting and embodying it. Obama the patriotically-minded smart citizen can afford to ignore Wright as I wish to. Obama the Presidential candidate cannot. Obama the candidate must somehow translate the recognition of Wright as my gut recognizes him into the replacement of Wright as suits the country.
Can he do it? Yes. But can he do it publicly, as we spectacle-hounds desire?
Annie took, like, a beautiful shot, and I thought it was really
cool. That’s what she wanted me to do, and you can’t say no to Annie. I think it’s really artsy. It wasn’t in a
skanky way. -- Miley Cyrus
took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now,
seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I
never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who
I care so deeply about. -- Hannah Montana
Annie Liebowitz is a good photographer but I am bone tired of Annie Liebowitz. I can say no to Annie, even while saying yes to her better pictures. The photo of Miss Cyrus is a very pretty photo and very tasteful, but it is also a worshipful celebration of the fecundity of the pubescent female body, and the pre-legal body at that. Which would hardly be a problem if we didn't live in a culture in which 'worship' seems to mean corrupting unceremoniously and kicking to the curb. We have a major problem here: the cognitive dissonance involved in sexualizing ever-younger girls issues in an unholy amalgam of mini Madonnas and major whores. Poor Miley, caught in the crossfire: despite our heroic efforts to the contrary, it is still sometimes impossible to have one's cake and eat it too.
There's another problem: Miley Cyrus is not particularly gorgeous. I mean, she's a nice-looking girl, but the country and the world is teeming with girls that look that nice too. Public beauty as we've constructed it has less and less to do with the actual physical beauty of 'prime specimens' than it does with the social-status trappings of appeal and the arts and sciences of beautification. The innocence factor can't but plummet under conditions like these, because the beauty that makes Miley's picture possible and that makes this commentary possible is manufactured; yes, she herself has something to do with it, but hardly all and probably not most. So what we are worshipping turns out to be less Miss Cyrus' marvelous fresh fecundity and youthful radiance and more the erotic appeal of a giant confection. In an earlier era, this picture would in fact be a painting of a nameless young girl, and it would be a work of art. In this era, it's a brick in a long, high wall.
Pity. I've argued before that our problem isn't honoring the sexual power of young women, it's in aggravating that power for the purposes of dishonoring it. Miley's evocative portrait alone doesn't contribute to this problem. But the premise of the picture, and so much of what brought it into being, does. So people decry its classic pose and echo of nobility while smiling away at this getup. Tell me: which is cheaper? It's going to take a long time to untangle the psychosexual web this culture's woven. Maybe forever.
The thing that makes the most strategic sense for us to do is to
disengage our forces from Iraq (thus making the supply lines of
anti-American guerilla fighters irrelevant), and keep seeking verifiable and permanent
nuclear disarmament from Iran through a diplomatic process aimed at
improving relations between our two countries and focusing on the
common enemy in al-Qaeda. The logic that says we have to fight Iran to
stay in Iraq to check Iranian influence is painfully circular, much
like the notion that we can't possibly leave Iraq until we've first
militarily subdued ever Iraqi group opposed to our presence.
I'd very much like this to be the end of reason's trail. What's strategically sensible is important, but what's actually possible is even more important. Specifically, how exactly is diplomacy going to achieve verifiable and permanent nuclear disarmament from Iran? I'm foursquare against starting a war with Iran, including (for now) war triggered by final acquisition of 'the bomb', but I'm under no illusions as to the power of conversation to reverse or even arrest the Iranian course. I suppose there are sanctions -- one of the slowest, weakest, and least fungible tools out there, a tool guaranteed to decay relations and distract any attention coordinated around al-Qaeda.
Worse, there's a painful difference that sometimes appears between circular logic and bad logic, and we're in one of those moments now in Iraq. The claim that we can't leave Iraq until we crush all significant armed resistance to the US military may be circular, but it may also hold. Whether it's infinitely circular or just circular until we get the upper hand is a question we should have confronted long ago -- because, as Machiavelli understood well enough, the sooner you pose that question, the surer you can be of answering it to your advantage. But it remains a real question, just like the one Rumsfeld once raised in one of those snowflake memos: are we killing terrorists quickly enough not to create more of them than we kill?
So the bottom line here is that if we want to check Iranian influence in Iraq, we have to remain in Iraq, because we can't make a dent in Iranian influence if we leave. Strangely, however, this argument has little to do with the war itself, because it would hold even if major hostilities were 'over' (however we decided to verify that metric). Of course, military meddling on the part of Iran is a glaring example of influence, but the real game in Iraq, as has always been understood, is not military but political. And as we have known for certain, since to be charitable at least the Surge, we can't win the political game through the force of our own effort. Period. Leaving us the single viable military strategy (aside from withdrawal) of stalling for time.
And leaving me with the notion that the American people will support, and US politicians should support, stalling for time -- if we broadly agree it's cheap enough in lives lost and dollars spent. For some time, the American people have broadly agreed that it is not cheap enough. Making this calculation with Iraq in a bubble was much easier than making it is now with Iraq in the Iranian dunk tank. Shifting the logic of the war to deal with Iran in some open-ended way is certain to raise the costs of war in blood and treasure. But on the other hand it reintroduces a military factor into the war, pushing the mission away from stalling for time and back toward killing bad guys.
Alas, it also pushes us away from the Iraq war's main original goal: establishing a peaceful, stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Iraq is much more likely to arrive at this goal with Iran as a friendly-but-meddling neighbor than it is with Iran as a protracted, unbeatable foe (again). The circular logic that says a meddlesome Iran keeps us in Iraq is not bad because it's circular. It's bad because it's not in our stated strategic interest to obey it. The good news is that staying out of war with Iran is not only strategically desirable but also possible. The bad news is that using diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability is almost certainly not possible. And the mixed news is that Iranian meddling really does provide us with a serious new tactical reason to stay in Iraq, while simultaneously pushing our tactics out of step with our grand strategy.
The problem is serious. Our task is not simply to reject the circular logic of fending off Iran in Iraq, but to accept that it holds and refuse to follow it. Can we restore strategy to primacy over tactics? If we can, that would be the ironically best sign that we're starting to actually win the war. Bottom line in practice, this means: Iranian military influence is unacceptable; Iranian political influence is inevitable. If any negotiating is to be done, this is the baseline to do it from. Won't prevent nuclear armament, though.