Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No Hope

IT’S DIFFICULT to quantify exactly how devastating a loss for the Democrats in the November presidential elections would be for me. As a Canadian ex-pat living and working in Japan I’m clearly not in a position to be directly impacted by their electoral misfortunes. As a “Citizen of the world”, the consequences are somewhat obvious; a continuing decline in American prestige and influence; the rise of China and Russia as contenders to world hegemony. But for my physical health, a loss for the Democrats in November won’t be good.

On the night of the 2004 presidential election, I arrived home from work eager to follow the results as they came in. I knew from the experience of the “2000 debacle” that it could end up being a long night. But as I sat down to follow the news a feeling that had been foreshadowing itself all day began to overwhelm me.

A pall of cloudiness moved into my head like a cold front. I could feel building waves of nausea rocking in my stomach, a physical weaknesses entering my joints. It was all I could do to get to bed. I remember not being able to think straight, but wanting to; wanting to for the sake of the election. I remember not caring that John Kerry wasn’t even remotely presidential, as I had all through the primaries and during the presidential debates. Oh well. I closed my eyes and saw Bush’s face, a sly smile, then lost consciousness.

I’ve attempted to reconstruct exactly what happened that night to friends and family, yet somehow it always ends up sounding fanciful. That I could fall into a delirious fever dream the night of the 2004 elections, a dream in which I entered the future lives of my friends, coasting from one continent to another, seemed a little absurd. But that’s exactly what happened.

I was following a close friend down a pristine sidewalk, a lovely girl on his arm. It occurred to me that this was his wife, and that he looked a little less younger and more filled out. I recall troubling over a cognitive dilemma: I felt neither fully asleep nor fully awake. Perhaps this is what purgatory felt like. As if in a waking dream, I started reaching out and calling for his attention. This didn’t seem to be working and suddenly I was mesmerized by a row of potted plants in front of a café with a black tarp awning. The next moment I fell through the sidewalk into empty, black space, unintelligible physical forces working against my body. I stood somewhere else now.

Another friend of mine was behind a large office desk and behind him a beautiful city skyline twinkled at dusk. His eyes were red from what appeared to be over work. I recall standing in front of him thinking he was surprised to see me there. A brusque, powerful woman walked into the room and began speaking but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It sounded like English, only harsher and more aggressive. German maybe. She didn’t seem upset; she seemed controlled and strangely fluid. And it struck me as odd that she had no idea I was in the room, standing right beside her. I could see the skyline starting to disappear. Empty black space filled the room, and gradually the only thing I could feel were beads of sweat sliding down my face. I felt ill from the motion. And for the rest of the night I felt like I had traveled many places, always with the feeling that it was a possible future.

When I woke up in the morning I was too sick to go to work, so I went back to sleep. The next time I woke up I realized that something may be hanging in the balance, so I turned on my computer and checked the news and George W. Bush had won. I went back to bed again, though this time it felt like I didn’t wake up, and I was sick for a week.

Looking Backward and contextualizing that sickness always felt opportunistic and convenient in light of the last four years of what most would rightly characterizes as a global sickness. You cannot be hyperbolic in saying that the United States has been driven into the ground by an incredible failure of leadership. And not only that: Conservatism as a governing ideology has exhausted, at least for now, its usefulness. A political philosophy that is hostile to government in almost every respect will destroy government, from without and within.

that America is essentially a force for good in the world, that a unique social and political experiment created a prosperous and democratic republic. The recent historical evidence doesn’t bear this claim out, and America’s legacy of slavery shatters this claim to pieces entirely. But perfection isn’t in the standing still, it is in the striving forward. Successive generations of social and political movements have pushed America closer to its ideals, that every man is created equally and endowed by their creator to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. The problem with American exceptionalism, though, and all credos of Nationalism is their insularity. In difficult times they will always drawn inward and justify their relevance.

International opprobrium and criticism leveled against the United States in the last four years has grown so loud and persistent as to be meaningless. Yet the more grounded criticisms stick: that America has turned away from multilateralism and bullied allies into submission; that they prop up an autocrat in one instance and topple him in another; that they double deal and operate on the fringes of internationally recognized law; that they are, even worse, arrogant. This is not a new development in American statecraft. It has always been a feature in the landscape. What has made it appear more acute in recent times is the outright bellicosity of the Bush administration, provoked rightly or wrongly by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is probably fitting that George W. Bush will be remembered as both the apex and the nadir of American exceptionalism.

of thought in American foreign policy that believes in national greatness and an unending battle against evil around the world. The soft power of diplomacy and the strategy of containment won’t satiate this belief. Militarism and the continual threat of hard power animate this worldview. In a 1997 article for Reason Magazine looking at the disconsolate Conservative movement, Virginia Postrel and James K. Glassman mocked Conservatives complaints about the current state of the country. The economy was booming, consumer confidence was high, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and even despite their vehement disdain for Bill Clinton, Conservatives had already secured a number of legislative concessions from him, most notably welfare reform. Thus with the Cold War over, some Conservatives felt idle and restless. They wanted to “offer their own governing doctrine, “the appeal to American greatness” – a kind of wistful nationalism in search of a big project”, Postrel and Glassman wrote. Tellingly, Postrel and Glassman mused that this big project might entail “looking for the next war “or “hope for another great Depression”, fanciful ambitions at the time, but in hindsight ambitions with dangerous implications once Republicans would come to hold the presidency.

And now this school of thought pursues national greatness in Iraq, and its hawkish-ness colors particular foreign policy positions. They will not negotiate with Iran (but are beginning to), they will not negotiate with North Korea (and yet they have), and they would clamor for aggressive action against China and Russia (but are in no position to). There is absolutely no sense of priorities, or grand strategy. This is the height of magical thinking. Neoconservatives, along with compliant Republicans and Democrats who pushed America into Iraq, represent this worldview. John McCain, the republican presidential nominee, represents this worldview. For him, there is nothing presently wrong with American exceptionalism. The American electorate, more broadly, has affirmed this worldview for the last 40 years.

There is another school of thought in American foreign policy. It is more pragmatic and realist. It believes that the soft power of persuasion through economic and political concession will encourage countries to work to their own self-interest. It believes that international order and incremental progress will move the world to greater prosperity for all. Its flaw is that it doesn’t deal with belligerents as thoroughly as the Neoconservative worldview would have it, and thus condones territorial unrest. But there are too many fires in the world to put out. This worldview, judicious and respectful of American exceptionalism’s salutary influence, believes that multilateral institutions should act as a reasonable, though not ultimate, check on a country’s international activities, and that the military option is the final option, not the starting premise. People who adhere to this school of thought understand that America has to begin regaining the international capital it so poorly squandered in the last eight years. It must prove once again that it is humble and deserving of the world’s respect; that it is prepared to lead by example. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama represents this worldview.

a cosmic irony that the opportunity to change course is such a risky one for Americans. With nearly 80% of Americans believing the country is going in the wrong direction and polls showing Democrats overwhelmingly ahead of Republicans on most issues, John McCain and Barak Obama are essentially in a dead heat. Even one in four registered Democrats consider Obama a riskier choice compared to McCain, while 14% of Americans, evidence to the contrary, believe he’s a practicing Muslim.

In an interesting bit of reportage for Newsweek, Christopher Dickey journeys through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, where the deepest wounds of the Civil war still exist, tracing his ancestral linage. Reporting on Southern prejudices, Dickey finds just how strong the “Secret Muslim” suspicion is toward Obama:

Yet even a third cousin of mine in the mountains of North Carolina, an independent-minded Democrat who voted for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004, said he can't bring himself to vote for Obama, either. Why? "Because I believe he is a Muslim," said my cousin. Not so, I said. He was raised a Christian and is a practicing Christian. My cousin shook his head. "I just don't believe him," he said.

But here is the irony on its face: He’s Black. His first name rhymes with Iraq. His middle name is Hussein. By changing one letter in his last name you can spell Osama. That is cosmic irony. Obama’s candidacy re-imagines the last eight years as a big, practical joke, and faced with the decision to change course, Americans are being tempted to give in to all of their petty and narrow prejudices. Actual political and policy differences aside, Obama should be up in the polls by at least 15%. Any generic Democrat, say, a John Edwards, would be already drafting his or her inaugural speech. But John Edwards is no longer a generic Democrat, and if the recent revelations of his extramarital affair are any indication, Democrats should be relieved that he isn’t their nominee.

Yet the knock against Barack Hussein Obama is that he looks too presidential; that he only gives great speeches and nothing else; that he draws incredible crowds as a result of his novelty, charisma and charm; that he generates hope and enthusiasm in those without it and fear and anxiety to those who need it. People also say he’s too skinny. Rationally, none of this makes any sense. But to the extent that non-whiteness, or non-maleness, represents an electoral anomaly, and that stated and hidden preferences statistically vary, Barack Hussein Obama may lose the election by a large margin.

for leadership has been lowered so drastically when verbal eloquence is looked upon suspiciously; when international adulation is greeted as something sinister; when the ability to inspire hope is laughed at derisively. It’s apparent that a large, and growing, minority of Americans don’t want Obama as their president. Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, perhaps Americans don’t deserve a president that potentially promising. The argument that the presidency is only reserved for old, white males is made even stronger by the candidacy of John McCain, who may become the oldest, whitest president of the United State of America.

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