Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama and McCain: One Political Junkie's View

Our politics, like everything else, is shaped by our experience. The danger, not just in politics but in life, is to become prisoners of our own experience: that is, to become certain about an uncertain world.

The usual political exchange of ideas skims the surface of opinion and belief, and the inescapable result is a circular argument that goes nowhere, as each side's "prison of experience" remains hidden and unassailable.

Thus any fruitful political exchange must begin by trying to lay bare the hidden "certainties" each side has drawn from their own experience. This can be a very painful process because it is essentially a form of self-analysis.

We as a nation desperately need to go through just this sort of painfully honest self-analysis.
To start the ball rolling, here is one political junkie's attempt at that sort of honesty. A good place to start is by disclosing the experiences that have already pre-defined one's most cherished, perhaps even subconscious positions.

Disclosure #1: I am a political junkie. Hi, my name is Charles and I am a political junkie. I became a junkie at the age of sixteen and have accepted that it is part of my life. As burdensome as this monkey onmy back is, I know I will have to carry it for the rest of my days. (And I have the collection of old Ramparts and Liberation magazines to prove it.)

Disclosure #2: I have already voted for both McCain and Obama. I registered as a Republican in 2000 in order to vote for McCain in the California primary, as I thought he was the far better man than Bush. I would like to claim I already knew just how destructive Bush would be, but I didn't; I only detected his smarmy, hypocritical drunken-frat boy veneer of bonhomie that failed to conceal a life and attitude of high privilege.

I voted for Obama in the 2008 California primary.

Disclosure #3: Obama and I graduated from the same high school: Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Yup, "Barry" and I are part of the Punahou Family.

Punahou is avowedly, promiscuously elitist. The oldest private school west of the Rockies (founded 1845), it has long educated Hawaii's Caucasian elites. Now it also educates Hawaii's non-Caucasian elites; Caucasians make up less than half of its student body. In other words, the school now roughly reflects the population of Hawaii, which is predominantly Pacific-Island/Asian and mixed ("hapa") ethnic heritage.

Punahou is a weird combination of monied privilege and meritocracy. If you're a wealthy alumni, and your kids aren't too bright, well, then they won't be able to get in later on academic excellence, so you try to get them in Kindergarten. Once in, they won't be kicked out for being a few cards short of a full deck.

The majority of the students are accepted in higher grades, based on a rigorous metric of academic potential/accomplishment. Like any elite school, it's tough to get admitted, and anxious parents try to get their young offspring into Hana'hou'oli School, a private elementary academy a block or so from Punahou which successfully grooms many students for acceptance to Punahou.
Children from unprivileged households are accepted on scholastic or athletic scholarships. In other words, it's like an elite East Coast prep school with palm trees and lava-rock walls.

So how did a fool like me get accepted? My stepfather joined the faculty, and as a result they let me and my brother in without much of a fuss.

The reason I describe this school is I think it is emblematic of Obama's experience. Obama is a Cosmopolitan, by which I mean someone who has lived in a variety of locales and who grew up with a variety of people. He is comfortable with a diversity of ethnic and class groups, and able to navigate a meritocracy. He is of mixed racial heritage, something which has long been common in Hawaii.

As longtime readers of this site know, my nuclear family also has mixed-race members (black/white, just like Obama) as well as Asian-American and Mexican-American members. So my family is also Cosmopolitan is a way which is hardly unique in urban America now but which remains exotic in ethnically undiverse areas of the U.S.

In my experience, America is cosmopolitan. If you arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and take the BART train downtown, you will find the car filled with an amazing variety of multi-colored human beings (I'm the sunburned one). When you travel abroad, and return home in this train car, it is a profound experience, for most of the world is undiverse and not at all cosmopolitan except in little islands of certain neighborhoods in large cities.

The generation of Americans under 20 years of age lives in a far more cosmopolitan world than most of its elders. Many of their classmates are mixed-race, and many more have various ethnicities in their families: adopted kids from China, stepsisters and brothers, etc. If you live in urban America and attend functions at your kids' public schools, you already know this.

Disclosure #4: I have lived in locales where I was an extreme minority. Detroit, 1968, and the island of Lanai, 1969-70. I had good experiences in African-American Detroit and polyglot Hawaii as one of the few Caucasian faces around. These experiences profoundly shaped my view of America and race/ethnicity/class as well as of privilege/entitlement/resentment. How could they not influence me?

We have friends and acquaintances who are Muslim (from Turkey, Iran and Indonesia), as well as Hindu, Buddhist and Christian friends (and a few Chinese Communists); the main lesson I have drawn from this experience is to be wary of assuming people belong to monolithic blocks of religion, ethnicity, nationality, class, etc. It ain't that easy.

And since we're on the subject: Obama has certainly heard the formulaic litany of resentment/entitlement/victimhood from the pulpit of his church, but he didn't grow up hearing it. And that is a key point to understand.

Disclosure #4: I come from a military family. My grandfather, father, first stepfather, stepsister: Navy. Uncle, second stepfather, cousin: Air Force. Other cousins: Army. My second stepfather was career Air Force, and rose from enlisted to retire as lieutenant Colonel. He served in Vietnam as navigator and had the nightmares that went along with getting shot at in service of one's country.

I did not join, nor was I drafted. I was in the draft lottery in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War, and could have been called up for service if my lottery number had been reached. As a CO (Conscientious Objector) I would have served in a noncombatant role.

As a result, I respect everyone who acts on their core beliefs. Those who joined to fight for their country have my deepest respect, as do those who were COs who served in noncombatant roles. We don't have to like each other's positions, but if they come from core beliefs then we can at least respect each other's view.

My objection to President Bush is that he evaded combat just as surely as did President Clinton, only Bush did something just as squirrelly, if not more so, than Clinton's "behind the scenes please, pretty please don't let me be drafted" act: he purposefully conjured up a simulated warrior act, in which a few weekends of service between drunken debaucheries allowed him to fly around Texas while his non-privileged confreres were flying and getting shot down in 'Nam.

Bush is the worst sort of chickenhawk, the hypocrite who arranges for cushy REMF duty and then claims the mantle of warrior. Meanwhile, John Kerry, as flawed and pompous as he may be, joined and served in combat. Karl ROve and Bush saw fit to tarnish and besmirch Kerry's service with "Swift Boat" poison. For that they both deserve to rot in Hell forever. OK, so maybe Kerry collected a bogus Purple Heart; but the record is clear that he did swim out under gunfire and save a crewmember.

Which leads me to McCain. Hotshot flyer who was shot down and suffered deprivation and torture that is beyond the experience of the rest of us. War fought at 500 knots and 2,000 feet is a lot different than humping a 60-pound pack through a steaming, unbearably hot booby-trapped jungle, and we should be respectful of the grunts who didn't get the glory but also respectful of those who endured long, long years in the Hanoi Hilton.

The U.S. has had military presidents, Poor U.S. Grant, who rose to his highest level of incompetence, and Dwight Eisenhower, who successfully herded cats to win World War II in Europe and who was a nuanced, quiet president who never veered beyond the bounds of the cautious possible.

McCain is not a general or admiral who proved himself capable of orchestrating a vast, winning campaign as both Grant and Eisenhower did. His service, and the torture he endured in service to his country, have marked him in ways we can only guess.

(Another reason Bush and Rove richly deserve to rot in Hell for eternity is their smear job on McCain in 2000, when the Bush campaign unsubtly suggested all that torture had sent McCain round the bend, i.e. made him too crazy to be president. So while McCain was living in a Hell beyond imagination, Bush was getting drunk with his good-time buddies--and that qualified him to be president?)

Here's the key thing about the next president: he will have to inform the American public that the nation is broke, and can't afford to pay everyone's Medicare and other benefits, and support a giant, out-of-control bureaucracy and continue fighting two foreign wars.

The U.S. public and the U.S. government at all levels are spoiled children: just gimme what I'm owed, and I don't care where or how you have to borrow the money, just gimme mine right now! I don't care about future generations, I'm entitled!

The next president will have to discipline the unruly, spoiled brat, firmly and with wisdom; he will have to break the "bad news" and chart a path to fiscal and political health, which first and foremost requires plain honesty.

If you read about the Hanoi Hilton, it's difficult to believe John McCain doesn't harbor the strength of character needed to state the plain truth to a whiny, spoiled adolescent America. Perhaps Obama has the inner strength to be extremely unpopular, too; it's hard to tell because this campaign is the most grueling test he's had to run, and it is nothing like the Hanoi Hilton or governing a nation careening down the path to fiscal insolvency.

Treasury bills are our national credit card, and Bush has rung up trillions of dollars in new credit charges. Now we owe that money, and the next president will have to force the nation to live within its means, even as those means deteriorate rapidly.

I know all about Mccain's volcanic anger; he is certainly not alone amongst presidents in possessing this trait. It is not a metric I consider applicable. Even Jesus blew up when he cleaned the money-changers out of the temple.

Disclosure #5: I think Bush is the worst sort of politician, a conniving, arrogant liar who actually believes his own lies. After winning an election on the phrase "I'm a uniter, not a divider," he promptly led the nation into a bitterly divisive, poisonous eight years.

Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan and no friend of liberals, recently made this observation about Bush:

'McClellan dwells on a point that all in government know, that day-to-day governance now is focused on media manipulation, with a particular eye to "political blogs, popular web sites, paid advertising, talk radio" and news media in general. In the age of the permanent campaign, government has become merely an offshoot of campaigning. All is perception and spin. This mentality can "cripple" an administration as, he says, it crippled the Clinton administration, with which he draws constant parallels. "Like the Clinton administration, we had an elaborate campaign structure within the White House that drove much of what we did."

His primary target is Karl Rove, whose role he says was "political manipulation, plain and simple."

Mr. McClellan's portrait of Mr. Bush is weird and conflicted, though he does not seem to notice. The president is "charming" and "disarming," humorous and politically gifted. But the implication of his assertions and anecdotes is that Mr. Bush is vain, narrow, out of his depth and coldly dismissive of doubt, of criticism and of critics."

And we now know the consequences of making Karl Rove your right-hand man and being dismissive of critics, and indeed, reality.

What the nation needs above any ideology is an honest president, one who isn't constantly "spinning" the media in order to falsely sell the American public on a war and other disastrous policies (G.W. Bush) or maintain high personal popularity (Bill Clinton).

We have two wild-card candidates, if you will--a Republican maverick who has made mis-steps (Keating 5) and who has alienated his Party leadership by working across Party lines, and a largely unknown Cosmopolitan senator whose life experiences are much more sympatico with young Americans' lives than with their elders.

The nation is on the precipice of harrowing fiscal insolvency; most of its citizenry are in denial, plain and simple, about the government's inability to pay all the entitlements and payroll and interest which has been promised. Like spolied children, they don't want to hear about sacrifice; they feel entitled, victimized, resentful, and afraid they're not going to get what's coming to them--a volatile, dysfunctional cocktail of emotions which will not endear them to the "parent" who has to explain reality and insist on some discipline.

For this political junkie, it comes down to who is best qualified, by character, experience and skillset, to "stay the course" set by fiscal and geopolitical reality, regardless of the firestorm of protest, wailing and complaint he is sure to encounter every day of his term as POTUS--President of the United States.

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