Monday, February 04, 2008

Fear of Flying, 2008

Atrios calls our attention this morning to these twinned Washington Post opinion columns by novelists Michael Chabon and Erica Jong. It’s a tense time in Democratland, this Super Tuesday eve, and things may get a lot more tense right after Super Tuesday. Atrios is pleading with us not to fall into the trap, which Jong and Chabon fall into, of believing that those who disagree with us are suffering from a character deficiency.

Jong’s tone is more-of-sadness-than-anger, but even without violent rhetorical lurches she manages to tie herself in knots. It’s not every writer who would endorse Hillary Clinton (as candidate) and Noam Chomsky (as a far-sighted political sage) in the same column. To square that circle, Jong has to cut Hillary a huge break: “Since she is a woman, she has to show she’s ready to be commander in chief.” Thus Hillary’s votes on Iraq and Iran don’t count against her.

Yet somehow Barack Obama’s not even being in the Senate during the 2002-2003 run-up to Iraq does count against him. Jong makes the astonishing argument that since (1) Colin Powell was a token African-American in the Bush Administration, and (2) Obama is obviously a token black as well (?!), therefore (3) Obama would have been taken in by Powell’s mendacious claims about Saddam’s WMDs. Jong writes, “I have nothing against [Obama] except his inexperience. Many black voters agree. They understand tokenism and condescension.” I’m sure “some of Jong’s best friends” would agree (and would understand condescension!), but “many black voters” are increasingly pro-Obama. It's been in all the papers, Erica.

Chabon, in the Post’s deliberate side-by-side arrangement, endorses Obama. Chabon does strike an off-putting note of exasperation with the “excuses” he hears people make for not being on the Obama bandwagon. And I would dispute somewhat his notion that We The People are to blame for our predicament in 2008, for putting Dubya into office and allowing our politics to be degraded. (So many things Bush has brought us — the DOJ scandals, warrantless wiretapping, Blackwater — were really never put to the public for our approval.) But Chabon writes about hope versus fear in the American electorate, echoing Obama’s quasi-religious rhetoric of transcendence and redemption, in a way that rings true to me. Best line: “[W]e can aspire as a nation to be more than merely secure or predominant.”

Yesterday I bumped into a neighbor of mine, a very decent and thoughtful guy. We were standing on a sidewalk having a semi-deep conversation about marriage and child-rearing and the complexity of modern life, and at a pause to catch our breath, he joked, “We have solved all the world’s problems here! What have we missed?” “War and peace!” I joked back, but to my surprise he actually gave me his thoughts on the subject. He is, in his own description, a moderate Democrat who has sometimes voted Republican, and he’s not sure what he’s going to do this election. He related something I didn’t know about him, that he gave up a job that he loved soon after the 9/11 attacks, because the job required frequent air travel, and he and his family were too worried about his safety. He’s pleased that the US removed Saddam Hussein, but very troubled that we haven’t caught Bin Laden. He hears the president of Iran spout crazy Holocaust revisionism, and feels that the US has to adopt a tough posture against that crazy Islamist state. He seems to value experience and gravitas in a political candidate. At the same time, he is not blind to the ineptitude of the Bush White House. I suspect my “moderate Democrat” friend will turn out to be a McCain Democrat, but he seems to be hovering somewhere over the turf Hillary Clinton has staked out on foreign policy, and not very near Obama’s turf.

I had a couple of partial responses to my friend: one being that Iran’s political system is complicated and diffuse, and Ahmadinejad cannot enact every crazy thought that enters his head. But I don’t dismiss the unsettling effect of 9/11, or the fear of a new terrorist attack. And I respect (and hopefully share) the humility my neighbor shows, in the face of ominous foreign policy questions whose answers are murky.

Still, I come down on the side of hope, which in Michael Chabon's schema, as well as the calculus of the present primary season, is the side of Obama. I'll strive to be humble and open-minded, and to trust the nominating process (which, thankfully, has delivered rough justice so far). If it comes to it, with the help of my budding feminist daughters, I'll support Hillary. But I think she's in a troubling state of denial about Bushism and is clearly pushing a politics of fear. Maybe my position comes down to “the valiant taste of death but once.” I'm less afraid of terrorism than outraged by torture and lies and all the rest. I prefer not to be preoccupied with my physical safety at the expense of my principles. Decency and tolerance are not luxuries.

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