Suitably impressed

>> Friday, December 11, 2009


I really shouldn't be comparing a failed vice-presidential candidate to the leader of the free world, but it was impossible to help it while I was reading Fred Kaplan's analysis of President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech in Slate this afternoon.

Nevermind whether or not the President deserves the Nobel Peace Prize after a mere year of work on the international stage in which his outstanding foreign policy accomplishment is likely to prove to be escalation of the war in Afghanistan. I'm still not convinced the President deserves the award, but then it seems reasonably clear that he isn't, either, and I suppose those crazy Norwegians can do whatever it is they want with Alfred Nobel's estate when you get right down to it. And, for that matter, nevermind (at least for the moment) whether the President's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is necessary or a grotesque mistake (I hate to say it, but I think he has to do it, even if I don't really like it at this point). No, what stands out right at this moment is this:

Read in its entirety, Obama's speech seems a faithful reflection of another theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who, during World War II and the Cold War that followed, sought to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the imperatives of national defense. In his influential 1952 book The Irony of American History, he wrote that American idealism must come to terms "with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue."

Obama's speech doesn't mention Niebuhr, but back in April 2007, early on in the presidential campaign, David Brooks asked Obama whether he'd ever read Niebuhr. The candidate replied, "I love him, he's one of my favorite philosophers." Asked what he took away from Niebuhr, Obama answered, "I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction"; that "we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."


I wish I'd stop thinking about the ex-governor of Alaska, but I can't help reading the above and recalling Mrs. Palin's flummoxing by Katie Couric when she was asked what she reads, or Mrs. Palin's inability in Going Rogue to cite any major literary influences beyond C.S. Lewis (gah!) while regularly misattributing quotes to Plato (instead of Philo) or John Wooden (instead of John Wooden Legs).

I mean, here's then-Senator Obama casually discussing one of the 20th Century's most-esteemed theologians, contrasted against a then-governor not even being able to name a newspaper she reads (as somebody pointed out--I wish I remembered who to give credit to--the correct thing for a conservative who's running for office to do when presented with the question "What do you read?" is to say "The Wall Street Journal" and move on; it doesn't even have to be true, you can totally fake it with that reply). I don't think I've read any Niebuhr.

It raises another issue (and I may be turning this into more than I meant to when I started, but oh well), namely that it's hard to comprehend why significant swaths of the American public will embrace somebody like Palin who's so obviously proud of her ignorance, which she spins as "commonsense conservatism," and is meanwhile eager to attack somebody like Obama who's pretty obvious a literate and intelligent guy, regardless of how you might feel about his politics. Indeed, a common talking point for some conservatives is that the President is a celebrity or received support merely because of charisma and not substance, a claim that seems divorced from reality the moment you hear Mr. Obama pointedly refuse to give a simple answer to even a stupid question (one recalls the full video clip that catapulted "Joe The Plumber" to undeserved fame, in which then-candidate Obama attempted to give a lawyerly answer to the question Joe posed, laying out the different ways the man might be affected or unaffected depending on this and that).

Here, indeed, is a related question: certain conservatives posit that liberals are only motivated by a sort of class jealousy, wanting to take from successful people solely, they would suggest, to punish those people for being successful; how is it, then, that we seem to fall for candidates who are better than we are, while they fall for candidates who are "just like them." I have no idea whether the President would really be fun to have a beer with (although, to be honest, sitting around discussing "just war" theory over beers is actually the sort of thing I've been known to do with friends and family over the years), but I really do appreciate that he's read Reinhold Niebuhr to the extent that when a random question about him comes up, he can do more than parrot the question as a statement followed by a vague and meaningless catchphrase. I imagine if I met the President and he said something smart, I'd feel more awed than intimidated, and then certain chattering fools would say I'd been stricken with "Obamamania" or whatever it is they're calling it now.

Anyway, I read those paragraphs in the Kaplan piece, and what else can I say? I was suitably impressed.



3 comments:

Leanright,  Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 12:07:00 PM EST  

You've GOT to get over Sarah Palin. She's about as significant as John Edwards. By the way, why isn't anyone talking about him anymore?

I feel bad for those on the left who keep talking about Palin. Sometimes I wonder if she makes you all nervous.

Eric Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 2:08:00 PM EST  

The answer to both questions is that Edwards isn't touring the country to pimp a memoir, hasn't been hinting that he might make a Presidential bid at some point, and nobody actually cares what he does at this point nor does he have a legion of deranged followers lining up in droves outside the events he isn't having.

Oh, and since you seem to have trouble figuring this out: yes, as a matter of fact, Sarah Palin does make a lot of us nervous. She's a political celebrity who says reckless and stupid things and has a large contingent of volatile followers who have been known to foam at the mouth about revolutionary activity and to show up at political events with firearms. I'm deeply concerned that somebody might take some irresponsible thing Frau Palin says as an excuse or justification to do something terrible. Furthermore, while I think Palin's chances of winning a party primary these days are slim, there's no doubt that she has enough clout to influence Republican and/or conservative politics, damaging opportunities for moderate conservatives who might actually (yes, this is liberal me saying this) have reasonable ideas while driving her party in more reactionary directions. And, while repeating the above point about Palin having no chance in a primary, it remains a fact that she could have been Vice-President or even President of the United States (she could have been, as they say, one 72-year-old cancer survivor's heartbeat from the big office), and scenarios where she indeed becomes an elected leader in 2012 or 2016 or later are not impossible, however wildly improbable they are at the moment.

So, yes, Dave, Sarah Palin makes me nervous. Like sharp objects, poisonous spiders, caustic substances, flammable gases, very great heights, and other things that should be treated cautiously or avoided if possible. You can stop wondering and take it as a given that I regard Mrs. Palin in much the way I regard Agkistrodon contortrix, the North American copperhead, a creature common in my home state and famous for being mean, stupid, unpredictable and poisonous, to be watched scrupulously when encountered and avoided when able.

Leanright,  Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 9:55:00 PM EST  

We all know how Edwards treats cancer survivors! And, he's done quite a bit of "pimping" himself! He and Mark Sanford should hit the road together, picking up tail all over the country. Or, In Sanford's case, the next continent south! Who knew that the Appalachian Trail began in the US and ended in an Argentinian woman's vagina!

I nice post by you regarding all these other things that frighten you would be a pleasant read. I'd like to know the take on earthquakes by a non-Californian.

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