Friday, February 29, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Bowerbirds by Dana Goodyear

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Political Wankery (the latest debate and the "Oh SNAP!" nihilism of our public discourse)

While Anderson Cooper does his vacuous deer-in-headlights-who-cares-about-people routine, Keith Olbermann (who's show Countdown is actually very good), approaches yesterday's debate with the same dreary cynicism as his mischievous mentor, the meat-headed Tom Sawyer of politics, Chris Mathews. The debate was "9 to 6," says Olbermann, who unlike most political sports analogists knows something about sports: three field goals for Obama and two for Clinton. What pundits mean when they say "touchdown" or something similar, is an "Oh SNAP!" tabloid-making moment. It's little schoolyard comebacks like "there you go again" that win points. It's all there is. Adam Nagourney speculates that Clinton failed to produce a "ground-moving moment," as if voters are just searching for and dumb enough to be moved some clever "Oh SNAP!" line.

And in the same vein, all the pundits weigh in (more summary here): it was a boring tie. To Mathew Yglesias, "the whole thing seems tedious." To Joe Klein, who could not hold an independent-minded opinion if it had nailed itself to his forehead and who can't even keep up with this week's punditry fad, Obama wins "by not losing," but not on "substance." To Todd Beaton, Obama didn't "project confidence." To MissLaura, it was Hillary's body language that was at issue. To Newsweek, Obama is a "brand" (he that line of thought has never been tried before!--everything is a brand!). Ariel Alexovitch equates "aggressive" and "strong." Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny, like most pundits, assume everything must be a strategy: "front-runner’s strategy of nonconfrontation" and talk of "even tones."

here is a word for all of these sighing Madam Bovaries of the political world, these political deconstructionists. They are nihilists. And because nihilism dominates our public discourse, Obama is incommensurable with it. He is a mystery. Here our the nihilistic premises that underly everything the political class in the United States has to say today:

  • Nothing is significant beyond the question of whether it titillates us, whether it is fuel for our wankery. Everything is a matter of appearances, fashion, style. Nothing is about the signified, for there is no such thing as the signified. We skate lightly over the surface of things, and there is nothing underneath beyond self-interested motives.

  • All is Will-to-Power. Therefore all motives are attributable not to sincere belief but to strategy. Everyone's intentions are transparent. We live in a war of all against all. We are sophisticated because we are cynics who see that beneath the appearances to see that there is ... nothing ... except will-to-power.

  • Yawn. When we are not stimulated by the appearances or by conflict, we quickly get bored.

Let's take one case from the debate to further illustrate this point. Russert, for whom being a "tough" questioner means trying to create "Oh SNAP!" moments, tries to imply that Obama is guilty by association, that he is an ant-semitic black militant, because he hasn't sought out every high-profile supporter, vetted their positions, and then issued an acceptance or rejection statement.

Clinton's "meaning of is is" response to this--"reject" vs. "denounce"--is just another example of her cynicism. Obama's response is about as classy and devastating a smackdown as any thinking person could ever hope for: “But if the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.” Clinton's oblivious response "good" misses the fact that "I concede the point" is a way of saying "you're an idiot for lawyering this distinction" with ironic magnanimity. Far too subtle for her, and for today's pundits, who must simply marinate in the drool of their own open-mouthed confusion when reading Oscar Wilde or anything similar (Roger Simon of The Politico wonders if it means "lacks an instinct for the jugular," and Andrew Sullivan thinks it's "Weak, weak, weak.") Of course, they would probably laugh in derision at the thought that such subtleties have anything to do with public discourse in the first place, and would probably initiate this line of analysis: is Obama too witty to be president, and for the voters (meaning "us pundits")? Too intelligent? Too classy?

There is a clear implication to talk of jugulars and football scores: nothing of substance matters to a debate. "Politics is a fashion shoe, or an Oscars red carpet," they imply. "We are here to make catty, superficial remarks about whether politicians can score points by making catty, superficial remarks. We are here to enforce the fashion of the times, the conventional wisdom, with our own obsequious pandering to what we think our audiences want to hear--and this is precisely what we are looking for in a politician."

Obama is a mystery to this cynicism, but Clinton is a lacuna. Because she fights her fight precisely according to their expectations. Clinton sighs just like them--they about the lack of "Oh SNAP!" moments, her because her "Oh SNAP!" attempts don't work. That Clinton shares their cynicism is clear. When asked about her obviously opportunistic vacillation in tone, Clinton responds that "this is a contested campaign." The implication here is that it was indeed a game, and that that's just politics. It never occurs to her--or the pundits--that her authenticity might be question just for having outbursts as a kind of political ploy.

How can voters be so unsophisticated as not to share this cynicism? To honor this experience?

The nihilism goes deeper, of course, than the search for these gotcha moments. Take the analysis of the otherwise intelligent Andrew Sullivan. We merely need to look at his language: "Obama's push-back on the war was strong." Not, "Obama is right about the war." The pundit must characterize, signifier, not referent, in order to looking so naive as to believe there are referents at all. (In Sullivan's case, it is certainly an unconscious adherence to today's style, and not a consistent approach, but I'll continue to pick on him anyway). Pundits must frame the debate only in terms of the expected result when applied as a cattle prod to the ruminative masses: "I agree more with her than him. But he cleaned up. In Ohio, this is a big deal." I'm not saying that speculating about how an argument will be received in Ohio is off limits. I'm saying this kind of analysis--the analysis of the marketing executive--as almost all there is today. Who won the debate? Whoever pandered the best. Whichever Sheltie did the best herding job. There is no talk about one candidates arguments actually inducing some sort of spontaneous rational reaction in the minds of their audience. About them creating new convictions. About them being leaders of any kind.

That's not only a shame, it's a form of stupidity, the kind of thing that makes Obama incommensurable with their form of reasoning--a rhetorical absurdity, a UFO sighting, a singularity, a rockstar. Whatever he is, he must be irrational. Today it not clever mindlessness that is irrational but substance. No wants to know whether one candidate is better when it comes to a) policies b) decision-making ability c) authenticity of character. They want to know not whether Clinton's sense of victimhood is something we really want in a president, but whether Clinton "flubbed" a line. Not whether she fails as a person, but whether she fails as an actress.

So ironically these horserace analysts don't even know how to handicap the race. They cannot see that Clinton is consistently vague on her policy explanations and Obama thoughtful and specific. Here I venture into partisan grounds of course, since I am a "Hillary-hater" and Obama-maniac. I might say that this partisanship is an extension of my thoughts about nihilism, but one might question my gut sense about what is authentic and what is fake. On the other hand, I find it indisputable as to who was more thoughtful a debater. Whose language is more indicative of having a serious grasp of issues and their nuances. Who actually thinks about what he says when he gives answers. Who believes what he says, is who he is. Who does not feel flustered when under pressure. Who is not driven towards political conciliation to the convential wisdom (the Iraq war is one example). Who would be a better decision maker.

I'd like to do one blow-by-blow analysis (yes, of actual debate content!) that I think bears this out. Let's do the entire healthcare exchange in yesteday's debate:

  1. When first asked about healthcare, Clinton resopnds that Obama has distorted her position on the mandate (no explanation of why and how the mandate would be enforced); healthcare reform is a passion of hers, and she's met suffering families; debates should be good and use accurate information.

  2. Obama responds into detail about what a mandate means, why it might be a bad idea (penalties in Massachusetts as an example), the fact that she has not provided specifics on mandates and affordability subsidies, how he conceivable could be wrong about that approach, but this difference has nothing to do with the desire to provide universal healthcare. And it doesn't.

  3. Clinton responds with verbiage about the importance of the issue to her, how his attacks are unfair and Republican-like and Truman-unlike, how it "goes to the heart of whether or not this country will finally do what is right." She makes the point that Obama has a mandate for children, meant to imply that ... the mandate must be universal (a logical fallacy). She goes on to say that she's work on this for many years. She makes one substantive point about insurance cherry picking.

  4. Obama responds that while it is fair for Clinton to argue that a mandate might be superior, it is unfair to say that he is not trying to provide universal healthcare. And that her lack of information about subsidies and penalties are a problem. He responds to the cherry picking point by noting that insurance companies would be happy to have a mandate that forces people to purchase from them.

  5. Clinton re-raises her logical fallacy--the mandate on children. Now this means, bizarrely, that "there's no difference." She then claims that parents getting sick is bad for children, implicitly conceding Obama's theory that a mandate on children is necessary because children depend on their parents and cannot act on their own behalf. She then compares a lack of a mandate to voluntary social security and medicare. She makes a point about the mechanisms of signing people up. She claims her plan will make insurance more affordable. Experts agree with her.

  6. Obama claims that his plan is better at controlling costs, that experts agree with him. That a mandate for children is premised in its greater affordability; that a mandate for adults is premised in the uncertainty about affordability for all adults. He reminds the audience that the plans are virtually the same in every other regard. That the debate is not about the intention to achieve universal healthcare but the means. Medicare incidentally is voluntary, and an example that illustrates that when affordable, people will purchase healthcare voluntarily.

  7. Clinton makes a point about young people not purchasing and so driving up costs

  8. Obama points out that young people are covered until the age of 25 under their parents' plans

    Clinton spends a great deal of time trying to direct the debate away from the details of plans and too:

    • The unfairness of Obama's attacks

    • The idea that Obama has no intention of providing universal healthcare, rather than that he just differs on the means, and the betrayal of democratic values

    • Her passion about the issue and compassion for the suffering

    • Her logical fallacy concerning the mandate for children

    Clinton's rhetoric is a tangle of logical fallacy and ad-hominem. Obama consistently shows a willingness to debate the actual substance of the plans. Her substantive points--about coverage and costs--are always vague, and consistently countered by Obama. She never talks about how the mandate will be enforced. Obama provides the one past-performance example, Massachusetts. Neither candidate gets into the nitty gritty of plans--why one will cut more costs than the other, for instance. But there is a clear tension that explains this fact--Clinton's pulling the debate in the direction of meta-narrative (Obama's unfairness, lack of commitment to universal healthcare; her victimhood, passion, compassion); and Obama's unsuccessful attempts to bring it back to substance (and specificity, e.g. Massachusetts).

    There are a few things that this exchange illustrates, without any doubt:

    1. That Obama is far better spoken and has a greater grasp of substance than Clinton

    2. That Clinton has some serious problems with her character--that she is intellectually dishonest, that she is narcissistic (in her attempts to define the issue in terms of her own victimhood), and that she is more interested in turning the debate towards logically flawed ad hominem political rhetoric than discussing details (in other words, that she is much more interested in winning)

    3. That Obama is much calmer under pressure than Clinton, that he is far more decent in his approach to politics, far more self-aware, and that he is far less narcissistic and power hungry (notably, Obama makes the unheard of admission that there's vanity and ambition in politics)

    I'm afraid I have little patience for people who cannot sus out these differences. If this is not a clear slam-dunk for Obama on what counts, then nothing is.

    Monday, February 25, 2008

    Hillary Clinton's Rhetorical Offenses (and why words matter)

    To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

    Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

    Rhetoric in the Pejorative Sense

    Enter Barack Obama, whose rhetorical skill is unusual in American politics. The shock is not just that he is young and eloquent, but that people seem to be buying it. They're showing up to rallies in large numbers. They're enthusiastic. And they're voting for him.

    To competitors who have played by the rules, this must be nothing short of offensive. Conventional wisdom has demanded that they immunize themselves from cynical derision by emptying their public statements of ambition—whether that means style or nuance, grand ideals or difficult truths. The point is to stay out of trouble and win votes.

    Meanwhile, conventional power is a function not of rhetorical ability but of established party pecking order, not of direct communication with the public but incubation within the machine: how many favors you have promised and received, and whether it is ready to promote you. The internal vetting process is primary, the public one secondary.

    The conversation of pundits revolves around the premise that politicians are just self-interested strategists. It focuses on motives, strategies, and public opinion, but never on political positions per se. Words don't have anything to with the facts or intentions they seem to express. Rather they are tea leaves to be used to divine the fate of a political actor's career. We are meant to believe that contemporary seers like Chris Matthews move effortlessly beyond the rhetorical trappings of public figures to pierce the Machiavellian heart of matter—the will-to-power that drives all political life. On this view rhetoric and action are not just problematically related, but at best unrelated, and at worst entirely opposed.

    In this climate it is reasonable, when a young and unusually inspiring candidate like Barack Obama comes along, for an opponent to think that she might be able to turn his eloquence into a disadvantage—to accuse of him of rhetoric in the pejorative sense.

    One line of attack is to try to warn us that we are wrong on principle to be inspired more by speeches than experience; that we have to “get real,” and approach politics with more rationality and sobriety; that the feelings we get from politicians are less worthy of our attention than their resumes.

    Another is to link eloquence and inspiration to youth and flakiness; to paint Obama as a man so good with words that he can't possibly live in the world of deeds—as an inexperienced and naïve idealist, not tough enough for the real world.

    A final line of attack, inconsistent with the others, is to suggest that Obama is not really what he seems—that he must be just as cynical and power-hungry as other politicians, and all the worse for his seeming sincerity.

    The first line of attack cautions voters to question the relevance of their emotions to the political domain—to doubt themselves; the second and third ask them to infer that anyone arousing these emotions in this context is either too good for the world to move it or too slick not to be selling snake oil—i.e., to doubt their candidate.

    These lines have been tried by Hillary Clinton, to little avail.

    Rhetoric in the Classical Sense

    The problem with these approaches, strategic and factual, is that in their cynicism they ignore the deeper meaning of rhetoric—the real relationship between political words and deeds, and the importance of that relationship to a democracy.

    That relationship has long been a subject of inquiry. Rhetoric was important to the ancients, and by the middle ages its role in education had been formalized. Alongside grammar and logic (or dialectic), it was one of the first three subjects taught to students, or the trivium. The trivium was in turn preparatory to the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Together these comprised the seven “liberal arts.”

    This is not to say that the pejorative sense of rhetoric was unknown to the ancients. Plato's dialogues were essentially critical response to the sophists, who were the ancient teachers of rhetoric par excellence. The sophists claimed that by teaching rhetoric and other forms of self-improvement they were teaching virtue. In the dialogue Gorgias, Plato disputes this idea by drawing a distinction between rhetoric and dialectic (or rational discourse). Rhetoric traffics in the manipulation of an audience via the flattery of popular opinion, and dialectic involves inquiry into the truth—and so is open to the refutation of commonly held beliefs and even common sense.

    But in the Phaedrus Plato seems open to the possibility of a rhetoric that is grounded in dialectic. That theme is advanced by Aristotle, who claims that the two are in fact are intricately related. While dialectic is a method of theoretical inquiry, rhetoric is its necessary counterpart in public life, politics, and law, where persuasion is necessary but cannot be grounded entirely in reason. Rhetoric is the practical version of philosophical argument, with the difference that its methods and evidentiary standards are more expansive. Admissible are popular opinion, and anything necessary to establish common ground with a group of people who are not philosophical enough to be persuaded by reasons alone (and who, if they were sufficiently philosophical, might never be persuaded of anything). An orator may reason with his audience (logos), but to be persuasive he must also appeal to their emotions (pathos), often by the figurative use of language. That appeal is helped when the speaker's character is testimony to his credibility (ethos).

    While rhetorical methods are not entirely rational, their objectives can be as rational as we like. That is one rationale for the extension of the meaning of “rhetoric” beyond the pejorative sense. Aristotle pointed out that while words are not as reliable as deeds, ideally they are they are in harmony with them. If rhetoric were replaced purely by reasoning, no one would ever be moved to do anything—emotion is a prerequisite of action.

    The great Roman orator Cicero thought that while political philosophy and law were necessary subjects of study for the politician, rhetorical ability was more important. Barring force, persuasion is necessary to political action. So abandoning coercion, democratic political systems have a problem. Political communities don't spring into action because of well-founded theories. Policies don't get implemented because smart people think them up. They don't even get implemented by the sheer will and tenacity of an executive, unless he is commanding an army or a podium.

    Hence when his opponents attack Obama for words, “empty rhetoric,” and “false hopes,” they are turning the classical argument on its head. It's not words that are opposed to action but a lack of the right words. The gap between policy and implementation, the theoretical and the practical, is far starker than that between rhetoric and action. In fact, as a means of public reflection and discourse, rhetoric is meant to be the middle ground between the two. Cicero thought Cato superior to Socrates because the former was a man of deeds. It is the philosophers—in today's terms, bureaucratic policy wonks and academics--who are farthest from the action.

    Hillary Contra Obama – In Five Acts
    The classical account of rhetoric should help us reframe the difference between Obama and Clinton. Since Obama's rhetorical ability does not seem to be in question, let's begin by analyzing the rhetorical arc of Clinton's campaign. The account below follows a sequence that is more thematic than temporal. It is a tragedy, not a comedy.

    victoria_coronation_1.jpgAct I, Scene I: Enter Clinton, stage right, wearing coronation robes—grand, radiant, inevitable. In the beginning the thought of not winning no more occurs to her than the thought of being a peasant occurs to a queen. The audience knows as soon as she walks onto stage how brittle these great expectations can be—that she's set up for a fall, that the tragic seed of the unraveling exists in the rigidity of the expectations. When there is just the slightest hint of resistance to these expectations, things do indeed begin to unravel.

    joanofarc2.jpgAct I, Scene II: Clinton, early morning on the misty battlefield—she has turned in her robes for armor. After the near-coronation, Clinton will show us that she can fight for what is rightfully hers. And so she lets loose the dogs of war.

    Obama is variously a drug dealer, ambitious kindergartener, pro-lifer, naïf, Reaganite, fairytale, niche candidate for African Americans, entertaining rhetorician incapable of real work, assistant slumlord, turban-wearing foreigner, and plagiarist. Minor policy differences on healthcare are turned into bitter feuds. She sets up a “fact hub” website that is largely a series of shrill, petty, and often questionable accusations—“Only the Obama Campaign is Encouraging Out-of-Staters to Caucus in Iowa”; “Sen. Obama Rewrites History, Claims He Hasn’t Been Planning White House Run”; “Sen. Obama Falsely Claims Hillary Called For A 'Reality Check' On What the Nation Could Accomplish.”

    Finally, there is the campaign’s primary theme: Obama is without substance. The election is about “talk versus action” and “actions speak louder than words.”

    antigone6.jpgAct II: Clinton, soothsayer and scold, Tiresias to our Oedipus. The fundamental premise of her campaign narrative has now undergone a natural decomposition from inevitability into deflationary righteousness.. As the more “experienced” candidate, it is obvious that she is the best candidate, and everyone knows it. Even Obama enthusiasts acknowledge this in their heart of hearts—they just have to be reminded of it. She must ward us off our instincts the way bourgeois parents discourage their children from becoming artists, to protect them from themselves. She is the cautionary realist to the idealists, asking us in an aside, a rare moment of comic relief, "can we just have a sort of a reality break for a minute?” We are reminded of the stakes, the “stark choice.” We need to “get real”; “we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered.” The world is a dangerous place after 9/11, and terrorists could be emboldened by the softer candidate— we need someone who is “ready to be commander in chief” “on day one.”

    Because de facto inevitability has degenerated into doomsday prophecy, the campaign's narrative never advances beyond its initial reversal—positivity has become its glaring lacuna. Clinton fails to advance arguments in her favor beyond the claim that the election is an obvious choice between experience and charisma, action and words.

    nun_henriette_browne.jpgAct III: Hillary, dawn, in nun's garb, exhausted and beleaguered. Here the focus is on the delusion of Obama's supporters. It begins with linguistic passivity—a way of indicating objective detachment, as if Clinton had no stake in the election beyond her fear for our safety. “So I think we have to be very, very clear,” “this is about a decision”; “I think it's fair to say that really the most important decision is who would be the best president on day one.”

    And here the campaign narrative really becomes a meta-narrative: it's not about differences between her and Obama, because that question is a settled component of the theme of inevitability. The meta-narrative is about why voters are being swayed by words rather than deeds, why they are not making their decision in the manner of a human resources department, why they are deluded. A preference for Obama can be interpreted only as voter ignorance or as a failure to appreciate her substance: "I know there are comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between us, and I think it's important that voters receive that information”; "we won’t achieve unity or fulfill our dreams by running away from honest discussion and debate."

    But above all the interruption of her inevitability is result of unfairness—not everyone is being “held to the same standards,” “held accountable.” The appeal to unfairness becomes a plea: "we're asking [you] to compare our years of service,” "that is all we’re asking." Her plea comes apparently only from a sense of what is good for us, as bitter a pill as it might seem to swallow: "Because it's not just about my opponent and myself, this election is about you." The communication of self-pity and martyrdom reaches its peak: “maybe because I understand how difficult this job will be and how lonely it is in the Oval Office”; “some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready and some of us are not. Some us know what we will do on day one and some of us haven't thought it through enough.”

    wecandoitposter1-thumb.jpgAct IV: Clinton, the day after, in the garb of a mechanic. Now the attack on rhetoric is enhanced: words are opposed to work: "Others might be joining a movement. I’m joining you on the night shift, on the day shift and I’m asking you to join me to shift America into high gear again." The election is about “picking a president who relies not just on words but on work, on hard work.” Clinton is “in the solutions business.”

    Here are the ideas behind this rhetorical disaster (night shift, gear shift, etc.): first, that because Obama is achieving his victory rhetorically, he is achieving it effortlessly, and so undeservedly. The second is that Obama's entire career must reflect this effortlessness: he hasn't gotten where he is with hard work. The third is that his presidency will be the same: Obama won't be a hard worker.

    c_l995_45_m.jpgAct V: Enter Lady Clinton, sleepwalking with a taper, unhinged. After all these tactics fail, there is a final meltdown, in which a schizophrenic collage of all these themes is yawped ever louder. First there is the incongruent juxtaposition of conciliation and attack—she is “honored” to be on the same stage as Obama and yet his campaign is about “change you can xerox.”

    Then there is a reversion to self-pity and martyrdom—the “hits” she's taken are nothing to the travails of ordinary people, and by implication to the hits that they will take if she is not elected president. Obama's campaign uses "tactics that are right out of Karl Rove's playbook.” The scolding reaches a shrill crescendo: "shame on you Barack Obama.”

    Finally, the condescension to Obama supporters over their delusion becomes anger and outright mockery: “let's have a real campaign; enough with the speeches and big rallies”; “maybe I've just lived a little long ... you are not just going to wave a magic wand ... I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified; the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.”

    Narrative and Meta-Narrative, Style and Character

    The narrative arc of the Clinton campaign has oscillated wildly in its tone and message—between outright attack, passive aggression, martyrdom, and conciliation. Its one consistency is a focus not on narrative but on meta-narrative: there is no case to be made concerning Clinton, because that should be obvious. Rather, her campaign has centered on her own bafflement over the success of Obama—her shock that the prodigal son has been favored over her cautious conformism; that that words have trumped deeds.

    The most visible sign of that bafflement is her campaign’s attempt to offset her robotic personality by doing what they think it is Obama does. If Obama is inspiring, they seem to reason, then Clinton must project energy and optimism. The form of this projection is a perpetually raised voice and a smile that seems never to leave her face regardless of the situation. Where she is making promises to voters, she crescendos into troches of emphasis: "let's make college affordable for EVERY! … YOUNG! … PERSON! … AGAIN!"

    Meanwhile she seems to fail to take note that Obama is not always smiling, that he rarely raises his voice. In fact, he is often subdued and calm. Inducing excitement does not always mean getting excited. In debates and press-conferences Obama seems to stumble a little too thoughtfully over his words. These qualities might be a serious weakness in a political culture that demands caution and slickness, prepared speeches and canned lines, ahead of rhetorical engagement with an audience. Hence Obama’s appeal, far from affirming the conventional political wisdom, contradicts it: authenticity is supposed to sink a campaign, and for a politician a gaffe means telling the truth about something.

    The Clinton campaign has tried, in its attempt to have it both ways, to integrate some of Obama's narrative of hope into their meta-narrative of deflation, ignoring the hobbling internal contradiction they have introduced into their own story. Here's a strained paean to dreams that devolves into dreary reality: "Dreaming keeps us hopeful, it lifts our spirits, it sets our sights high. Without dreams you can’t aspire to be great but without action, we cannot turn those dreams into reality."

    What these attempts at integration ignore is that Obama’s inspiration is more about showing than telling, as well as engaging the electorate in his project: the future is framed in terms of what “we” will do, not how he will minister to his constituency (and this “we will” is a frequent refrain in speeches). Obama emphasizes the difficulties ahead, the magnitude of the challenge: "even after we win the general election, it's going to be hard to bring about change.” And he makes demands of his supporters: "students, you're going to have to do something in return." The “hope” here has little to do with consequence and more to do with process; not with promises to be delivered, but a project demanding collective engagement. So when the Clinton campaign attacks “hope” as if constituted the substance of Obama’s speech, they are directing their energies towards an ineffable and frustratingly elusive target. The inspirational element of Obama’s campaign is about form, not content. And the unifying element here is about the nobility of shared struggle: its fundamental premise, ironically, really is “work.” But for the concept of “work” to work, it must be more about showing than telling, and more about the audience than the candidate. When Clinton talks about “work,” she means a top-down, condescending provision to her subjects.

    So the styles of these speeches have psychological implications, clues about character. We can remind ourselves here that Aristotle lays out three methods of persuasion: reasons, emotions, and character. We know that con-man can provide us easily with the first two, but only the real experts can pull off the appearance of the last. The fact that Obama’s and Clinton’s policies are largely the same heightens the importance of the character criterion. Voters are looking not just to a record or emotional appeals, but to clues to the authenticity of a candidate.

    Rhetorical Force and Actual Peace

    While the appeal to minds and deeds over hearts and words is a strategic blunder, today it is a tempting strategy. Rhetoric as a noble pursuit—and its place education—did not fare well after the enlightenment. Scientifically minded philosophers such as Bacon and Hobbes pitted clarity and simplicity of language against more traditional stylistic flourish. A Liberal Arts education had become closely connected to Catholicism, and so shared its setbacks after the protestant reformation and French revolution. For obvious reasons, Puritans were especially keen on minimalism of every sort. Add to this the primacy of the deed to the American pioneer, and you have a society in which any appeal to action ought to resonate: as a politician, your ace-in-the-hole is always an appeal to American misology, pragmatism, and work-ethic.

    We know that there are broad consequences to such values when coupled with power. We see one consequence in American policy, and its, intermittent isolationism and machophilia. We see another in the tone of American public discourse, which is rhetorically inept and hard-selling. Misology and love of war have reached a peak with the Bush administration’s disdain for diplomacy and compromise, its use of torture and rendition, suspension of habeas corpus, and many other illegal and anti-constitutional measures.

    Nominalism begets nihilism. It is because we are concerned with the “real world” to the exclusion of inner life that we can leave our principles and humanity behind. We ought to remember that an attack on “words” has serious implications if we take “word” in its larger sense (as in Ancient Greek logos): the persuasion of an electorate, diplomacy with an enemy, public discourse, legal proceedings, due process, constitutional provisions, and so on.

    The use of words in these examples is supposed to provide some structure to an otherwise violent and chaotic world. They're meant to be a middle ground between idea and action, defenselessness and violence, contemplative detachment and brutish immediacy. That rhetoric can be used for ill does not imply that it is always “empty.” As potentiality, as a middle ground between thought and deed, rhetoric is a receptacle for retaining and storing power instead of discharging it upon every impulse. As we have seen, the alternative to persuasion, in the world of political action, is force.

    That is fine with those who embrace Machiavellian realpolitik—of late, our neoconservatives. The world is a tough, scary place, we are told, and only force will do. Words are for the weak. There is a relevant similarity between the Clinton campaign’s implication that Obama isn’t tough and cynical enough—whether for the campaign or the presidency—and the idea that Constitutional principles are too fragile for the real world, the world full of threats and enemies. Early in the campaign there were suggestions that Obama’s nuanced responses could easily be exploited in a national campaign—that the lifting of the level of intelligence in politics was positively dangerous. The same might be said of diplomacy.

    I am reminded of the long literary and philosophical tradition that ruminates on the question of the experience versus innocence. At its best, it defies the conventional wisdom that cynicism and paranoia is superior to openness. Plato’s Socrates advances the idea that being the victim of injustice—and harm—is better than being the perpetrator, because of the internal deformity of character surrounding the latter role. The events of the last seven years show that we can say the same for a nation: if terrorism has a method, it is certainly not the direct destruction of lives infrastructure, but rather the induction of institutional self-destruction from within. Cynicism and toughness may not be so durable after all. Realpolitik can be self-immolating. This may sound like a dangerous form of pacifism (today “anti-war” is practically an epithet). But one need not be opposed to defense—psychological and national—to take a realistic measure of its costs, in order to use it wisely—and in the case of war, very rarely.

    The Roman orator Quintillian noted that where rhetoric is in decline, a society has opened up a perilous gap between word and deed, emotion and thought, the academic and the practical. The lame and passive jargon of our academics, bureaucrats, and politicians is testimony to this division. These are the “irrelevancies” that Twain rails against—irrelevant because to stray from the point is to conceal the fact that even when they aim at the truth, words are motivated by feelings. So is the electorate. The non-pejorative sense of rhetoric is important because it is not just about inducing admiration and hope, but about preserving the dialectical component of speeches—the sense in which persuasion is a public dialogue with an audience, and not just a monologue of reasons. That dialogue is important not just to fostering national cooperation, but to a genuine and peaceable engagement with the “real” world. That is how people are moved, and that is how things get done.

    Friday, February 22, 2008

    Poetry Friday: The Voice by Thomas Hardy

    Here's my post at The Well-Read Child

    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Black Candidates are Being Elected by White Southerners

    I often argue to friends who say that a black man can't be president in America that American race relations are more complicated than the usual stereotypes make them out to be. In Alabama no less:

    Yet there are parallels. The very quality that voters here highlight, in so many words, as one of Mr. Fields’s more attractive attributes — that they are at ease with him — is one of Mr. Obama’s most important selling points. The implications are not lost on State Senator Zeb Little, the majority leader in the Alabama Senate and a Democratic power broker in Cullman: black politicians can win in unlikely districts, transcending history and partisan politics, if voters can see them as one of their own.

    Hillary is With It

    I watch these about seven times a day:




    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    Obama's Legislative Accomplishments--and how this experience helped him win

    Chris Mathews embarrassed an Obama supporter last night by asking him to name Obama's legislative accomplishments--something the supporter couldn't do. Besides the mean-spiritedness of the ambush (Mathews after all new that the average supporter, even--or perhaps especially--a Texas state senator--would not be enough of a wonk to know the details of Obama's Illinois senate record or his two-year U.S. Senate record); and besides the fact that he didn't ask Rep. Tubbs, who as a member of Congress is far better equipped to answer, the same question when it comes to Clinton; and besides the fact that Mathews has never spent a single segment on his show outlining the legislative records of anyone, and that people would know a lot more about legislative records if pundits like him weren't playing an inane gotcha game, with vague allusions to substance as pawns in this game rather than as actual topics of discussion; besides all these things, there is the fallacy that the any random Obama supporter's abilities to name these accomplishments is somehow evidence that they don't exist. It's a fallacy that conveniently fits into the intellectually lazy "Obama Lacks Experience" narrative.

    But the most poignant irony here is Matthews attempt to attribute Obama's winning to rhetorical flourish rather than political skills honed by experience.

    In fact, Obama dismantled an entrenched and massive (which is what "experienced" really means) Clinton political machine--not just by inspiring people (god forbid!) but also by means of superb campaign organization. And all along there's been evidence--evidence that the Clinton campaign ignored to its detriment--that Obama in fact developed formidable campaign skills as an Illinois legislator, including the the ability to run deft campaigns and build broad coalitions of support. Take this article on Obama's tough state-level legislative battles and what they mean in the context of Obama's campaign victories. To pass the nation's first state law requiring videotaping all police interrogations (to eliminate coerced confessions), he had to go up against the police, tough-on-crime Republicans, pandering Democrats, and the incoming governor. He won this battle not simply by waging war on his opponents, Clinton style, but by by persuading and reassuring them. The law passed overwhelmingly--in the state senate, unanimously.

    By contrast, there's the desperation that the Democratic party has made a high art in the lst few years, an art that Hillary has perfected in her shifting campaign strategies, attacks, and opportunism. The sense I get from the Democratic legislature is that they are willing to stand up for very little but power--and that's where their weakness comes from. Constantly testing the winds, they can't even muster up opposition to a president with one of the lowest approval ratings in history.. In this context, "experience" is a very dangerous theme to try with dissatisfied voters--voters who disaprove of lack of legislative opposition to Bush even more than they disaprove of Bush. "Experience" comes to mean: typical Washington power-plays, opportunism, and so on. The "toughness" that's supposed to complement political experience is in fact: a willingness to protect your power viciously when you have it, but stand up for nothing that might endanger it--rather, try on one political hat or another, on "strategy" or another, in desperate attempts to hit the electorate's pander-button. In other words, Experience really means Washington, and that means the Desperation game. The game that Clinton seems poised to play to its bitter end for her astronomically low chances of pulling out the nomination. In this sense, Hillary has much more experience than Obama.

    The problem with this game as that you win only if your opponent plays by the same rules. These are the rules of "Experience"--intra-party deals, slick ads, and--when all else fails--attacks. The idea that someone might set its target beyond this politically narcissistic world--and make more authentic appeals to people's "hopes"--clearly offends the partisans of experience. That's the meaning of the Clinton Campaign's unwillingness to concede (in specific contests or the contest as a whole); their far-fetched idea that they are going to make up the difference in pledged delegates; and their delusional idea that, failing to do this, they are going to seduce superdelegates or even pledged delegates into overturning Obama's win. All of this is to say that complacency--experience--is subject to insurgencies.

    Now to the record.

    First, I think it's significant that Obama has more experience as an elected official than Clinton, especially in light of the fact that he a) built a massive legislative record during that time and b) used the same skills with which he built that record to run a superb campaign against Clinton. IHere's a graphic that illustrates the fact that Obama has far more legislative experience than Clinton, especially when his time in the Illinois State Senate is taken into account--he sponsored more than 800 substantive bills to Clinton's 20 (and these generally run the gamut from establishing the "Kate Mullany National Historic Site" to naming courthouses).

    When it comes to their Senate voting records, they are (predictably) 90 percent identical (read more here). Critical and well-known differences include Clinton's mistakes on Iraq, Iran, and Bankruptcy--enough for me.. But other differences include votes on Energy, Pork, business Tax Breaks, Cuba, FEMA, Ethics, and Gun Rights (I outline some of these in the table below).

    Other comprehensive references:


      Clinton Obama
    Number of bills introduced 6 Years in Senate: 20

    1st year in senate: 152 (co-sponsored 427)

    10 years (including 8 in Illinois Senate, 2 in U.S. Senate): wrote 890 bills and co-sponsored another 1096


    1. Establish the Kate Mullany National Historic Site.

    2. Support the goals and ideals of Better Hearing and Speech Month.

    3. Recognize the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

    4. Name courthouse after Thurgood Marshall.

    5. Name courthouse after James L. Watson.

    6. Name post office after Jonn A. O'Shea.

    7. Designate Aug. 7, 2003, as National Purple Heart Recognition Day.

    8. Support the goals and ideals of National Purple Heart Recognition Day.

    9. Honor the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton on the bicentennial of his death.

    10. Congratulate the Syracuse Univ. Orange Men's Lacrosse Team on winning the championship.

    11. Congratulate the Le Moyne College Dolphins Men's Lacrosse Team on winning the championship.

    12. Establish the 225th Anniversary of the American Revolution Commemorative Program.

    13. Name post office after Sergeant Riayan A. Tejeda.

    14. Honor Shirley Chisholm for her service to the nation and express condolences on her death.

    15. Honor John J. Downing, Brian Fahey, and Harry Ford, firefighters who lost their lives on duty.

    16. Extend period of unemployment assistance to victims of 9/11.

    17. Pay for city projects in response to 9/11

    18. Assist landmine victims in other countries.

    19. Assist family caregivers in accessing affordable respite care.

    20. Designate part of the National Forest System in Puerto Rico as protected in the wilderness preservation system.

    Overall by Category (Illinois nad U.S. Senate)

    233 regarding healthcare reform

    125 on poverty and public assistance

    112 crime fighting bills

    97 economic bills

    60 human rights and anti-discrimination

    21 ethics reform

    15 gun control

    6 veterans affairs

    Key U.S. Senate Bills (authored or co-sponsored)

    1. the Coburn-Obama Government Transparency Act of 2006 (became law)

    2. The Lugar-Obama Nuclear Non-proliferation and Conventional Weapons Threat Reduction Act (became law)

    3. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (passed in the Senate)

    4. The 2007 Government Ethics Bill (became law)

    5. The Protection Against Excessive Executive Compensation Bill

    Differences Quoting this
    Iraq War I think this goes without saying
    Bankruptcy Clinton has an ambiguous record on this.
    Anti-cluster bomb amendment More info here
    Taxes "And Obama voted to increase taxes when he opposed a package of business breaks that included the extension of middle-class provisions. Clinton voted for the tax bill -- before she voted against it, as did Obama, in the legislation's final form."

    "In corn-growing Iowa, the first stop in the presidential nominating process, Clinton will have to explain the ethanol vote she cast on June 15, 2005. The senator recently softened her stance, but she is on record opposing a large federal boost for the grain-based fuel."

    "The two Democrats differed on other energy-related issues. In August, Clinton supported a bill to expand oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, while Obama voted against it. During the 2005 energy debate, Obama backed an increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, which Clinton opposed. Clinton voted against the energy bill itself because it was stuffed with oil industry incentives. But Obama supported the legislation because it included language that would double ethanol demand by 2012."

    Cuba "Obama twice voted to cut off TV Marti funding, while Clinton supported maintaining it. "
    Second Amendment "The senators differed on a July 13 vote that would prohibit the confiscation of legally held guns during natural disasters -- a response to seizures by law enforcement officials in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. Obama voted to ban confiscations; Clinton was one of 16 senators opposing the restrictions."
    Pork "Obama sided with fiscal conservatives on several high-profile measures to strip funding for pet projects, including a widely criticized Pentagon travel system and the relocation of a railroad line along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was part of a Hurricane Katrina redevelopment project. Clinton voted in favor of the projects."