Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Culture of Fear and Barack Obama

American politics typically reflects our cultural ethos of the moment. Just consider these questions:
  • Has our culture promoted community or celebrated greed?
  • Is our foreign policy based upon cooperation with the community of nations or the imperatives of empire?
  • Can individuals live in dignity regardless of their profession, economic class, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation or is gentrified wealth valued above character?
Ultimately, the answer to each of those questions is determined by the answer to this question: are we a culture of fear or confidence? The answer is America has vacillated between the two and been both at the same time. A confidence-based culture survived the Great Depression, defeated Nazi Germany, saved Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, nurtured a growing middle class, expanded rights and opportunities for minorities and women, welcomed immigrants that helped build this country, landed on the Moon and prevailed in the Cold War. It was America’s confidence-based culture that allowed my grandfather to escape Nazi persecution in Poland and comfortably raise a family as a salaried worker in the garment industry.

A fear-based culture engendered paranoia about Japanese Americans, communists, black criminals, radical feminists, environmental extremists, rock music, socialized medicine, Islamic fanatics, foreigners, as well as government regulation of business, atheists, secularists and social egalitarianism. It was our fear-based culture that detained the innocent Muslim brother of a former graduate school classmate of mine in 2002. Sadly and shamefully, industry, corporate interests, the media and politicians to ensure profits and maintain power effectively utilize fear.

President Eisenhower presciently warned Americans about the military industrial complex as the defense industry exploited fear in the name of national security. Through systematic brainwashing from birth, Americans are conditioned to fear black men while the correctional industry gorges itself on their exponential incarceration rate. Overall, the hidden hand of a fear industrial complex guides Americans.

In response to this pathology, those of us on the political left are motivated by fear and loathing of fear merchants who champion unjust wars, gratuitously incarcerate non-violent criminals and demonize unions. People like me are afraid of global warming, globalization, government officials that sanction torture in our country’s name, the rising cost of living, HMOs that allow bean counters to overrule doctors, the housing market, overzealous preachers who denounce evolution, the decline of public education, our crumbling infrastructure and the systematic erosion of our civil liberties.

Hence our political dialogue has become the great fear debate. Conservatives fear people who want to redistribute wealth, promote permissiveness, debase our white Judeo-Christian identity and surrender America’s position as the world’s lone superpower. Liberals like me fear the agents of corporatism and national security zealots who ignore the environment, steal elections, exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor, launch immoral and ill-conceived wars and claim it’s all in the name of God and freedom.

Most Americans have overdosed on fear. I know there remains a fringe that will never get over their fear addiction. The thirty-percent that still support George W. Bush on one side as well as far left-wing reactionaries who regard anyone who ever votes for Democrats as unprincipled compromisers. The majority of Americans however are exhausted by fear. Seven years of the Bush/Cheney war mongering crime syndicate and a Democratic Party led by a self-gelding machine of ineptitude too afraid to stand up to them have Americans hungering for a fresh politics of confidence and renewal.

How remarkable that at this moment in history, we have a kaleidoscope candidate for president in Barack Obama with ancestry from Kenya and Kansas. A growing and diverse movement is projecting its’ hopes upon him. Some have condescendingly taken to referring to this as a cult. Such people are missing the point.

Across the divide of race and gender, Obama is increasingly viewed as someone who represents their ideals. I was absorbed by a conversation I overheard while taking the A-Train back home to Brooklyn today. A young Hispanic woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and a middle-aged white man in an expensive business suit, who acknowledged voting for Bush twice were talking about how they both wanted Obama to become president. What really amazed me was when the gentleman said, “I don’t agree with him but the country needs him.” I almost decided to stay on past my stop just to hear more of the conversation.

Now Obama is no saint. For example, Paul Krugman has rightfully taken Obama to task for attacking Senator Clinton’s plan for universal health care with a reprise of the Harry and Louise style propaganda from 1994. As far as policy is concerned, I believe there are larger considerations then the differences between Clinton and Obama on healthcare: namely that Obama opposed the Iraq war while Clinton cowardly supported it out of political expediency.

Putting that issue aside though, while critics like Krugman dismissively refer to Obama’s support as cultish they’re missing a larger point: if people with very different backgrounds and experiences such as the two I witnessed on the subway today are projecting their hopes upon Obama, he has a far better chance of serving the progressive cause then the polarizing Hillary Clinton.

On the flip side, Obama may also crash and burn either as a candidate or later as president, leaving the country even more disillusioned and fearful then before. When you’re a human kaleidoscope it’s almost inevitable that some constituencies will become disillusioned.

Nevertheless, I’m hoping Obama can help my country repair the national imbalance that currently favors fear over confidence. Not with the faux confidence of George W. Bush that is really fear under the guise of bravado and leads to the chest thumping and self-defeating pursuit of empire. Or the fear-based triangulation of Hillary Clinton that seeks to project strength through political expediency over doing what’s right. We need a leader that can inspire Americans to boldly address challenges as one people instead of dividing the spoils amongst race and class at home while alienating the world abroad as an empire in decline.

I had other preferences for president: Russ Feingold, Al Gore and John Edwards. I’m sure many of you reading this had other preferences as well. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee I will vote for her because any Republican is far worse in my opinion. Indeed, a John McCain presidency would be a calamity. However, in choosing between Clinton and Obama, I ask my fellow Democrats to chose the candidate that can best strengthen as well as consolidate institutions that empower the progressive cause of economic and social justice. Obama isn’t merely our best chance to win this November. He represents America’s best opportunity to reject fear and reclaim our future with confidence.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, it always has great insight. But I am very frustrated with the media’s lack of questions to the presidential candidates about global warming. Now that it is down to just a few candidates I would think that this would be an issue.

Live Earth just picked up this topic and put out an article ( ) live earth is also asking why the presidential candidates are not being solicited for their stance on the issue of the climate change. I just saw a poll on that says people care a lot about what their next leader thinks of global warming. Does anyone know of another poll or other results about this subject?

Here is the page where I saw the EarthLab poll: This is a pretty legit website; they are endorsed by Al Gore and the alliance for climate protection and they have a carbon footprint calculator. Does anyone have a strong opinion about this like I do? No matter what your political affiliation is or who you vote for this is an important issue for our environment, our economy and for homeland security.

Janet Shan said...

I also enjoyed reading your post. I say that Barack Obama represents what is fresh and new. We need that today. America has gone so far off course that we have lost the respect of many and have garnered more enemies. I hope that he will get the nomination and ultimately prevail to become the next president.

upinVermont said...

Clinton and McCain have something in common and every so often, they let it slip through the cracks of their presentations. They both view their runs for the Presidency with a breathtaking sense of entitlement. The royals of Europe could only aspire to such self-entitlement.

And so there's a not so subtle rage directed at Obama by the Clinton camp. They will stop at nothing. All their plans, all there strategizing, *everything* is about to come crumbling to the ground because of some "upstart crow". They didn't expect Obama. They thought it would be over by Super Tuesday. Hillary became senator of New York for good reason. This was no act of civil service. She could been a senator in Rhode Island if it were just a matter of serving ones country. No, New York has a lot of delegates and she meant to win them.

She could have run when Kerry ran against Bush, but she's spent years thinking about and timing her run for the presidency. She knew that running against Bush would have been far more difficult. She knew that Cheney wasn't going to run. She knew she wouldn't have to run against an incumbent if she waited out Bush's Presidency. And so, she expediently sided with him when necessary, counting on a Republican payback at the end of the game. It was never about being a New York Senator. Every vote was about running for President when the Bush Presidency ended. She was calculating.

Now was the time to run.

If she didn't run now, then she would lose out another four to eight years. In the worst case scenario, a Democrat would be elected. She couldn't run against an incumbent Democratic President. Best case scenario? Running against an incumbent Republican President. The odds would be hard against her - especially being a woman and a Clinton. No, this was the perfect time. Run now or wait another eight years. And in eight years, will America really consider her (or any woman) of that age?

This was supposed to be the perfect opening. This was the window of opportunity. It would never be better. All the stars pointed to her waltzing into the White House. She wants to run against McCain. He's the perfect opponent for her.

But along comes this son-of-a-bitch Obama. No, she's not about to let all that calculating, scheming and expediency go down the drain. She will bring the Democratic Party to its knees before she lets that happen. She will sue for the delegates of Florida and Michigan or she will sue to have caucuses held in these states. She will fight Obama with every shred of her entitled being.

As Shakespeare observed, hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn.

Even McCain is threatened by Obama in a way that he is not by Clinton. It's not Obama's "turn". It's McCain's *turn* or, at worst, it's Clinton's *turn*, but not the turn of a three term senator. Even McCain can't stomach Obama's presumption and he can barely keep himself from viscerally spewing his contempt for the man.

So, Obama is upsetting Washington's royal lineage. We'll see if he succeeds. He's already proved himself to be a better organizer than Clinton. He has proved that he possesses greater long term judgment(both by his well-known objection to the Iraq war and by his success on the campaign trail). He has shown himself to be a more principled politician. In short, he has demonstrated that he would be a better President from day one, in *my* opinion.

libhom said...

Krugman is wrong on Obama, Clinton, and healthcare.

He is so immersed in his life as an upper-middle class professor that he doesn't understand that the near poor can't afford to pay anything for health insurance. Fining people who cannot afford health insurance is not "universal healthcare."

The irony is that neither candidate offers universal healthcare. Both plans involve insurance companies and HMOs that don't provide universal healthcare to the people signed up for their plans.