Monday, August 04, 2008

DIVINING THINGS

In a New Republic piece dated July 18, Michael Sean Winters observes that “Obama has a Catholic problem”. I’ll pass over the tactics and numerics of voting demographics. Winters takes things a little deeper than what has been the disappointing norm for coverage, especially from a once-mature magazine such as TNR (about which Alas, but there’s little time to linger any longer; citizens who read are now doctors in a plague city). http://tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=f1c95dd6-6569-461e-a372-4b4e7f960dd3

He notes that during a proclaimed “values week” in early July Obama began tossing out Scriptural quotes and even went so far as to allow that “war, poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools – are not simply technical problems … they are moral problems”. Winters notes that there is a whiff of boilerplate in all of it.

I agree, and not because of any deep familiarity with the ins and outs of campaign dynamics. Rather, I note that nowadays – and for some decades past – no Democrat could deploy “moral” in any serious sense at all. To do so would be politically inadvisable, like pulling the pin out of a grenade and then sitting on it would be inadvisable.

There is no room for ‘morality’ because the political philosophy – so called – that the Identities embraced in the formative days of the ‘70s did not accept ‘morality’ as relevant to political power; indeed, ‘morality’ was considered to be a fantasy, and a nasty, oppressive one at that. For Nietzsche morality was simply a matter of what you yourself willed to happen, and the only great immorality was to stifle your will in deference to any ‘outside’ influence. For Foucault there was no ‘truth’ (let alone ‘Truth’) existing in some pure form ‘outside’ of the human dimension; ‘truth’ was merely an abstraction, a word to be used as a weapon by whomever wielded political power and authority. Truth was ‘constructed’, thus, by those in power (who always ‘oppressed’) and so the game plan of liberation had to be a ‘deconstructing’ of ‘truth’ and thereby of the oppressive authority of those who wielded political power.

Foucault left it at that, and didn’t pursue his line of thought through to its obvious consequences. For when deployed successfully, then the deconstructionist former oppressed would in short order become the wielders of political power and authority, and thereby ex officio become oppressors themselves. Of course, he couldn’t let himself follow through with that because his ‘philosophy’ would thereby have come full circle, back to its starting point, cutting the rug out from under itself before the creative destruction was fairly begun. How can you get anybody to risk all and undertake a revolution if all you’re promising them is that they’ll wind up being the very oppressors against whom you’re trying to get them to revolt? It’s not very catchy as a slogan – except to the type of persons who just like to be in power no matter what it takes. But to any sober mind it offers profound and meaty pause.

But then, when you’re up to things revolutionary, you’re not looking for sober minds. Except to get them out of your way. Siberia is an option – if you’re Russia. Shooting, otherwise, if you can get away with it. Keeping them away from microphones and cameras always. And the fewer of the oppressed who can think – or, better, read – then the better things will work out for your revolution. And as your almost ultimate gambit, you promise them that what you’re bringing will be soooo good, so purely and naturally and fantastically good, that there won’t need to be another revolution for a thousand years, and that as a token of your bona fides you’ll be happy to stay on top to make sure that there isn’t. Or – in a gambit whose very brilliance proves the existence of a demonic dimension in human affairs – you tell them all that your revolution, which should have happened a million yesterdays ago, will probably take a thousand years to complete, at which time you’ll be happy to step down, if folks want you to. Until then …

But on a deeper level Foucault also couldn’t escape from the stabbingly obvious point that if the only source of political authority is the fact that it is being held onto and wielded, then there’s no way to judge it. There’s nothing ‘outside’ the system to check it and balance it (so to speak). There’s no authority beyond the system, let alone – ummm, say – above the system, under which the system would stand to be judged. The system sort of justifies itself just by having power; no courts or judges (or Judge) necessary, thank ya vurrry mutch (although Foucault, being French, did not speak like Elvis or any Texan). It was all kinda self-regulating, like free market czars and commissars are today in the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate sector – or, charmingly, F.I.R.E. (which is almost big enough now for one to be able to shout it in a crowded public space). That’s the nice thing about political power: it can be deconstructed, if enough folks have the chops, but it can never ever be ‘judged’.

So Obama can only go so far down the ‘Catholic’ road before he runs into a huge problem. The Catholic ‘genius’ was to insist that there was indeed a dimension above the dimension of human affairs, and that its principles could be incompletely but sufficiently grasped by mortals, and that those principles – coming as they did from Above and Beyond this vale of fog and tears – were the blueprints of human existence, individual and societal. And that any laws or plans or schemes or visions hatched on the human level had somehow to conform to those general but universal principles. Otherwise they wouldn’t be legitimate. Or – what the hey? – Legitimate, capital ‘L’.

So, for example, as Winters points out, the two biggies: “the inalienable dignity of the human person and the common good”. The former flows from the latter: if each individual human being is possessed of (or, say, “endowed by his creator with”) inalienable dignity, then any community of human persons would also possess an inalienable dignity. So far so philosophical. And genuinely American.

But now, once you are into the realm of universal principles (call them ‘the Verities’, for short) and the dignity of individuals, then while making some marvelous and genuinely Catholic noises, you are heading straight for the rocks of the Identities, those engines of an almost- Greek tragedy now besmashing the Democratic Party’s project. For if you admit that there are such principles that can stand in judgment over any merely ‘political’ or ‘earthly’ authority, then you’ve trumped the very authority that the revolutions of those assorted Identities claimed almost 40 years ago, when they themselves waved Foucault around like the hammers of Lenin and the scythes of Mao to deconstruct anything oppressive standing in the way of their liberation (like – say – ‘men’ or ‘Western civilization’ or any ‘constructed’ abstractions beginning with a capital letter like Truth or Justice or … how to put this delicately? … God).

So Obama, and his Party, in one of the hell-hottest ironies in American history, finds himself trying to rally and regroup his Party and the American people at a dire moment by reaching out for a matrix of ideas of proven cohesive value, that had been flung away precisely to appease and enable a welter of Identities now at the pinnacle of the Party’s public identity, whose very (and historically un-American) position requires that no such matrix exists.

Obama cannot now enlist the classic Verities without enraging, outraging, and de-staging his Party’s long-embraced Identities. The Confederates – and people say there isn’t a God and that He has no sense of humor! – towards the end when they needed all the troops they could enlist, sought to enlist – wait for it – slaves. To which one Southern general instantly observed, with lethal simplicity: “if slaves make good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong”.

So too: if the Verities are indeed true, then the Identities’ long and vastly corrosive march through American society and culture has been … not so true. In which case the tires – if not other parts – of the Identities will be kicked. And, as Foucault and Lenin and just about any other taker-over of worlds knew, ‘you don’t let them be kicking your tires with their minds or the whole thing is going to get stopped and you yourself are going to get stood up in front of a judge or the nearest wall’. Or words to that effect.

Oddly, while when it comes to getting some new thing that they claim is theirs, the Identities are more than willing to talk about building a new ‘boat’ because this one is starting to capsize, , yet they do not at all want any discussion of their prior ‘gains’ because the election is too important to start looking back at … stuff … or, really, to be doing any thinking at all. Can’t we all just vote Democratic and then we’ll get everything sorted out later? You can trust usssssss, can’t you?

I sort of wonder: is it possible that the Dems let things get so bad for so long because they knew – deep down in their inner cocktail parties – that they would never be able to explain to the whole People just how they let the common weal get so whacked over the past 40 years, and so the best thing to do would be to make a virtue of necessity, let the Republicans really really run wild with their hairless neocons and the Robber Baronets of the F.I.R.E. sector, until they got things so awesomely frakked up that the voters would welcome Dems back with no questions asked. About anything.

We are well-advised to watch more late-night tv movies: specifically, those B-horror movies of the pre-'70s where any half-pint, sugar-addled kid who’d been drinking out of a garden hose after falling off a bike he’d been riding without a helmet in the dark through the woods without a headlight, knew that if kindly Grandfather – call him FDR – returned to his Transylvanian farmhouse even one second after midnight, then he was no longer kindly old Grandfather no matter what he said, and should be staked or garlicked or holy-watered forthwith. Or get a crucifix shoved in his kisser. Now those be Kathlik noises!

But this is precisely what Obama cannot do. He cannot truly reach out to his Catholic demographic without making his revolutionary demographic verrrrry skittish. Like vampires around holy water just before sun-up.

Winters notes – ominously – that when questioned about healthcare, “Obama reverted to legalese, claiming healthcare was ‘a right’ instead of invoking the moral obligations Americans owe to one another as citizens and fellow human beings”. We didn’t get those ‘moral obligations’ as war booty from any country beaten in war; they came from a Western tradition that was strongly Christian (which is not at all the same as saying Fundamentalist; Fundoozies are to Christianity what SS troopers are to decent local traffic cops).

But what else can he do? Once ‘moral obligations’ are back on the national civic table then the Identities and the Robber Baronets and the preventive-war cheerleaders are all liable to judgment. And while the cheerleaders can’t be made to give all those frakked-up lives back, the Baronets might be made to give all the money back … so you can see what a job of work this is going to be.

Nor will the Identities go gently into that good night reserved for stupendously dubious ideas and shrewdly-spun card tricks. Of course, they might horse-trade in a kinda mature, democratic way, but that would be to betray the revolution – though they’d never put it quite like that. And they’d hafta give some stuff back – like maybe God. Eeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyew!

In fact, any nation that ever existed has always been liable to sins as awful as its lack of scruples would let it get away with, but vice always paid to virtue the compliment of hiding itself and even – on the off chance that there really is a God – restraining itself. But with the Identities’ embrace of Foucault ‘Virtue’ was deconstructed and with Reagan’s sweet nostalgia for MGM's America Greed was pronounced Good.

America became no place for a morally obligated People. And We did not remain one very long.

What now then?

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