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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Barack Obama and the US International Explaining Team

When American high school students go abroad, they get told they’d better be on their best behaviour. It isn’t their school they represent, we tell them. It’s their entire country. They are not just basketball players or trombonists or math geeks. They are ambassadors. Get a little too drunk, moon a gendarme, piss in the Trevi fountain, puke on a Greek widow's shoes, and you trash the reputation of Americans everywhere. The world's view of the United States is in your hands. So, behave!

It's a little different for Americans who actually live abroad. As we integrate into our adoptive communities, and the neighbours start to treat us as part of the local furniture, we begin to feel we can relax a little. We end our constant vigil of self-consciousness. But then we discover the burden of a new duty.

No longer anxious about inappropriate individual excesses, we discover we are called upon to answer for the excesses of America itself. Like the admonished high-school students, we find we have a duty as American ambassadors on foreign soil. Instead of moderating our own behaviour, however, we are called to moderate the international conversation about all American behaviour.

Whenever something seemingly inexplicable emerges from the US, we are pressed into service by flummoxed locals. They hear our American accents, and approach us for our views on every bone-headed policy, each scandalous revelation, and all manner of fads and cultural absurdities. In office hallways, bars and backseats of taxis, we become the voice of America. Defending America's international reputation, we are an unsung diaspora of street-corner diplomats.

The last eight years have not been easy for us. The burden of articulating an American apologia has fallen particularly heavily during the Bush years.

To say the Bush world-view has frequently befuddled foreigners is to put it more benignly than even-handedness deserves. With W as our spokesperson-in-chief, we have completely perplexed even our friends. And that's saying something, because they invest a lot in trying to understand us.

The sophistication of foreign opinion about the US belies glib broadcast sound-bites about pro- or anti-American sentiment. Talk with any passably educated foreigner about the trajectory of the American republic, and they are more likely to have subtle insights about our history than we are to know the name of their last prime minister.

And we've certainly had their attention. After 9/11, one of the major French newspapers famously declared, "We are all Americans, now." Foreign empathy with the wounded, fearful hearts of Americans continued even as US foreign policy turned vindictive.

With the passing of the next few years, however, popular patience with America's pugilistic tendencies stretched to exasperation. Still, prevailing sentiment remained warm toward Americans, if not toward Bush & Co. Two major nations toppled their own governments for the sin of allying with Bush, yet tenderness for Americans sat compatibly beside opposition to US policy.

Not seldom, in fact, Americans earned sympathy from the world for the misfortune they were suffering: having a bewildering, blundering buffoon as our front-man. Americans, we would hear often, are among the kindest, warmest people in the world. They've just got an ignorant, inarticulate id in the White House.

There is generosity in this. People like Americans. They wanted to be able to defend average Americans, whilst rendering harsh judgments on the perversities of America’s leader. By directing their anger not at the American people but at an out-of-control head of state, foreigners made space to continue loving America, despite Iraq, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary rendition" and the trashing of the Geneva Convention. They could heap their scorn on the shoulders of the Monkey King, alone, vouchsafing the American people as innocents.

But then democracy happened. And we re-elected him. In the eyes of our foreign friends, all Americans now had a lot to answer for.

After the 2004 election, it was suddenly hard for foreigners to defend Americans and our choices any more. The US explanation back-up squad got called off the bench to play triple overtime. Our foreign friends and colleagues wanted to know what the hell had happened. We got peppered with every possible version of the question "How could you have done this?" Since one rarely meets right-wing ex-pats, few of us had voted for Bush. So, it wasn't a question we could easily answer. We did our best, but I don't think they ever understood.

Maybe that's why this election has foreigners riveted. They were already fascinated before the nominees were even chosen. Since the primaries, foreign coverage and conversation has been rich. On the evening of the Iowa primaries, I drove along a British motorway, listening to the BBC, and heard the speeches. The "I" of Clinton, the "you" of Edwards and the "we" of Obama were all served up on foreign soil courtesy of foreign taxpayers.

It’s no wonder foreign opinion about American affairs is so subtle and sophisticated, given that kind of exposure. About the only thing Brits didn’t understand, during the primaries, was the arcana of how delegates were won and counted. In other words, they had about as much clue as most Americans about caucuses and super-delegates: not much. After the 2000 election forced on the world an education about the Electoral College, however, foreigners are unsurprised by idiosyncrasies in US election rules. For once, the ex-pat dinner-table diplomatic corps did not have to scramble.

Since the primaries, however, our phones have started ringing again. The locals are having trouble understanding what the heck’s going on. Watching the polls in the US, their simple question is: Why isn’t this a runaway landslide, already?

I’m not much help to them. Because, to be honest, I’ve been wondering that, too.

For the sake of balance, before I go on, I should make it clear that Barack Obama is not my ideal candidate. I like him. I support him. I have already voted for him (absentee ballots being what they are). I am occasionally inspired by him. I have, for the first time in my life, bought a t-shirt in support of a politician. But I am simply not as in love with this candidate as I’d like to be, nor as star-struck as many others — Obamaniacs — clearly are.

I am thrilled by their enthusiasm, and I am grateful he’s caught fire in the fickle tinder-box of the American psyche, but I feel more guarded. Like all people who are desperate for a change from the neo-con nightmare of the last eight years, I can give you a long list of reasons why he’s a better choice. And I genuinely like the guy, his character, his qualities, and the approach he stands for. At the same time, if I back intellectual honesty in our politics, I must also acknowledge my reservations.

Three times, so far, on issues I care about, I haven’t been able to tally the man’s actions and his words.

The first time was when he voted for the extension of the Bush Administration’s cynically named “Patriot Act”. While better than its original incarnation, the renewed Patriot Act still allows the Federal government extraordinary powers to quash individuals’ liberties, expands the power of law enforcement while reducing oversight, and reduces checks and balances on executive (ie, Presidential) power. The irony is that the Patriot Act claims to “fight the terrorists” by doing exactly what the terrorists want: it fetters our freedom.

Obama rang my civil liberty alarm bells a second time when he rolled over on something called telco immunity. Several telecoms companies helped the Bush Administration break the law by illegally tapping Americans’ phones. In so doing, the phone companies themselves broke the law. After this was discovered, Republicans in the Senate moved to give the telcos retroactive immunity from prosecution and civil suits. Obama initially took a stand: they broke the law, they take the consequences. Ultimately, however, the telcos got their immunity with Obama’s vote. For helping the Bush Administration break the law and violate Americans’ constitutional rights, the telecoms companies will pay no penalty.

The third time Obama’s sparkle dimmed for me was more subtle, but no less disappointing. After John Edwards dropped out of the race, Obama took a page from the populist’s playbook. He started talking in dark terms about companies that “ship American jobs overseas”. In a politics of honesty and candour, this appeal is simply disingenuous. The US economy is nothing without global markets — for good and ill, as we’re currently seeing. Every intelligent Presidential aspirant knows this, and Obama is one of the most intelligent imaginable. One cannot both understand the realities of global markets and posture about “shipping jobs overseas”.

Capitalism works by allowing capital to find the most efficient ways to make new money in a competitive marketplace. If greater efficiency is to be had in Jaipur or Chengdu, then that’s where the capital goes, often taking jobs with it. By restricting the flow of capital — or providing incentives for it to stay home — all you do is encourage inefficiency. We don’t have to like this aspect of capitalism, but it is so. To pretend otherwise is populist pandering. Barack told us all to expect him to be above that.

In all three of these cases, I suspect a simple calculation was made: What percentage of Americans would know the issues well enough to be disturbed by the Senator’s vote? Or, put another way, how likely would it be to alienate the Democratic base?

My progressive friends — ie, nearly all of my friends — likely have well-reasoned answers for these departures from Obama’s promise: the promise of a politics of integrity and intellectual honesty, a politics that is more about what is good for the American people than about the power calculus of Washington. But, to me, these three examples represent departures from that promise.

None of that changes how badly I want him to win. Hence, the t-shirt. Like so many of my past girlfriends, I’m willing to wear a guy’s t-shirt despite his obvious imperfections. If I’m gonna sport his face on my chest, though, I at least expect him to campaign like a legend. And he hasn’t been. In fact, since the convention, he’s been campaigning like Al Gore.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Al Gore. Now. Not so much in the 2000 campaign. Gore is one of the smartest guys in public life, and he has done more heavy lifting on public awareness of climate change than any other person. He also campaigned like a total pussy in 2000. After eight years of economic prosperity under Clinton, and up against an opponent who clearly was not his intellectual equal, Gore just couldn’t figure out how to connect with the American voter. He was all substance. His opponent was all communication strategy and folksy charm. His opponent connected.

But, wait. Surely that doesn’t apply to Obama. Hasn’t Obama connected with people? Isn’t that the essence of the Obama story? The celebrity status, the stadium crowds, the legions of women saying he’s sexy?


The problem is that all those folks are his base. He, and the forces he is opposing have, in the cliché of the political pundits, galvanized the Democratic/progressive/liberal base. He is speaking to cheering crowds of the converted. And these folks have a lot of pent up passion to let out. They have been hungry for something to pour their bleeding hearts into for a long, long time.

They may be cheering louder because of his particular talents — there’s no doubt he has fired up the passion of his supporters in a way the last two Democratic presidential hopefuls failed to — but the polls suggest those were Democratic-leaning passions before he arrived. It’s an asset, his star power, but it doesn’t convert the sceptics in the undecided middle ground.

The moment to start going after them was in the campaign’s seventh inning: the convention. Standing in that stadium, Obama had an opportunity to swing for the fence-sitters in front of home-crowd cheers. The convention was the moment to tune the message to connect with the kinds of folks who hadn’t turned out at rallies, who hadn’t bought buttons, and who hadn’t found something to inspire them in Kerry and Gore.

The moment passed rather less eventfully. I watched the speech sitting in a Brazilian hotel room with another American and two Brits. I think all of us were a little disappointed. Beyond the contextual profundity conveyed by such an historic moment, the build up was greater than the performance.

So, why didn’t he hit it out of the park? I suspect it was, in fact, the result of Obama judging the moment half correctly. I reckon he and his campaign strategists explicitly tuned his message and his style to appeal to undecideds. I heard a speech pitched at the temperate hearts of the unconverted, not one intended to whip the stadium into a frenzy of faithful followers. They must have thought the right way to reach middle America was to tone everything down a notch: the rhetoric, the charisma, the grandiose vision of what we’re capable of as a nation with all those “better angels” sitting on our shoulders. They must have thought that the way to the heart of the middle ground was to make Obama look more soberly presidential, and less like a rock-star preacher.

Sadly, to those of us watching in my Sao Paolo hotel room, what got toned down was Obama’s impact. All of his exceptional strengths seemed moderated. His text seemed dilute. His crescendo failed to shake any foundations or reverberate in our ears days later.

By contrast, Hilary Clinton gave the best speech of her year at the convention. She recovered her humour, her fire and even a bit of likeability after a campaign that had felt shrill and over-handled. Like we saw with Al Gore’s post-presidential-race passion transplant, Hilary performed at her best only after there was nothing left to lose.

It made me hear footsteps. I don’t want to be saying the same thing about Obama in two months’ time. Since the convention, the tone of Obama’s campaign has stayed moderate. I think this “positioning” explains why the race is still as close as it is.

By dialling down Obama’s star power, the Democratic campaign machine has re-cast Obama into a guise more like that of a traditional politician. That’s a posture McCain is comfortable in, and in which he has had more practice than Obama. Moreover, Obama, by withdrawing from the cult-of-personality contest, has unintentionally ceded the moxy factor to the Republicans. When he anted up a sound, qualified VP candidate, the Republicans offered up Sarah Palin. She immediately stole the spotlight with a great smile and a bad joke. It was a perfect, if depressingly cheap, moment of campaign strategy triumphing over content.

We know from bitter experience that Republicans are better at mercenary campaign strategy than Democrats. Dems rely on fielding inspirational, motivational candidates. But when the Dems tone down Obama to make him more palatable to the inspiration-resistant voter, they not only tie his hands, they make him play the Republicans’ game.

The Republican campaign should be dead. Sarah Palin was the final proof that Republicans believe in affirmative action when it suits them, and that being the best candidate for the job doesn’t matter a tit when you’re just trying to win a popularity contest. Yet the Democrats haven’t been able to fully capitalise on this as a cynical, vote-winning ploy that insults the Republicans’ own mantra that experience matters. The dominant story about Palin, today, is that she’s surviving with a wink.

The Republican campaign should be dead. The financial crisis may bring down not only the US economy, but half the world’s as well. After eight years of Republicans sneering their derision at any suggestion of market regulation, their economic ideology is, literally, bankrupt. Yet the Democrats haven’t been able to drive accountability home to Republicans. Republican politicians, who were also at the wheel in 1929, have abhorred welfare for the poor, whom they distrust. They have built their record on trickle-down corporate welfare, while trusting markets to self-regulate and dismantling much of the New Deal’s public welfare safeguards. They were wrong, and we will all now have to pump the middle class to bail out the banks and avoid a melt-down.

The Republican campaign should be dead. In the first Presidential debate, McCain failed to articulate any meaningful distinction between himself and the current Administration. Despite that, he scored more emotional points than his opponent, a man who’s supposed to be king of the heart-grabbing bon mot. And yet, inexplicably, Obama kept saying “John’s right…”

In fact, the Republican campaign should have been dead almost before it began. Never has there been a less popular Administration, yet Americans are actually considering voting for the option that looks most like it.

Here we are a month before the election, and Barack Obama could get beaten.

This prudent, moderate, toned-down candidacy is not what I expect of our great black hope. What I expect is for him to turn his charisma up to eleven. What I expect is for him to pack every stadium and bring down the house. What I expect is for him to show us he is unwilling to dim the light of his fire, nor suppress the heat of his hope, nor pull his political punches.

What I want to know is where is his righteous indignation on behalf of the American people?

I am waiting for him to start calling a spade a spade. I am waiting for him to confront John McCain with plain speaking that says “What you and your party have stood for during the last eight years has been wrong. It has betrayed the American people and led this nation down the wrong path: a path that has left America weaker in almost every way. You cannot separate yourself from that, and you cannot claim you stood against it.”

Where is the powerful blast of articulate outrage against the outright hypocrisy of the Republican message versus the reality of the last eight years? The message about a “culture of life” versus the ready acceptance of “collateral damage” costing untold thousands of lives in an avoidable war? The message about small, fiscally prudent government versus a reality of government spending higher than ever before, built on towering foreign debt? The message about deregulation being good for the economy versus the reality of uncorrected irresponsibility, fraud, and market collapse? The message of bi-partisanship (“I’m a uniter, not a divider.”) versus the reality of the ugliest partisan attacks we’ve seen in our lifetimes?

Instead of righteousness, directness and uplifting demands for accountability, Barack Obama is giving us politeness, gentility, and academic moderation. And, in so doing, his is keeping this race close, when it should be a landslide.

So, I fear the Republican campaign isn’t dead yet. Barack Obama could still get beaten. If he does, I fear my neighbours in the UK, and my previous neighbours in France, China, and Australia will stop ringing me up to probe for native insights on the American condition. I fear foreigners will, for the first time, refrain from calling on the informal American diplomatic corps on their street corners, in their taxis, and down their office hallways. I fear they will resign themselves to Americans’ self-imposed exile from empirical reality.

They will look at the US experiment and, for the first time, conclude that the best moments of the American republic are behind it. That American hegemony is history. And that the American people willed it so.

They will see us vote for the policies that brought us war, debt, and shackled liberty, and they will conclude we simply chose, as a people, to close the American era.


Comments on "Barack Obama and the US International Explaining Team"


Blogger Almost American said ... (3:26 AM) : 

Well said!

There was a commenter on NPR today (wish I could remember his name - will come to me later) who not only sees the end of American greatness in all of this but in all seriousness believes it will not be long till parts of the union start to secede.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (3:58 AM) : 

Saw this on a message board and thought it would fit here.

Dear Red States:

If you somehow manage to steal this election too we've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us. In case you aren't aware, that includes California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states. We get stem cell research and the best beaches. We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood.

We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom.

We get Harvard. You get Ole' Miss.

We get 85% of America's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama.

We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make the red states pay their fair share.

Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22% lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happy families. You get a bunch of single moms.

Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they're apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don't care if you don't show pictures of their children's caskets coming home. We do wish you success in Iraq , and hope that the WMDs turn up, but we're not willing to spend our resources in Bush's Quagmire.

With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80% of the country's fresh water, more than 90% of the pineapple and lettuce, 92% of the nation's fresh fruit, 95% of America's quality wines, 90% of all cheese, 90% of the high tech industry, 90% of the corn and soybeans (thanks Iowa!), most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT.

With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88% of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92% of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100% of the tornadoes, 90% of the hurricanes, 99% of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100% of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson and the University of Georgia.
We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.

Additionally, 38% of those in the Red states believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62% believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the war, the death penalty or gun laws, 44% say that evolution is only a theory, 53% that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and 61% of you crazy *******s believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties.

Finally, we're taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in Mexico

Peace out,
--Blue States


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