Obama not quite so wholesome

Its a been a heady period – a bit like watching the Australian Open to see the rise and rise of a tennis star – and reading reams of autobiographical press that probe through interviews for ‘qualities’ that make this hero. These days we are indulging in Dokic and this morning there was tensing news: her father, the cause of all her traumas, is threatening to come from Serbia to watch her if she gets to the semis. That would be a disaster I sigh into my chai in tune with all the readers of the Age in this part of the world. I go through all the sports pages and pass them on to my daughter – who is following the women’s matches fanatically.

I then picked up my copy of the Atlantic, which arrives a bit late in Australia, and began reading. Half and hour later I am here blogging with a half opened copy of the magazine. Its another kind of dismay that has brought me to blog on a sunny sunday morning – when I should be on the trampoline or in the backyard doing some gardening. So here is the story.

I have liked Obama’s speeches, but his books have lots of cringe inducing bits. Cringe, for I come from India where the separation of state and religion is an oft debated issue, for the privielging of religion is seen as potentially damaging to the rights of one or other section of society. This has been borne out by historical evidence of events in which one religious group has taken to the streets killing people (with particularly brutal acts against children and women) of another another religion – where the call to arms is invariably issued by a politician. Anyway Obama’s writing inducing this cringe when he has this slavish way of invoking God – which is not in a spiritual or intellectual context – but as an acknowledgment of omnipotence or divine right. All very chillingly similar to the prose of the religious power discourse or the past President.

I was to get support from Fallows for my queasiness about the God references in Obama. Though his objection seems more aesthetic – it sounds tacky and so on. Still atleast someone is bracketing this. You can see Fallows’ post here:

James Fallows

As I may have mentioned from time to time, I view the Reagan-onward tic of
closing all presidential speeches with “God bless America” as just a
tic. That is, a substitute for doing what FDR, TR, Abraham Lincoln,
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and all pre-Reagan American
presidents had done: namely, find a “real” way to end a speech. Here is
interesting proof that it is a tic. The prepared version of Obama’s
inaugural address – here, among other sources — does not include those
words at the end. But the transcription of what he actually said —
here — confirms what we all heard, that he tacked them on at the end.

When he had time to think about the shape of the speech, Obama, as a writer
and thinker, realized that he had a strong close without those cliched
words. In real time, he threw them in, as any of us (including me)
might throw in “you know” or “I mean” when answering a question. Let me
say that again: when he had time to think about it, Obama the literary
craftsman thought better of it.

Which then brings me to the more recent Atlantic issue where Obama’s ‘coolness’ is the topic of discussion. I agree entirely that Obama is ethical and likeable – possibly superficially charming (charmful? dont we all know people who put on their charm, and can switch it off too?) – but quite sponge like and bears ‘the imprint’ of the others he encounters.

Cool Cat – The Atlantic (January/February 2009)

It was, I think, Lloyd George who said of Lord Derby that, like a cushion, he bore the imprint of whoever had last sat upon him. Though Obama, too, has the dubious gift of being many things to many people, the difficulty with him is almost the opposite: he treads so lightly and deftly that all the impressions he has so far made are alarmingly slight. Perhaps this is the predictable downside of being a cat.

And yes for all us non-Americans the whiff of imperialism is ever present. We talk about the way of the ‘american’ – their ‘leadership’ of the world and their presumptuousness. What is interesting here is that Benjamin Schwarz in this peice sees it too – through a ‘literary’ device of comparing what Bush might have said with what Obama actually says. I cannot fault an America president ( the leader of the free world) of being presumptuous about such leadership – for didn’t someone say that we must get the Americans back onto their spending habits  to save us from this recession?

All this is – after the show – second thoughts. Just the sort of feelings I began to have two days after I saw ‘Slum Dog Millionnaire‘.

Globaloney – The Atlantic (January/February 2009)

“Change” has been President-elect Barack Obama’s mantra, and for many of his supporters, the most important change his administration promises is a more restrained, less arrogant foreign policy, a global posture that avoids the costs and dangers inherent in playing the world’s policeman. They’re dismayed by the presumptuous and anachronistic attitudes behind the declaration that the president of the United States is the “leader of the free world.” They’re exasperated with the messianic invocation of “America’s larger purpose in the world,” with the smug notion that this country is “called to provide visionary leadership” in “battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” They discern the dangers of declaring with righteous omniscience that America “has a direct national security interest” in seeing its economic and political beliefs take hold in foreign lands. They’re annoyed with the historical myopia that results in an unironic reference to American military “operations to win hearts and minds.” In the claim that “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people,” they hear echoes of the universalist logic that led to the disaster in Vietnam and see a sweeping foreign policy that the rest of the world finds at best meddlesome and at worst menacingly imperialist.

These lofty but potentially dangerous sentiments are entirely consistent with George W. Bush’s assertion in his second Inaugural Address that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”—an assertion his critics at home and abroad rightly judged as … lofty and potentially dangerous. But the pronouncements quoted above—all of them—are in fact from Barack Obama’s two major foreign-policy statements, both made in 2007.

This isn’t to charge the president-elect with hypocrisy (he has consistently enunciated these views, which could be fairly described as standard liberal internationalist, even if some of his enthusiasts haven’t been particularly alert to them) but to show that the beliefs underlying America’s global role since the end of the Second World War have been remarkably consistent, embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations. And they lead inevitably to America’s playing the “imperial” role so many of Obama’s supporters decry.


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