Saturday, March 22, 2008

Matatnga

I have to admit, so far in this Presidential campaign, there have been moments where I have really admired both John McCain and Barack Obama.

Most of my admiration for McCain has tapered off, although there were some moments early on in the campaign, where he did make me sit up and take notice. For instance during the Republican presidential debates, issues of national security and torture were very difficult to stomach. Ron Paul generally stood out amongst the others, as someone with a few principles, as opposed to tossing red meat on a crowd of voters who will yell and shriek mindlessly at any mention of killing terrorists or torturing the supposed enemies of the United States.

Mitt Romney, who had to be the least principled person running this year on both sides, really exemplified this angry partisan talking point style of campaigning. I'll never forget his remark that Guantanamo should be doubled. An almost meaningless statement, except in the universe where someone believes that everyone is out to get them, and everyone is jealous because they are the biggest and bestest country in the world. If one inhabits that universe, then don't stop at doubling Guantanamo, you'll need to multiply its size at least a thousand-fold. The implicit promise in Romney's statement is that, we all know that we have plenty of people out there who are looking to "get us." And my promise is that I will kill and torture twice as many as Bush has or anyone else on this stage will.

McCain was able to distance himself from at least the torture aspect of this Republican rabid, foaming at the mouth partisan pandering. Unfortunately, these sorts of "maverick" stances are becoming less and less frequent, and those that exist are quickly eroding or fading away. One such stance is precisely this anti-torture stance. Whereas earlier McCain had positioned himself slightly at odds with the President on the torture issue, this maverick position has all but evaporated.

To speak for a moment about Hilary Clinton before moving on to Obama, her omission from the opening sentence of this post is intentional. Frankly, Hilary Clinton's campaign has been far from impressive or inspiring, and will have much responsibility for any Democratic loss in November, because of the way they have decided to tear apart Barack Obama, in order to save a campaign which has virtually no legitimate chance of winning.

The idea that Hilary Clinton is more "electable" than Obama may have some merit to it. She does have the mystique of her husband on her side, and that more than anything else, in my opinion is what has propelled her forward this far.

But if Democrats are serious about making some changes to the United States over the next few years, then they have to rid themselves of the myth of the Clinton dynasty, in particular the myth of Clinton's popularity. Yes, Bill Clinton was the first Democratic President in two generations to be elected twice, but if we look at the overall power of the Democratic party under his reign, we see a party in shambles, which was losing seats in the House and the Senate left and right. Here we see the dangers of the Clinton Dynasty, namely their overpowering tendencies towards self-interest, self-protection and self-promotion. These tendencies may have been great for the Clintons, but didn't do much for the rest of the party, which were at the mercy of the Republicans for eight years.

(Before continuing, it should be noted that the grassroots network that Obama's campaign has developed, which has made them widely successful in the caucus system, indicates that in terms of pushing the entire party forward, Obama has much more to offer than Clinton.)

This Republican dominance, or elections and political discourse, provides a perfect segue into Obama and reasons to admire him. Early on this year, while campaigning in Nevada, Obama made some remarks about Democrats and Republicans, and which party has been "the party of ideas" and which figures have really shaped politics as we know it today. Now, for a variety of reasons, Obama when discussing this issue singled out Ronald Reagan, as key political figure in the past three decades that has really shifted or changed the trajecty of American politics. Now, alot of people responded by incredulity, at this gaffe, where a leading Democratic Presidential candidate was speaking admirably of a former Republican President, Reagan, who has the joyous distinction of being one of the nicest and banal looking, evil people the United States had ever seen.

So why would Obama make a remark such as this? First, the safe choice for a Democratic candidate, is one Obama, frankly couldn't name, and that's former President Bill Clinton. In his statement Obama makes a distinction from Clinton, saying explicitly that Reagan changed American politics in a way Clinton and even Nixon did not. So, as he is running against the wife of Bill Clinton, is would hardly work in his favor to butter up the record of Bill Clinton, especially since Hilary is running on the idea that his exploits are her own.

Second, Obama is advertising himself as someone who can appeal to independents and even Republicans, and so its possible that this sort of Reagan mention is meant to represent an olive branch to recovering Reagan Democrats, or conservative Republicans who have been left behind as their party has careened rightward.

Third, for all of Obama's progressive principles, he does work to sound "conservative" when he speaks. For instance, although Obama is very committed to helping out college students with sen makkat na student loans, he is very careful to couple these types of assistance with some sort of national service. This idea that the government can never appear to be giving anything away for "free" is one which is very much derived from the Reagan era and its subsequent impacts over the past twenty years. Public programs cannot simply be provided to citizens, but there has to be an element where people, especially poor people, can provide evidence that they deserve them or are responsible enough to receive them.

Also, his idea of family, even in his book The Audacity of Hope, is very heteronormative, and very traditional in the sense of a strong father figure being its foundation. I should note however, that this doesn't mean that Obama is against "strong women," in fact part of Obama's appeal is that his wife is a "strong woman," even going so far as to say that she did not support his run for President, because of the damage it will do to their family. But in his prescriptions for how to "fix" social problems, the formula is an old one, namely fill the roles of family heads with responsible men.
Here are some pragmatic reasons why Obama might have invoked Reagan's name, but one final reason might be simply the fact that its accurate, Ronald Reagan, for better or worse, (and in my opinion worse), drastically altered the landscape of American thought and ideas. Before continuing let me make clear my thoughts on Ronald Reagan, I do not admire him at all as a person or a president. So many of the problems we find in America today, Reagan and his "revolution" had a huge role in bringing about, and making seem natural or justified. I mean this in terms of American foreign policy, the economy, the prison population, issues of race, the weakening of American labor, and just the ways Americans see themselves.

After close to a decade of America being forced to look at itself in the mirror through Vietnam war protesters, peace activists, different political, environmental and social movements for Latinos, African Americans, women, Native Americans and even Watergate, Reagan arrived like an aged amnesia potion. He spoke of a time "before the troubles" and promised a return to that time. The gap between what he was promising/supposed to represent and what he actually created is what makes him and his revolution so "despicable."

But, este chinatli'e-hu nu Reagan, doesn't in anyway make Barack Obama's assertion wrong, in fact, it only bolsters it. Reagan was a figure which Bush the Second, has aspired to be. Someone who could somehow make people think that a drastic increase in military spending would best be accompanied by the lowering of taxes and deregulation of industry. When Bush asserts himself as a "war President" he is trying to make use of that same magical power that Reagan had, the ability to not be held accountable for the massive gap between his image/rhetoric and his actual policies.

Reagan tapped into the longing of a country, for that old school patriarch whom you could believe had everything under control. A grandfatherly figure, the presence and essence of whom you could attach ideas of security and stability. Like so many "father figures" it didn't really matter whether or not this figure could actually accomplish anything, or do anything, but their power was in the associations that their presence brought. Through his conservative rhetoric and imagery, Reagan could successfully associate himself with the golden age of the United States.
Bush has attempted something similar, by trying to shroud himself in the cloak of herohood through his association with 9/11 and his war mongering, but as Rudy Guilianni recently learned, this sort of alchemy is easier said than done.
The danger with figures such as these, is that they stifle democracy, because they tend to stimulate this sort of short-circuited assumption that everything is okay so long as they are in charge. That one merely need vote for them every few years, and the nation will be fine. The power of the nation becomes disassociated with the people, with their ideas, their needs, or even democracy, but instead becomes closely linked to the personality of the President or whoever this figure is.

For Obama to name Reagan as more influential than Clinton, and the most influential political figure in recent American politics, is thus an accurate one, but a suicidal one. Such a strategy might be valuable in the general election, when the field of voters is wider and the need to reach out to undecideds, independents and Republicans is greater. But in a Democratic primary season, to praise Ronald Reagan, as Obama learned for a few days after his remarks, is insane, and leaves one open from all sorts of attacks from your party and your suppporters.
In Obama's continous references to his life as a "community organizer," it is easy to forget that he is also an academic. He has published articles in law journals and he lectured for years at the University of Chicago.
As an academic, and someone who more than most people (pi'ot i mampulitikat) is supposed to be committed to ideas of truth and critique, politics can be a frightening and daunting task. Too often, the game of politics has very little to do with reality or how things actually work, but simply speaking to the way people perceive things, or people's expectations of how a politician should talk. If academics worked the way politicians did, then no learning would ever take place in the classroom, since teaching and instilling critical thinking require that you transgress and challenge the assumptions and expectations of those who sit in your classes. (mampos magahet este gi i klas ethnic studies siha.)
For academics who enter the world of politics, you receive the advantage or the disadvantage of people thinking you are smart or sound smart, but you also come with this problem of what your role is and how you are to approach issues or even speak to people. Politics in its most general sense is very far from a classroom, and so when engaging with the public, you must constantly negotiate how closely or remotely you should/can stick to your principles. In this instance with the Ronald Reagan mention, we can see a shade of minatatnga in Obama, in the way he made this small point, which did cost him politically, but ultimately was in line with his principles and his informed version of recent American history.
The initial intent of this post, was to address Barack Obama's speech a few days ago on race, as another one of these moments, where he was confronted with a choice between making a political compromise and remaining true to his principles. I will admit to a number of ways that Obama does compromise in his speech (as he always has in his campaign), but yet at its core, in its refusal to dismiss race, and his refusal to disown his pastor, Obama is being matatnga, he is basically taking a risk that this presidential campaign can be treated like a classroom. Or that politics here can go beyond simply telling people crap that they want to hear or already know, but challenge them as well. And not challenge them in simple or empty ways like, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." But rather his speech was a dangerous challenge that this country deal with racism and deal with racial fears and tensions, and not merely situate them in figures like Jeremiah Wright, or treat those who mention the importance of race as the sources of racism.
I'll have more on this tomorrow, sa' pa'go esta mampos chatangmak, ya mampos matuhok yu'.

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