July 2008 Archives

History doesn't really repeat itself--although historians damn sure do--but the gigantic, stupendous, super-colossal Obamaganza speech to some 200,000+ eager, excited (especially for Germans) Berliners reminds me of what Woodrow Wilson thought was his triumphal tour of Europe prior to the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I. Wilson saw the thunderously enthusiastic reception he received everywhere he went as evidence that our allies were totally on board with his "peace-without-victory" plan for a non-punitive settlement with Germany. In reality, the throngs cheering Wilson were showing their appreciation to the American leader who had, albeit belatedly, brought his nation into the conflict and thereby facilitated the Allied victory that put their leaders in a position to stomp the living hell out of Germany at the upcoming peace conference. This they did, by the way, much to the dismay of Wilson, who, although he had been warned that he would be no match at Versailles for Britain's David Lloyd George and France's Georges Clemenceau, had nonetheless believed that what he interpreted as overwhelming popular support for his plan would force these wily, hardnosed diplomats to pretty much fall in line humming "Yankee Doodle."
If you haven't dozed off by now, perhaps you see one of the potential pitfalls of what Obama did in Berlin. To their credit, most of his listeners could probably translate practically every word he said, but that isn't quite the same as grasping the full meaning and import of what he said. Picking up on this, a writer for Der Spiegel
warned his almost giddy countrymen that their sweet-talking new American idol “is also certain to demand the help of the Germans, Brits and French in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's not going to let NATO shirk its duty -- and therein lie the perils of the engaging "we" and the catchy "Yes, we can." Otherwise all these hard-nosed Europeans will hope and pray that the future President Obama isn’t really all that serious about the saving the world of tomorrow, the polar caps, Darfur and the poppy harvest over in Afghanistan.”
If our reporter has read his people correctly, and I suspect he has, then, as in Wilson’s case, the response to this historic speech may not mean nearly as much as the Obama camp and the jubilant American media who covered it want to believe it does.
It’s hard to know how well how well Oby's version of the Brandenburg Concerto will actually play back here, but if I had to prophesy, I’d say his bounce in the polls will be modest at best. I’m guessing the people who are the most pleased with his performance are the ones who were already for him stronger than horseradish. Besides, I think the American people get a little nervous when our president appears too enamored of foreigners or they of him. This feeling is hardly peculiar to us, of course. Europeans, who seem to be far more cynical about their politicians than we are, are very skeptical when one of their leaders seems to go gah-gah over anything American. Curiously, a lot of Berliners who ate up Obama’s every word would doubtless have been a lot less excited if they had been watching their own Little Ms. Merkel addressing a comparably large and enthusiastic gathering over here.
Whatever Obama’s hang-ups, he is seldom accused of having an inferiority complex. His trip abroad shows that he not only preaches the “audacity of hope” but practices the audacity of…, well, audacity. Our man in Berlin observed that ol’ Oby “is more than ambitious -- he wants to lay claim to become the president of the world,” but this Brit
really let fly with some clever and biting satire about the messianic cult that has grown up around “a Child [who]appeared in the wilderness” during “the eighth year of the reign of the evil Bush the Younger (The Ignorant), when the whole land from the Arabian desert to the shores of the Great Lakes had been laid barren.” Preaching the gospel of “Yes we can!” the young messiah first “smote the conniving Hillary, wife of the deposed King Bill the Priapic [Think of the thirty six hour warning in the Cialis ad] and their barbarian hordes of Working Class Whites.” Then, “the Child ventured forth from Israel and Palestine” into “the land of Queen Angela of Merkel,” where vast multitudes gathered to hear his voice, and he preached to them at length.”
Sometimes such heavy-handed satire works better than the more subtle variety favored by the folks at the New Yorker who apparently thought that their thoroughly sophisticated readership would find amusement in a cover featuring a caricature of the lunatic right’s depiction of the Obamas as closet Muslims and, therefore, terrorists. Ironically, while the liberal pointy-heads objected to the cover as insensitive and insulting, the presumably ignorant and deranged crazies whom it was actually intended to insult couldn’t get enough of this confirmation, from a most unlikely source, of their perception of the Obamas as sinister and twisted agents of evil aiming to subvert American power and values. If you’re already shooting out gazillions of emails arguing that Oby is the Anti-Christ, given the imagery of the New Yorker cover plus the sight of him campaigning “to be president of the world” before a captivated audience of two hundred thousand exuberant foreign devils in Berlin, all you’re lacking is a photo of the “666” tattooed on his hiney.
If nothing else, the wacky New Yorker cover reminded us that these folks are still out there and probably not going away. Even if, as I fear, their ranks are actually growing, I doubt that, in and of themselves, they are capable of denying Obama the presidency. On the other hand there are clearly many other voters who harbor some very legitimate concerns about things like Oby’s lack of experience, his naivete', and his preference for vaporous catch-phrases over detailed policy positions. Sad to say it, but there are also folks who, regardless of what they tell pollsters, simply ain’t going to pull that lever for a black presidential candidate. Throw these three groups together and you have the explanation for why the object that refuses to recede in Oby’s rear-view mirror is someone who, while trying to convince Americans that he would be a president they could depend on, has thus far simply made them wonder if he could remember to put his “Depends” on.
If you believe this one’s “all over but the shoutin,’" you should keep in mind that shoutin’ determines the outcome of an election a lot more often than we’d like to admit, and there’s still more than three months’ worth of it left. Don’t tell this to our otherwise insightful German friend, however. He believes that “anyone who saw Barack Obama at Berlin's Siegessäule on Thursday could recognize that this man will become the 44th president of the United States.… For those who witnessed his appearance in Berlin, it is hard to imagine that John McCain has any chance.”
Anybody want to bet a six pack of Natural Lite that I can’t go back to Der Spiegel in 2000 and find a piece about what a butt-whuppin’ Ozone Al is going to put on “W.”?
...I didn’t think so.

The Ol' Bloviator Seeks Easy Way Out--And Finds It!

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Ok, I admit it, this is a quick way to post a blog without much work. The ol’ bloviator is just run ragged right now, what with giving talks he never should have agreed to and trying like crazy to get the belongings of I and my beloved Missus under the same roof with us in Athens. I promise that more of my incredible insights about the campaign will be up shortly, and I deeply regret that so many of you will just have to keep gnawing your fists until then. In the meantime, here’s what we oft-maligned and unappreciated teachers are up against. (A “Thank you very kindly” goes out to my comical sociologist sidekick, John Shelton Reed, for sending this along.)


Every year, English teachers from across the USA can submit their
collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays.


Here are last year's winners.

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently
compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like
underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy
who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those
boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high
schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those
boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was
room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just
before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of
his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly
surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling
ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled
with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie,
surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy
comes on at 7:00 p.m. Instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry
them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the
grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left
Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. Traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19
p.m. At a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that
resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had
also
never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East
River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one
that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this
plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating
for
a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a
real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or
something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg
behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with
power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if
she were a garbage truck backing up.

If a some of these made you laugh at least a little, here’s something you’ll find REALLY FUNNY! It’s a guy who has actually read my latest book but still likes it. Why is it all the really smart people in this world are writing for alternative newspapers in places like Augusta? On the other hand no place I know needs a really smart person and an alternative newspaper more than Augusta. Maybe he’s doing missionary work there. In any case, he clearly deserves your prayers. A guy this good won’t last long in the newspaper business.

The Perils of Making History

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I share Congressman John Lewis’s belief that Barack Obama’s selection as the Democratic standard bearer is a powerful reason to believe we are “in the process of laying down the burden of race.” As a veteran of the Civil Rights movement whose risks and sacrifices made Obama’s achievement possible, Rep. Lewis has every cause to feel vindicated and proud. Lewis is ultimately too much the battle-scarred realist to get carried away, but I wonder if some other African American leaders and Democratic Party officials in general might do well to resist the “Obama’s the One!” feel-good buzz at least long enough to consider the challenges they might actually face if he makes even bigger history in November.

As a matter of course, whenever history is made in a really meaningful way, it not only forces us to revise our narrative of the past, but it encourages us to revise our perception of the present as well. The very fact that a black American has captured the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties is in itself sufficient to brighten many Americans’ overall assessment of black-white relations in this country, and should Senator Obama manage to succeed Bill Clinton as our second “first black president,” the appraisal of where things stand between blacks and whites is certain to get sunnier still.

Obviously, mountains of data about enduring and, in some cases, even widening racial disparities will introduce some clouds into the picture, but with a black person in the Oval Office it might be more difficult than ever to blame these clouds on whites. If no less a fixture on the left than Columbia University historian and committed activist Manning Marable can tell the Washington Post that Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy “can redeem American history from the specter of race that has plagued us for nearly four hundred years," it’s not difficult to foresee some folks on the right (who doubtless did their damndest to defeat Obama ) asking, “If white racism can’t stop a black candidate from becoming president, why should it stop a black family from escaping the ghetto?”

Although Senator Obama would never embrace such a ludicrous analogy himself, the early debates among African Americans about whether he was “black enough” really stemmed not just from his mixed racial heritage or his rather atypical life experiences, but from his strikingly post-racial political persona and agenda, which seemed more than a bit disquieting to those who had grown up under Jim Crow and risked their lives to overthrow it. Early endorsements of Hillary Clinton by old civil rights warriors like John Lewis might be laid off to widespread skepticism about Obama’s apparent prospects at the time, but Saturday Night Live’s animated spoof wherein Obama delegates the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to represent him in obscure or non-existent countries offered the perfect caricature of the Obama camp's desire to distance itself from an older set of black leaders steeped in the politics of protest and grievance. More recently, Rev. Jesse's insufficiently sotto voce remarks about his shockingly un-ministerial desire to turn the Democratic nominee into a soprano suggest that keeping his distance is Oby's best bet for keeping something else that Hillary has already done her best to divest him of.

This is in part at least a generational divide, for younger black Americans who have reaped the benefits of the civil rights era sacrifices of their elders are simply less inclined to share the sense of unfinished business in the fight against racism that continues to drive some of those elders. On the other hand, although Obama is likely to be more vocal about issues of racial discrimination as president than he has been as a candidate, his speeches about the importance of strong families and the responsibilities of parenthood carry a decided echo of the gospel according to a certain Mr. Cosby. In this sense, instead of sparking a revolution in black political strategies and agendas, an Obama presidency might simply lend further weight to increasingly frequent suggestions that the old knee-jerk response of treating most difficulties facing black Americans as a product of white racism has long since grown stale and counterproductive.

The prospect that an Obama presidency might usher in a more racially neutral brand of black politics seems all the more ironic in light of the angry and decidedly gendered reaction of so many women to the rejection of Hillary Clinton’s bid to become the first female to win a major party’s presidential nod. Senator Clinton drew some early flak from a number of high-profile feminists for her alleged macho-posturing on Iraq and her seeming political indifference to women’s concerns. It seems now, however, that literally millions of women who might still reject the feminist label are nonetheless committed at the very least to making a candidate’s gender or stance on gender-related issues an important consideration when they go to the polls in the future.

Having entered the 2008 primary season with two major constituencies looking to make history, if they are to finish what they have started, the Democrats must now convince one of these constituencies that putting their disappointments aside and remaining within the fold is still the best means of assuring that their own long-deferred dream will be realized sooner rather than later. If the Democrats manage to win in November, however, the full potential of their victory will be realized only if they can walk the fine line between celebrating a truly momentous achievement as an emotional springboard toward other such accomplishments and allowing that celebration to degenerate into an orgy of self-congratulation that has precisely the opposite effect.

An earlier version of this textbook example of bleeding-heart liberal handwringing appeared on the History News Network.

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