Some? Oh, Let’s Try That Again.

I like Ross Douthat, though he isn’t producing quite the same calibre of material writing for the New York Times as he did when he wrote for The Atlantic. He writes a pice in today’s New York Times on Egypt, noting that Mubarak’s Egypt is probably the place most responsible for Revolutionary Islam — had Mubarak not imprisoned, tortured and exiled so many people — especially clerics and religious activists — there would be no international Islamic revolutionary movement. A little simplistic, but mostly true. He also notes the difficulty facing Washington policy makers in dealing with Egypt as the alternatives — an Iran-style Islamic revolution (highly unlikely) or a return to Nasserist anti-Americanism (even less likely, I think, though who knows?) exist as possibilities with Egypt.

In the end, the, Douthat does understand something:

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.

Some? How about many? How about most?

This is What Happens When You Elect a Community Organizer President

Some fantastic nuggets in an essay by David Bromwich at the New York Review of Books on what the State of the Union speech says about how Barack Obama will likely govern over the next two (and possibly six) years. This is one of them:

A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts. There were signs of this pattern in the group of former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, whom the president brought in to endorse the START nuclear pact; in the generals who were called on to solidify support for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and in Bill Clinton holding a presidential press briefing on the economy. Obama, on such occasions, serves as host and introducer; he leaves the podium to the experts. The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.

This may be what he learned as a community organizer, to let others do the heavy lifting. Indeed, Bromwich said Obama appears to be modeling himself expressly after Ronald Reagan, who was master of the feel-good, empty phrase. Along those lines, Bromwich also notes this:

Barack Obama, starting in 2002—the year he declared at a Chicago rally his opposition to the coming war against Iraq—had a keen eye on his political rise, but he had slender experience and a narrow focus disguised by inspirational special effects. In earlier years, he was protected by the Chicago Democratic machine; after 2004, he was shepherded by leaders of the Democratic party who disliked the Clintons or feared that Hillary Clinton could never win a presidential election. His apparent convictions—-on the environment, on the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation: matters of more concern to him than health care—were resonant and sincere but they had never been brought to a test. It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were. [Emphasis mine – CHF]

“It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were.” He never really had to defend or market his positions, never really had to convince others of what he believed. Was never really challenged and never really had to accomplish something in the face of adversity. As a leader.

I think there was the presumption that because Obama was a “community organizer” (I’m surrounded by people who aspire to be community organizers at a seminary which claims to train them, and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly that is), he was for justice and peace and whatever wonderful things came bundled with that. And that he would lead forcefully like that, though I don’t think forceful leading is part of what a community organizer is. He was a blank slate upon which a lot hope was projected. There were a lot of people hearing Obama and thinking he actually meant something (possibly even Obama himself), and I think it’s become clear he doesn’t really mean anything. Or, as Bromwich concludes:

Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012. 

Yeah, But Not *TOO* Broke

House Speaker John Boehner apparently said this recently to CNN’s Kathleen Parker:

“Well, if you really want to talk about what the ‘Sputnik moment’ is,” he replied, “it’s the fact that we’re broke. And American people know we’re broke.”

Too broke to fight two wars, ya think? Or dominate the world? No, probably not THAT broke. I’m guessing NEVER that broke.

Some writers over at The American Conservative think the moment will come when, having to choose between sending soldiers to fight in foreign countries and pay for grandma’s health care, conservatives will choose grandma. But I don’t think so. I think for many Republicans (possibly even most), grandma is expendable. National greatness is not.

UPDATE: I should add, at this point, I think more than a few Democrats will vote to throw grandma under the tank too.

What Does it Mean to Be Faithful?

What does it mean to be church? In the latest issue of the American Conservative, Richard Gamble reviews a book I might have been tempted to read, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Thankfully, because of Gamble’s review, I don’t have to read the book and be disappointed (whew!). Gamble concludes:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter’s recommendations for “faithful presence.” Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents—or even by radically de-institutionalized “home church” families—who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

Hunter agrees that the church in America is unhealthy. Indeed, it is the premise of his book. But for him the evidence of good health is a church that “exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few.” Hunter’s call to that comprehensive outworking of the gospel offers both diagnosis and prescription for the “post-political,” “post-Constantinian” church as it faces an increasingly alien “post-Christian” culture. His book will perhaps redirect the strategy, funding, and vocabulary of transformationalists aspiring to be among the cultural elite, but it will not challenge their most cherished presupposition, that the church’s faithfulness ought to be measured by the degree to which it changes the world.

The liberal church — and by that, I mean the church of just about any political and social stripe in the social democratic or liberal democratic nation-state — since the 19th century has decided that faithfulness is a matter of, to borrow from Marx, changing the world. But in doing so, the church becomes just another actor in the liberal democratic state, another bit of “civil society” debating terms set solely by modernity and playing solely by the liberal state’s rules. The end result of all this is influencing the actions of the state. That’s what it means to be effective, and its how the various flavors of the liberal church measure themselves.

A lot of this is the engagement with modernity, an engagement the church somehow has to pull-off (Rome tried not to engage modernity for many decades and looked silly doing so) and yet also emphatically state that the question the church deals with — the salvation of humanity and humanity’s encounter with God — pre-dates modernity and will long outlive modernity. Liberal Christianity has surrendered to modernity. Neither refutation nor surrender works well.

But the church needs to be much more emphatic about what the sanctified community really is. Liberal Christians confuse that community with the nation-state (I think this is what Gamble means when he writes of a “mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America,” Israel in this instance being the called people of God, and not the nation-state of Israel) and thus act as if the promises made to the church and to the world through the church are made to the nation-state and through the nation-state. (This is an especially American problem, one Jim Wallis is just as guilty of as Pat Robertson.)

This is why I espouse a theology of exile. The church is not really at home in the world. We are in that moment before the eschaton where the promise, while real and manifest in times and places in the world (there are fleeting moments when I know I am living in that promise), is not the ruling reality of human existence. We are — and should always remember that we are — a wandering people who, outside of our communion of Christ, do not yet have earthly homes.

The 23rd Psalm as Lament

From a class exercise last year. Reposted from Facebook.

The Lord is not my shepherd; I am always in want.

He makes me to fall down in arid deserts, and he misleads me to bitter and unpalatable waters.

He drains my soul, and he leads me in the paths of evil of for its own sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am constantly terrified, for God has abandoned me and is of no comfort to me whatsoever.

He prepares a table for my enemies in my presence. He anoints my head with acid, and my cup has been stolen from me.

Surely despair and cruelty shall follow me all the days of my miserable life, and I will wander aimlessly outside the house of the Lord forever.

On Revolution and Bad Food

I have some problems with the politics and promises of The Enlightenment and modernity, but I also realize they are very attractive and that there is no going back. Abbas Milani notes this about Iran for The National Interest, but he could be saying it about any state or society struggling with the promises of modernity and Enlightenment:

While the leftist, centrist and clerical opposition to the shah “overdetermined” politics to the detriment of cultural freedoms, the ruler, for his part, failed to understand what increasingly became the clear iron law of culture: men (and women) do not live by bread alone, and when a society is introduced into the ethos of modernity—from the rule of reason and women’s suffrage to the idea of natural rights of citizens and the notion of a community joined together by social contract and legitimized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular will—then it will invariably demand its democratic rights. That society will not tolerate the authoritarian rule of even a modernizing monarch capable of delivering impressive economic development. The shah tried to treat the people of Iran as “subjects” and expected their gratitude for the cultural freedoms and economic advancement he had “given” them. But he, and his father (and before them, the participants in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century), had helped develop a new cultural disposition by creating a parliament and a system of law wherein the people considered themselves citizens and thought of these liberties as their right—not as gifts benevolently bestowed upon them.

The promises of modernity and Enlightenment in so far as government are concerned are very beguiling. They may be outright lies, or they may be completely unachievable ideals — I’m not quite sure which yet. But they are the only game in town. I am not one of the people who believe old and tired adage that democracy is the worst of all possible governments except for all the rest. I am an anarchist with monarchist sympathies, and my ideal government is a pre-nation-state monarchy. But we don’t live in that time. The bureaucratic nation-state is how moderns govern themselves. There are no real alternatives. What most concerns me is the exercise of state power, and the reality that it is no more moral when exercised on behalf of the people than when it is on behalf of God or some embodied sovereign person. In fact, I think power is actually less moral when exercised in the name of the people, but for now, that is neither here nor there.

To an extent, this is what we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, what we see occasionally in Burma, what wiped out the Nepalese monarchy some years ago, what unseated Soviet Socialism in 1989, and what may rock the West at some point in time when it becomes clear that “democracy” is actually unresponsive oligarchy (though I’m not holding my breath; revolution may be impossible in consumer societies). I sympathize with all the folks who rebel — rebellion is my inclination as well — and I wish them luck, but I suspect many will be truly disappointed when, after their democratic revolutions, they discover they haven’t really solved anything.

However, I also know this — you do not tell hungry people that the food is bad.

An Awkward Question About “Investment”

If, as President Obama said last night in his great speechy thingy, that “[t]wo years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again,” why then does the government need to invest in things like “biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology?” Why can’t these very profitable corporations do that themselves?

Just asking.

More (Mostly) Meaningless Words

I did not watch the State of the Union Address. I don’t recall how long I’ve been boycotting these — I think since the Bush Jong Il regime, when I no longer had to watch them as a part of my job — but it’s been a while. Barack Obama is merely the latest president who’s pronouncements I’ve tried hard to ignore.

I want to say they’re meaningless, presidential speeches, but I don’t quite think that. Bush Jong Il’s second inaugural was a majesterial declaration by the Bush regime that the United States seeks to liberate others by dominating them, a Bush take on Wilsonianism that really isn’t that different from Woodrow Wilson’s (given his racism). Presidential words mean a lot, but at the same time, they don’t mean very much. If you listened to Bush’s speeches on Israel and Palestine, for example, he sounded incredibly progressive — he used the word Palestine to describe a place and a nation, not just a people (I’m not sure any previous president had ever done so). But his words were completely disconnected from what his regime was actually accomplishing.

Obama is a particularly beguiling speaker, mostly because he speaks so easily and so well of hope and faith — a secular faith in America that at the same is laced heavily with religious and eschatological language. I’ve also come to the conclusion that Obama’s language is, more often than not, meaningless, largely because the disconnect from what he says and how he actually governs is so vast. Greater than it was under Bush or even Clinton. I think Obama may even be beguiled by his words because I’m not really he really knows what he means past the wonderful sounding words. In this, I am with Jacob Bronsthner when he wrote recently in the Christian Science Monitor:

[S]ince his inauguration, Obama’s methodological political theory has proved thin and sometimes incoherent. He will never support tax cuts for the rich, until he will. He criticizes Bush’s expansive view of presidential war powers, then adopts it. The list goes on.

It’s not that he breaks his policy promises more than other politicians. It’s not that he seeks compromise – a virtue. It’s not even that his policies are wrongheaded. It’s the fact that when he compromises, when he reaches policy conclusions, there’s no sense that it derives from anything other than ad hoc balancing.

There is no well of enduring principle upon which he seems to draw. Even if he’s a pragmatist, eschewing universal principles in favor of context-specific values and concerns, we still don’t know what those temporal values and concerns are, or why he believes in them. So far he’s the piecemeal president.

Bronsthner is convinced — and I think he’s right — that Obama doesn’t seem to really believe in anything. In fact, I’m fairly certain the point of his speeches (and Bush’s before him) are to make partisan supporters feel good about themselves. (Chris Hedges writes about this kind of in his latest essay.) “We are on the right side of good and truth and beauty and history,” supporters can say to themselves. And that is about all the words he speaks are worth.

Yet not all of Obama’s words are meaningless. As worthless as the Cairo speech was in actually producing any real “change” in how America did things in the Middle East, in April of 2007, Obama spoke before the Chicago Foreign Policy Council and outlined what would become his approach to foreign policy, talking about using the “full arsenal” of American power (and ingenuity) to confront “aggression” and maintain American military superiority. (I’ve just reread it, and for the most part, it is a speech Bush could have given.) This showed that Obama was not a peace candidate in any meaningful way, not willing to consider the possibility that the United States might be an ordinary nation, and I think that speech meant something. Those were not empty words, any more than Bush’s ersatz-Trotskyite missive in January 2005 was empty of meaning too.

Not all of the State of the Union was meaningless, as Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation notes:

He didn’t exactly trumpet American “exceptionalism,” and he didn’t proclaim America’s mission to remake the world, in so many words, but he inserted into his speech an odd phrase: “No one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Without saying so, he portrayed the United States, therefore, as the world’s lone superpower, an errant vision that reinforces the view of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that America has some vague responsibility for the rest of the world. “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he proclaimed. Really? Nowhere in his speech did Obama reflect on the necessary, humbling vision of the United States as a declining world power whose future depends on its reaching a series of accommodations with at least five or six other rising powers and regions.

But why else should expect different? In this, there is meaning. Obama’s world is still an America-centered, America-led, America-managed world for the benefit of America (again, dominating others in order to liberate them — more good progressive governance) so that more people can live in the abundance and freedom that America. And that is empire, the empire Obama remains committed to maintaining. Plain and simple.

A Quote Worth Remembering

I can take or leave The Nation’s politics (mostly leave). But I really like it’s longer cultural and historical pieces. This quote from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss appears in a lengthy essay on the same, and I find it worth remembering:

Other societies are perhaps no better than our own; even if we are inclined to believe they are, we have no method at our disposal for proving it. However, by getting to know them better, we are enabled to detach ourselves from our own society. Not that our own society is peculiarly or absolutely bad. But it is the only one from which we have a duty to free ourselves: we are, by definition, free in relation to the others.