Sunday, February 03, 2008

United to What End?

One of the things the spousal unit and I have discussed about Obama's mesage of unity is what exactly is it in the nation that requires unification?

Paul Krugman has consistently pointed out since W's election that the right wing movement conservatives want no part of unity. They want complete and utter authority. The overriding message of his book The Conscience of a Liberal is simply this: There's no working with these people. On the right, they make no secret of their contempt for liberal democratic rule (and I mean that in the formal, political theory sense of the term), far preferring autocracies like Franco's Spain.

As Bob Somerby pointed out over and over, the problem with Obama's Reno talk with the conservative newspaper editors wasn't really the overly adulatory comments about Reagan. It was his airy dismissal of the turmoil of the 60s as something the left got wrong. Wrong about civil rights? Wrong about women's rights? Wrong about protesting the Vietnam war? Just what national political contests were wrong? The other half of the uproar was his claim that over the last 15 years (which covers all of Shrub's presidency and much of Bill Cinton's) it was the Republicans who were the party of ideas, with the clear understanding that these were somehow good or commendable ideas.

Rick Perlstein has an op-ed in the Washington Post today, "Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen", getting to the heart of why unity for unity's sake is not just gaseous, it is simply ignoring the fact that there are divisions in this nation that cannot be mediated - they can only be contested:

One of the most fascinating notions raised by the current presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."

No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.

The fact is, the '60s are still with us, and will remain so for the imaginable future. We are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to tell." When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close.

Born myself in 1969 to pre-baby boomer parents, I'm a historian of America's divisions who spent the age of George W. Bush reading more news papers written when Johnson and Richard Nixon were president than current ones. And I recently had a fascinating experience scouring archives for photos of the 1960s to illustrate the book I've just finished based on that research. It was frustrating -- and telling.

The pictures people take and save, as opposed to the ones they never take or the ones they discard, say a lot about how they understand their own times. And in our archives as much as in our mind's eye, we still record the '60s in hazy cliches -- in the stereotype of the idealistic youngster who came through the counterculture and protest movements, then settled down to comfortable bourgeois domesticity.

What's missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing populist rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, who, referring to an idealistic protester who had lain down in front of Johnson's limousine, promised that if he were elected, "the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the last one they'll ever lay down in front of because their day is over!" That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent in the polls.


A President Obama could no more magically transcend America's '60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could, for the simple reason that our society is defined as much by its arguments as by its agreements. Over the meaning of "family," on sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas, we remain divided in ways that first arose after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What Andrew Sullivan dismisses as "the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation" do not separate us from our "actual problems"; they define us, as much as the Great War defined France in the 1920s,'30s, '40s and beyond. Pretending otherwise simply isn't healthy. It's repression -- the kind of thing that shrinks say causes neurosis.

At least there's some comfort in knowing that our divisions aren't what they once were. Heck, in the 1860s, half the nation was devoted in body, mind and spirit to killing the other half; in the early 1930s, many sage observers presumed the nation to be poised on the verge of open, violent class warfare. We'll manage to muddle through again -- even burdened with mere flesh and blood human beings, not magical healing shamans, as our leaders.

There are decisions that face the nation, and anyone who leads it, that cannot be resolved through good intentions or thoughtful mediation or any other Kumbayah mechanism. These are divisions that are rooted in a constitution that declared part of our population to be less than fully human, and which will never be resolved as long as part of the population fundamentally does not regard that proposition as wrong, that entire categories of people (Blacks, women, gays, immigrants, Muslims, etc.) can be declared as less than fully members of this polity, and that it is right and good to do so. This is what the Movement Conservatives have laid bare in their march towards their goal - they simply do not believe in the promise of America that I and the majority of the nation hold dear, and that they have no compunction about destroying it root and branch as long as they remain in power.

Our divisions are not what they once were because of the contests that the Left won when rooting out the social, economic and political institutions that maintained the divisions in the first place - such as chattel slavery, legal apartheid, denial of full citizenship to women, and so forth. The last thing we need is to compromise those victories so that no one has to be exposed to public contestation of who we are and how we shall conduct ourselves as Americans.

Which is another reason why I support Hillary Clinton.


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