For the Record

January 20, 2009

I watched Obama take the Oath of Office on ESPN.  An accidental homage to his (wise) refusal to watch anything but Sportscenter on the campaign bus.

Setting aside all the particularities of this inauguration (which others will no doubt speak about), isn’t it striking and remarkable — beautiful even, in its way — to watch peaceful transition of Executive power and authority?  And that we have done it successfully for so long?


This just struck me as possibly the greatest merit of formal poetry: it sounds so much better when read aloud when its in meter than if it’s free verse.  (Yes, over-generalization, but seems to usually be the case.)


Quoth Rod Dreher, in my favorite 2009 prediction yet:

“I predict President Obama’s going to spend 2009 chain-smoking.”

My immediate reaction, as one who spent an hour a week for seven years watching The West Wing: if it talks like a Bartlet, and has advisors like a Bartlet, and smokes like a Bartlet…

Barack Obama.  Brought to you by Aaron Sorkin and the millions of television viewers who took refuge in a make-believe world where everything, in the end, turns out alright.

Arendt-Blogging 2.0

November 13, 2008

As some may know, I’ve been working my way through The Origins of Totalitarianism lately.  And last night, while I was reading the beginning of her section on Totalitarianism, I had an epiphany: accusations of Obama being some sort of crypto-Marxist proto-dictator by otherwise intelligent people all lie in having not paid attention to what they were actually reading when they made their ways through it!  It’s simple, and everyone wins, because the only other explanation is intellectual dishonesty!

(Okay Mr. Soon-to-be-President: don’t go do anything stupid and/or crazy that makes me look like a fool for writing this post, please?  And besides, it’d be unconstitutional for you to be a cryto-Marxist dictator, and we can’t have that, now can we?)

More “More Of The Same”

November 11, 2008

Don’t have a good explanation for how I missed this paragraph this morning, other than I was barely awake:

“Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision. The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.”

(Italics are Sullivan’s; his post was where I noticed this.)

I’m not going to start launching into Obama for a decision he has yet to make, especially when the source is unnamed and we’re just starting up the transition.  But, if we’re in January and we hear more like this, or later, and nothing’s been done — actually, wait, I’m with Joe Carter on how to avoid waiting until then for an answer:

“Rather than asking silly questions about his hypoallergenic dog, the press should put the question directly to President-elect Obama: Will you sign an executive order prohibiting the use of any techniques that fit this legal definition of torture?”

And when it comes to torture, I’m basically with Andrew (who, no matter what one thinks of him, has undeniably done a damn good job hammering home the the extent of the torture problem in American policy):

“There is no centrism in adhering to the Geneva Conventions. Either we do or we don’t. We haven’t and we now must. There is no middle way here.  [. . .]  No torture ever. No exceptions ever. No separate CIA track. Executive power, allowed to torture, is dangerous regardless of which president is in the White House, of whichever party.”

I don’t have much else to say because I genuinely don’t want to start ranting prematurely.  But let’s be clear: an Obama Administration that meant even a modicum of anything it said on that campaign trail should not be within a flagpole of considering allowing our current torture policies and programs to stay in place.  Any president who does so is abusing his power; any media that refuses to press such a president has failed its responsibility to the public; any public that is complacent in the face of it has failed itself and its republic.


November 5, 2008

Today I’m going to try not to think about politics (or Faulkner, for that matter). I’m going to go get lunch and hunt about Evanston for a newspaper (mostly because Nate Silver tells me that’s going to be impossible), then come back and do some work. But before that happens—right now, and while I’m wandering about—I want to retain that feeling that came over me when they called the election for Obama last night and—alone among the friends I was with, even though I’m was by far the most cynical and conservative person in the room—I couldn’t hold back tears.

At the start of this whole mess of an election, well over a year ago, I was talking about it with a friend of mine—a Hillary supporter. He was insistent then and for some time that America was simply not yet ready to elect a black president—that our self-inflicted wounds of racism still ran too deep. For whatever reason, though I was never entirely convinced, I was adamant that it wasn’t the case. I think I had to believe it was true. And last night’s confirmation of it—despite my misgivings about certain of his policies, and despite our different positions on the political spectrum—was a relief.

Earlier this morning, after getting rid of the empty pizza boxes and making my coffee, I started skimming through my books, because that’s all I knew how to do. I came across Wendell Berry’s poem, “My Great-Grandfather’s Slaves”:


Deep in the back ways of my mind I see them
         going in the long days
         over the same fields that I have gone
         long days over.

I see the sun passing and burning high
         over that land from their day
         until mine, their shadows
         having risen and consumed them.

I see them obeying and watching
         the bearded tall man whose voice
         and blood are mine, whose countenance
         in stone at his grave my own resembles,
         whose blindness is my brand.

I see them kneel and pray to the white God
         who buys their souls with Heaven.

I see them approach, quiet
         in the merchandise of their flesh,
         to put down their burdens
         of firewood and hemp and tobacco
         into the minds of my kinsmen.

I see them moving in the rooms of my history,
         the day of my birth entering
         the horizon emptied of their days,
         their purchased lives taken back
         into the dust of birthright.

I see them borne, shadow within shadow,
         shroud within shroud, through all nights
         from their lives to mine, long beyond
         reparation or given liberty
         or any straightness.

I see them go in the bonds of my blood
         through all the time of their bodies.

I have seen that freedom cannot be taken
         from one man and given to another,
         and cannot be taken and kept.

I know that freedom can only be given,
         and is the gift to the giver
         from the one who receives.

I am owned by the blood of all of them
         who ever were owned by my blood.
         We cannot be free of each other.

Truthfully, I don’t know whether any in my family ever owned slaves. My maternal family was still in Poland and Russia, but I know my great-grandparents were in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century, and their parents before them. We like to claim that members of the family were here for the Revolution, but I don’t know if there’s any way to back it up.

But I’m almost certain I had ancestors in Kentucky at a time when the could have owned slaves; I don’t know that anyone alive could tell me if they did. I think I may be too afraid of the answer to ask—what if we can’t ever know? When the past is uncertain, I think, that’s when it becomes most haunting.  (Go read some Faulkner if you need the proof.)

I needed to believe that America could elect the son of a black man and a white woman whose name is Barack Hussein Obama. While his defeat would not have proven my instinct was wrong, his victory confirms it. I can breath a little easier now. I believe in the idea of America—not as divinely-ordained or chosen—but (to quote Leonard Cohen) as “the cradle of the best and of the worst.”

Walking around yesterday, I had a truly odd sensation. The outcome seemed more or less clear ahead of time. I was living through a day that would be considered particularly historic. I still don’t know what to think of the way that made me feel, or how to really describe it. It was strange. But because of it, I think I have a better idea, though, of what Cohen meant when he wrote:

“It’s coming through a whole in the air,
. . .
It’s coming from the feel
that it ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.”

(That’s all I got. I don’t know if I got the point across at all, or if I’m being far too sentimental. But I had to try.)

They wrote more, and they’re both more nuanced and thoughtful than the excerpts might make them seem, but it’s worth looking at these two quotations:

Joe Carter:

“If people want to vote for Obama, for whatever reason, that is their decision to make. But let’s not play along with the delusion that their reasons for doing so are because they are attempting to be consistent with their conservative principles.”

Daniel Larison:

“As I said yesterday, the most credible pro-Obama argument that can be made is that the GOP must be held accountable and Obama is not McCain, but I still don’t think that is a persuasive case for casting a vote for Obama, much less urging others to do likewise.”

I don’t really know where I fall on this spectrum, because even before 2006, I wanted Obama to run even if there was no chance he would win—the refresher would be worthwhile. And since it wasn’t until the middle of the primaries that I came to terms with my changing political self-labelling—and since I have some sort of weird republican (note the little-R) principle against Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton, it wasn’t that hard to keep preferring him to her—I was kind of an Obamacon by default.

I also have the ease of being registered in Kentucky, which isn’t going to be within ten points unless the polls are wrong or McCain announces that he preferred Hanoi to Washington, so my vote for Barr put no strain on my conscience. But I’m still technically an Obama supporter, because I’d prefer his victory to McCain’s. This is partly because I trust him more on foreign policy, partly because of other reasons Larison and Carter rattle off, but it does have quite a bit to do with what Andrew, Esquire, and Garry Wills all had to say lately.

I don’t totally trust either candidate on Executive power issues. Let’s be frank—neither candidate is going to shrink the federal government any. The power it claims is probably going to remain about the same in total, just centered in different areas. But I trust McCain less—ever since his vote against banning waterboarding, I’ve been increasingly skeptical of his willingness to take on those parts of the GOP that believe in the acceptability of a “Unitary Executive.”

It’s not that I think McCain favors the Bush-Cheney policy on this. I just don’t think he’s going to be willing to do battle with his own party in such a way to clear it out. Before this election, I thought he could and would; but his actions since have made me skeptical. As much as I may be wary of Obama’s plans for health care, those two words scare me more. And if you ask me, he’s the one more likely to clear it out.  He’s certainly the one more likely to appoint justices who don’t buy into the Yoo’s and Cheney’s and Addington’s reasoning.

(I’ll let it be known, though, that if I had it my way, Ron Paul would be on the GOP line and I’d be voting for him; and that if McCain had done things differently—if he’d voted against the Military Commissions Act, or hadn’t come out against amending the CIA Field Manual to ban torture—my thoughts would probably be much different than they are.)

This might all be on my mind because I’m neurotic and my favorite period of history is the collapse of the Roman Republic. Honestly, I hope so, but I just can’t bring myself to act like that’s the case.

I’m naturally a worrier, so when I see this, and then another one up in Indiana, then Obama supporters threatened by an angry mob (not to mention some of the comments on the two articles from the Courier), all in a single day, I start getting fidgety.  In February, my mother explained why she was hesitant about supporting Obama — he has two young daughters, she said.  I didn’t get it at first, but it has to do with the fact that she’s old enough to have memories of the spring of ’68.  I, of course, thought it was nonsense; that the nastiest racism would get would be votes against him.  Now, with his election looking more likely — I’m genuinely nervous.  (Not that I think it’s likely to happen, but I think it finally hit me that it could.)

So when I said earlier that certain extremes of partisanship — particularly those Freddie was talking about — scare me more than a little, I wasn’t talking about voting straight-ticket, watching Fox, reading DailyKos, or even taking everything either of those last two say as infallible truth.  That gatekeeper I mentioned who made me nervous — he’s one of those guys who thinks it’s OK to hang an Obama doll from a tree because you don’t like him, and not understanding why people think it’s offensive; or the dumb schmuck out in California with the Palin effigy. 

But let’s be honest: something seems to have snapped with some on “the right.”  It’s over there that we get people shouting, “He’s a nigger!”  “Kill him!”  “Terrorist!” and threatening to beat 63 year-olds for wearing an Obama shirt.  Maybe something like this is always there, on both sides, but I was blissfully unaware of it.  But I have a hard time believing we’ve seen anything of this intensity since well before I was born.

If [a part of]* “The Right” wants to build up a cocoon where this behavior is OK, where political opposition is conflated with terrorism and its leaders are Manchurian Candidates by default, then there’s really nothing I can do to stop it.  But in addition to making my life a hell of lot more difficult (since saying, “No, I’m not that type of ‘conservative,'” never gets old), it’s not going to win them any elections.  And I’ll say right here that in no way will it make them better people, or us a better nation.

*NOTE: Added bracketed words, which I thought I’d written in original post. — JLW

Strange Fruit

October 29, 2008

Obama effigy found hanging from tree at UK

Reading that this has happened, I feel so sick and so overwhelmingly sad.  And that it was at UK as opposed to any other school in the state — the one we cling to as our representative, whose colors the overwhelming majority of Kentuckians wear proudly; where my stepfather, grandfather, and cousins have gone and go — makes it only feel worse.

A couple nights ago, I was feeling nostalgic and listening to “Oh Cumberland” and Bill Monroe over and over again; hell, I wrote an essay for class that night about Kentucky.  I think my sense of shame is so deep because of how much I love the state — what the Drive-By Truckers might call the “duality of the Southern Thing.”