Showing posts with label Osama bin Laden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Osama bin Laden. Show all posts

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Existential Illegitimacy"

We recently returned from a week cruise in the Caribbean, something I'll write about once I have some photos assembled, but on our way home from the cruise terminal parking lot, between Ft. Lauderdale and our home, a message was flashing on I95 about a traffic alert.  I checked Google Maps, and there didn't seem to be any delays but a few minutes later, on an overpass, there was a terribly disorganized "protest" with few protesters in attendance (I guess the authorities thought this would tie up traffic), holding signs for the motorists passing underneath, reading "Obama is a Muslim").  How sad, I thought, wasn't this yesterday's "news" or are these zombies conditioned by the Tea Party media, condemned to be the walking dead for their propaganda?

But it is something deeper, sadder than that, and especially on this Martin Luther King Day it is propitious to be reminded of the racially charged roots of such "protests" (and the "existential illegitimacy" of Obama's presidency).  In this regard, Sunday's New York Times carried an especially insightful article by Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, Obama, Melville and the Tea Party.  Melville, you ask?  Ironically, one of the books on my "reread" pile is Benito Cereno, a short novella that I had mostly forgotten (as I had read it in college ages ago) and Grandin makes the association between Melville's classic and Obama's ongoing problem as a black in a Christian white man's world: "Benito Cereno" is based on a true historical incident, which I started researching around the time Mr. Obama announced his first bid for the presidency. Since then, I’ve been struck by the persistence of fears, which began even before his election, that Mr. Obama isn’t what he seems: that instead of being a faithful public servant he is carrying out a leftist plot hatched decades ago to destroy America; or if not that, then he is a secret Muslim intent on supplanting the Constitution with Islamic law; or a Kenyan-born anti-colonialist out to avenge his native Africa.

No other American president has had to face, before even taking office, an opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy. In order to succeed as a politician, Mr. Obama had to cultivate what many have described as an almost preternatural dominion over his inner self. He had to become a “blank screen,” as Mr. Obama himself has put it, on which others could project their ideals..... Yet this intense self-control seems to be what drives the president’s more feverish detractors into a frenzy; they fill that screen with hatreds drawn deep from America’s historical subconscious.

Indeed.  One of my blog articles, written in May 2008 as the presidential elections were gearing up, was an "Open Letter" to the then Senator Obama, in which I said Today is not too far removed from then. [The "then" I was referring to was the 1970s] Our economic difficulties of mounting national debt and a declining dollar, a decaying infrastructure, and the lack of better healthcare for our sick and better education for our young can be traced to a needless war, and to being hostage, once again, to oil producing nations. Racial and religious divisiveness still erodes the fabric of our society. The view of America abroad has undermined our ability to effectively deal with terrorism and to address global environmental issues. Politics again slithers along a slippery Machiavellian slope.

Since then, I've had my problems with Obama's presidential style, his academic standoffishness (perhaps Governor Christie could have given him a few pointers in good old fashioned strong-arm politics). But, looking back, even with the brinksmanship of Tea Party politics he's had to contend with, there has been progress. The economy is one, unemployment still too high, but slowly declining.  And soon after Obama was elected, the Dow dropped a few hundred points and the conservative press was immediately crying, SEE! For months, it was all Obama's fault (although he had nothing to do with it) and now, years later, with everyone's 401Ks flush with gains from a rising market, and real estate making a recovery, not a peep about his being responsible (which I would only attribute indirectly anyhow).  And even now that Osama bin Laden has been killed and al Qaeda in disarray (although, admittedly, not entirely eliminated -- almost an impossibility due to its decentralized organizational structure), little credit is given to Obama, but only just imagine that if bin Laden was still at large, you'd never hear the end of it from the Tea Party.  And Obama supporting the efforts of NSA surveillance to minimize terrorist threats -- how many conservatives would have jumped on board that train until they discovered Obama was at the wheel?  Meanwhile, hydraulic fracturing has made us more energy independent, something Obama has supported in spite of certain aspects being under assault from environmental organizations. 

Obama's signature piece of legislation has been the Affordable Care Act, and the conservative press was delighted at the very poorly planned launch via the government web site.  But as a cynic about many aspects of government, I can only attribute that to the "a camel is a horse designed by a committee" syndrome, not to mention the inherent complexity of the entire program.  But it is a start.  For a wonderful tongue-in-cheek "news report" on the program, read The Onion's Nation Recalls Simpler Time When Health Care System Was Broken Beyond Repair

Are things perfect, or as far along as we would like?  No.  In the absence of sound fiscal policy from a dysfunctional Congress, the Federal Reserve has had to use monetary policy to stabilize the economy -- even to bring us from the brink of a depression (although deflationary clouds still gather).  We've substituted soaring public debt for private debt and a banking system gone wild (remember the days of unregulated CMOs?). And another Sword of Damocles hanging over the nation is its inability to balance the legitimate spirit of the Second Amendment -- the right to bear arms -- and the demands of the NRA. (I say "legitimate spirit" as the weaponry when the Second Amendment was drafted was nothing like today's.)

There have been twenty mass shootings since Obama became president and he is helpless to do anything about it without the complete cooperation of Congress.  After the shooting in Newton, Connecticut, only a few miles from where we lived for twenty plus years, there was a ground swell (verbal only) in Congress to do something to control the sale of certain automatic weapons, but by the time the NRA got finished with their lobbying campaign, that effort was AK47ed to death.  Explain that failure to the parents of the children slaughtered.

So if Obama's presidency is finally judged as mediocre at best, read Benito Cereno to understand the historic etiology of his predicament.  As Grandin says, it represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another's absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blather into Matter

Or, as a friend of mine from my academic publishing days called it, feces into thesis.

The political circus is almost on full parade now but when it comes to the economy I can neither give Obama credit nor condemnation. The news media, the Republican candidates, and the administration are obsessed by citing statistics to justify their positions, and if you think you've heard it all, it is just the beginning of stream of consciousness blather. But the fact of the matter is the economy was in a swoon, a serious one, before Obama took office and continued on that route for a while before stabilizing and, even, growing.

Capitalism is a story of inherent cycles. The Federal Reserve was devised in part to mitigate the extremes of the cycles. Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve failed in that mission with the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to the hubris of Greenspan. At the bottom of the crisis in 2008 he confessed to Congress: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. Free markets did break down, and I think that, as I said, that shocked me. I still don't fully understand how it happened or why it happened.”

It is amusing to hear all the political rhetoric now that, for the time being, we seem to have been able to drag ourselves off the cliff of a depression. Harking back to those dark days of 2008/9 the CNBC cheerleaders looked stunned most of the time as the Dow was flushing like a broken toilet. Now the market is up about ninety percent from its low and jobs are slowly coming back (agreed, way too slowly, but this is a different kind of recession and a different kind of recovery) and everything is cheery at CNBC except for their opinion of Obama.

The Federal Reserve policy is just one component of the crisis and one can add to the mix the expense of overseas wars, the housing crisis, deregulation (yes, see what Greenspan admitted to above), private profit at public risk, governmental gridlock, all of this exacerbated by normal economic cycles. Oh, also add the multi-generational lack of an energy policy to this colossal conundrum.

The Republicans say that by now Obama "owns" the economy, as if a switch was thrown when he was inaugurated and a dial was set for about three years, the onset of the next Presidential election cycle. Unfortunately for him, he too misunderstood the magnitude of this unprecedented economic cycle, saying the following in an interview only days after he took office: "A year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress, but there's still going to be some pain out there.... If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition." Romney et al have eagerly seized on this gaffe. Expect to hear it over and over again in the next ten months. Likewise, expect to hear Romney's (the presumptive Republican nominee) recent comment that he "likes being able to fire people" over and over again. Sound bite vs. sound bite reverberating on the airwaves thanks to the endless resources of Super PACs.

When it comes to job creation (or erosion) there are limits as to what a mere president can do in a relatively short period of time given economic cycles and the severity of the present crisis. That Romney created or uncreated jobs in the private equity arena is of no particular advantage unless he has the cooperation of Congress with smart policies. Likewise, Obama has little control over jobs without cooperation and policy agreement. It is preposterous to assume that Romney is any more qualified that Obama simply because he worked in private equity. I ran a publishing company for thirty years; that ought to make me more qualified to deal with the economy!

And those policies have to consider the vice grip closing in on this unique moment in US economic history: baby boomers are reaching retirement age at the rate of about seven each minute of each day for the next two decades, expecting the promises of Social Security and Medicare. We all know both sides of the equation have to change, how entitlements are doled out, and how revenue must be raised. This is not something that can be achieved by a Presidential Executive Order (although at times I think our dysfunctional Congress needs to be replaced by a benign dictatorship).

The Republicans do not talk about areas where Obama successfully functioned without having to negotiate with Congress, such as his role in planning Osama bin Laden's death. Remember when John McCain promised voters (in 2008) that he "knows how to capture and bring to justice Osama bin Laden"(although at the time that was a secret he was not going to share with anyone unless elected)? They didn't have the economy to blame on Obama then, so it was his foreign policy "inexperience." Bin Laden sharing the bottom of the North Arabian Sea with the fishes came with no help from Congress, thank you. In spite of his inexperience Obama had the wisdom to send in Navy Seals rather than taking out bin Laden with a drone strike to have proof it was indeed him.

So let the games begin. Blather into matter. Feces into thesis.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Credit Where Credit is Due

The killing of Osama bin Laden brings back the memories of that terrible day of 9/11 and a feeling of closure and admiration for the persistence of our intelligence community and brave men and women in the military. Ironically at the White House Correspondents' Dinner traditional "roasting" over the weekend, President Obama was joking about Trump's decision to fire a "celebrity apprentice" as the kind of thing that would keep him up at night, while this operation was being planned. It was a daring one, and not involving Pakistan was a calculated risk. Can one imagine if it had failed, as Carter's rescue of the Iranian hostages did, and the ensuing invectives that would have been launched at Obama? President Obama inherited a decade of overspending, tax cuts, wars on multiple fronts, an elusive bin Laden, and continuing unrest in the Middle East. What a lousy hand he was dealt, but, as that Correspondents' Dinner showed, he has managed to retain a sense of humor while his intelligence never fails to shine through.

It remains to be seen whether bin Laden's death will have an effect on future Al-Qaeda efforts or, more importantly, the unrest sweeping the Middle East where Al-Qaeda is conspicuous by its absence. If anything, there are signs that self government, even along democratic lines, is being valued more than Muslim extremism. It's almost as if our electing our first biracial President, one who lived in a Muslim country briefly as a child, was a symbolic call to the world of "tear down these walls" -- no less potent than President Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate.