Sunday, February 17, 2008

Obama's "Cult" + Nation of Dunces + Free Kosovo

I was waiting to see what the establishment media unveiled as its new line of attack against Barack Obama, which unsurprisingly runs in sync with what the Republicans are ginning up (Bush-worshiping New York Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller noted on Chris Matthews's show this morning that the John McCain camp is also trying to spread this around like apple seed): Obama's enthusiastic supporters are a cult. And, what's more, it's "creepy." You got that right; and it wasn't the Republican National Committee, or McCain or Mike Huckabee. It was a CNN reporter. Other elements of the Obamaphobic discourse I wrote about last May are back in play, along with others: "all rhetoric, no policy," "a blank screen," etc. The "creepy" "cult," i.e., enthusiastic voters and campaign members, is one of the most outrageous I've seen yet. Where can they go from here? Oh, I'll recall who also is said to lead a cult, and whose name is similar to Obama's....

Meanwhile, Obama leads in Wisconsin, and may win his native Hawaii's primary as well. Washington State also has a primary, even though it's already held its caucuses, which Obama won handily, and which the GOP party boss there tried to shut down in favor of McCain. I guess a Republican do-over is, least from an ethical standpoint, probably a good idea.

I often read people saying, I like Obama (or I don't like Obama) but I don't know what he stands for. Or, Obama gives great speeches but I don't know what he stands for. Or, everyone says Obama's great but what does he stand for, nobody knows. My first response is: Google. My second is: Go to his website. But here are several links that answer the questions on his policies. I sent the first one, from Obsidian Wings, to my dear Socialist cousin, and he hasn't responded, but I take it that it's addressed his repeated stance that Obama doesn't have any policies to speak of and is an "empty suit." One of the most important things about what this link notes is that, having taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama is deeply interested in Constitutional and governance issues, and one of the greatest challenges facing the next president, particularly if it's Obama or Clinton, will be to address the gross Constitutional abuses--such as the unitary executive and fourth branch doctrines and their practical application in signing statements--and crimes--like the warrantless wiretapping since 2001--that have occurred under W's tenure. The establishment media for the most part aren't interested in these issues, but the next president and the incoming Congress will have to be.

On a different note, Obama has some real devotees overseas, in Japan, and in Mexico, among other places.


The Washington Post dedicates part of today's Outlook page to author Susan Jacoby, whose new book, The Age of American Unreason, suggests that, as the voting in the last two presidential elections appears to have suggested to the rest of the world, we're a "nation of dunces." Actually, what Jacoby's article on the site, "The Dumbing of America," argues is that right now, ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and perhaps worse, anti-rationalism, have reached an abysmal level that threatens our standing in the world. Our incuriosity about anything outside our borders, in this age of accelerated globalism, transnationalism and transnational capital, as well as our government's dismissal of science, is negatively affecting our society and the rest of the world, and things could get even worse. Jacoby sites one of the most famous critics to have advanced this argument, historian Richard Hofstadter, whose famous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is the ne plus ultra text on this topic (and from the right side of the spectrum, there was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind), and as he persuasively details, this has been a constant complaint about American life since the Colonial era. It's nothing new, and W is not the first president to not only espouse anti-rationalist positions, but promote them via the state. Rather he joins an ignominious line. But back to Hofstadter: he published his study in 1963 and died of leukemia in 1970, and Jacoby wonders what he'd think of the state we're in today, with all kinds of electronic googaws, postmodernism's intellectual fait accomplis, religious antirationalism taking an even deeper hold, and so on, all of which she's convinced is bad enough to merit a book-length jeremiad. Truthiness, anyone?

My regular environments self-select for a bias towards people who are moderately to highly informed, but from what I often see on TV, many people are ill-informed, though less so than some might think. This primary campaign season has shown up some of the pessimistic chatter about the electorate, I think, and the real danger, as has been clear for a while now, are the airhead, overpaid establishment media types, who couldn't parse an argument or provide content analysis if their lives depended on it. Can even one of them break down the FISA battles raging between the House Democrats and W and his partisans without regurgitating wholesale the fearmongering nonsense from the White House? I thought not.

If you have thoughts and questions on the topic, you can pose them to Jacoby directly here. She'll be answering them this week.

Also on the page are psychologist Howard Gardner's discussion of contemporary literacy (and orality), "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading," and a problematic article, by Randy Salzman, about non-readers in a courthouse in Charlottesville, "Not Reading an Iota in America." Yes, I know that reading is in crisis, but this her complete liberal blindness to her class position and her extrapolation of the social contexts and terms of the book she's reading, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, raised questions I don't think she's even aware of. Maybe some of those people staring blankly ahead have things on their minds they want to be concentrating on, and reading anything might be a distraction. Just a thought.

Finally, speaking of foreign books, I picked up Robert Bolaño's Nazi Literature in America last weekend and have begun reading it. The wrily humorous work is clearly an early tryout of the narrative experiments he would perfect only a few years later. The clerk who sold me the book looked a little askance at me as he was ringing it up and asked, hesitantly, "Are you familiar...with his other books?" I smiled and told him yes, then rattled on in a vein of Bolañomania that I could see he wasn't expecting. He then confessed to me that he was only 50 pages into The Savage Detectives, and was enjoying it a lot. As for the text he was selling me, we didn't discuss it, but I urged him to pick up By Night in Chile next.


A 'Free Kosovo' banner in TiranaSpeaking of places many US citizens probably couldn't identify on a map, Kosovo is now independent.

Or, Kosova e lire.

Serbia and Russia are very upset, while the US and the EU are coming to Kosovo's defense.

Bill Clinton remains one of the Kosovars' heroes, because of his actions in 1999. He was criticized by Congressional Republicans, one of whom said, speaking of the US's exit strategy, "Everyone wants to know what Plan B is." This same person thinks it might be fine to spend 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years in Iraq, however. I don't think the media have pressed him on this discrepancy, however, do you?


  1. I was somewhat on-board with Jacoby until I saw the stuff she says about the "multicultural canon," which has given in to special interest groups, or perhaps simply interested groups, and abandoned wait for it . . . the canon!

    Must being an intellectual be defined in necessarily known, knowable, and, sadly, narrow terms? By her account, practically everything I study could be considered "anti-intellectual." This, I think, is an unnecessary stance on her part.

    As for Obama, my opinion is invalid from the start: I live in the land of rhetorical questions: how could one NOT be for Obama? Since I can't vote, it need not signify.

  2. Keguro, of course it must not; her takes on the institutionalization of ethnic studies programs in her book, from what I can tell, is totally off base, as is her Allan Bloomian notion of a "canon" as (even a relatively) fixed and assimilable entity. The critique of willful ignorance and anti-rationality, particularly as naturalized in ideological positions and as political stances, are useful, though.

    Lots of people are NOT for Obama. My cousin periodically sends me articles, some even from neocons, criticizing Obama, rightly or wrongly, and cuz is a diehard socialist. He's only one of more than a few I've come across. (A black queer colleague also has no time for Obama either. If he gets the nomination, though, they'll be on board. I keep meaning to write about folks who are crushing hard on the Illinois Senator; did you see Charles Barkley's recent enthusiastic avowal? And he's now even for "gay marriage" to boot.