June 20, 2014:
Picked up the NYTimes this morning and found a picture of Obama on the front page looking like he'd finally lost hope. I feel a great pity for this man, beset by intractable problems not of his own making, facing an opposition party that refuses to accommodate him in any way, then jumps all over him when he refuses to "work" with them, a party devoted to one purpose, and one purpose only, to make him look bad in any way they possibly can; a man drowning, finally, in the quiet but deep racism of white American Everymen (what? me, a racist? I'm no racist), for whom he's some kind of devil they can feel free to execrate because he was, of course, born in Kenya. Ask any white American evangelist type who the sons of Ham are. Of Noah's three sons it was Ham who saw his father drunk and naked and was cursed for it--hardly his fault; Ham wasn't drunk--and sent to repopulate Africa after the Flood and whose progeny were cursed to be the servants of others in perpetuity. It's in the Bible, which is, after all, the Word of God.
Please excuse the obvious irony here; it is, I freely admit, more than a little banal. But also quite angry. How can any reasonable human being not feel the pity of Obama's situation? Now it's Iraq again. Blatantly hypocritical, the Republicans are trying to blame him for the disaster they themselves created in that arid desert, and, in the minds of those who already blame him simply for being who he is, they will probably succeed. I have been admiring the caution of Obama's foreign policy since he recognized the need for caution, especially in the Middle East. It is not his fault that after World War I the European powers divided up the deserts of the Middle East into so-called "nations" without any consideration of the natural divisions there among clans, tribes, and Sunni and Shi'ite. It is not his fault that these powers, in their ignorance and arrogance, thought they could "democratize" the people of these countries, whose first and fiercest loyalties for the past 1400 years have been to their particular Muslim sect and their own tribal sheiks and caliphs. The supreme avatars of the West's ignorance in these matters and the arrogance of their attitudes toward these people are surely those four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, all still incapable of reflecting on their own huge mistakes or of any kind of self-doubt. So of course it's Obama's fault for not "staying the course" in Iraq. The whole rest of the country has recognized the folly of their war, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,000 American soldiers--in vain. But not they themselves. For my part, I would like to see them put on trial, convicted, and hanged. For the primary war crime of all, stupidity.
You could see it Obama's eyes this morning, and in the expression on his face. What next? On the right, fanaticism and staggering ignorance (these are cousins), and bad faith. On the left, ineptitude and loss of faith. One trouble with the left is precisely that they do entertain doubts; and in politics, that's deadly. The left attracts the young, and that's also deadly in this country, because the young have no staying power in American politics. Look at what happened in 2010--the Tea Party! Where were all those young people who put Obama into office in the first place--all those fervent, enthusiastic young? Playing video games? The young, typically, don't get it. Politics is not a rave; to be politically effective requires continuous commitment, not just once every four years. Politics takes place behind the smoke screen of rhetoric. To be effective politically requires a certain amount of dishonesty because the public can't handle the truth. This is no one's fault but the public's. Grow up, I want to say. Entertain doubts; question your own certainties. Read more, look behind the screen, find out who the Wizard really is (a showman from Nebraska), what's really going on. Read a goddamned newspaper, for Christ's sake.
Born before World War II began, I grew up reading the headlines about the war and going to war movies. I remember hiding under the school desk in training for the Bomb falling on us all. I saw "Night and Fog," still the most powerful documentary about the Holocaust, when I was nineteen years old. I remember Joe McCarthy shaming the United States Senate, the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, the utter, evil disaster of Vietnam, where I was when Kennedy was assassinated (on the 17th floor of a New York office building); I met Cesar Chavez during his fast, I've written a whole lot of history and read much more. I've lived it, in short, and made it my business to know it, as much as I could.
And I think I know what Obama is feeling. When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Philadelphia convention in 1787 where the Constitution was written a woman stopped him and asked him what kind of government they had produced. "A republic, Madam," he replied, "if you can keep it."
I don't think we can keep it. Not any more. America has passed its peak and is in decline, and the road downhill is getting steeper. That's the look I saw on Obama's face this morning. He faces not only the problems every President faces but a commitment on the right to making sure he cannot solve them, terrorist threats, global warming, incompetence at all levels of both government and business, and the implacable, immovable ignorance of the American people, who do not understand that the fundamental, inescapable requirement for the survival of a republic is an informed, active electorate. This is what Benjamin Franklin meant. This is why Thomas Jefferson founded a university. We are no longer an active, informed electorate. We no longer even bother to watch the Nightly News. How is it possible to govern such a country, such a people? This is the question that must haunt Obama's dreams.