Saturday, December 26, 2009

Obama and "Movin On Up to the Sky": Obama and the Jeffersons

Well, it looks like we are going to get "health care reform," as it has been called for some time now. Of course, as readers of this blog know, I am disappointed by what is being called "reform." There are, as there always are, some good things in these "reforms," such as doing away with pre-existing conditions limitations. And also I would not want to give the impression that, like a lot of others on both the right and the left, that something really bad is going to come from this legislation. That is because, for me, these kind of conclusions misunderstand the character of legislation and/or legislative reform. It is the rare piece of legislation that changes in significant ways the way we live in the United States. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts are the exceptions, perhaps, that prove this rule. And even the impact of these laws is often exaggerated. For example, some like to argue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act changed the country in fundamental ways when it came to race but that seems a bit exaggerated to me. I prefer the argument advanced by Eldridge Cleaver in his essay, "Convalescence," where he argues that Elvis Presley and what we whites call "rock n' roll" had at least as much impact, and maybe more, than the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 that ruled that de jure racially segregated schools violated the Constitution of the United States. As Cleaver wrote there: Elvis and rock n' roll taught whites how to shake their asses again! We honkies once knew how to do that but, over time, lost that knowledge as the very idea of "shake, rattle, and roll" was junked for other forms of "dancing." In sum, rock n' roll taught we whites that we had bodies in addition to our minds and that enjoying those bodies, in different ways, was an essential element of our happiness. Has anyone adequately assessed the effect of rock n' roll on the American psyche and, hence, on the American political order? I doubt it. But what is safe to say is that those effects have been significant, even fundamental.

So despite my disappointment in the seemingly-about-to-be-passed legislation, I will not bash it overly much. Here though is what is most disappointing to me, and that is a passed up opportunity to recast how we think about politics in these United States. This is, for me, Obama's greatest shortcoming, his inability or unwillingness to try to reformulate the terms of our political discourse. He is a Chicago politician so this is, perhaps, not surprising. Jack Rakove wrote an excellent book on the Daley Machine in Chicago, the original Daley Machine, entitled, "Don't Make No Waves, Don't Back No Losers." That is, the Daley Machine was wonderfully geared to keep things on even keel in Chicago, for the most part. But the Machine did not and probably could not adapt to or advance the kind of significant change needed in any political order. Hence, on the race issue, an issue that cuts to the very core of our politics, the Machine could not or did not adapt to the changes that were blowing in the wind in the 50s and 60s, the kind of changes that Cleaver noticed coming as a result of "Elvis." It is a myth, a powerful myth, that maintaining the status quo is (a) always desirable and/or (b) always possible. Jefferson pointed out a long time ago that a little revolution every now and again is a good thing. I would add that a little revolution every now again is inevitable. Generations change and with the change of generations fundamental change is inevitable. For those who resist and try to maintain the status quo, the future is bound to be characterized by social unrest and even violence. Our best presidents have reformulated the terms of our political discourse, both reacting to the past and fostering a future that will be unlike and is only implicit in the past. [The best illustration of this can be read in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln, while looking back to the "original birth" of our nation at the founding, looked ahead to "a new birth of freedom," a birth apparently required by the limitations and shortcomings of the original birth, which ended in the bloodshed of the Civil War, a war necessary to redeem the nation from the stain or sin of slavery.] Obama, the Chicago politician, has not shown yet that he is one of our best - which is a pretty good signal that he is not.

But, in fact, it is hard to see anyone "out there" who would be capable of playing such a role. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are status quo parties, and this despite all their allegedly heated rhetoric and the allegedly partisan divide between them. In 2000 it looked for awhile that John McCain might play this role but, of course, nothing came of that as McCain was beaten down by the Bushies and the power brokers of the Republican Party, after which he caved in to the Republican establishment to get the nomination for president in 2008. It did him little good given the disaster of the Bush years and because the Republican establishment did not really care if McCain won. In fact, it was preferable to them that he lose. No one knew what he might do were he actually president. [And, of course, both parties kept Nader out of the debates for the same reason: He was a real threat to status quo and, hence, to both parties and their power.]

So, this is my disappointment: That Obama did not use this as an opportunity to try to reformulate the terms of our political discourse - just as he has not done with regard to Afghanistan. To be sure this is not surprising. But just as surely it is quite disappointing. "Movin On Up to the Sky" with the "Jeffersons" seems the best description of Obama and his administration. It isn't the worse thing that could happen but it certainly isn't the best either. In fact, it isn't even close to best.

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