08 January 2008

Spoilers and "communitarians"

The National Catholic Reporter's Rich Heffern has a nice piece on the good values of the Green Party. Now the Greens are going to frame things better, so that they won't be "largely ignored or viewed solely as presidential election 'spoilers.'"

Actually, I doubt many Republicans see them as election spoilers.

The best part of the piece leans on James Kunstler, who told a conference at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas last September:
“So many Americans believe the only thing wrong with America is George W. Bush, and that if only we could wiggle out of ‘his’ war and his presidency, every day would be Christmas.”

In reality, there’s a lot more wrong with how we live and how we think about how we live than the mere presence of George Bush in the White House.

Our dependence on foreign oil, for example, is not the real problem. It’s the living arrangements and consumerism that depend on that oil, and in that we’re all implicated. This failure to make connections between how we all live and resulting public and foreign policies goes down to the grass roots.
The trick is to say this in a way that you don't sound like a crazed Old Testament prophet. The Greens, for instance, are now calling the fight against corporatization as the need “to tame giant corporations in the interest of small businesses."

That's very good, eh?

Obama does this instinctively. And for that, the right-wing is now testing attacks against him. David Brooks' column today posits that McCain celebrates "classical virtues like honor," whereas Obama celebrates "communitarian virtues."

I've seen less spin after losing a drinking game.

Would another way of saying that be that Obama celebrates traditional community values, whereas McCain celebrates patriarchal values? Ironically, the right-wing bloggers are playing up gruesome honor killings these days. I suspect that those fathers who killed their Westernized daughters also thought they were celebrating the classical virtue of honor. Or at least defending it.

Brooks claims that Obama never breaks from his own group — something easily rebutted — not that that facts matter in these things. It's rather about finding a negative story that has traction, whether it's a haircut or windsurfing. Nonetheless here's a rebuttal fact: Obama insists the failed health insurance industry has to have a seat at the health reform table.

Brooks writes, "In the Senate, [Obama] didn’t join the Gang of 14, which created a bipartisan consensus on judges, because it would have meant deviating from liberal orthodoxy and coming to the center."

The center as in Sam Alito getting a seat on the Supreme Court? Again with the drinking games. Hangovers feel better.

And yet, although Obama didn't go as far as putting a right-wing justice on the Supreme Court, coming to the center — or actually the right field place that Americans call center — is exactly what Obama has done, time and again, to my personal dismay. It's why a number of pundits have described Obama as the candidate of non-change, because he's so focused on finding consensus. Brooks wonders how Obama can build a "trans-partisan coalition" (Is that cross dressing? Or have they actually had the operation?) when his policies are "reliably on the left."

Brooks thinks that McCain's weakness, in contrast, has something to do with flying by the seat of his pants. I don't know what that means either. Maybe it's some kind of neocon code.

In any case, Brooks is just probing now, gently, gently, to see if this sticks. And though the word itself, "communitarian," sounds suspicious, he defines it as neither bad nor good:
Obama emphasizes the connections between people, the networks and the webs of influence. These sorts of links are invisible to some of his rivals, but Obama is a communitarian. He believes you can only make profound political changes if you first change the spirit of the community. In his speeches, he says that if one person stands up, then another will stand up and another and another and you’ll get a nation standing up.
That reminds me of the work civil society groups were doing in Cambodia, trying to get people to work together again, to build community, amid the ruins of Pol Pot. That was going on in 2005, by the way, 30 years after the killing fields. It takes a long time to rebuild community after an ideology has ripped it apart.

On the other hand, says Brooks:
[McCain] is most moved by examples of heroism and individual excellence. His books are about individual character and patriotism, not networks or community-building.

He is not a loner (in fact, he dislikes being alone), but whether he is a prisoner of war or a senator, he is acutely aware of how corrupt social pressures encroach on individual integrity. While Obama seeks solidarity with groups, McCain resists conformity. He fights fiercely, though not always successfully, against political pressures in order to remain honest, brave and forthright.
Wow. There you have it. One man stays true to his values ("though not always successfully") because he's "honest, brave and forthright," whereas the other man stays true to his values because of group think.

Which do you choose?

What hogwash. Over the past year and a half or so I've made a ridiculous attempt to read everything ever written on U.S. health care systems in comparison with other systems. Just trying to figure out how the hell we got into such a mess, because it killed my brother — along with 160,000 others at a minimum during Bush's tenure — and how we can change it. Kunstler is right. Bush is just a symptom of the problem, as are our sprawling cities, our dependence on oil, the chasm that is eating the middle class and now separates wealth and poverty, the divorce rate and most other American woes you can name.

Tony Judt brilliantly deconstructs part of what's led us to this place in his review of Robert Reich's Supercapitalism. Judt is so good you should read the whole thing. But here's a central kernal:
...in reducing (and implicitly discrediting) the state, in forsaking public interest for private advantage wherever possible, we have also devalued those goods and services that represent the collectivity and its shared purposes, steadily "reducing the incentive for competent and ambitious persons to join or stay in state service." And this carries a very considerable risk.

The market requires norms, habits, and "sentiments" external to itself to hold it together, to ensure the very political stability that capitalism needs in order to thrive. But it also tends to corrode those same practices and sentiments. This much has long been clear. The benign "invisible hand" — the unregulated free market — may have been a favorable inaugural condition for commercial societies. But it cannot reproduce the noncommercial institutions and relations — of cohesion, trust, custom, restraint, obligation, morality, authority — that it inherited and which the pursuit of individual economic self-interest tends to undermine rather than reinforce.
What's going on here is the poisonous libertarian and "supercapitalist" ideal that all that counts is you, the horrible imbalance that puts individualism absolutely ahead of the community.

Obama, for all his centrist tendencies, gets it right when he celebrates community. Progressives have to do that far more successfully than we have in the past. Conservatives should embrace Obama — he's leading the way back towards some kind of balance and civility that can save market capitalism. Oh, and perhaps democracy as well. Afterthought.

When Brooks whispers "communitarian" values, we need to respond, "Do you mean community values, Mr. Brooks? Don't you think those values transcend 'left' or 'right'?"

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