Monday, January 4, 2010

The lists

There’s quite a bit of linking to Shelby Steele’s Wall Street Journal piece on Barack Obama. Steele’s article is well worth reading. He writes again of the “bargain” between Obama and whites which is an interesting look at a piece of our national struggle with race. He also writes of Ronald Reagan’s individuation, forged through years of political involvement and conflict, and that rang quite true for me. However, I don’t really buy Steele’s view of what’s inside Obama’s head.

Steele refers to Obama’s “lack of economic understanding” and his "lack of a larger framework of meaning" not just in economics but in foreign policy and attributes this unreadiness for the Presidency to our “post-modern” race problem. That problem, he says, contributed to an unprepared man being elected President in two ways. First:

white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his "articulate and clean" blackness, so flattering to American innocence.

Second, Obama responded to this conditioning by taking on the attributes he believed he needed in order to succeed:

I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world.

I do think Steele is right that our tangled web of race is part of what made it possible for a man who was inexperienced and barely known to be elected to the highest office in the land. And I certainly accept that Obama was well aware of that web and used it to his advantage. I don’t, however, think that race shaped Obama’s interior political landscape and I certainly don’t think that interior political landscape is empty.

Rather I think Obama’s political landscape was shaped by his environments - both those he was born into and those he chose and is chock-a-block with liberal tenets. He has a list of things that are every liberal knows are good: environmentalism, universal health care, labor unions. He has a list of things that every liberal knows are bad: corporations, oil, guns. He has has a list of stuff that liberals can safely say to sound bipartisan and post-racial: abortion is a difficult issue, white people sometimes resent affirmative action, no higher taxes on the middle class. There’s a virtually infinite supply of liberal talking points, liberal notions, liberal convictions, liberal views of the world along with a smattering of lip service to the other side.

Does this mean I agree with Neo-neocon who admires Steele’s article but disagrees with Steele’s conclusion?

I think this is very finely put, but I would add the following: I do not believe that Obama’s political emptiness is real. Rather, I think he is quite full—of leftist ideology, that is.

No. Obama cannot be politically ideological because he lacks an integrated world view. His beliefs are simply items on lists, plucked out of the air around him and jotted down hastily. Obama has not thought about how these ideas tie together, how they might conflict with each other, what they say about how the world as a whole works or can work. He has no overarching ideology; he simply has lists.

With all due respect to Steele and Neo-neocon, the best analysis of Obama came from Peggy Noonan. She was describing Sarah Palin at the time but if you make appropriate substitutions of “he” for “she” and swap “liberal” and “conservative”, you’ve got Obama cold:

But she was not thoughtful. She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why.

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