Sunday, November 9, 2008

Electoral dysfunction 3

One night this week it came to me that what I had been experiencing was a sense of loneliness, isolation, alienation from my society. I say “my” because that is where my cultural roots lie, ones that I could never entirely uproot even though I no longer think of myself as American. The feelings are much the same I experienced after the plane attacks on the New York Twin Towers. At that time many of the Americans I knew behaved stunned or shocked, like extra-terrestrial life had arrived on earth with intentions of restructuring human society. Some were even unable to go to work the next day. For myself I felt sorry that so many people died, but the fact that America's political enemies struck back at American targets was not so terribly surprising nor upsetting. What goes around, comes around.

Seven years ago I couldn't work myself up into a state of panic and grief and I began to feel irritated, even angry that people were allowing themselves to get so worked up. By watching the same scenes of death and destruction again and again, by talking about it day and night, they allowed themselves to be consumed with fear, despair, and hatred, all of which eventually fed into support, explicit and tacit, for the tragedy of the Iraq invasion. This time I can't get myself worked up to celebrate Obama's victory. The emotional states being fed and nurtured will perhaps lead to better outcomes, to opening instead of closing, to compassion rather than hate. But there is sure to be disappointment. And that's because the change is superficial.

I've lived through 8 years of Reagan, 12 of Bushes, and 8 of Clinton. 12 of those years I lived in the US, 16 outside. And except for a rebate check now and then, I can't say that my life has been affected by the change in presidents or parties. My life has been no better or worse under Clinton than Reagan or the Bushes. None made me richer, nor wiser, nor happier. They may on occasion have caused some distress, but that I see as my own fault, the fault of having expectations.

Of course like many Americans I have felt embarrassed by the know-nothing Reagan and Bush regimes, but I learned to put away the idea that the president represents me any more than other cultural artifact such Kleenex, Hershey's chocolate, Corn Flakes, or Tom Cruise. I didn't vote for Tom Cruise anymore than I voted for Bush (or any other Republican or Democrat). He is what he is and has nothing to do with me. Sometimes, though, because I might be feeling insecure and want other people to feel good about me, I have to assure them that I don't think Bush is a swell guy doing his best to preserve moral order in the world.

In this sense, the sense of wanting to make favorable impressions, I understand why many feel so strongly about Obama. He's a guy they can feel good about, a guy who seems more like them. A guy like me, in fact - urban, educated, from a mixed family, lived overseas, rides a bicycle to work. But that's just cosmetic. It's an image people can feel good about. Like owning an iPod or a Louis Vuitton handbag. I would guess most voters don't know what Obama's policy positions are. In fact the voters that made the difference, the swing voters, were I suspect those exasperated by the last eight years (or four years) of mismanagement and bad news and willing to vote for anything or anyone not connected with the current administration or political party.*

So, yeah, he's different. He is a Democrat instead of Republican. Of mixed race, rather than white. Young, not old. Intelligent and erudite. And so now for those for whom it matters they can feel good about being American again. They can say, yeah, that's my president.

4 years from now - 8 years from now - will you be a better person? A happier person? Will Barack Obama have had any impact on your personal well being?

All things are possible. But if history is any guide, your life will be better (or worse) because of you, not the president of the US. (Unless, of course, you happen to live near areas targeted by the US military.)


*Three-quarters of those polled said the country was on the wrong track, more than 9 in 10 rated the economy in bad shape and 7 in 10 disapproved of the job Mr. Bush is doing; those voters overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

Nearly half of all voters said they expected Mr. McCain to continue the Bush policies, and 9 in 10 of them voted for Mr. Obama. Similarly, the big share of voters who disapprove of Mr. Bush went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama.

Voter Polls Find Obama Built a Broad Coalition

04 Nov 08



  1. "(Unless, of course, you happen to live near areas targeted by the US military.)"

    I think anyone who values compassion should feel relieved finally to have a thinking individual in charge of the most powerful killing machine in the world (the U.S. military). That alone is occasion for celebration, whether you are American or not.


  2. Not sure if by thinking you mean intelligence or wisdom. The former does not seem to confer immunity against arrogance or stupidity; neither does it correspond with compassion. I would like to give Mr O the benefit of the doubt; we'll just have to wait and see.

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  4. I mean neither. I mean taking the time to think before acting. Which is certainly a wise thing to do! But it is not wisdom in itself.

    I agree that intelligence has approximately zero to do with compassion. I don't know if Obama is wise or compassionate. You're right; we'll have to wait and see on that one. It's not relevant to what I am saying.

    We finally have a man in office who doesn't think with his balls or his trigger finger (his campaign conduct shows plenty of evidence for that), and that alone is reason for any compassionate person to celebrate, whether it affects you personally or not.


  5. Yes, people who appear to act less impulsively are on average, I suppose, less likely to take action they will later regret. It's hard, though, to feel relived, or get excited, by an average.