Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh Mama!

In the comments section for my last post I was asked what I thought of Barack Obama. To which I reply:

Barack Obama is a 46 year old first-term senator from the state of Illinois. He is a light-complexioned African-American male whose father came from Kenya and whose mother came from Kansas. He is running for President. He is six feet two inches tall.


Oh, I gotta say more? Sigh.

The problem with Obama is that everything I've ever read about the man tells me he has no great ideological conviction besides a commitment to the broadest platitudes. He has the soul of a moderate. It's probably necessary, because as tricky as it is for an African-American male to try to reach across color lines to white voters, it's also necessary that said African-American male be as "presentable" as possible: i.e., not a firebrand. It's a necessary impulse in a politician but that doesn't mean I have to be excited about it. He's a great orator, or as close to great as you're likely to find in our degraded political culture. I think that makes him seem more revolutionary than he really is, considering there is very little substantively different from his opinions than those of his Democratic opponents.

He is a damn fine speaker, though. Listening to him talk, he seems uniquely poised to capture the enthusiasm and ability of youth, to be an avatar for exactly the kind of change he so assiduously assures his audience he personally embodies. He really does seem capable of inspiring the kind of inspirational loyalty that has so long been missing from the political stage. But... after the speeches are over, I can't help but reflect on Socrates' critique of Gorgias, and the inherent immorality of oratory and rhetoric when put to the purpose of persuasion. I can't think of a single good reason to distrust Obama, besides the fact that he wants so very badly to assure us of his trustworthiness. I like him, I'd certainly vote for him, but the gap between his inspirational ambition and his actual capabilities is an unknown quantity in my mind. There can be no doubt: he is an inspirational figure. A friend of mine pointed out recently that progressives are by definition always resurgent, and Obama seems to understand this instinctively. Whether or not he can channel the righteous indignity of enough Democrats and Independents to sway the nomination is another matter.

Hillary is hardly the perfect candidate. She voted for the war, and the only explanation for such a vote is pure and simple cowardice, based on the raw political calculation that being wrong about a good war would be worse in hindsight than being right about a bad war. Of course in a perfect world politicians would not make such calculations based merely on ruthless tactical considerations. And I certainly can't defend her vote, or the odious realpolitik instinct from which it springs. But if you were to ask me who I thought would be more effective, an inspirational speaker with doggedly centrist convictions or a ruthless political machine who tacks to the center despite what are almost certainly deep-seated leftist impulses? Well, that's not necessarily a choice I want to make, not on those terms.

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