19 February 2010

Right Where They Want Me

Peggy Noonan, a writer for whom normally I have the deepest respect (and at times something approaching awe), wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal(http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748703382904575059723179331384.html):
" . . . the president had a stunning and revealing exchange with Sen Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat likely to lose her 2010 re-election campaign. He was meeting with Senate Democrats to urge them to continue with his legislative agenda. Mrs Lincoln took the opportunity to beseech him to change it. She urged him to distance his administration from 'people who want extremes,' and to find 'common ground' with Republicans in producing legislation that would give those in business the 'certainty' they need to create jobs . . .

"While answering, Mr Obama raised his voice slightly and quickened his cadence. 'If the price of certainty is essentially for us to adopt the exact same proposals that were in place leading up to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression . . . the result is going to be the same. I don't know why we would expect a different outcome pursuing the exact same policy that got us in this fix in the first place.' He continued: 'If our response ends up being, you know . . . we don't want to stir things up here,' then 'I don't know why people would say, "Boy, we really want to make sure those Democrats are in Washington fighting for us." '

" . . . The Washington Post's Charles Lane, one of the few journalists to note the exchange, said he found it revealing in two ways: First, the president equates becoming more centrist with becoming more like George W Bush, and second, he apparently sees movement to the center as a political loser.

". . . The president and his advisers understand one thing really well, and that is Democratic primaries and Democratic politics. This is the area in which they made their careers. It's how they defeated Hillary Clinton—by knowing how Democrats think. In the 2008 general election, appealing for the first time to all of America and not only to Democrats, they had one great gift on their side, the man who both made Mr Obama and did in John McCain, and that was George W Bush.

"But now it is 2010, and Mr Bush is gone. Mr Obama is left with America, and he does not, really, understand it. That is why he thinks moving to the center would be political death, when moving to the center and triangulating, as Bill Clinton did, might give him a new lease on life." [Emphasis mine]

By the time I got to the end of Ms Noonan's article, I figured I was broadly in agreement with at least one of her main points. That is, the deep throes of massive recession may not have been the best time for any president to start obsessing about the Nation's health care. And yet the two passages I've italicized keep coming back on me. Is "centering" oneself really all that simple these days? Ferociously far Left as he may be under all the fine grooming, suppose Mr Obama really were to lurch quickly, and decisively, to the Center. Suppose, indeed, he should radically re-Center his whole agenda - only to find that meanwhile that same Centerline had been moving all but unstoppably further to the Right? So far, in fact, that one morning that same Center was found to be all but indistinguishable from what today we consider - well, pretty far Right of Center?

And that's another thing. We all talk about "Right" as if it meant just one thing, and as if that meaning were fixed for all times - or even for our own lifetimes. But what if it isn't? Would Robert Taft have instantly recognized "Right" exactly as it is defined by our current Arbiters of Rightness? Would Barry Goldwater? Would even Ronald Reagan - or Bill Clinton?

But suppose it got to the point where the only folks fully at peace with our 21st-century definition of Right - the only ones who found it as snug and comfortable as a second skin - were the likes of a Dick Cheney? or a Mitt Romney? or a Steve Forbes? Just how easily would the rest of us fit into that increasingly tight skin? And for how long, I wonder, would we - and here I mean not just corporations of one kind or another, but individual human beings of every kind - how long would we continue to recognize, in that ever gradually more close-fitting skin, anything resembling what we today call Liberty?

That is the problem with anticipating political and economic oppression: one can never be sure from which direction it's going to come - up or down; North or South; East or West; even - at times, I'm told - Right or Left! Because, after all, there really are just two things required for oppression to work with unrelenting efficiency: A remorseless fixity of purpose, and an implacable sense of being right. Or, in a phrase, "Hold fast to your hard-and-fast ideas, and to hell with nuance!" (Which, in the final count, is the same thing as saying to hell with reality - including real people and other such creatures.)

My point is that all of us are capable, not only of mouthing that phrase, but of meaning it. Regardless of one's political complexion, we are all capable of being seduced, as it were - of becoming idolatrously attached to a mere idea, a precept, a principle. So attached, indeed, that we may be prepared to sacrifice not just our own common human decencies, but others' basic human freedoms. And even, sometimes, the purest, most primordial freedom of all - the freedom of every creature to be what God made it to be, to be the fullness of itself, and in that particular Way most satisfying both to its own soul and to its Maker. All this we humans may do - or try to do - in order to ensure that creature's uttermost conformity to our Idea. And as for those other things it may need or crave from the depths of its soul - as to whether, for instance, the human creature really needs seven or eight hours of sleep for optimal performance and well-being - really, who should care? Generations from now what difference will it make how well-rested or insomniac, how happy or miserable we prototypes were, when our descendants are all proudly exulting in Economic Utopia? (I can only hope Stalin is listening.) Meanwhile, if it's a moral you're looking for, here is my best attempt: Ask not for whom the Beast tolls - he tolls for thee.

Not that we Americans haven't got some good reasons for feeling ideologically dizzy. In some ways, I'll admit, the whole Nation has been on a head-spinning, mind-numbing carnival ride since 9-15-08. Down and down and farther down the rabbit-hole with Alice; the tea-parties getting curiouser and curiouser - to say nothing of (at least in some instances) madder and madder. But even amidst our most fiercely Bravehearted insurrections, are we any closer to the borders of Freedom than when we began?

And what a mad and curious journey even our post-Bush Quest for Liberty has been. A sort of whirling, frenzied flight, ostensibly farther and farther away from something we call the Abuse of Power. Only to find the most unexpectedly familiar faces - Mr Cheney's in particular seems to be growing more visible by the day - awaiting us at journey's end. Or, perhaps more accurately, cutting the journey short right at the point of real departure?

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