Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Mixed Blessing: The Triumph of the Cool

The good news from the final presidential debate last night is that John McCain lost again.

Watching McCain, I was reminded that, according to Aristotle, a tragic figure is not a hero, only a good but ordinary person – Joe the Plumber, perhaps – who finds him or herself in circumstances in which he or she must choose among alternatives all of which are bad. Tragic figures, Aristotle tells us, inspire pity and fear. Notwithstanding, his self-representations (aided and abetted by Democratic “friends”), John McCain is no hero, and he certainly inspires pity and, the closer he is to power, fear. But it is far from clear that he rises to the level of a good but ordinary man confronting a cruel destiny. He is ordinary, no doubt, but not good – as John Lewis pointed out, causing McCain to feign outraged feelings. McCain is a self-made, and made over, fool, profoundly deceived about his dedication to public service. That puts him several notches below the tragic figure level. It makes him unequivocally reprehensible – a man who will do, as was said (very plausibly) of Hillary Clinton, anything to get elected. Neither is McCain one to agonize over bad but inevitable choices. That sad lot falls to us, the voters.

In last night’s debate, Barack Obama, was, as always competent and cool. Being far ahead in the polls, he evidently saw no reason to take risks; and he took none. He wouldn’t even stoop to point out how stupendously unqualified Sarah Palin is when the moderator, CBS’s Bob Scheifer, all but invited him to state the obvious. Instead, he praised his own VP choice, Joe Biden.

It was clear right away that McCain was done for. The magnitude of his loss will become even clearer in the coming days as his misstatements are scrutinized along with his body language and his sarcasm. There is no need here to add to the torrent of criticism to come.

But I do want to call attention, again, to something that is as obvious as Sarah Palin’s shortcomings but that is unthinkable for Democrats to say or for the mainstream media to point out. Prodded skillfully by Obama, and asked directly by Scheifer, McCain reverted to his campaign’s talking points on “terrorist” Bill Ayers. Obama was ready to set the record straight, which he did – according to his own party’s line.

[He did the same for McCain’s latest bugbear, ACORN. For the past few days, McCain and his surrogates have deemed that organization’s efforts to register voters, a threat to democracy of unprecedented historical proportions. This charge is so transparently preposterous that, of course, Obama dispatched it easily. McCain and his handlers must be beyond desperate when they find it expeditious to badmouth a group even he has, in the past, supported.]

When McCain called Ayers “a washed up old terrorist” – talk about the pot calling the kettle black! – Obama only pointed out how little contact he had had with Ayers, how Ayers has nothing to do with his campaign, and how Ayers is in no way an advisor of his. Then he went on to name some people he does take advice from: Warren Buffett and Paul Volker on the economy and, on foreign policy, Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, and General Jim Jones. He might as well have hung up a sign – see I’m an imperialist too, and I’m as safely in Wall Street’s pocket as any Clintonite could be. As if there was ever any doubt!

That might count as bad news, except it isn’t news at all. What is news, in the sense that it isn’t quite as well understood, is signaled by the fact that Obama did not come to Ayers’ defense. If he abstained just to avoid taking risks with the election now his to lose, then fine. But I think he really meant it when he called Ayers’ past actions, forty years ago, “despicable.” Arguably, that description has merit, but not for the reasons Obama seems to have had in mind. Not by a long shot. Thus, yet again, an opportunity to elevate the level of political discourse was lost.

There is, first of all, a comparatively subtle point to be made: that the Weather Underground to which Ayers belonged was never really a “terrorist” organization at all -- unless the word is used mindlessly, Sarah Palin fashion, to mean any purveyor of political violence one opposes. There are more scrupulous ways to use the term, as Obama surely knows. Strictly speaking, a “terrorist” is someone who uses violence indiscriminately against civilian populations with a view to demoralizing them. This the Weather Underground never did. Their bombs harmed no one except themselves – when some bomb makers blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village town house. Weatherman bombings were symbolic – and also futile – gestures designed to harm property, not persons; and they were always directed against the American government, not the American people. They were intended, as in the slogan of the time, “to bring the war back home.”

With Nixon and Kissinger piling crime upon crime, apparently as impervious to public opinion as to the demands of morality, the Weather Underground thought of itself as a militant solidarity group, acting within the United States in behalf of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle. Their strategy was wrong headed and self-defeating. Pushed to the limit, it could have turned the Weathermen into moral beasts like Nixon and Kissinger, though there was never the slightest prospect of moral equivalence. But the Weathermen never reached that point; they never even came close. Very few of them even did anything that a vindictive and repressive legal system was able to construe as an actionable offense.

On the other hand, John McCain “volunteered” -- as much as any cowed son and grandson of Admirals could have chosen his vocation freely -- to fight on the wrong side in the Vietnam War. The bombs and napalm he delivered killed and maimed dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of people; while Ayers killed no one. McCain was on the imperialist side; Ayers was against it. And yet he has the unmitigated gall to call Ayers “a washed out old terrorist!” The earth should shake with convulsions at such an affront!

[It is remarkable that, even today, Democrats like Obama are unwilling to say outright that ours was indeed the wrong side in Vietnam. Do they think, like John McCain apparently does, that the war was a fine idea, and that the problem was just that it was fought too “gently” and/or that a reprehensible, “unpatriotic” public turned against “the troops”? No doubt, some do, but here again I suspect that Obama knows better. How can anyone who does honestly deny that the U.S. was the wrong side? There’s only one way – by casting logic aside.

Note, though, that it doesn’t follow automatically that the enemies of those on the wrong side are in any non-trivial sense “the right side” or that they merit solidarity. That is not the case now in either Iraq or Afghanistan where the “good guys,” to use an expression emblematic of our debased political discourse, are thoroughly marginalized. But it was the case in Vietnam, or at least so it seemed to most informed war opponents at the time (and to many of us still). The Weather Underground, for all its strategic errors and despite the moral precariousness of its tactics, was part of that consensus.]

Now, I have no idea what Bill Ayers’ thinking is like these days. But forty years ago, his views and actions were, by any measure, superior – vastly superior – to John McCain’s. And if he has kept the faith ever so slightly, then even today he would have to be a wiser, more decent advisor than the “humanitarian interventionists,” Biden especially, whom Obama named. Those folks are the political descendents of the anti-Communist interventionists who brought on and sustained the Vietnam War – a war initiated and waged by Democrats long before Nixon and Kissinger took over the helm. Better, therefore, that Obama take counsel from Ayers than from the advisors he advertises. But don’t count on him to say anything like that – much less to do it.

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