Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 December 2008

In Myths and Rumors Credimus


One of the great wonders of our recent election is that so many could misjudge Barack Obama so badly for so long.

As our President-Elect announces his choices for high positions, we read daily cries of surprise and relief. He’s a centrist and a pragmatist! He’s no ideologue, defeatist, “far-left liberal,” or Marxist! He’s not a Muslim extremist or friend of domestic terrorists. He’s none of the terrible things we called him during the campaign. Hallelujah! We are saved!

Irony doubles irony. Having spent two years prophesying defeat and destruction in the event of Obama’s election, the Wall Street Journal publishes a column that all but endorses his defense team. The same WSJ gives Prince of Darkness Karl Rove a platform from which to say nice things about him. Apparently even defeated demagogues are not immune to competence and hope.

The greatest irony lies in how easy it was to see Obama clearly from the very beginning. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, came out in 2006. It was his literary debut in presidential politics and self-evidently his political manifesto.

You didn’t even have to read the whole thing. All you had to read was the first 35 pages.

Had these surprised pundits done this easy homework, they would have learned how Barack Obama is a child of the sixties, chronologically, psychologically and politically. They would have understood how, like any child, he rejected his elders’ peculiar generational insanity, in his case the Boomers’ mindless certainties and polarization. The pundits would have read how incisively he analyzed the turmoil of our Vietnam era, our civil rights struggle, and their aftermath. And they would have rightly concluded that a hunger for unity and a deep aversion to extremes are engraved in Obama’s soul.

As I observed a little less than two years ago:
“No one can read this work without crediting Obama’s centrism and understanding its personal origins. It is as deeply felt and thoroughly thought out as John McCain’s love for our military or Hillary Clinton’s ambition to become our first female president.”
Yet so few did their homework. Rather than spend a single hour reading those 35 pages (or, God forbid, a whole book!), they wasted weeks stuck in the echo chamber. They listened to everyone but the man himself.

Gail Collins knew. Last July she wrote a marvelous column, chiding Obama’s already disappointed left-wing supporters for failing to listen.
“He talked — and talked and talked—” Collins wrote, “about how there were going to be no more red states and blue states, how he was going to bring Americans together, including Republicans and Democrats. Exactly where did everybody think this gathering was going to take place? Left field?”
Referring to Obama’s much-quoted 2002 anti-Iraq- war speech, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne now says, “The truth about Obama’s worldview was hidden in plain sight[.]” But was it hidden, or was the failure of so many to see it a result of willful blindness?

The title of Collins’ piece may help them understand: “The Audacity of Listening.” Skeptics about Obama’s posture for defense, in particular, might begin by reading his August 2007 speech on terrorism. [Scroll down past the highlights for full text.] Fifteen months later, it still recites the best (and only comprehensive) anti-terrorism plan of any presidential candidate from either party. Its focus on Pakistan and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas now seems uncannily prescient.

Many voters and pundits spurned Obama because, deep down, they thought he would turn us into an African village. Yet in at least one respect that conversion would be an improvement.

African villagers can believe strange things. Many are superstitious. Some still credit witchcraft. But in their village elections they surpass us easily. They don’t judge a candidate by what others say about him. They hear him out. They don’t rely on myths and rumors about a man who stands before them in the flesh.

Substituting myths and rumors for direct evidence is bad enough. Believing them when you ought to know that political operatives deliberately created them in their quest for power is downright stupid. But that’s where a significant fraction of us are and have been for several decades. So much for the “sophistication” of a great technological nation.

Maybe our own grandson of an African village leader can teach us to listen and see again. He does have a relevant habit. He likes to “take a look at the data.”

P.S. To to avoid new myths and rumors going forward, see my Obama Reading List.

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