Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Which I (probably) Make An Unpopular Choice

posted by Armadillo Joe

But a predictable one. I have been critical of Obama, for the most part, for simply being a centrist -- though to be clear I am not surprised by his centrism fetish because I knew what I was buying when I voted for him. And, further clarification, I am not blaming Obama for what happened to Dr. Tiller, not by a long-shot, but apologizing for a DHS report warning of right-wing violence is exactly the kind of centrist capitulation by the Obama Administration which I think is not just innocuously convenient, but is actually dangerous. If we ever needed a more unambiguous object-lesson that being a frog on the scorpion's back or a frog squished in the center of the road, it is the assassination of Doctor George Tiller.

We can draw a lesson from this horrific situation. The lesson is this:
Choose. A. Side. They have.
Cultivating a fetish for centrism has been a ploy by the Rethugli-goons since the days of Nixon's Southern Strategy to force the center of gravity in American politics to the right and it has worked beautifully, but in some arguments "middle ground" is a mirage that will only lead the pathetically gullible among us morally astray; the torture "debate" is Exhibit A. The abortion "debate" is Exhibit B through...

Either women have control of their own bodies, or they are mere baby-pods owned by the state and leased to the males in their families. The other side so thoroughly hates the idea of female self-determination that they are willing to kill to suppress it; indeed, they just did. The GOP has been playing with fire on this issue for decades, hoping they could use just a touch of authoritarian evil for short-term electoral gain with no eye to the future, and now we reap what they have sown.

Which is why Obama must speak out more forcefully. His centrism is not noble, it is politically convenient. Says a commenter at AMERICAblog:
Obama's push for understanding and for a mushy centrism is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, the extremists on the right. Prop 8 succeeded in part because of his "leadership" which empowers bigots. It's, "Hey, if Obama can be against gay marriage and be OK as a Democrat and a black man, then so can I." Or, "If Obama can oppose abortion, then that is a pretty legitimate point of view." As we have discussed before here and elsewhere, relating to the media, there just are NOT two legitimate sides to every social issue. Obama needs to choose and to lead. He is the President for God's sake and he must use the bully pulpit to bully, to lead on significant social issues not to cop out. Neutrality supports the status quo and is thus the right wing position.
My sister and I traded text messages on Sunday morning, just as the news was breaking about Tiller's assassination. Her Master's thesis was about the language of the abortion debate and her conclusion was basically that we can never, ever reach an accommodation on this issue because we are literally not even speaking the same language. Obviously, the particulars are more complicated than that, but this is a blog not an academic journal. The abortion debate is very, very important to her. And she summed up the zeitgeist this way:
Its starting again. We gain power they start shooting us.
Choose a side, Mr. Obama. They have declared war on our side and it has now broken into the open. We need your leadership. The fate of the soul of this nation depends on it.


Broadway Carl said...

While I agree with your basic premise, I have a couple of points that I feel I have to make.

I object to the use of the word "fetish" to describe centrist choices as it implies an enjoyment. Some are falling into the idea that this wasn't expected because the right wing painted Obama as a left wing radical during the campaign, but looking at Obama's record, nothing would give you that impression.

As for the commenter from AMERICAblog, laying Prop 8 at Obama's feet because of his "leadership" is completely disingenuous considering the fact that it passed on November 4th. If we all believe that marriage is a state's rights issue, then we need to push back against the bigoted factions that pushed for its passage, rather than dismissing them because no one in California thought it would have traction. Show me one person in California who took Prop 8 seriously before the election and I'll show you a liar.

The same goes with the abortion issue. "If Obama can oppose abortion..."? Who doesn't oppose abortion? I oppose abortion but that doesn't mean I'm not pro-choice. And neither is Obama against pro-choice. It's pretty amazing to me that because of the events of the last two days, suddenly President Obama has shown a lack of leadership and nothing he's done to this point has any value.

Some call it centrism. Some call it pragmatism. If Democrats are to retain the White House for 8 years, then he must be seen as governing all, not just the people that voted for him. We see where that got us the last 8 years and how poorly it worked. It's month four, people. MONTH FOUR of 48... hopefully of 96.

I don't bring this up as a matter of debate. I wanted to make my thoughts known since my name appears on this blog.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...


I acknowledge your objection to the word "fetish" and, in all fairness, it should be applied with great delicacy with reference to Obama's means and methods. He is not one of the silly, middle-ground seeking lemmings of the media and Congress. He is much too smart and capable to get sucked into a "Law of Gravity: For & Against"-style debate, the kind of false-equivalency D.C. Villagers truly do love to fetishize as centrism, but picking the middle ground between the stated positions of the two parties, with weight added to the GOP position because, well, because Washington is hard-wired for Republican rule, isn't a way to be a leader. Leaders must lead. Sometimes that leadership must be unambiguous, nuanced language be-damned, which goes to the heart of the AMERICAblog commenter's point. When one side wants to change the status-quo and the other wants to maintain it, a nuanced middle position favors inaction, particularly when the opposition is prepared to use violence and intimidation or to take advantage of that use by others.

Thus, when Obama engages in political sausage-making, and I fully recognize that such wheeling-and-dealing is frequently a necessary component of governing, it nevertheless can make him seem like one of the fetishizers when the issue is so very clear-cut. I'd like to think he's secretly repulsed by the process of consensus-building with such dishonest brokers sitting across the metaphorical negotiating table from him because I like him so much, but instead I'm pretty sure his consensus-building impulse is a genuine and honest attempt to bring people into agreement without regard to their motives. It is an optimistic and expansive character-trait and we certainly need more of it in the agents of our national discourse.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...


Still, I feel very strongly that however abstractly noble this impulse may be on some issues, on some it is simply a fool's errand -- and not just because of the frogs and scorpions metaphor -- but because sometimes a middle position between two opposing views is, in fact, immoral.

Indefinite detention or torture do not allow a compromise position -- anymore than Civil Rights or slavery did 50 or 150 years ago -- and during the campaign (particularly early on) he had no qualms about being unequivocal in his opposition, and yet here we are with a president who has again staked claim to the right to indefinite detention and no torturer need fear prosecution. Going all the way back to his FISA vote, we see a willingness to always find a "middle ground" that gives the deranged, poo-flinging Reich-wing at least a toehold of legitimacy. Prop H8 passed because people could simultaneously, despite what should have been crippling cognitive dissonance, vote for the hope and promise of Barack Hussein Obama and for the ugliness and hatred of "yes" to restrict marriage rights of fellow citizens and I think the gloss needed to cover that cognitive dissonance was provided in some part by his nuanced presentation at Rick Warren's mega-church. Most people don't hear nuance (just ask Al Gore or John Kerry) and, for decades, the GOP has been very adept at exploiting the "nuanced" position for their own electoral gain on tax policy, civil liberties, foreign policy, reproductive rights and cultural issues, just to name a handful.

But when it comes to reproductive rights, I should hope that I may see Obama shed nuance to instead use his mightily powerful position (Teddy Roosevelt's "Bully Pulpit") to change the language of this debate. When you ask 'who doesn't oppose abortion', you are using the language of the opposition. Every time anyone from our side predicates a pro-choice assertion with mealy-mouthed lamentations about abortion being unfortunate or exhortations that it should be rare, they concede the point to the opposition that the entire argument is about what happens to the little babies, reducing the women to mere vessels with no input in what happens to their bodies. As I said, mere baby-pods owned by the state and leased to the males in their families. Unless Obama evokes Eisenhower and Little Rock High and (metaphorically, if not literally) sends in the National Guard to protect a woman's right to exercise control over her own body before another vigilante terrorist assassinates the practitioner of a legal medical procedure, I fear these killings will continue and perhaps even escalate. They did in the 1990's as Gingrich's Contract-on-America/anti-government/liberals-are-devils language became the coin of the realm in American discourse, yet they have miraculously receded for eight years.
I fear more ambiguity from his administration on the issue of reproductive rights will further inflame this issue. When one side is willing to shoot and kill the other side to get its way, no compromise is possible.

Fraulein said...

I think this discussion is an excellent distillation of the hopes and frustrations many of us have experienced since Obama's election. I find myself careening back and forth between the idea that Obama really hasn't been in office that long, and given the forces lined up against him, whatever good he can accomplish will be quite a feat, and my impatience about some of his more "centrist" positions. On the abortion issue, as Joe articulates, this is particularly frustrating. The U.S. government should be out front and center, protecting the rights of women to receive legal health services. But then Obama has to navigate all the potential fallout every time he makes a move that could endanger his ability to advance the rest of his agenda. I suspect it's going to be a continuing process of progress in baby steps, with a fair amount of backsliding. But I suppose if you look at the history of the labor rights movement, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, etc., that's exactly how it went: baby steps towards progress.