Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tomasky, and why punditry is an amnesiac’s game
Glenn Greenwald’s at it again, needling liberal pundits for their, shall we say, dexterity in defending the Obama Administration. A little less than a week ago, it was Michael Tomasky, with his Daily Beast article in praise of Obama’s foreign policy, who found himself in Glennzilla’s sights:
Stranger still are the alleged accomplishments Tomasky cites in his concluding paragraph:
But it’s hardly impossible to envision an Obama administration in a few years’ time that has drawn down Afghanistan and Iraq, helped foster reforms and maybe even the growth of a couple of democracies around the Middle East, and restored the standing of a country that Bush had laid such staggering waste. And killed Osama bin Laden. If this is weak America-hating, count me in.
That’s all very moving, except for the fact that none of it is real. Obama hasn’t “restored” America’s standing; granted, the country is more popular in Western Europe, but in the crucial Middle East and predominantly Muslim regions, America, if anything, is viewed more negatively now than it was under Bush. There’s no sign that Obama is “drawing down” in Afghanistan (his announced “withdrawal” plan would leave more troops than were there when he was inaugurated), and he’s currently working hard to pressure Iraq to agree to U.S. troops in that country beyond the repeatedly touted deadline (beyond the private army to be maintained by the State Department). And Tomasky’s fantasy that Obama will spawn “the growth of a couple of democracies around the Middle East” — the hallmark of neocon yearning — is revealing indeed […]
Tomasky is right about Obama’s tonal improvements over Bush: as I’ve noted before, his less belligerent rhetoric is welcome. And it’s also true that it’s impossible to imagine Obama landing on an aircraft carrier wearing a fighter pilot costume (though he was hardly shy about dispatching anonymous aides leaking classified information to cover him with glory over the bin Laden killing). And Obama deserves credit for more effective use of the U.N. and alliances to manage American wars. But much of that is atmospheric, and it is setting a very low bar indeed: he’s not as much of an overtly chest-beating play-acting warrior as George W. Bush is not exactly greatness-establishing.
When I see this kind of “protecting the shield”-type material from progressives (and, to be fair, Tomasky has on the whole been one of the smarter and better mainstream liberal critics of Obama throughout his Presidency) it makes me think of two things.
One, most of this is culture war signaling. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, necessarily. One of the lesser-appreciated facts of politics (of life, really) among the kind of commentators more likely to throw accusations of tribalism around is how central and integral tribalism is to politics and has always been.
We’re tribal creatures. We have great difficulty understanding who we are unless we can see who we are not. Indeed, there’s good reason to suspect that even our most noble, laudable, and seemingly enlightened capacities are directly tied to this kind of group-minded ethic. All I’m trying to say here is that, in and of itself, the presence of tribalism doesn’t automatically disqualify one from reasoned debate. If that were the case, we’d all be sitting on the sidelines.
So when Tomasky or others make a point of expressing their approval of how Obama has changed the United States’ image—often without evidence of this, as if it goes without saying—I think you’re seeing the end-result of having the President once again be someone with whom, culturally, Tomasky (and myself, for that matter) relates and identifies. I am reasonable, I am likable, I am cosmopolitan; the President is like me; the world now sees the United States as reasonable, likable and cosmopolitan.
Two—and this is, I think, the more interesting of the two—I’m struck by the understandable inability or unwillingness of many quite intelligent writers on the left to face up to the unpleasant reality that not so much has changed from the Oval Office’s having a new resident to turn what, six years ago, was the United States’ undesirable (from a left-wing perspective) status quo into something now far more palatable and just.
A better way for me to put it might be to say that if we were to take a step back and view this era as if it were long gone and of another culture—as if it were merely a chapter in a large textbook of some former empire’s recent history—we would not be inclined, if we were students worth our salt, to focus so zealously upon one man (or hundreds!) of men. I hope I don’t sound like too much of a determinist or an egg-headed intellectual, here, but the fact is that whatever trends (globalization, neo-imperialism, the hyper-financialization of the global economy, etc.) brought us Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the same trends that brought us Barack Obama.
And that means that if you’re the kind of person who found the America of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to be less than satisfactory, to say the least, there’s really no logical reason to imagine that things under President Obama could become appreciably better—not at this early date. Of course, I don’t mean to say that they’re all exactly the same; but I do mean to say that, with the essentially small-c conservative political system that we have, and its institutional bias towards stasis and consistency, national politicians operate within a preciously small and limited arena.
Obviously, if one were to keep thinking like this at the forefront of every article, it would be mighty difficult to write a weekly or bi-weekly column about current events (at least one anyone’d want to read). But the lack of perspective that colors much of our political discourse is, to my mind, often resulting in mainstream left-wing punditry that becomes somewhat incoherent, provided you’ve a memory that reaches back further than January 20, 2009.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)