Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why politics exhausts me these days

The FULL video, in case anyone's interested. There's also this, via Talking Points Memo's story: "Quick note: There is, as you can see, an edit in the middle of the speech. An NAACP spokesman tells me that, according to the local chapter, that's when the tape was switched in the recording. What's missing, he said, is a line about Sherrod being offered tobacco."

Well, okay: not politics per se but how it gets "reported" and discussed in these de-centralized, 24/7 news cycle, pick-the-source-of-information-that-most-often-affirms-your-already-established-belief-system days of ours. It is clear, now, that what happened to Shirley Sherrod yesterday--not Andrew Breitbart's release of an out-of-context two-minute edit of a 43-minute speech whose subject is the exact opposite of what he and others alleged it was about, the subsequent real-time back-and-forth on the news about it, and certainly not her dismissal from her position in the USDA without allowing her (and others) to defend herself--should never have happened, either to her or to any person. When even Glenn Beck, that consummate dot-connector, says an injustice was done to Sherrod, it's pretty clear what will happen today regarding her reinstatement. Well: what should happen.

(Yes: I do support this president and most of his administration's policies. But I hope those who keep reading won't miss the frustration I have been feeling these days toward the Obama administration--not to mention the larger frustration everyone should feel toward the way Congress, because of the deliberate choice of Republicans to not be honest brokers in legislating, is (not) working.)

But it did, and why it did will be the subject of many and various discussions headed in many different directions. Indeed, this story would work well as a case study in the (to my mind) now-vexed relationship between noisy activists whose sole agenda is not policy but ends-justifies-the-means "winning," their surrogates in the media and, increasingly, in the elected branch of government, and this particular version of the executive branch, who, any intellectually-honest person no matter his/her politics would agree, has studiously avoided the appearance of any sort of institutionalized favoritism toward African-Americans.

So much so, in fact, that that is surely what drove Tom Vilsack's decision to force Sherrod out.

That leads me to the first big lesson yesterday's events taught me: that the Obama administration's actions, on the matter of race at least, have in effect been shaped not by policy but by the afore-mentioned folks out there so driven by animus toward this president that they do not hesitate whenever possible to invent a pattern of institutionalized reverse-racism. Preternaturally-optimistic person that I am, it's my fervent hope that this episode will serve to discredit the Andrew Breitbarts of the world and make the markets for his, um, journalism a bit more skeptical in their consumption and propagation of it. But that's beside the point, really. This administration's hamartia has been, almost from the get-go, an overabundance of caution. The legislative manifestations of that are driven by politics--in both the House and the Senate, there are enough skittish lawmakers that Obama has felt it necessary, rightly or wrongly, to scale back proposals to better assure their votes--this started with the stimulus package and continued (especially) with health care and is at present the case with climate legislation. But the result, despite what some would have us believe, has on the whole not been overreach but underreach, to the point that, despite a 9.5% unemployment rate, we won't see a full-blown jobs bill this session because of fear about deficit spending. "Good policy is good politics," Obama has said, and I happen to agree with that. But too many senators and representatives instead act as though good politics is half-assed legislation (if we absolutely must). Meanwhile, in the case of Shirley Sherrod, it was clearly administrative overcaution that caused Vilsack to overreact. Today will be embarrassing, and it should be, as things are a) set aright and b) the dawning realization sets in that because of that overcaution they no longer act out of the courage of their convictions but out of a desire to placate people who have made it abundantly clear that they cannot and will not be placated.

That leads me to the second big realization: that the desire to see the Obama administration fail, no matter the cost to the governance of this nation, has become institutionalized on the right to the point that Republicans and their conservative supporters who argue that such a strategy is, at best, misguided (and at worst, unconscionable within the context of having legitimate and healthy debates about policy) are losing primary elections or are literally shouted down (as here). To be sure, back in the day there were folks on "my side" who held a fair amount of enmity toward the Bush administration, but I would argue that did not result in the spectacle of, say, Democrats serving on bi-partisan committees to write bills, keep insisting that further changes to those bills be made and see those changes made, only to refuse then even to vote the bill out of committee (that, in a nutshell, is the history of the Max Baucus "Gang of Six" committee that wrote the Senate version of the healthcare bill). This sort of thing is not statesmanship or governance but winning the day, a creation of our multi-voiced media, itself divided by partisan alliances or by the desire to not appear partisan.

And that leads me to my third and last big realization. From the days of the 2008 primaries, one of the things I admired most about Obama's campaign was its very clear focus on the long-term, the bigger picture. They seemed to understand that, times being what they have become, what seems significant in the moment would, a few weeks or months down the road seem considerably less so--if, indeed, it was remembered by anyone at all. Given that one of my criticisms of the previous administration was its apparent inability to think through any scenario, foreign or domestic, past the horizon of the next election, I looked forward to an Obama administration that was more interested in genuine governance--something that by its very nature is long term--and to sincere debates with conservatives who also were interested in genuine governance. With some profound caveats, I have to say that at its best the Obama administration has satisfied my expectations on this score--this despite Republican recalcitrance and a loud progressive element disappointed (and sometimes angry) with its half-loaves. But the events of the past two days show that, in the interest of maintaining an optics of colorblindness (obviously a laudatory interest), the administration is susceptible to making snap judgments at the expense of careful assessing of facts (not to mention, of course, the grave human cost to Shirley Sherrod). It is angering to see an administration rightly angry about charges from some that it plays a racialized politics make the decision it did, and as quickly as it did--out of fear--what else to call it?--that hesitancy in acting would be read as its being party to a racialized politics.

I want to be a long-term optimist in all this. This event, coming as it does in the immediate wake of the recent re-litigating (led by FOX News) of the New Black Panther voter-intimidation case (which, just to repeat, the Bush Administration's own Department of Justice had dismissed as being unfounded), the back-and-forth between the Tea Party and the NAACP, and the on-going debate in New York over the building of a Muslim community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, has the potential to lead to several greater goods: in addition to wanting and hoping to see Andrew Breitbart's reputation as Right-Wing Truth-Bringer electronically drawn and quartered--in particular by those who have been invested in that reputation, I hope that the more vocal elements of those who don't approve of the Obama administration be more loyal in their opposition--that they be a bit more thoughtful about what is at the root of their (and others') criticisms of the administration. Debates over economic policy will reveal tensions over what to do (if anything) about the rapidly-widening gap between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy in this country. That's fine, and inevitable. But there are some in this country, some of them quite prominent, willing to more-or-less explicitly frame economic debates in terms of race, as, for example, Rush Limbaugh's arguing that health care reform is a disguised system of reparations. Especially in a very difficult time, such accusations are not just wrong on the merits, they are obscene and unconscionable. I would hope that the Sherrod case causes GOP candidates and officials who, through their words or their silence, have acquiesced in this rhetoric in hopes of getting elected to look past November and acknowledge that this will come to no good end for anyone, no matter his or her politics: MSNBC and FOX and folks out in the blogosphere will just set up competing electronic guillotines and, increasingly, our politics will be reduced to seeing who can best disguise their pandering so as to earn votes and money (and not necessarily in that order) while we all drown in simple-minded rhetoric often based not on facts but unproven assertions and badly disguised as serious discussion about exceedingly complex and important issues--that they will look at all this and say, For our sake as a nation and the ideals we say we stand for, this must change. But I also hope that Democrats and their supporters will also face all this and not be cowed by it but rebut it, to not just label their opposition as racists and call it good. It's precisely that sort of indiscriminate tarring (or, alternately, ignoring it in the belief that people are decent and smart enough to see through it and dismiss it) that has gotten us to this point. It must stop, no matter our politics.

Someone--actually, LOTS of someones--needs to say, simply and directly, that what happened to Shirley Sherrod yesterday was wrong all the way around, that the polite term for anyone of whatever politics who cannot or will not acknowledge that does not exist, and that that person should be kept as far on the fringes of civil society as possible. But I also have to say that having to say that, necessary as it is, exhausts me. And saddens, and angers me.

There is indeed much to be afraid of--no question. But a politics of fear and of fear-mongering, no matter what the object of that fear or who engages in it, is no way to face these dangers. It's a dangerous amalgam of cynicism and fear; as though some want us to keep seeing the Twin Towers fall in some infinite loop in our collective imagination. Well. If it's okay with y'all, I'd prefer not to think that we're behaving as though our entire nation--the people and its elected representatives--are suffering from PTSD. Why, you'll flinch at little things like seeing some trash lying in the street or hearing a car backfiring. You could be hospitalized for that, if the symptoms get bad enough.

You might do something really crazy if you're not careful.

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