Sunday, December 18, 2011

Clooney, Obama, and political disappointment

Recently on Facebook I reposted this (click to enlarge it):

My friend Rob responded by posting the video that follows. His opinion: "None of that outweighs this."

Which started a lengthy discussion. My opening salvo:
I think the thing for me is that I'm not activist-y enough. I was friends with someone for a while who believed in the radical transformation of society, government, etc. because things were/are too broken to salvage, so we need a whole new plan. She also believed that the breakdown of capitalism and social chaos were nigh. Capitalism has looked especially awful in the last few years, but I wonder if it's really going to fall apart in the U.S. and yield to some new age of more enlightened social and economic structure. Inertia is a bitch.

All of which is to say, every president does terrible things. The comedian Bill Hicks once said that when someone is elected president, these shadowy figures take him (or eventually her) into a dark room and show him/her a version of JFK's assassination that no one's ever seen before -- the implication being that it was an inside job. The point being: Stray too far from a certain prescribed path, and you're toast.

I take this to mean that there's a limit to how much good a president can accomplish. Obama has made many compromises, as he kind of indicated he would by positioning himself as a moderate/centrist who would try to change the highly polarized nature of politics in D.C. Well, the GOP has never been more knee-jerk in its opposition to a Democratic president, as far as I know.

I'm not assigning all the blame for Obama's missteps to Republicans. I'm just saying that every president makes major "mistakes" that can either be seen as lapses in judgment or conscious betrayals of previously stated ideals. Maybe my attitude, that expecting a lot of consistent action powered by solid integrity, is expecting too much from a president reflects jadedness or laziness on my part. But maybe the position of president has enough inherent limits that there will always be great disappointments. (Clinton signed the DOMA, right? And he's supposedly one of the best presidents in recent memory.)

I think it's good to know what Obama's doing that we liberals consider bad. Clooney, however, seems to be saying that he's also accomplished good things, and if we think he'd be better than Romney for the next four years, we'd better emphasize those. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater might not be the best approach to presidential politics, you know? They're all gonna disappoint. But they're not all George W. Bush. The lesser-of-two-evils concept doesn't preclude actually going ahead, holding one's nose, and CHOOSING the lesser of two evils.
Rob came back with:
If what Senator Carl Levin says is true, Obama didn't compromise by moving to the right more than he wanted to, HE pressured congress to move to the right. Language excluding American citizens from indefinite detention was in the version of the bill that left committee, until Obama insisted that it be re-inserted.
Rob, do you think the next step is writing letters to Obama, or voting for a third-party candidate in 2012? Or some other action? The commentator says that if Bush had put forward a similar bill, "the left would have been in a rage." But what would that rage have resulted in? Our "rage" over Bush got Obama elected. Now it's fueling Occupy. I guess I hear guys like this get worked up and wonder what we should or can actually do. He's so angry. I dunno. I don't feel as much as he does. Al Franken voted for this bill, too, huh? Is everyone awful?
When conservatives during Clinton were frustrated that the Republican party didn't reflect their values, they didn't write letters to the Dole campaign, nor did they vote for Pat Buchanan. Instead, they got involved with the Republican party at the local level, got their values into the party platform, got their candidates on the ballots, and eventually took over the party and the country. They got G.W. Bush into office and turned the Democratic party so far to the right, they are nearly indistinguishable. (Compared to ending due process for all Americans, ending DADT is "throwing us a bone".)

We need to do the same.

My local Democratic party (36th Legislative District) holds its next meeting on January 18th at 7 pm. The meeting is open to the public. It's too late to do anything for this election cycle, but I intend to have a true progressive as the Democratic nominee in 2016.
And so on. I know reposting Facebook writing constitutes lazy blogging, but sometimes the informality of Facebook is more conducive to this type of "thinking out loud" writing. In other words, I wouldn't have written a blog post to this effect on my own, but the Clooney quote and Rob's reply inspired me to produce a lot of words, quite unexpectedly. In that way, Facebook beats blogging. I think one of the reasons I blog less these days is that I never developed a big enough readership to produce a regular flow of comments. And without dialogue, blogging can start to feel like talking to yourself in a deserted building. Whereas Facebook is like a crowded subway car. My last comment in this thread:
Some people think big picture, long term. I guess I don't have grand visions for a nearish future that's radically different from the present. There are exceptions, but social and political shifts tend to be gradual. Obama's election shifted things a bit in terms of our country's respectability in the eyes of the world. Healthcare reform, as meager as it turned out to be compared to what it could have been, put America's deeply troubled healthcare system in the spotlight, and Occupy is ensuring that it remains part of the national conversation.

Repealing DADT may be "throwing us a bone" in a sense, but I think a lot of gays and lesbians who are or have been in the military appreciate that it's more than a symbolic gesture -- it's a change in how the military does business. My upbringing led me to believe that not every positive change has to be really big to matter.

I think about this when I think of how movies, TV, etc. depict LGBT people. "Philadelphia," the '90s movie with Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer with AIDS, gets flak today for how chastely it depicted Hanks' relationship with Antonio Banderas, and for invoking the Gay Protagonist As Tragic AIDS Victim, a tired trope. But a movie that showed a same-sex relationship as healthy, happy, and strong, with major movie stars (Denzel Washington was also in it), from a big-name director (Jonathan Demme, who had won as Oscar for "Silence of the Lambs") and with significant studio money behind it? Holy cow, back then that was significant.

Similarly, "Transamerica" wasn't the radically transformative film that every trans activist was dreaming of, but it wouldn't have been made (with Felicity Huffman, anyway) in the early to mid-'90s. Progress happens gradually. By the time a "Brokeback Mountain" is released, the social, cultural, and political forces for good have advanced considerably on the ground.

I get that Obama's being the first African-American president is cold comfort when (some of) his policies seem terrible. But I still remember looking at the paper the morning after Election Night in 2008, seeing the Obamas on the front page, and thinking: "Wow. It wasn't just a dream. This really happened!" Eventually, hopefully, electing a president who isn't male, white, straight, wealthy, and/or Christian won't be such a big deal. But I think that future is a ways off.

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