Truth be told, I had allowed myself to forget about Obama-mania, particularly its bizarre British liberal expression, in the months since the Presidential election. I didn’t even realise that Obama was being inaugurated yesterday until mid-afternoon (the predicament of a broken boiler meant I had more immediate concerns). Once I did notice, however, the radiant worship of the Dear Leader quickly became unavoidable – particularly when he mentioned gay people, possibly the bravest and most inspirational thing anyone has ever done in the history of mankind.
The liberal response was hysterical in every sense of the word. It was also broadly uniform – today I’ve seen several analyses of Obama’s speech which contrasted it with his supposedly inferior 2009 speech, despite the fact that the same people and publications making this observation pretty much lost their heads over that previous address at the time. Still, how could anyone fail to think it was disappointing now? Back then Obama said:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
It’s a paragraph which could be repeated almost word-for-word today. Arguably, some of these problems have even gotten worse under Obama – unemployment rose before settling back at the rate he inherited, both inequality and poverty are at record levels and the President has ramped up militarism, illegality and authoritarianism to a levels that would make Bush blush. Throw in retrospectively perverse lines such as “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” and sure, that speech seems a bit…wanting.
THIS speech though. This one is DIFFERENT. That’s what we’ve been told for the past 24 hours and it’s that I want to focus on rather than Obama’s record. Because just as liberal hysteria over Obama may be predictable, as night follows day it is succeeded by fury at anyone left-wing (I’m sure even David Cameron classes himself as ‘progressive’ these days, it’s a useless term) criticising the President. This piece is exemplary in that regard. These people, they tell themselves, are reasonable, mature, serious. They understand how the world works. They engage in realpolitik. The detractors? They are juvenile and hateful. Fantasists more concerned with their own ideological purity than with the messy and compromised world of politics. Just look at how the piece sets the critics up in the first paragraph – they are little more than contrarians, internet trolls interrupting the sincere discourse of the adults. Obama is doing his best, we are told, in a dysfunctional and right-leaning U.S. system. He is “practically a subversive”, in fact!
Now, we have here the often-pushed idea that Obama is a left-wing dream stymied by Republicans/the system – an idea which some on the American left have went to pains to deconstruct and destroy. Notice that I referred to the American left – because it clearly, demonstrably exists in a significant form, from Occupy and politicians to newspapers, magazines, websites and even prominent television series. There are many voices within America demanding that Obama return to his original promise, voices who do not accept that his actions over the past four years represent the best possible world for the American left. Indeed, many of the shrieking responses to his speech yesterday seemed to acknowledge this, hoping against hope that he was finally going to be the President the writers had clearly hoped he would be and actually do daring and transformational things rather than release meme-ready photographs and say things which sounded vaguely good.
Why do they hope this? Because they have values, principles and beliefs which they hope to see advanced by whatever means possible. Obama is one of those means – an enormous one, sure, but not the only game in town. Why, then, do so many in their praise of Obama demand that others compromise their own beliefs before we’re even out of the gate?! What is gained by taking as your starting point excuses for Obama’s disappointments? We owe nothing to our politicians – instead we have a duty to our society and to ourselves. If there are no voices of dissent against Obama, no discussions of the equality and justice which the left-wing so prizes – whether they be grumblings on Twitter or internationally-renowned writers and directors – then where does the pressure on him to actually do some of the things the left-wing want him to do come from, especially after he has betrayed their trust so much already? We should not be grateful to politicians for doing the things they said they would do; we should not support them in their betrayals by shrugging and saying ‘oh well, that’s real life for you’. Especially before the betrayals have even come.
Ironically, the idea that Obama is held back by the Republicans depends on a reading of the American right-wing akin to that which these Obama supporters ascribe to left-wing critics – that they obsess over their ideals and self-interest, that they do not rush to compromise. We’re encouraged to scorn those nasty, evil Republicans fighting viciously for…the things they believe in (I’m not saying this reading is particularly correct, but it’s one that Obama supporters constantly push). Having strong core principles is seen as a bad thing which people should grow out of.
Two thoughts arise from this. The first is that many of the actions which these Obama supporters label people as ‘cynics’ for raising are ones which they would shout about endlessly from the hills if they were taken by a Republican President – of this I have absolutely no doubt. In the face of a recognisable enemy they would swiftly regain many of the ideals they currently scorn. The second is that the approach taken in pieces like the New Statesman is one which strips the ideology out of politics and treats real policies, with sometimes horrific consequences, as little more than entries in a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ score sheet which the writers can use to write finger-wagging columns and send snide tweets. The NS piece generously concedes that Obama’s “terrible record in the Middle East, environmental issues, the use of drones” are all “valid criticisms” before swiftly returning to the fact that he gave a nice speech. Because ‘words matter’, you see? The countless, very real, victims of Obama’s ‘kill list’, drone strikes and militarism don’t really get that he kinda lets ‘progressives’ down when he’s killing them, but they should quit whining and realise that by mentioning gay people in a speech he may “make it a tiny fraction more difficult to bully the gay or brown kid” (the latter assertion in particular quite bizarre given Obama’s treatment of Muslims).
There is simply zero moral equivalence here. A nice speech doesn’t even begin to approach the consequences of his actions (military, economic etc) – consequences which no-one who identifies as ‘left-wing’ could possibly support. Saying this and voicing dismay at the President responsible, whomever they may be, is not contrary or juvenile. Because words do matter. They matter as an expression of anger, of thwarted hope, of ideals endlessly fought for. They matter as challenges to what we believe in and why. They matter as causes for self-reflection and for inspiration. Ultimately for those of us in the UK, it’s all just words when it comes to Obama – there is no inherent superiority in praising a politician than in criticising one. The issue, then, is that these columnists wish to decide which words matter. In the world I believe most left-wing people would aspire to, the thoughtful words and the deliberate actions of a public servant should be no more beyond criticism than the words and actions of anyone. If anything, they should be scrutinised with far more aggressive vigour.