Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Can Obama Obliterate Limbaugh's Legacy?

It seems almost silly at this stage, 20 month before the next Presidential election, to be getting too excited or too committed to any particular candidate for that office. Already I posted my allegiance to Russ Feingold here the very day after the midterms, only to have him declare his intention NOT to run mere days later. By the time Congressman Dennis Kucinich, my choice in the primaries of 2004 declared his candidacy, I had decided to hold off and wait for a Democrat who not only shared most of my values, but also had a credible chance of being taken seriously.

And so it was in the midst of reading Obama's Audacity of Hope that I (& thousands of others) received this email from the Senator, announcing his intention to form a presidential exploratory committee, writing:
...challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.
In reading his book, it is apparent that Barack Obama more often takes a more moderate tack than what I might, but what I share with him is a passion about the pressing need for people, including politicians, to hone their ability to listen to conflicting perspectives and truly weigh what their adversaries are correct about, rather than derisively dismissing that adversary by association with some aspect of their belief or their affiliation with people or causes which the viewer finds either contemptible or ridiculous.

Mockery has always been around, and its use, whether in satire or a stand-up comedy routine, can lend new perspective, shaking sense into those who might otherwise too easily accept authority's explanation for the status quo. Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, though far too subtle in technique for today's standards, caricatured the Irish wealthy class' indifference to the poor in the 18th century. Jesus' General and Scrappleface capably carry the form with wry humor from two very different perspectives into the modern blogosphere.

But the extent to which modern politicking routinely leans on derision as the modus operandi for motivating its allies to action has poisoned political discourse in America. Even if Barack Obama doesn't win his party's nomination, having an eloquent voice directly challenge the "talking points" formulaic approach to winning by dividing might have a contagious effect on the race as a whole, as Americans yearn for a hopeful message, void of the scorn of the cultural wars.

Which brings me to Limbaugh's legacy. Wasn't it Rush that made an artform of holding up the orthodoxies of politically correct liberalism to ridicule? He was good at it too - and there were orthodoxies there that were laughable enough in their own right. Never mind that they did not represent the thinking of the majority of liberals - mockery worked. When a coworker by proximity introduced me to Limbaugh's tirades in the early nineties, I was struck by his then obsessive fixation with Sally Jessy Raphael as the exemplar of liberalism gone amok. Huh? I was a self-identified liberal, but I found Raphael's tawdry obsession with often morally skewed freaks distasteful at least, if not as repugnant as the antics of Springer or later Povich. Limbaugh successfully conflated liberalism with immorality in the minds of his faithful following, and aside from helping to spawn an ugly brand of lock-step conservatism, with orthodoxies at least as absurd as those he was so adept at exposing or fabricating among carefully selected liberals and academics, he also promoted derision as the chief tool for political discussion and argument.

Today, while my car was in the shop, the loaner car I drove was tuned to Limbaugh, whom I've pretty much avoided since getting more than my fill in 1992 & 93. While I occasionally tune into liberal talk radio today, I recognize what it borrows from Limbaugh's legacy. Today though, I took the opportunity to flip back and forth between Rush and Thom Hartmann. I might usually agree with the analysis of Hartmann, and often his conclusions, while rarely agreeing with Limbaugh, but both are skillfully pandering to many listeners' appetites for derision of their foes, and I won't mind a bit if both are marginalized by a central core of Americans hungry for more civility with a focus on possible solutions to our problems, rather than a mentality of winning at any cost.

That does not mean that everyone should be a centrist. No! No! No! America and the world will thrive best when thoughtful people from diverse perspectives are allowed to contribute their ideas and skills to our common destiny. Feingold on the left and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn on the right are more valuable to the Senate in my estimation than the more moderate, and arguably more powerful, Chuck Schumer is or Bill Frist was. The former are genuine representatives of their constituencies, not panderers to talking points and political expediency. Americans are sometimes surprised when seemingly huge political divides are bridged, like Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy coming together to promote legislation, but they shouldn't be. Obama understands this interplay, and has already had remarkable success at playing the political game while retaining a compelling voice for goodwill and the promotion of common values.

I'm also hungry for great oratory, and was too young to appreciate that of JFK. We've really not had a great orator for a President since JFK. Good speeches here and there from almost every President, including the current one, but a great orator - that would be a welcome change. Obama does not reflect my views perfectly, but in large measure where we differ, his electability is enhanced by that difference. I've read enough and seen enough to be convinced that America would benefit from his candidacy if not his presidency, and have accordingly already sent him that message in the form of a few dollars. Now is the time to do so if you agree, as his expected announcement is expected to come on February 10 (auspiciously my own 50th birthday).

So while the pundits legitimately may question Obama's foreign policy experience, let me leave by quoting this prescient passage from a speech that he gave to an anti-war crowd in 2002, before most of his expected Democratic opponents who happen to have been in the Senate voted to authorize Bush's blank check for taking war to Iraq:

That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors...and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

We sure could have used some of THAT inexperience in the oval office in the Spring of 2003!

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