Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Obama in Leftland

Don't know much about history...

by David Gelernter

Barack Obama is America's first major party presidential candidate to have come of age after the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and '70s. Americans who reached adulthood before or during the Cultural Revolution often differ over the big events of recent history. Americans who came of age afterward, on the other hand, don't necessarily know any recent history. And what they do know is often wrong. Every candidate makes mistakes on the stump, and voters allow for the gigantic g-forces exerted by the presidential campaign as it whirls candidates around the nation at terrific speed. But we have an obligation to ponder Obama's views of American reality in the context of his membership in the first generation fully shaped after the Cultural Revolution. Let's call it gen-CR. (The same applies to Sarah Palin, but she hasn't said the sort of crazy things Obama has.)

We know what to expect of gen-CR. Unless they have grown up in regions or families with an unusually strong grasp of tradition, patriotism, and reality, gen-CR'ers tend to have a fuzzy view of history, an unconditional belief in tolerance and diplomacy, and contempt for the military and war-making. Their patriotism (such as it is) tends to focus on the "global community" or "the planet" or some other large, meaningless object. (Beyond a certain point, patriotic devotion spread too thin simply evaporates-which is a good way to get rid of it if you are, say, an English intellectual trusting to the European Union to eradicate this primitive emotion.)

Before considering what sets Obama apart, consider what he has in common with the former candidate he resembles most, George McGovern-both affable, well-spoken gentlemen of the Democratic left with fanatic youthful supporters, who picked the wrong running mates. (McGovern was forced to call the bullpen and send in Shriver for Eagleton partway through the campaign.) McGovern was a wartime candidate, like Obama; both planned on widespread opposition to the war and dislike of the incumbent (aka "a need for change") to power them to victory. Of course Bush is no Nixon; nor is he up for reelection. In any case, McGovern got plastered. True, Obama passes for mainstream more effectively than McGovern ever did; on the other hand, thanks to a dramatic change of commanders and strategies, the United States is now winning its faraway war against terrorist armies and murderous ideologues underwritten by foreign powers, leaving Obama stuck for a foreign policy message.

Yet all those things applied to Vietnam in 1972 just as they do to Iraq today. Thanks to the substitution of Abrams for Westmoreland in May 1968, the war was slowly and surely being won. But the final outcome was a catastrophic defeat for the United States and (even worse) for all Vietnamese who had ever counted on us. Washington politicians collaborated in that defeat. If Obama is elected, the danger is real. America had better try to understand whether he thinks for himself or is a true-blue member of gen-CR, who has been taught that losing wars is character-building and that serious Americans find their own history embarrassing (and the less you know about it, the better). Consider three Obama pronouncements.

Last July he listed crises America has faced, including "the bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor." He spoke of "constantly evolving danger," not of "enemies"; he said that we had "adapted to the threats posed by an ever-changing world," not beaten our enemies. Gen-CR recoils from the idea of enemies. As for "the bomb," Obama was presumably conflating Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. However that may be, the statement is a prime specimen of gen-CR thinking.

Obama has proposed a "civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded [as the military]." Later he seemed to say (maybe) that this organization would support the military in noncombat duties. But in that case, why does it have to be so powerful? Whatever he had in mind, he was obviously not bothered by the ugly historical overtones of muscular national police forces or parallel armies. History is full of such organizations, from the Committee of Public Safety wreaking bloody havoc in revolutionary Paris to the immense terror-force of the Stalinist NKVD to Mao's murderous Red Guards. Because Obama (evidently) does not listen to history, he seems to have no sense of its hints and warnings.

His announcement that he would meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions shows exactly why a president must not merely know history but have a decently nuanced view. It was wrong for Chamberlain to meet Hitler and foolish for JFK to meet Khrushchev, but right for Begin to meet Sadat and for Churchill to make repeated long, dangerous journeys to meet Stalin. It's obvious to all sorts of Americans-as it was obvious to Hillary Clinton at the time-that Obama's offer was dangerous and wrong, but the reasons are not easily reduced to a formula. "World leaders should not meet with other world leaders unless they know what the agenda is, so you don't end up being used," was the way Joe Biden, then an Obama opponent, put it. "Don't invest American prestige in a high-risk meeting where you are likely to take a bath" is another way to put it; "don't invest American prestige where it tends to legitimize an international outlaw, unless urgent American interests stand in the balance" is still another. Either way, you have to understand "American prestige"-which is not a gen-CR-type concept.

If the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, it is no place for remedial education either. The problem with Obama is not so much that he lacks experience but that he talks-like so many others of his generation-as if he had a child's view of modern history and (hence) of modern American reality. Obama's candidacy also poses a more subtle and sinister problem. He didn't create it, and it's not his fault; but it's frightening nonetheless. Start with a given: An Obama administration might still bring about defeat in Iraq; speeded-up troop with-drawals might weaken this new democracy and bring on its collapse like a burnt-out log into a blaze of terrorist violence. But if it did-if the left's policies proved tragically mistaken-Obama's supporters would never know it. What would the collapse of America's noble project in Iraq look like in the funhouse mirrors of the New York Times, NBC, Time and Newsweek and NPR and the rest of the establishment media? "In the end, Bush policy plunged Iraq into chaos, but Obama was smart enough to pull out before more American lives were lost." And that's what Democrats would "know" about Iraq.

In broader terms, Obama is a warning: The CR generation is now in full flood and coming on strong. Those who think that the '60s revolution has run its course, that Americans are about ready to come home and live on friendly terms with their own history and traditions, should think again. Of course Joe Biden has reassured us that you don't have to come from gen-CR to talk nonsense. (Biden last week recalled how President Roosevelt appeared on TV to calm Americans after the stock market crash of '29.) Yet Biden may well have forgotten more history than Obama ever knew.

Nothing is more traditional than change. For every "morning in America" campaign there are ten New Deals, Fair Deals, New Frontiers, Great Societies, and Kinder, Gentler Americas on offer. Youth wants change by definition. The fervor of young Bob Dylan telling us in 1963 that "the times they are a-changin'??'' is still sad and touching. Obama is the quintessential child of the Cultural Revolution, who grew up in a society that was up to its neck in change. Those were the big change years (Obama is small change by comparison), and some of the changes were marvelous. The near-eradication of race prejudice within a single generation is an achievement that Americans will always (or should always) be proud of. But in most other respects the Cultural Revolution was a disaster-one which is still unfolding. Obama is the herald of Phase 2, in which self-conscious leftism is replaced by unconscious leftism, and culture-leaders who misinterpret history by a new generation that barely knows any history to misinterpret.

Members of the CR generation who had mainstream, establishment educations have been trained like pet poodles to understand where romping is allowed and where it is forbidden. The permissible range of thought on such topics as protected minorities, protected species, protected psychosexual deviations, et al. is clearly spelled out from kindergarten onward. Young teachers in the 1970s proudly acknowledged their political biases: They were the New Left in action, on a long march through the institutions. But many of today's young teachers-in consequence of the long march's brilliant success-don't even realize that they are left-wing ideologues. As far as they know, their ideas are innocuous and mainstream-just like the New York Times!

To understand this generational shift in the making, consider the resignation of Harvard president Lawrence Summers in 2006, under attack for having said that, just possibly, the far greater number of male than of female scientists might have to do with innate differences between men and women-something that a large majority of working scientists (male and female) almost certainly take for granted (whether or not they are willing to say so). But Summers had expressed a forbidden thought, and (despite his abject confessions and apologies at the Harvard show trials) was duly banished. In the gen-CR age now approaching, such embarrassing accidents will no longer happen. Forbidden ideas simply won't occur to the Harvard presidents of the future.

Obama is the perfect model for a modern Harvard president. He might look back at his nation's history and see only a blur. But it's hard to imagine him ever thinking (much less saying) the sort of erroneous thought that doomed Summers. America's future has been intellectually housebroken. That's progress.


Barack Obama's team believes he can win by a landslide

Barack Obama's senior aides believe he is on course for a landslide election victory over John McCain and will comfortably exceed most current predictions in the race for the White House.

Their optimism, which is said to be shared by the Democratic candidate himself, is based on information from private polling and on faith in the powerful political organisation he has built in the key swing states. Insiders say that Mr Obama's apparent calm through an unusually turbulent election season is because he believes that his strength among first time voters in several key states has been underestimated, both by the media and by the Republican Party.

Mr Obama has come under fire from within Democratic ranks over his message and his tactics. Critics say he has failed to connect with the blue-collar workers seen as crucial to winning the election, and too reluctant to make direct attacks on Mr McCain. But his aides are convinced that he has a strong chance of winning no fewer than nine states won by George W.Bush in the closely contested 2000 election, including former Republican strongholds like North Carolina, Virginia and even Indiana, which have not voted Democrat for a generation.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said last week that Obama had "a lot of opportunity" in states which Mr Bush won four years ago. But in private briefings in Washington, a member of Mr Obama's inner circle of policy advisers went much further in spelling out why the campaign's working assumptions far exceed the expectations of independent observers. "Public polling companies and the media have underestimated the scale of new Democratic voters registration in these states," the campaign official told a friend. "We're much stronger on the ground in Virginia and North Carolina than people realise. If we get out the vote this may not be close at all."

To win the presidency, Mr Obama must win 270 votes in the Electoral College, which awards votes to the winner of each state broadly in proportion to the size of the population. Statewide surveys put the likely Electoral College result at a slender Obama win, 273-265. But his campaign staff believe they have a good chance of securing between 330 and 340 votes, and could win up to 364 votes, a landslide on the scale of Bill Clinton's wins.

The senior Obama advisor said that the Democratic nominee is confident of winning all the states held by John Kerry, the Democratic candidate four years ago, a total of 252 votes. But his team believes he can also bank victories in Iowa, where he first emerged as a force in the campaign in January, and New Mexico, where Mr Kerry only lost by 20,000 votes in 2004. Those states would leave him just six votes short of outright victory.

Taking Colorado, as Mr Obama's team are very confident of doing, would put him over the top. Even winning the smaller state of Nevada, with its five electoral votes, would be enough to guarantee a 269-269 tie with Mr McCain. If that happens, the US consititution would hand the decision over to the Democrat dominated US House of Representatives, which would presumably come down in Mr Obama's favour.

Most pollsters would regard those expectations as uncontroversial. But the Obama camp is also confident of winning Ohio and Virginia, which commentators believe are "toss up" states with the two candidates chances at 50/50.

Last week Mr Obama began investing heavily in advertising in Indiana, Florida and North Carolina, which many had supposed to be a waste of time and money. A Washington official who has discussed the electoral mathematics with one of Mr Obama's senior advisers told The Sunday Telegraph that the campaign is spending money only in states which it believes can, and indeed ought to, be won.

"Obama has many more paths to the nomination than McCain," the source said. "They think they can defend the Kerry states. Iowa is gone. That's five votes. New Mexico is in the bag. Then Obama has four or five different ways of winning. He can go Nevada or Colorado, Virginia, any of those, even Indiana. "McCain has got to run the board, the whole Bush table. He can probably lose New Mexico and Iowa. He can't afford to lose anything else."

The official added: "The poll numbers say Florida's back in play. McCain hasn't spent a single penny there and that's Obama's calculation, that he can capitalise on that. The Republicans can't lose Florida or they're done for."

Conventional wisdom among pollsters is that Mr Obama is at risk of losing both Michigan and Pennsylvania and possibly even Wisconsin, all large Kerry states whose loss would be a damaging blow. But the Obama camp believes that Wisconsin in safe and that he has strengthened his position in Pennsylvania with a good ground operation. Michigan, home of the Reagan Democrats, is a concern because Mr Obama did not campaign there in the primaries and race relations are raw, but they are confident they can hang on to his slender lead in the polls.

Mainstream pollsters on both sides of the aisle last week called the election as a dead heat. Mark Mellman, who was John Kerry's polling guru, said the 2008 election is "increasingly resembling the real map of 2004" and Matthew Dowd, a top strategist on Bush's re-election campaign, added: "States that were reliably red are reliably red, and states that were reliably blue are reliably blue."

But Mr Obama's campaign team reject that analysis. Their confidence that good organisation will more than compensate for latent racism will be reassuring to some Democrats, who were concerned by a poll last weekend that found Mr Obama would be six points higher in the polls if he were white.

The scale of their ambition will trouble those Democratic sceptics who consider Mr Obama's aides to be complacent and inexperienced in national campaigns.


Happy Days For Obama

So here we are -- wherever "here" is, economically, financially speaking. The House balks at the bailout. The markets tumble. What next? No expert who tells you he knows what's ahead is to be believed, and you can tell him a colleague said so. I wonder if we might, anyway, engage in some guess work. I have a few notions of my own. I think the election of Barack Obama has not been clnched, but that the Democratic ticket's chances are vastly enhanced. It is a melancholy thought. I share it with reluctance.

If I correctly read human nature, I see my fellow Americans as ready for a brand-new version of the same-old same-old. I see them ready, that is, for "change." For anything but news accounts about the crash of companies and the shredding of retirement accounts and stock portfolios.

The most sensible editorial page on the planet, the Wall Street Journal's, saw the bailout bill as generally, under the anguished circumstances, OK. That gave some hope. Yet the House went ahead and shot the thing down. I have the sense that Americans, whatever their view of the proposed bailout, are sick of the whole sideshow. They want it to go away. But it won't. So they hope for something new.

Many are tired of the old doctors -- associated as they are with painful treatment rather than cure -- with bailouts, with takeovers, with anguish, with loss. They want a new set of physicians. In fact, I think what they want is that which children who cut their fingers want. They want authority figures to "kiss it and make it well." But just get it done!

This is where we are politically, I think. The polls show Obama sprinting into the electoral lead. I do not think it is because he is Barack the Wonderful. I think it is because he was outside the room when the ceiling came crashing down unexpectedly and the moaning started. Nor do voters require him to have infallible answers. They require only that he inspect the damage, pick up the phone, call in the work crews.

Which can be a problem for the new gang. What if they don't work out? What if their plans aren't any good, or anyway noticeably better than the old plans? The Obama administration -- see, I am starting to think of it in those terms -- lacks ideas unconnected with enhancing the clout of "progressive" interest groups like labor unions and "community organizers." Tax increases, suffocating oversight of credit decisions, general dampening of the spirit of innovation and risk-taking -- stunts like these can keep an economy stalled indefinitely, to the mounting anger of those who demanded "change" to begin with. Even the House has come to wish it had bailed out for dear life!

We shouldn't say the Obama administration will, for sure, carry out such notions. Its members, some of them, might have better sense! Yet there is little in the Obama portfolio to suggest affection for private, as markedly distinguished from public, economic initiatives.

Yes, yes, yes! Agreed! Particular Wall Streeters have proved themselves at least as dumb and shortsighted as the nosiest regulator. Yet many of these merely responded to government initiatives such as the push for universal home ownership financed by interest rates held too low for too long by, yes, federal policy.

Successful economic policy for the long haul is biased in the direction of freedom and opportunity-seeking: commodities you want more of, not less. I grant it's early for pulling long faces over the expected humbling in a few weeks of those politicians generally wedded to freedom and opportunity-seeking. I have to encourage them all the same to get ready. Things don't get look good, and perhaps shouldn't, for the party that ran Washington for most of the last eight years. There are tides in the affairs of men that wash out to sea those perceived, fairly or not, as complicit in failure.

I hope that's not what I see right now -- a tide forming up for Democrats as well as Republicans who consistently, and honorably, come down on the side of freedom as a basic ingredient for economic success. I hope, nevertheless, they know how to swim.


A Columbia Marine To Obama: Help!

Is lifting the ROTC ban change we can believe in?

Well, he's not a Marine yet. But Austin Byrd is a junior at Columbia University who has completed Officer Candidate School. So when he graduates nearly two years from now, he will leave campus with more than an Ivy degree. On his shoulders, he will carry the gold bars of a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.

When that good day comes, Mr. Byrd says, he hopes that his university will have lifted a ban on the Reserve Officers' Training Corps that dates back to Vietnam. And here the Marine officer-to-be has a surprising ally: Columbia's most famous son, Barack Obama.

In a forum on public service on campus earlier this month, Mr. Obama (Columbia '83) and John McCain (Annapolis '58) were both asked about the ROTC ban. When Mr. McCain predictably called on Columbia to "re-examine" the ban, he was predictably booed by a crowd of several thousand students who were watching the debate on a giant TV screen on campus.

The question was later put to Mr. Obama. "I think we've made a mistake on that," Mr. Obama replied. "I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy, but the notion that young people here at Columbia aren't offered a choice or an option in participating in military service is a mistake." The same students who had so lustily booed Mr. McCain, reported the New York Times, were "largely silent" when Mr. Obama gave the same answer.

Mr. Byrd hopes that Mr. Obama's statement is more than just a passing reference. "His words have been useful for having a debate," says the art history major from Rochester, N.Y. "But his words are not going to change anything on their own. If he really believes what he said, I think he has an obligation to follow through. This is a place where he has enormous influence."

Indeed, though the ban on ROTC is perennially debated at Columbia, Mr. Obama's answer has energized student groups like the Hamilton Society, which are working for its repeal. The last time the question was put to the student body, 65% favored lifting the ban. Now it looks as though there will be another campus vote, preceded by two town-hall style debates. Though the final details are still being hashed out, the plan is to have it all done before the November presidential elections.

And that puts Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, in a fix. Though a student vote would not bind the university into revoking the ban, it would have embarrassing consequences. If Columbia's students were, once again, to vote in favor of lifting the ban, they would effectively be joining Mr. Obama in urging Mr. Bollinger to move beyond the partisan divisions of the past.

In this regard, the note Mr. Bollinger sent on Thursday to the Columbia family was illuminating. In an email, he outlined the reasons why ROTC was neither necessary nor desirable. When not downright misleading, the note was telling for its emphasis on side issues.

For example, Mr. Bollinger pointed out that even without ROTC on its own campus, Columbia students can fulfill their ROTC requirements elsewhere. But that option is available only for Army and Air Force ROTC. Students like Mr. Byrd, who wish to serve as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps, are out of luck. And some might even think that a scandal for a university that at one point in its life was commissioning more naval officers than Annapolis.

Even more revealing, Mr. Bollinger attributes Columbia's ban on ROTC as a reaction to the "current Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy of the Defense Department." Of course, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is not a Defense Department policy. It is United States law. Mr. Bollinger either knows this and is being misleading, or he doesn't know it. Either way, it is so much more comforting to blame the evil Pentagon than note that Columbia's real issue is with the United States Congress.

All of which leaves us with a curious cast of actors: Students who are pushing for a debate on substance while their administration throws up side issues. An alumnus on the cusp of the presidency who favors overturning both "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and Columbia's ban on ROTC. And a university leader who finds himself to the left of the most liberal member of the United States Senate.

"What Columbia needs is a debate that cuts to the heart of this issue," says Mr. Byrd. "And that is whether ROTC is fit to be on our campus." So here is the perfect proposition, edited for a Bollinger Era: "Resolved: Ask not what you can do for your country, but whether the United States military is good enough for your campus."


ACORN, Obama, and the Mortgage Mess

The financial markets were teetering on the edge of an abyss last week. The secretary of the Treasury was literally on his knees begging the speaker of the House not to sabotage the bailout bill. The crash of falling banks made the earth tremble. The Republican presidential candidate suspended his campaign to deal with the crisis. And amid all this, the Democrats in Congress managed to find time to slip language into the bailout legislation that would provide a dandy little slush fund for ACORN.

ACORN stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a busy hive of left-wing agitation and "direct action" that claims chapters in 50 cities and 100,000 dues-paying members. ACORN is where Sixties leftovers who couldn't get tenure at universities wound up. That the bill-writing Democrats remembered their pet clients during such an emergency speaks volumes. This attempted gift to ACORN (stripped out of the bill after outraged howls from Republicans) demonstrates how little Democrats understand about what caused the mess we're in.

ACORN does many things under the umbrella of "community organizing." They agitate for higher minimum wages, attempt to thwart school reform, try to unionize welfare workers (that is, those welfare recipients who are obliged to work in exchange for benefits) and organize voter registration efforts (always for Democrats, of course). Because they are on the side of righteousness and justice, they aren't especially fastidious about their methods. In 2006, for example, ACORN registered 1,800 new voters in Washington. The only trouble was, with the exception of six, all of the names submitted were fake. The secretary of state called it the "worst case of election fraud in our state's history." As Fox News reported:

"The ACORN workers told state investigators that they went to the Seattle public library, sat at a table and filled out the voter registration forms. They made up names, addresses, and Social Security numbers and in some cases plucked names from the phone book. One worker said it was a lot of hard work making up all those names and another said he would sit at home, smoke marijuana and fill out the forms."

ACORN explained that this was an "isolated" incident, yet similar stories have been reported in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, and Colorado -- all swing states, by the way. ACORN members have been prosecuted for voter fraud in a number of states. (See Their philosophy seems to be that everyone deserves the right to vote, whether legal or illegal, living or dead.

ACORN recognized very early the opportunity presented by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. As Stanley Kurtz has reported, ACORN proudly touted "affirmative action" lending and pressured banks to make subprime loans. Madeline Talbott, a Chicago ACORN leader, boasted of "dragging banks kicking and screaming" into dubious loans. And, as Sol Stern reported in City Journal, ACORN also found a remunerative niche as an "advisor" to banks seeking regulatory approval. "Thus we have J.P. Morgan & Co., the legatee of the man who once symbolized for many all that was supposedly evil about American capitalism, suddenly donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to ACORN." Is this a great country or what? As conservative community activist Robert Woodson put it, "The same corporations that pay ransom to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pay ransom to ACORN."

ACORN attracted Barack Obama in his youthful community organizing days. Madeline Talbott hired him to train her staff -- the very people who would later descend on Chicago's banks as CRA shakedown artists. The Democratic nominee later funneled money to the group through the Woods Fund, on whose board he sat, and through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, ditto. Obama was not just sympathetic -- he was an ACORN fellow traveler.

Now you could make the case that before 2008, well-intentioned people were simply unaware of what their agitation on behalf of non-credit-worthy borrowers could lead to. But now? With the whole financial world and possibly the world economy trembling and cracking like a cement building in an earthquake, Democrats continue to try to fund their friends at ACORN? And, unashamed, they then trot out to the TV cameras to declare "the party is over" for Wall Street (Nancy Pelosi)? The party should be over for the Democrats who brought us to this pass. If Obama wins, it means hiring an arsonist to fight a fire.


(For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena . For readers in China or for when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.)

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