According to Naomi Klein in yesterday’s Guardian and the current Nation, there is a new vocabulary of dashed hopes about Obama. On the Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free’ site, she got a walloping from some of the blograts for despairing and criticising too soon though, to be fair, it’s not clear whether she was setting out her loss of belief in Obama or merely reporting how others feel. Either way, it strikes me as plain silly.
One of the things I’ve been trying to say in my probably much-too-long and pedestrian posts about Obama’s policies and actions is that we need time before we can enter anything more than provisional judgements. This is not, as several in the comment thread on Naomi Klein’s article argued yesterday, in order to give the man a chance. I’m never loath to give a man a chance but what I really want to happen is a discussion about a considered assessment of the man, his presidency, actions and policies. And I happen to think that the assessment will only be valid if it unfolds over time. I am therefore completely out of sympathy with all Naomi Klein’s nonsense about hopeovers and hopelashes before the Obama administration is even three months old.
It is true that she has a serious point in the punchline to her article, which is approximately as follows: Don’t vest all your hopes in one man, set out to change the world through your own collective actions and make that the basis of hope. But she has made this point on the back of another and wholly different argument about presidential politics. And with that, she goes seriously astray.
In a presidential system, when it is functioning, there are other important centres of power than the President him/herself, but the President is the decisive one. And the trouble is that not only is politics highly presidential (and, as we know in the UK all too well, not only in presidential systems is that true), but the system is imbued with a culture of celebrity-hood, which is why the Obama family’s Portuguese Water Dog and Michelle Obama’s shoulders get so much media time.
Naomi Klein’s argument goes approximately as follows: A lot of people are being disappointed by Obama and losing hope; but he doesn’t matter that much; go forth and organise and find your hope in that.
The trouble is that the way that politics are organised in the US (and much more widely) and the culture that surrounds it mean that he does matter that much. Whereas feminists once pointed out for the radical movement that the personal is political, in mass culture today the political is personalised as never before in the modern era. To my mind, that means that it is important to be really careful, really judicious in coming to judgements about the central personalities of contemporary politics. I am not saying, mind, that in the end sweeping judgements, despair, condemnation or even great praise and enthusiasm are by definition unjustified. I am just saying we need to be careful when moving in those directions. And I think also that Naomi Klein makes a classic error of old-fashioned leftism by appearing to believe you can trash the person without also damning what he stands for. Sorry, but unless the personal criticism is based around something like corruption, dishonesty or a major personal flaw, then the person and the policies go down together.
So for me, the rush to judgement about Obama that I have commented on in some recent posts (30 March, 13 April, 16 April) is so far before time that it would be hard to take it seriously were it not being covered – and even promoted – in serious publications such as the Guardian, Nation, Economist, Prospect magazine and so on. Because this instant judgement may well be part of what sets the atmosphere and tone of political debate about some very important world-shaping issues in the next few years.
And at this point there is something that Naomi Klein and the hopeless ones she quotes need to think about. Their attacks on Obama from the left coincide all too neatly with those of Rush Limbaugh and Bartle Bull from the right. Is that really where and what they want to be – effectively, allies with the right?
Think about it. Slow down and as we develop grounds for hope through many different kinds of political and social engagement, let’s avoid linking them to superficial, hasty and rhetorical judgements about a man who – together with his position and his action – really does matter.
Think about it. And slow down. So you can think about it. Some more. Please.