Monday, February 11, 2008

Does Obama embody the General Will?

Rob Vischer at Mirror of Justice links to a fascinating op-ed by a Roman Catholic priest, Jonathan Morris. Fr. Morris writes:

As soon as politics, for the sake of politics, becomes a society’s principle passion — its object of hope, its pearl of great price — that society has already subjected itself to a type of totalitarianism. Unwittingly, it has relinquished a citizen’s and a people’s privilege and responsibility of self-determination. It has bet the outcome of the common pursuit of happiness on the eventual good actions of chosen elite.

There is certainly a distinction between politics as a form of religion and garden variety enthusiasm for a candidate, but isn't there danger in the notion that much of life ought to be politicized? Should we really view politicians as people who will care for us and help us through large parts of our lives?

Hillary Clinton certainly conveys that message. She is quite clear that it takes a village to raise a child and equally clear that the state runs the village. This is the politics of meaning. The problem, of course, is not with the search for meaning but with the looking for it in politics.

But Obama has taken the desire for a political savior beyond rationality and I find it - I can't help myself here - more than a bit creepy.

A writer, who supports Obama, expresses her concern that people making phone calls on his behalf are encourged to skip policy and share personal stories of how they "came to Obama." In a Frank Luntz focus group, one Democratic voter says that an attraction of Obama is that he will unify the country because "when we all have our own opinions and argue to death, nothing gets done." The Body must unite behind its Head. The video that everyone is so excited about actually obscures whatever Obama is saying save for a few platitudes and the phrase "yes, we can."

While I think it is a legitimate criticism of the Obama campaign that its messaging is deliberately vague on what it is that we can do and whose time it is that has come, I find the subtext embodied in that lack of particulars even more disturbing. If the message is not that we can do these specific things, then we must be able to do anything and everything. On one level, this is an appeal to nothing in particular. It simply invokes an aesthetic. Who knows what it means, but it sounds pretty and looks good.

On another level, it immanentizes the eschaton. We can found paradise on earth through a benevolent state. The government can love you.

I certainly hope that Barack the man - as opposed to Obama the image - appreciates that this is not only false but dangerous.

Law professor Bill Brewbaker says that he voted for McCain "in part because nobody's going to mistake him for the messiah." But isn't messianic hope the very rationale of the Obama campaign? If the "unity" he seeks is around something other than his person, then he has to explain what it entails and he becomes, not a transcending figure, but the most liberal Senator. Substantively, Obama's policies are not new or unique; they are old and common. Perhaps that old and common liberalism is what the country wants this year. But the fact that it is not what he puts on offer suggests otherwise.


Mike Plaisted said...

Yes, Rick, totalitarianism. That must be the only result of a plea for unity and hope. If a politician wants us to believe in the redemption of change -- even after the Bush disaster -- this must be dangerous; must be wrong.

But you can only say that Obama offers the messianic without the substance if you ignore his actual speeches. In news coverage soundbites, you only hear "yes we can" and other vague references to the possible. But, if you bother to watch or read his speeches, they are full of specifics on ending the war, providing health care, and generally getting the Bush-damaged nation back on track.

One of my criticisms of Obama is that his is not as good on the specifics as Hillary, who is a policy wonk that can tell you exactly what is wrong and exactly how she proposes to fix it on any given topic (and, no, the state does not run the village). But Obama is precise enough and I have no doubt he would be better in every area than McCain.

It is interesting to see another trial balloon on the Obama attack go up from the right this week. All the right-wingers are following the talking point that Obama is too vague to be trusted. Not everyone has combined it with fear extrapolated from the raving of Catholic priests, but this is the kind of thing we are going to see as the right probes for weaknesses in Obama, while pretending to consider him more of a threat to their regime than Clinton.

Good luck with that. You are going to have to do more than raise the hilariously-phony spectre of "Dionysian fascism" to avoid the landslide.

Anonymous said...

Professor --

A bit off topic here, but are you planning a post on the Helgeland SCOWIS decision? Unsurprisingly, it came down 4-3, and guess who was in the majority . . .

Rick Esenberg said...

You are going to have to do more than raise the hilariously-phony spectre of "Dionysian fascism" to avoid the landslide.

Please keep the posts straight. There is nothing Dionysian about Obama and I did not call him a fascist. What I suggested here is that there is a danger in seeing politics as a vehicle for salvation (or as you cannot help but say "redemption"), particularly when it's built around a cult of personality and demands for unity.

If you don't like hearing it from me, then listen to this guy:

I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.

- Paul Krugman, New York Times

I don't doubt that Obama takes positions but campaigns are built on their messaging. If we look to his positions, there is nothing unifying about him. He's a left-liberal of the type that has generally lost presidential elections over the past 40 years.

That does not mean that he will lose but it does mean that, if there is anything new under the sun, it's not Barack Obama.

Anonymous said...

Mike --

Your response would be a little more believable if it were . . . well . . . true.

I watched Obama's Super Tuesday speech, and I found it to be wholly without substance. (Need visual evidence of his cult of personality? Just watch a video of that speech and check out the girl on the viewer's right side of the screen.) I also saw him when he came to Milwaukee last year and campaigned for Doyle -- same deal: no substance.

And don't take my word for it. Obama's own campaign people are apparently telling his supporters to shy away from policy discussions, and to instead discuss their conversion to Obama (sounds Messianic, doesn't it?).

I think that little tidbit is available somewhere through the following link, where you'll also find that there are plenty of left-wingers apparently parroting the right-wing attack machine:

Display Name said...

Maybe the Republicans have already tired of weeping and wailing about McCain, and having ripped out their own entrails, will need someone new for the tip of their knives. Hopefully what will follow is more introspection and flashes of recognition that other politicans have eagerly duped the citizenry.

Perhaps others will realize that they had lined up without thinking behind a leader who was big on imagery, big on the Flag wrapped around the Cross, big on filmy hope and gauze catch-phrases, big on actions as large as wars without justification, the Big Daddy who will protect us from the bad guys. Which leader hasn't used those political tools?

Is Esenberg upset that a Democrat is using fewer of these tricks and yet appears to be winning an election? What causes any populace to accept demagoguery? Which 2008 candidates wielded fear instead of hope? Will any of Obama's programs cost as much as Iraq? Did Bush tell us he'd have that sort of foreign policy? Again, where have you been? You don't think there were "How did you come to Bush" stories? Obama fans invented blind loyalty, or that it's been absent in Republican voters?

What about this 1996 Obama speech on religion and pluralism? (Video or transcript.) I bet even a "let's freely mix government and religion more often" fellow would like much of it. When's the last time you heard a presidential politician speak that intelligently and deliberately? Offhand, I'd say he sounds smarter and wiser than Bush I, Bush II, or either Clinton. Do you prefer the Bush-variety polarizing politics or the "fair-minded words" and the hope for live-and-let-live consensus?

I don't think Obama is promising paradise. I think he, like every other candidate on any side today, is promising "No more of the Hell we're in now." But thank you for using "immanentizes the eschaton." A great phrase, whether uttered by Buckley or R.A. Wilson.

Dad29 said...

You are describing the "Savior-President" motif, also used by Rudy.


It's not uncommon. It is, of course, a sham.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that Obama was sworn in to the Senate on the Koran (not the Bible) and that he refuses to place his hand on his heart and say the pledge of allegience?

Here's a quote from an email that I recently read:

"Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school n Jakarta. Wahabism is the RADICAL ISLAMIC teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world."

Mike Plaisted said...


Fascism, totalitarianism...redemption, salvation -- what's the difference. In a year when the right-wing howls at the moon about Reagan and his shining city on the hill (for him, anyway) it is funny to hear you complain that Obama might generate too damn much inspiration. You also twist his message the same way you smeared Hillary's supposed state-run village. Obama can talk about personal responsibility as good as any Republican -- not all of his solutions are in government as much as they are in ourselves.

But, any bugaboo will do in a pinch, and we are just getting the politics-of-personal-destruction thing going on Obama, aren't we, Rick?

Whatever his substance, the message for you guys will be, as usual, Fear -- Fear of Rev. Wright; Fear of the messianic (this from the crowd that willingly followed rapture-believer Bush into our national disaster); Fear of the Totalitarian personality.

Bit of a stretch, isn't it? Is that all you got? Why not go completely nuts and join the wacky Anony with his madrasa hysteria? Stop dancing around the edges and see if you can swift-boat him like that, rather than imagining Obama as a pied piper leading the love-blind down the road to...where, Rick? What are you really afraid of...Democratic success?

Anonymous said...

anon- If you were able to type that comment you also should be able to do a search of these here internets and find that those claims are ridiculous lies. I understand why you would post anonymously when repeating them. (is that you Veritas?)

Obama is a charismatic savy politician. He also happens to be right on most of the issues.

He is expoliting the cult of personality thing because he is a likable guy and it will help him get elected. I don't think he has a messiah complex any more than your average politician, except Huck.

Anonymous said...

3rd way -

Oh good, we can take your word for it.

I've seen the picture of Obama turning away from the flag and other candidates during the pledge and I haven't heard or seen the other two things proven untrue.

Moreover, his joining a religion to say he's Christian for the sake of the campaign doesn't appear to be very authentic.

Finally, the goddess Ophrah endorsed him, which tells me that he can't be Christian because she has many times express her opposition to it.

Anonymous said...

mike --

The politics of fear is no isn't unknown on either side of the political aisle. Remember Al Gore and John Kerry and their nearly successful social security scares?


How about the continuous scare tactics from the left about our lost civil liberties?


These are simply another species of the back-alley coat-hanger scare tactics from pre-Roe to today.

So let's not claim that Republicans have a monopoly on scare tactic politics.

Anonymous said...

forgive me for the editing error

Display Name said...

Snopes has the debunking of those emailed claims. All false.

Anonymous said...

I never thought that the American people would be so stupid to not check Barack Hussein Obama out as a candidate.
What are the American people doing?
Please check this guy out.
This is a job application for the most powerful position in the world.
Where did this man come from. His name alone should call for a thorough investigation.
Can't he answer the question:
Why is it that you don't mention that you were raised by a Muslim Father.
Do you still have relatives. I heard you have a sister in Indonesia and and Uncle in Kenya.
He scares me. Please don't let this be a Nostrodomous prediction coming true.

Anonymous said...

Make headlines and find dirt on Obama before the Americans make fools out of themselves to the world.
If you don't do it, the Republicans surely will.

Rick Esenberg said...

You don't think there were "How did you come to Bush" stories?

Actually, no. I do not.

Anonymous said...

"Make headlines and find dirt on Obama before the Americans make fools out of themselves to the world."

Leaving the Obama dirt digging up to the Republicans is a good strategy. Claiming that Obama went to a Wahabi school, taking issue with the pins he wears, claiming that he has a messiah complex and complaining about how he stands during the star spangled banner does reveal foolishness, but the supporters of Obama aren't the ones that should be embarrassed.

Anonymous said...

With an ambiguous background, set of beliefs, campaign promises and Ophrah support, there is no reason to think that Obama isn't normal.

Unknown said...

Tell every people the following equations:

Obama wins Democrat nominee = Democrat loses California in general election = Democrat loses general election in November 2008

Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that the Reverend Father Jonathan Morris of both the Fox News Network and the Legionaries of Christ even dares to broach the subject of Messiah figures and cults of personality in politics.

Perhaps when he and is brother priests begin to admit that their Padre Nuestro 'living saint'/founder/leader was a megalomanical, manipulative, delusional, duplicitous and sexually predatory monster, I'll then start to take him remotely seriously in this matter.