Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama, McCain, Palin, Biden

There are two sides to every argument. This is especially true in politics, and nowhere more so than in the United States where two parties dominate and there are, all too often, only two answers prominently offered for every question. This often descends to the point that each side demonizes, or at least scorns, the other. Each side becomes a culture unto itself, where it can become easy for any observor, like you or me, to see and read only what he agrees with. And as a moderate, that makes me wonder: do I choose one candidate, or have I come to dislike another, simply because I'm only reading and seeing things from my angle and not doing enough to dialogue with the other side? Stepping into other people's shoes, seeing things through their eyes, is an ideal I constantly fall short of, and I deeply admire it when I see that rare quality in a politician or anyone else.

I've come around to support the Obama-Biden ticket with some positive feeling of admiration and cautious hope. True, as a lifelong Democrat (albeit a kind of Reagan Democrat) I would probably have voted for that ticket anyway. But for a few years now I've been mired in such cynicism about politics that I was in danger of stepping into the booth in November and supporting Democrats as a default position. I was probably going to vote simply to repudiate the Bush years and to give my vote to the party I regarded as safer -- but it was not going to be a vote based on great consideration, much less one founded on positive, healthy emotion. I was going to pull the lever as robotically as I could, I think.

That started to change when I heard Sarah Palin's convention speech. At the time I was not particularly moved by Obama, and nothing I knew made me feel that McCain would make a bad president. In fact I still think McCain has many positive qualities and could make a good president (but I no longer think we can afford a merely good president; our situation has changed). I had heard that his VP choice was Alaska's female governor, and I thought it was, at the very least, a politically shrewd choice.

But then I listened to the speech. I did not look at her, because I was trying to finish some work on my computer -- not a task that required much focus, but enough focus to keep me turned from the screen where she appeared. And what I heard was a certain hard unforgiving energy. Vibrant, to be sure. It certainly excited the crowd. But excited crowds typically make me nervous, regardless of party, so that was no reassurance.

What I heard was the voice of someone who felt that the way to inspire people was through sarcasm and bite. Not ideas, nor policies, but something colder, though it was certainly capable of generating a lot of heat.

Of course I knew that convention speeches are empty, and that they're about exciting the faithful. So I said, let's wait and see what she has to say in a different setting, where substance is expected and called for. But, emotionally I was already an Obama supporter -- if only because I'd seen that the Republican worldview was hardening, causing perhaps my own Democratic roots to awaken.

And needless to say, when Palin did speak in later interviews, I was dismayed. And here Palin was not sarcastic or biting; she was not her convention self. She was bewildered. But I think I know, now, the common thread between the convention and the interviews. Governor Palin seems to be, not stupid, but definitely incurious. Note, I don't use that word as a mere stand-in for "stupid." I think she's smart. She's just not curious about knowledge. She's not hungry for debate -- and I mean real, free exchange of ideas, not the debate she had with Biden where there were no follow-up questions and her knowledge was not strongly tested.

She hired friends and put them into office around her as Governor, probably because she shares with George Bush a certain averseness to debate. A lack of desire to be exposed to different points of view.

She's curious about power -- how to influence people and keep them that way. That's where her intelligence has been directed. Her interviews showed someone who didn't have that drive to study questions in the hope of producing answers to questions, or finding answers in cooperation with others. Rather she showed herself painfully driven to avoid questions.

And that's why she depends on other things when it comes to politics. She feels that political disputes -- perhaps even intellectual questions -- can be solved through sarcasm or force of personality rather than ideas, or broader inclusive emotions. There's an anti-intellectualism, a hositility to ideas and indifference to facts, that I find deeply unsettling.

I am constantly impressed at how much support she has. For every knock against her, there's a defense. Her detractors can't stand her, and as with any polarizing figure, I will always wonder whether any particular judgment I make about her is too strong because I'm hearing about it from within my side of the two-sided war, with all the prejudices corresponding to that side.

However, I do know that when I heard her speech, I had not been following politics very much (aside from the Jeremiah Wright controversy), and I was about as open as I could be to the wisdom of McCain's choice of VP. I hadn't read anything from detractors yet. It was, simply, Palin in her own voice and words that alienated me.

It was about as "pure" a moment as I've ever had, observing politics.

But now, for my support of Obama, I don't have such a distilled moment. I was already driven leftward by Palin's speech, when I started really looking at Obama, really listening to him.

I will say that he is, among other things, a true contrast with everything that I've said about Palin. (The same goes for Biden). Here we have someone who has obviously studied all the issues very carefully, and who has a fine mind suited to weighing ideas. As for the heart, there is nothing in his temperament which I find to be wedded hard to ideology -- contrary to the scare tactic that pegs hims as the most liberal of liberals. He may be consistently on the left because that is his political culture, but I hear nothing from him to suggest that he is more interested in ideology than in ideas or the truth.

More to that, a senator can vote, perhaps, along party lines, far easier than a president, who has many more forces and requirements acting upon him.

It is really the Republican campaign which I find to be barren of vision, and narrow-minded, and small of heart. Here, at this moment of all moments, they want to talk about Bill Ayers?

Until very recently I could not be inspired by Obama. I knew he inspired others greatly, but I didn't know why. I always was, and remain, worried about his thin political experience. And I remain troubled that he could dismiss so many people as "clinging" to religion because they're bitter. He may have said that to please his particular listeners that day, which would be troubling (though at least he would not be worse than nearly all politicians, who do the same); he may also believe such things himself, and that would be worse.

That said, I am moved by Obama's cool temperament under fire. It even feels Christian to me -- his ability, not exactly to turn the other cheek, but at least not to retaliate heatedly (sometimes not to retaliate at all) when in a debate. And yes, I know about the ads. I'm not calling him blameless; I think TV spots in general are a cancer on the truth that all campaigns indulge in, trying to get elected. When the election is over, let's see how Obama acts towards his enemies, domestic and abroad. I'm cautiously hopeful.

Finally, I have to say this, even though I know it's not original -- but I can't not say it. The whisper campaign against Obama, to the effect that he is a Muslim, is the kind of thing that I find most dispiriting about this country. It will not lead me into cynicism, but it could if I allowed it to do so. It is cynicism itself, combined with much worse. It's a blatant disregard for facts (in this case, the fact that Obama is Christian), on top of prejudice and fear. It has been said better by others -- not least Colin Powell yesterday -- so I'll leave it at that.

As I say, I'm hopeful. We have here a man who is not afraid of ideas and not retaliatory toward people. If we don't elect this man, we'll have to elect another such human being in his place.

Kevin Rosero



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