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Why I Hate Barack Obama

I'm writing this to get it off my chest, so that I can focus on other things. I'm not going to provide links and citations for the stuff I say, because looking them up would just prolong the amount of time I have to spend thinking about the president. Rest assured I got all this information from credible sources.

I've seen a number of defenses of Barack Obama's presidency lately. They generally make use of one or both of the following lines of argument:

1) Obama has a long list of underappreciated accomplishments, such as signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and according to some writers signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I'll be the first to admit that signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a good thing. But it was also a thing that took about 10 seconds, maybe half an hour if you count the entire signing ceremony. Half an hour of accomplishments is not that much for a presidency that has gone on for over 13,000 hours.

2) Obama has so many major crises on his plate, most notably the economic meltdown, that he hasn't had time to get to everything else. His critics are setting an unrealistically high standard and expecting him to magically make everything better with a wave of his wand. This line of reasoning would make sense if Obama wasn't actively making things worse in many areas. You don't get to complain you didn't have time to plant a new tree if you've spent all day cutting down more trees.

So what has Obama actually done for us? Let's take a tour through some of the policy areas I've paid a little attention to over the last year and a half.

Immigration: Making it Worse

In theory, Obama was supposed to push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform to fix our irretrievably broken immigration laws, while working within DHS to make the existing system's practice more humane. Considering that immigration is probably a low priority for him, I could accept a simple lack of change. But in fact, Obama has increased the punitiveness of the immigration system. Deportations have exploded under this president, while more troops are sent to the border and detainees (even those who have not yet been convicted of anything and pose little flight risk) continue to be funnelled into private prisons where emergency medical care is considered a luxury.

Health Care: Not Making it Better

Obama did sign the Affordable Care Act, which I'll grant was (barely) better than nothing. But I wouldn't be surprised if the signing ceremony was the first time he saw the bill. Throughout the long health care debacle, while the Senate was busy taking the Republican alternative to Clintoncare and watering it down further, Obama seemed allergic to taking a stand on any issue relating to health care reform. The term "Obamacare" would be hilarious if it weren't so tragic, but I suppose "Reidcare" or "Nelsoncare" don't have the same zing to them. Given his disinterest in the issue, it's hard to give Obama either credit or demerits for the final outcome. I do note, however, that he moved decisively to make sure that nobody covered under the new system could get any help with an abortion as soon as there were rumors that might happen.

Women's Rights: Making it Worse

Speaking of abortion, beyond the aforementioned signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Obama doesn't seem to realize that women face any particular hardships or issues in our society. (I take comfort in pretending that whoever came up with the "this is what a feminist looks like" cover for Ms. magazine has been fired and resigned from the graphic design business.) The "too much on his plate" defense might have some pull with respect to the way the administration has stood idly by as the states and Congress whittle Roe v Wade down into a hollow shell. But that doesn't excuse his penchant for reminding us, whenever he speaks on the issue, that if he had his druthers women would need to get a permission slip from their minister or priest before they could get an abortion.

Government Transparency: Making it Worse

A big criticism of the Bush administration was that it didn't want its employers -- the citizens of the US -- to know what it was up to. And for all his campaign rhetoric, Obama the president appears to think Bush was on the right track. Administration lawyers have been vigorous in using Bush-era doctrines to resist attempts at creating more transparency in government.

Civil Liberties: Making it Worse

This is another issue that Obama campaigned hard on, then immediately reversed course once he sat in the White House. Sure, he made a token effort at closing Guantanamo Bay, but that was much more about avoiding the stigma of that particular location than about any desire to reduce the US's reliance on torture or its insistence that nobody it takes into custody has any rights. Moreover, the administration has sought to expand surveillance of US citizens here at home, just in case we might do something bad.

Murder of Civilians: Making it Worse

I'll give Obama a certain level of credit here: While he lied brazenly about most of the areas on this list during the campaign and after, he's always been clear that he thinks there should be fewer Afghans and Pakistanis alive. He doesn't usually put it in those terms, preferring to talk about continuing the war in Afghanistan. But it's been clear for a while that all the war in Afghanistan is accomplishing is "collateral damage" to civilians from unmanned drone attacks.

LGBT Rights: Trying Hard Not to Let it Get Better

With a lot of issues, it's possible to finesse a bad position by talking about costs and practicalities and relying on studies whose calculations the average person can't critique. But LGBT rights are a pretty open-and-shut moral issue. The Obama administration has established a clear pattern of waiting for pressure to build to the breaking point, then throwing out the smallest concession they can come up with in order to diffuse anger among the base. So while these baby steps are good, they also come with a clear message of "we are doing the absolute minimum to address your concerns." Don't Ask Don't Tell, for example, could have been gone with the stroke of a pen, but instead we've been treated to an extended bout of whining about how Congress should make a move first, and doing studies and polls about the issue, and generally investing huge efforts into dragging things out until the Palin administration takes over. Meanwhile, the administration has time to make a vigorous use of homophobic arguments to defend DOMA in court.

The Environment: Tyring to Let it Get Worse

It was clear during the campaign that Obama didn't really get the environment issue. Sure, he could write soaring rhetoric about sustainability into his speeches, but when it came down to it, he saw the US's energy future as lying in expanded coal and oil production. We were then treated to the spectacle of the administration announcing expanded offshore oil drilling just days before the Deewater Horizon blowout. A president who truly believed in the importance of a transition to a green economy would have used the Gulf disaster to shift our national conversation, like Bush did after 9/11. But instead, Obama seemed most concerned with getting the disaster off the front page so it wouldn't disrupt the status quo. And as for the politicization of science that ought to guide environmental policy, complaints from agency scientists are actually way up under the new administration.

Pandering to the Right Wing: Making it Worse

According to standard political theory, a Republican president should pander to the right and the center, while a Democratic president should pander to the left and center. Bush basically followed that pattern. Nevertheless, he was occasionally willing to stand up to his base when he felt strongly about something, like his proposal for immigration reform. Obama, on the other hand, seems determined to do a better job of pandering to Bush's base. His message to the left has been "shut up, who else are you going to vote for?" while to the right he says "yes sir, how high shall I jump, sir?" This was made most obvious with the Shirley Sherrod incident, in which his administration fell all over itself to fire her as soon as they heard Andrew Breitbart might not like her (and then begged her to come back to save their skin when it became apparent what fools they'd been). This pandering doesn't seem to have accomplished anything, since the right's hate for Obama is based on made-up stuff like "he's a Marxist," "he was born in Kenya," and "he wants to institute death panels." So I can only conclude that pandering to the right is a cause he honestly believes in, rather than a bit of pragmatic spinelessness.

US Standing in the World: Making it Better

Caught you a bit by surprise there, didn't I? But don't worry -- while I think this is one area that has improved under the Obama administration, it's dubious how much of the credit for it Obama can really claim.

The first big reason the US's standing in the world has improved is that Obama has a lot of charisma. As you can see from the rest of this post, there's no good reason for foreigners to think Obama is substantively better than Bush, but apparently many of them, from the Nobel committee to the person on the street answering poll questions, are stupid. (And before you say that's an expression of American arrogance, remember that we're the morons who voted for him.) If "foreigners have an irrational crush on him" counted as an accomplishment, then maybe I should join the Hasselhoff 2012 campaign.

Finally, we come to one thing that looks like a genuine accomplishment: the new START treaty on nuclear disarmament. My sense is that this is one issue Obama legitimately believes in. While the Senate is likely to kill the treaty since it's Ronald Reagan-style socialism, Obama deserves credit for his role in negotiating an agreement with Russia.


Rejecting the "Uncorrupted Self"

Hugo Schwyzer did me the unintended favor of making explicit in a recent post an assumption underlying much of his writing that I simply can't agree with:

Not to verge dangerously onto philosophical ground, but I think most of us (even if we haven’t read Plato or been washed in the Blood of the Lamb) think we have a "true self" somewhere deep inside, somewhere deeper than the corrupting influences of a sexist patriarchal culture could reach.

This strikes me as more Rousseau than Plato or Paul, but in any event it's a familiar story. Each person has a true, authentic self which is innocent and good, but which is warped and corrupted by the influences of society. The task of personal development, then, is to shake off these extra influences that have been layered on us to find and follow our authentic desires and way of being. It becomes crucial in this way of thinking to distinguish what is "real" or "ours," what we are born with and what is encoded in our DNA, on the one hand, from what is "false" or imposed on us later by society, on the other hand. If something is in the first group, it should be celebrated. If in the latter, rejected or overcome.

What I would like to reject or overcome, however, is this idea of an authentic essence or uncorrupted self. If Schwyzer's idea of human nature is the "uncorrupted self," we can call my proposal the "incomplete self." (Relevant philosophers here may include John Dewey/Jane Addams, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Judith Butler). There is no true self that exists apart from our shaping by the circumstances of our lives and our reactions to them. Someone who has unquestioningly absorbed the ideology of patriarchy is as authentically partiarchal as a committed feminist is authentically egalitarian. We are not born as total blank slates, but neither are we born as fully-developed selves. Egalitarianism is a social product, a shaping of the raw materials offered by our DNA and uterine environment just as patriarchy is. The good news is that even octogenarians are still incomplete, still open to reworking of the residues of 80 years of life.

In this view, self-development is not a separation of the authentic from the corrupting, but of reshaping all possibilities. But if we lack a "true self" as an anchor -- particularly a true self that can be counted on to be good and pure -- how can we guide that reshaping process? Here I think the Pragmatist tradition offers a good guide. Pragmatism rejects a search for (Descartes-like or logical positivist) foundationalist truth in favor of a spiraling, provisional process that starts from where we are. In parallel, we can see a Pragmatist agenda for self-development as a resolution or mediation among conflicting aspects of the self. We start from the existence of a problem -- something strikes us as wrong or unsatisfying about who we are and how we relate to the world. The answer is found when the problem reaches a satisfactory resolution. That's satisfactory to the one perceiving the problem -- no external or objective guide like the "true self" can tell you where to go or when you've arrived.

Aspects of the self that are held more shallowly, and which are less integrated into other aspects of the self, are the most likely to give way in this process of reconciliation. This is what creates the illusion of separating a true self from corrupting social influences -- but that's only an illusion.

Writing about reform on the social level almost 120 years ago, William James captured the Pragmatist project well:

Since everything which is demanded is by that fact a good, must not the guiding principle for ethical philosophy (since all demands conjointly cannot be satisfied in this poor world) be simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can? That act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions. In the casuistic scale, therefore, those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least possible number of other ideals are destroyed. Since victory and defeat there must be, the victory to be philosophically prayed for is that of the more inclusive side-‑of the side which even in the hour of triumph will to some degree do justice to the ideals in which the vanquished party's interests lay. ... And yet if he be a true philosopher he must see that there is nothing final in any actually given equilibrium of human ideals, but that, as our present laws and customs have fought and conquered other past ones, so they will in their turn be overthrown by any newly discovered order which will hush up the complaints that they still give rise to, without producing others louder still. ... Pent in under every system of moral rules are innumerable persons whom it weighs upon, and goods which it represses; and these are always rumbling and grumbling in the background, and ready for any issue by which they may get free.

James' incomplete society works in the same way as the incomplete self I am proposing here. We don't reject patriarchy because it's a corruption of our true nature. We reject patriarchy (as a social system and as a personal practice) because it persistently creates problems, forcing unsatisfying conflicts among our ideals and practices.

Yet despite my fundamental disagreement with Schwyzer's idea of an uncorrupted self, I think the very next few lines of his post after the bit I quoted above are basically useful -- though they take on a different tone when viewed through the Pragmatist idea of the incomplete self:

Overcoming sexism or racism is about overcoming learned lessons, not about changing our very nature. The fact that the lessons began to be taught before our conscious memory doesn't change the fact that they were learned after birth rather than encoded in our genes or written on our hearts. And the feminist man in an argument with his female partner needs to remember that both he and the woman he loves have had their perspectives warped by society — and that each of them has an uncorrupted self which is no more or less valuable than that of the other.

If "our very nature" is something fixed and unchangeable, written into our genes, then there is no need to change it because there is no such thing. And we are each valuable not because we have an uncorrupted essence, but because the lack of an essence means we can never be corrupted beyond repair or corrupted out of being a creature that can perceive problems and make claims for their solution.


Loving or hating one's masculinity

If anyone is still reading this blog (I'm really trying to revive it -- one of the many things on my summer to-do list!), you might be interested in a post I put on my LiveJournal (where I expected more people to comment). The core question is:

What would it mean to answer either yes or no to the question of whether someone hates their masculinity? And how would one go about deciding whether their personal answer is yes or no?

(Comments can be left either here or on LJ)


The Silly 17th Amendment

Various liberal blogs have had a good time mocking the plank in the Idaho Republican Party platform calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment. This would end direct election of US Senators by the voters, and return the choice of Senators to the state legislatures. But I think it actually makes a certain amount of sense.

If the federal government is a federal government in the strict sense of a league of sovereign smaller governments -- like the UN or NATO -- then it makes sense for the sub-governments to pick their representatives, and for them sub-governments to be represented equally. After all, we didn't hold a national election for a UN Ambassador to represent the people of the US. Instead, the Obama administration picked Susan Rice to represent the US government.

On the other hand, if the federal government is purely a central government of which states are administrative subdivisions, then Senators ought to be selected by, and represent, the people of the US equally. This is basically how the House of Representatives does it, and most states have their own legislatures composed of two houses that are both elected from equal-population districts. The Senate could still be more prestigious and smaller and have longer terms, but if the individual voters are going to select Senators to represent them, then everyone's vote should have equal power.

So we can represent the state governments equally, or represent the individual voters equally. In neither case do I see a rationale for why the people of California as an aggregate ought to have representation equal to the people of Rhode Island as an aggregate. Any attempt to point out the differing interests of people in different states would run up against the question: why not represent other interest group divisions, many of which are more significant than state differences, equally? We could make the Senate have equal numbers of Senators for men and from women, for workers and owners, or for Asians and Latinos.

My own preference would be to scrap the idea of tying Senators to states and make the Senate elected on a national proportional representation basis. But if Senators are going to represent states, it seems sensible that they represent the governments of the states, and thus be selected by them.