Tag Archives: John McCain

Rego on Roosevelt

I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago to read my colleague Paul Rego’s new book on Teddy Roosevelt.  Although I’m a little more critical of Roosevelt than Paul is, his book seems very timely, and does a good job of pointing our Roosevelt’s continuing relevance.  Even this week John McCain morphed into a Roosevelt Republican taking on the Titans of Wall Street.  Whether McCain was convincing in doing so is another matter, but it was in line with Paul’s insight that Roosevelt remains a touchstone figure for many contemporary presidents and presidential aspirants.

I thought I was supposed to do a full-blow review/critical response to Paul’s book at a reception in his honor, but I had the honor of introducing him instead.  What follows are my meandering scribbles on Paul’s book, titled, by the way “American Ideal:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Search for American Individualism.” These don’t quite amount to a review since they’re mostly notes for a talk, but I thought I’d post them here anyway.

In some respects, Paul’s book focuses on the irony of his subtitle: Roosevelt’s search for an American individualism. Though an intellectual biography, Paul seems to suggest that Roosevelt doesn’t arrive at settled substantive positions so much as he grapples mightily with antinomies of American thought, practice and culture—the most important of these being the split between the pluribus and the unum in the American psyche. Born out of the Enlightenment, American politics and culture has never rested easily with the earlier notion of an individual as being one member of a group. Instead, the individual and the society are necessarily in tension with one another, if not actively opposed to one another. On this view, the individual is society’s other, not matter how much we may say that society’s could not be conceived of without individuals and vice-versa. On this reading, a search for an American individualism is a quixotic quest—my reading, not Paul’s—since to be an American is to be a part of a collective, but one which only defines itself through the exaltation of the individual. Nevertheless, however impossible the project, the struggle to reconcile these opposing forces gives Roosevelts work much of its energy and contemporary relevance, no matter that he didn’t completely succeed in his quest.

I especially like Paul’s tracing of the opposition between progressivism and individualism. For one thing, those people in American literature who pay any attention to Roosevelt tend to emphasize his individualism, and so Paul’s attention to Roosevelt’s progressivism was enlightening. Moreover, I learned a lot in Paul’s argument that at the turn of the twentieth century, progressivism was imagining largely in collectivist terms and was in some respects seen as anti-individualism. The complexities involved suggest, as Paul explicitly attempts to do, that politics of the early 21st century continues to bear the marks of the discourses of a century ago. Liberals still rocket uneasily between individual empowerment and government regulation and intervention, while conservative ideals of the self-made man and the destructive energies of capitalism collide, sometimes violently with the conservative values of community, family, and tradition. If Roosevelt has not solved the problem of the pluribus and the unum, neither, really, have we.

Paul doesn’t really take up the gendered elements of Roosevelts thought, and I think they are important on various levels. Roosevelts view of individualism is, in my view, deeply masculine, verging on masculinist, and one reason for the popularity of his books lay in his idealization of masculine activities—war, hunting, camping, and the like—as a remedy for the feminizing forces of culture. Ironically, of course, many conservatives perceived the government as just such a ‘feminizing” force, wherein a man had to give up his manly individualism in favor of the will of the collective. The identification of progressivism with the feminization of American culture is everywhere in American literature at least, and finds it’s way even in to contemporary politics. Think, for instance, of the fairly popular conservative dismissal of the liberal “nanny state,” and the preference that men pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Paul argues that Roosevelt was willing to use the powers of the state in order to enable the possibility of individual achievement. Whether this is genius or hopeless contradictory may depend upon your politics, but I’m struck by the way in which this structure is represented in one of Roosevelt’s signature achievements—the establishment of the National Park system. One reason, though not the only one, that it was brought in to existence was so a place where men could test their mettle against the forces of nature could be preserved in a rapidly urbanizing society.

Paul recognizes Roosevelt’s racism and makes the argument that he must be understood as a man of his time, and I think Paul also successfully shows that Roosevelt’s understanding of individualism did not exclude African Americans, making room for those of the race who in some sense transcended the handicaps associated with racial oppression. To some degree, this is a common argument made about someone like Lincoln—who Roosevelt took as an ideal. By modern standards would clearly be understood as a racist, but his thinking was supple enough to imagine the possibility of transcending the racial categories of his days.

Nevertheless, I wonder if some of the issues surrounding race as well as gender don’t go closer to the root of the problem Roosevelt faced, which would be in how the individual is imagined as an individual. That is, the political conception of the individual in American history is always imagined in raceless terms; however, in our conceptualization of race until very recently, only white people can be raceless. To be black is to be raced; in other words to be inherently marked as identified with a collectivity. By contrast, whiteness is more usually understood as the sign of individualism, of being unbounded by tribe, history, tradition and society. In short, to be free. The great literary essay on this idea remains Achebe’s meditation of Heart of Darkness, where he rightly points out that the travails of Conrad’s white characters depend upon the facelessness and inarticulate jabbering of the black mass that makes them stand out as individuals. In other words, however much room we may make in our conceptualization of individualization for specific black people, this is very easily transmuted in to the understanding that others can become individuals by becoming just like me—in which case they are no longer clearly other in terms of race.

This having been said, I tend to agree with Paul that the structure of this thinking can’t be blamed on Roosevelt, since it is part of the structure of American thinking per se. He did not invent it, nor is it completely clear how he could have escaped it. Instead I think it points to the notion that perhaps the reason these issues cannot be reconciled is that they begin with a deeply flawed notion of what it means to be an individual, however attractive that ideal may continue to be.

Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.

More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

John McCain–Happy Hemingway or Hillary Redux

This in from the NYTimes evaluating last night’s victories by John McCain and Barack Obama:

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain of Arizona won a commanding victory over Mike Huckabee in the Wisconsin contest and led by a wide margin in Washington State. All but assured of his party’s nomination, Mr. McCain immediately went after Mr. Obama during a rally in Ohio, deriding “eloquent but empty” calls for change.

Umm…I’m wondering. Why does McCain think he can make this line work any better than Hillary has made it work for the past three months? Still, McCain comes at it from a slightly different angle. If, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, Hillary is trying to protect the legions of naive American innocents from from the seductive Black Lothario, it seems to me that McCain is invoking more directly the masculine resistance to beautiful words that has dominated white male experience in the United States for the past 150 years or so.

No accident that McCain’s favorite novel is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This from Vanity Fair:

The enduring question about John McCain is what, finally, he is willing to do to win. His favorite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s story of an idealistic American, Robert Jordan, who goes to fight for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is willing to risk his life but never his honor, and his dying meditation, that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” gave McCain’s second memoir its title.

Indeed, McCain has more than his share of doomed to dutyFor Whom the Bell Tolls poster integrity that characterized Hemingway’s public persona. The title of Hemingway’s book, of course, refers to an ultimate destiny in death and the unflinching effort of the real man to face that inevitable destiny with something like grace. A characteristic effort of Heminway’s heroes, even when they mostly fail the chance. There’s a way, of course, in which McCain clearly does live out the Hemingway mythology. The prisoner of war refusing to bend the knee to his enemies, the maverick political independent, the loyalty to Bush on principle regarding the war, even when in his heart of hearts I think McCain finds Bush despicable. Even McCain’s political story this primary seasons unfolds like that of a Hemingway hero, the man willing to do what he believes in without resources. The belief that a man should stand up and do the right thing even in the face of overwhelming odds and the inevitable odds of death. As the Times suggested a couple of days ago, he doesn’t even pander well, which is precisely what makes him attractive to so many. Even I like McCain, and I disagree with him about almost everything. Proof again that policy statements and knowing the ropes may be important things for a Senator, but it’s not so clear that this kind of political minutiae is what will get people to follow you.

[Ironic side bar: The title of Hemingway’s novel is drawn from John Donne’s MeditationFor Whom the Bell Tolls First Edition number XVII, republished as the following poem:

‘No Man is an Island’ MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I say “ironic” because Donne’s meditation is primarily about the unity of mankind, “No man is an island.” We are all part and parcel of one another, involved in all mankind. Sounds positively Obamian. We are the hope we’ve been waiting for. We are the world. We are the children.

In Hemingway’s hands the solitary confrontation with death is a chance for the man to test one’s mettle against the worst that nature offers, like the bullfighter in the ring. Finally we do this alone. I can’t quite see McCain with Donne. Maybe if he stood up and said, “any man’s death diminishes me…except that of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and various and other choice enemies who would be better gotten rid of.”]

Nevertheless, even if McCain runs on this Hemingwayesque idealism, he’ll give Obama a better run for his money that Clinton is right now. On the other hand, if he tries to tell the American people that they are naive for hoping that the world can be different than thepolitical world the baby boomers created …well…politicians don’t get so far telling people they are stupid. The irony of McCain is that he was, in some respects, the Obama of the last political season. If he goes against the instincts that made him a winner in the past, he’ll just be another old guy that Obama will blow out of the water.

Side bar number two: Obama might well be saying, it’s morning in America. Hillary could learn more than one lesson from Ronald Reagan.

Side bar number three: I’m not so sure Obama isn’t more ruthless and politically savvy than Clinton gives him credit for. He appeared on television in the middle of Clinton’s speech last night, and every station in the country dropped Hillary to hear what he had to say. Why does Clinton think Obama is so unable to handle tough as nails and ruthless Republicans? He’s shown every ability to handle tough as nails and ruthless Democrats like, umm, Bill and Hillary Clinton.