Obama's bad week is hardly worth commenting on except to point out that the only criticism of the administration that gets any traction in the corporate media is the criticism from the Right. The Ben Ghazi thing is all smoke, the IRS thing is about an overwhelmed bureaucracy, and the subpoenaing of the AP phone and email information, while a disturbing reminder of a longer-term trend, should not be surprising. This administration's obsession with purging whistleblowers and its disregard for civil liberties protections has been going on for some time now.
But even this, I suspect, is not something in Obama's control. Back in the summer of 2008 when he flipped on the FISA issue I think someone took him aside and told him he would never become president if he didn't get on board with the insider push for a bigger and more comprehensive surveillance state. Obama's reversal on FISA was pretty dramatic at the time, and that's when it became clear to me that it doesn't matter who the president is when it comes to issues like national security. You don't get to be president unless you do what you are told when it comes to security issues.
Obama has been a disappointment, for sure. But I have come to believe that it's silly to think that any one elected official can make much of a difference, no matter how badly he wants to. It's not just the Calhounites on the Right that are tying Obama's hands; it's also the massive government apparatus that has its own momentum and insider cast of players over which no elected official and his appointees has much control. I'm not saying that the president has become a figurehead, like the Queen of England. There are things he can do, but there is more that he cannot do. Most policy is hammered out in a clash of insider factions who use or oppose the president as they see fit.
And yet somehow it matters that we prevent the Right from getting into the driver's seat if for no other reason than that when Democrats are in power there's some minimum constraint on the insanity. Better a feckless Weimar than what came after it.
I've been doing some reading in 18th and 19th century European history in the last couple of months, and it really is amazing how frequent and how violent were the attempts at revolution in France, Germany, Italy, the Balkans, Spain. These revolutions and insurrections were commonplace, and they often got results, for better and worse. France is exemplary in this respect, not just because of their big one in 1789, but 1830 saw the deposing of a reactionary Bourbon and his replacement with a moderate/liberal in Louise Phillippe, and in '48, he in turn was turned out so that the autocrat Napoleon III could be elected by the short-lived second republic. But, like Hitler eighty years later, it didn't take him long to declare himself emperor/dictator. In Britain, while it exercised its more aggressive impulses on the Irish and East Indians, things were calmer, but the situation was terribly volatile throughout the European continent, and in the U.S., which was going though its own agonies leading up to the Civil War and its genocidal aftermath in the far west. But for all of the U.S.'s well-deserved reputation for violence, it doesn't hold a candle to Europe during the period from 1789 to 1945. If Europeans are less violent now than they were then, it's only because they're exhausted and broken by what they went through.
I guess the thing that interests me about Europe during this period is to see the dramatic arc that leads from 1789 to 1848 to 1914 to 1939. It's like a slow-motion implosion of a skyscraper or sportsdome. It looks from our perspective now to have been inevitable, and it was horrible. But, you know, life goes on. Sooner or later the Mongol horde or the Viking raiders settle in, everyday life resumes, and the horror fades from living memory. But one has to wonder what is the nature of the arc we in the U.S. are in the middle of now.
I think it's a different kind of arc altogether than the one that played out in Europe. The kind of organized, intra-society political violence so typical during the 19th century is difficult to imagine happening in the U.S. today. And it's probably impossible precisely because of the surveillance state we have in place right now. The worst things we might expect are random acts of terror from the Tsarnaevs or McVeighs that will always be out there, but anything larger and more organized would be squashed in a minute. Is the U.S. historical arc better described, then, as one in which it's gradually, imperceptibly transforming into Orwell's nightmare state? And are people like Obama and Eric Holder the witting or unwitting agents of history on whose watch critical components for the legal and institutional infrastructure of this state being put in place?
That's the way it looks, but perhaps the silver lining here is that since the surveillance state makes organized, violent insurrection less likely, it will force more creative, deeply moral movements to push back against it. So perhaps similar to the way that the atomic bomb has prevented violent confrontations between the great powers, perhaps the surveillance state will generate non-violent innovations of resistance and subversion. We'll see more Gandhi and less IRA, and that would be a good thing.
But I don't think that can happen until the memory of the New Left protests of the sixties and seventies has been purged. Protests in that spirit have any broadly resonant moral legitimacy. Real resistance has to come from another impulse from which a deeper and more serious moral ethos and discipline can be developed. We need more MLK and less Abbie Hoffman.