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Sunday, September 7, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Psychology ...

It’s pretty easy to see why John McCain wants to be President. He comes from a military family of great achievement. His father and grandfather were Navy Admirals, and had prominent places in history (e.g., his grandfather was there on the USS Iowa in 1945 when the Japanese surrender took place). McCain’s life has been an admixture of rebellion against family tradition and trying to go it one better. So it’s not surprising that he’s a maverick who wants to be commander-in-chief. He wants to earn his place in the family history book, but do it his own way. At bottom he’s a loyalist; in terms of basic values, he’s a conformist. And yet, McCain needs to mix it with rebellion so as to put his own signature on things. He’s a fighter (recall that he was once an amateur boxer) who wants to win; he not only wants to match his father and grandfather, he wants to beat them. And this election is his last shot at it.

As to what goes on inside John McCain’s head, that’s about all there is to it.

Now as to Barack Obama — oh boy, that’s a whole different thing and a whole ‘nuther level of complexity. The title of Obama’s first autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, suggests that he too has been strongly influenced by the paternal side of his family. But in reality, Obama is a “mother’s boy”. You have to understand Barack’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in order to understand Barack.

Ms. Dunham is a very interesting specimen. She grew up in the handful of years between the “beatniks” of the mid-to-late 1950s and the hippie generation of the late 1960s. Being non-conformist and anti-establishment wasn’t fashionable when she was in high school and college. But, thanks to two teachers at a well-regarded high school on Mercer Island (near Seattle), she was exposed to atheism, Sarte, Communism, Kierkegaard, existentialism, feminism, and other high-octane intellectual stuff. After that, she could never become just another suburban middle-class housewife, charged with watching afternoon soap operas and maintaining the social fabric as America defended its freedom against the Soviet menace. Ann Dunham was destined to become a citizen of the world.

With Wikipedia and some good Chicago Tribune articles available at your fingertips, you don’t need me to retell Ms. Dunham’s story. But let me summarize what her key values appear to be, so that we may understand what she passed on to Barack. She believed in education and intelligence, eventually obtaining a doctorate in anthropology. She believed in helping the poor, not on the basis of charity (think Cindy McCain’s adoption of a baby from Bangladesh via Mother Teresa), but on the basis of empowerment and social change. She believed in transcending national barriers and embracing people in very different social circumstances; likewise, she believed in questioning social norms such as religion and nationalism and capitalism. But although she questioned authority, she clearly did not believe in using violence to tear down existing power structures; she was willing to work with forces such as the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and with a big bank in Indonesia (as to set up microloan programs to support village-based enterprises in Java, e.g. basket making).

Dunham was not bound by basic American family values. Between Barack’s 5th grade year and high school graduation, she drifted in and out of his life, pursuing anthropology studies and field work while her mother (a bank vice-president) took care of Barack and paid his tuition at a private academy. In a sense, Barack “returned the favor” when Dunham was dying of cancer in 1995, not taking the time from his busy schedule as a lawyer and politician in Chicago to be with her as she was dying in Hawaii. Obama does say in one of his books that he now regrets this very much. (Let me admit that a whole lot of families in America don’t live up to the standards of “being there for you” that I am implying here; but the ideal remains, nonetheless.)

In a recent article in The New Republic, John Judis discusses Obama’s experience as a community-based outreach director in Chicago’s South Side in his years between college and law school. Judis quotes Jerry Kellman, the guy who hired Obama to work for a coalition of justice-minded Roman Catholic parishes, to the effect that Obama eventually lost heart in community work. Obama thus decided to go to law school so that he could do more to challenge discrimination and combat poverty. Obama told Kellerman that he believed that being an elected official, or being influential with elected officials, was the better way to bring forth “a better world”, i.e. to realize the dream that Ann Dunham had given to him. Working directly with and amidst “the anawim” (the poor), as his mother had, was not enough.

So, the new Obama formula was to apply his super-fine mind and good looks to study law and enter politics, as a means to an end; that end having a lot to do with the dreams of his mother. I suspect that Obama’s life and his political career is an on-going inner discussion with the ghost of his mother, and goes something like this: Mom, you left me to pursue your dream of saving the world. But now I’m gonna show you that your method, however well intentioned, was wrong. You should have given your time to me, as I truly know how to save the world. I’m the one with the brains, the good looks and the golden tongue. I’m now going to prove that to you by becoming President and leading our nation and our world into a better, more just way of being.

OK, so I’m not a professional shrink. What I’ve said above is straight out of the Pop Psychology 101 textbook. But goodness — what if there is some truth to it? What if Obama is elected (the betting odds are still in his favor right now, by about 60-40), and finds out that he’s just another cog in the wheels of history, that there’s not really all that much he can do to fulfill his mother’s visions? What happens when he discovers that “the system” has turned him into a different man? When he realizes that he really isn’t going to change things very much?

Sure, it’s a big ego rush to be President, to engrave your name in history, to realize that you will be remembered hundreds and maybe thousands of years from now. It’s got to be an incredible feeling knowing that your decisions and actions will effect the lives of billions of people. But in the end, being President does not offer much chance to change the basic values and presumptions of American and western society (ask Jimmy Carter about that!). A President should try to make the best decisions possible on foreign policy, budgets, military strategy, the enforcement of existing laws and the enactment by Congress of new laws, in response to changing and challenging conditions. But if the majority of Americans decide that it’s better to protect their opportunity to acquire SUV’s and live in McMansions than to decrease the poverty rate and increase educational achievement in minority populations, then the President is going to have to go along with it.

(Yea, I realize that McCain is also preaching to us, in his sermons on “national service”. But I think he’s more likely to get respect for that, given his 5+ years in a Vietnam POW camp.)

And thus my biggest fear regarding Barack Obama as President: what happens if he becomes disillusioned with the Presidency as a means for social change, just as he did with community organizing? What happens to America when the guy at the top no longer puts his heart
into the job?

Or even worse, what happens if Obama buys into the apostasy that other macro-reformers in history have fallen for: i.e., “if I can gain even more power and force change on the people, they will come to see that I am right, despite their initial resistance to my far-sighted dreams”? I realize that this seems extremely unlikely from mild-mannered Barack Obama. But history does give various examples of seemingly well-intentioned “revolutions” that turned into cynical power-grabs (e.g., the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia). Thankfully, Ann Dunham did not believe in power mongering and did not teach Barack Obama to think like that. But Obama’s reported fascination with gaining power to bring about change, and his possible need to reconcile the lack of maternal attention during the second decade of his life, does make me wonder.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:51 pm      

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