Did you know the aliens had bases on the dark side of the moon? That was news to me. This BoingBoing story about moon-strider Ed Michell, 6th man on the lunar surface, led me to the usual YouTube loop, which passed through here. He seems genuine. They always do. There was always something incomplete about Mulderim – you know, “I Want To Believe.” It has the echo of an ache that has nothing to do with UFOs, a hole that needs filling. My poster would read I Decline To Disbelieve.
Did I mention that I watched “Close Encounters” a while ago? Like the first Indy and the first Star Wars, it doesn’t erode or diminish with time. Each one made people feel so damned good, too. I think John Williams got Ronald Reagan elected.
The big story is the Obama speech. We were told that this was not a political speech, not a campaign speech. Mm-hmm:
To repeat what I said elsewhere (which I note only because I’m recycling material, and that somehow requires disclosure, even though it’s the blog equivalent of “as I was telling your screener”) I first read the speech on Drudge, which made me think he’d conclude his address with the words “developing . . . “ Not rhetoric that stirs the soul, but enigmatic in a stay-tuned sort of way. It would also be interesting if John Edwards starting making appearances with that red-and-blue flashing light on his head.
Upon reading the whole thing, it’s like watching a striptease from the Invisible Man – revealing, but empty. You can’t really expect anything but high-flown remarks in a situation like this; unless there’s a particular reason for such a speech, and there wasn’t one here, you’re going to get noble wind. Or, as Drudge might say, breaking noble wind. Developing! But there were some interesting reveals.
The remark that will get passed around on the right with no small glee is the “citizen of the world” phrase: "Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world."
Hm. Well. The world is a large and diverse place; it’s like saying an amoeba is a citizen of the Milky Way. Accurate in a sense but not terribly enlightening. We are occupants of the world, residents of the world, but citizens? That implies membership in a political entity that does not exist. Membership in a common species is not the equivalent of citizenship; that term carries a specific meaning, with rights and duties and the rest. And of course that’s how it’s used here, but mostly in the duty sense.
Not that anyone enforces those duties at the moment. Novel sentiments aside, “World citizen” is used as a badge of empathy that carries no responsibilities. The more it’s used, though, the more it dilutes actual national citizenship, which naturally takes second place to World Citizenship. As it did in Obama’s speech - he said he was a citizen of America and a citizen of the world, not the other way around. To say you’re a citizen of the world and a citizen of America places the latter in the primary slot, no? It’s like saying “I am a married man, and I am also a lover of women.” People would assume you’re sneaking around.
If we are all citizens of the world, then rules about national citizenship sound like archaic encumbrances. If you do not consider yourself a citizen of the world, then you must not care about anyone else but your fellow national citizens, or at least you care less, and that’s not a sentiment you express in polite company. To say that you care more about a bomb in New York than you care about a bomb in Malaysia almost sounds chauvinistic, what with the death of one man anywhere diminishing us all, and so on. It’s a perfectly reasonable sentiment for someone to hold in private, but it is difficult for an American president to say that he cares as much about displaced workers in a Chinese province as he cares about Ohio factory workers. If it’s true, then he hasn’t really grasped the nature of his job. If it’s false, it’s just more windy BS.
Ah, but the leader of America is different, and in a sense has to care about everyone, so much power does he wield. With great power comes great responsibility, as Spiderman taught us. So true. You try to strike arrangements that are mutually beneficial, with give and take. Go your own way, and you get Smoot-Hawley. But pragmatic, rational, national self-interest has to undergird a president’s decisions. Harsh and chauvinistic as it may sound, there are times when you have to tell the world to get stuffed. Otherwise, what does it profit a man to gain the world, but throw his presidency under the bus? To coin an ungainly phrase.
For some reason Obama felt compelled to describe the victims of the 9/11 attack thus, as an example of global interconnectedness:
"The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil."
Well, most weren’t from all over the world. Most were Americans. Which makes sense, since the attack was explicitly aimed at America, not The Globe. “American soil” was not chosen as the stage because the other venues were booked through 2003. I don’t know why some feel compelled to deemphasize the nationality of the victims; I have no problem empathizing with Brits or Spaniards when they suffer a terror attack. It’s not as if I learn that one percent of the tube-bombing victims were Portugese and Polish, and think Oh Those Bastards, now they’ve really done it. Those were citizens of the world. The people who died in the Twin Towers were overwhelmingly Americans. From here, from there, but Americans. What’s the problem with proclaiming that fact? Would this example of Islamist god-bothering murder frenzy been less horrible if both towers had collapsed, but killed only Nebraskans? Would an audience in Berlin rolled their eyes if 9/11 was presented in anything less than internationalist terms?
The speech did mention some of the challenges that face the citizens of the world:
"As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya."
Here are the current drought conditions in Kansas. Such a thing is not unknown in the Plains. Obama may have heard of the Dust Bowl, which ravaged the plains before the wise hand of FDR doth stilleth the wind. It seems a bit much to assert with utter confidence that this drought is the result of cars in Boston. But nevermind: if this is the case, then we are obligated, in our interconnectedness, to do our part. To do something about those cars in Boston, and use our shining example to compel China to do something about their coal plants. Of course they won’t, but that’s no excuse for not imposing carbon rations on the Beaners.
The theme of global climate peril was large in the speech – in the list of things which we must do now, since THIS IS THE MOMENT, terrorism was first, just to get that off the table, and global warming was last. When you write a speech you build to your strongest points, and I suppose for a European audience that’s the barn-burner. Or rather the burning-barn extinguisher. End with a ringing denunciation of Islamists in the bosom of Europe, using her money and tolerance to spread ideas antithetical to the Enlightenment, and everyone looks at their shoes. The “West” is a divisive concept anyway, steeped in blood and sin – the non-sin sort, that is; imperialism and militarism and Catholicism and the rest of the ash-heap notions. If Obama had declared himself a Citizen of the West, he would have struck a hammer blow for a certain set of virtues and values, but we can’t have that. As a Frenchman will tell you, all cultures are equal. Equal in being inferior to France, but otherwise equal.
He also called for an end to nuclear weapons. (This was also Reagan’s dream, but he had a different way of going about it.) Of course, this isn’t going to happen, but it sounds nice. Who wouldn’t want a world in which everyone decommissions the nukes, and Iran says “wait, what? We thought these were cool. Well, then, we’ll give them up. Geez, next thing you’ll tell us, Izod shirts with popped collars are out.” We will never poke the Genie back in the bottle, and Obama knows this. But the words loft well on the breath of the assembled. The problem, however, is that he didn't just set forth ideas humanity would be wise to make manifest - he made them moral imperatives that must be done now, because the THIS IS THE MOMENT, and NOW IS THE MOMENT THAT THIS IS, and the moment to come in a few moments is also the moment, but it’s a few moments past the previous moment, which was also now. THIS IS THE MOMENT to do something about Darfur. Fine. What? THIS IS THE MOMENT to do something about Burmese dissidents. Fine. What?
Nothing will be done about either; they are, unfortunately, matters inconsequential to the general order of things. This is not to say that they are not obscene, or horrific, or more evidence of human perfidy both general and specific, but just as the world summed the strength to turn away from Rwanda and Cambodia, it will manage to struggle with the daunting task of doing nothing about Darfur or Burma. The drone of a jet engine outside your window, bearing you to another international conference, does an admirable job of masking the sound of a machete striking bone down below.
Get a diplomat drunk and off the record, and he’ll tell you that Russia gets to play yob tvoiu mat with Chechnya, China gets to make money in Sudan and oppress Tibet, no one cares what France does in Africa, and America has Iraq. The last one matters as a focal point for international outrage because it extends a popular narrative. People feel better about themselves for criticizing America; it’s what smart people do. Leave a little juice left over for frowning at China, and make nervous Bear jokes about Russia and tell a few ha-ha jokes about the old KGB days, really, what else can you expect from those people? Hopeless since Ivan and probably before. Serfs, the lot of them. Meanwhile, everyone looks forward to the day when there’s a stable democratic Iraq, not run by that gangster – good source of profits, but a boor – and the Iraqi government votes against the US in the UN. That’ll be rich. Comeuppance and all that. Pass the champagne.
In the end, THIS IS THE MOMENT, but the moment will pass; it’s a list of things we can expect not to be fixed, which makes it little different from other speeches in the genre by politicians of either stripe. It is interesting to note that the poll bounce seems small so far, and that Gallup reports Obama has a slim lead over his opponent.
He has an opponent?
There was something else in the speech, too – the constant mention of Europe, as opposed to the nations that make up Europe. From here it sounds as if every particular country and culture has been gently drowned in the warm bath of the Great Continental Arrangement. It is the dream of some, after all; imagine there’s no nations. It’s easy if you try. It’s easier if you use the diplomatic community to craft treaties that subsume local identities to the iron rules of anal-retentive Belgian bureaucrats anxious to rule on the exact strength of Scottish malt, but even Lennon couldn’t make that line work as a lyric.
I can understand why Europe is still gun-shy about nationalism, what with all the guns deployed on the concept’s behalf, but the mandatory self-abasement mixed with smoldering resentment you detect wafting off constituent elements of the continent suggests that not everyone is happy casting off his tongue and dress for the shapeless smock of the EU.
As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I would love to live in an age when the globe was united in peace and prosperity, but I am unwilling to endure the paradigm-wrecking nation-shattering nuclear war and eugenic-master-race tyranny required to get to that point. Absent those factors, the idea that post-national / trans-national ideas represent a glimmering ideal within our grasp seems naïve at best and alarming at worst, a gilded facade erected by those who wish to pursue self-interest behind a new arrangement that defines traditional concepts of culture and national identity as regressive impediments. I can understand the appeal for some - if I'd spent 100 years worrying about Germany, it would be nice if Germany, as a discrete actor, ceased to exist, or was tied down like Gulliver in rules and regs. If this is the way Europe wants to go, fine; I have a Sharpie, and I can cross off the names of the countries on the map and write EUROPE over everything. But until that day, I'd be inclined to treat Europe like Chicago. At least give a shout-out for the differences between the North side and the South. Hell, I wouldn’t be happy if someone who wanted to be President of the EU came over here and addresses us as North Americans. But I am not a young Berliner.
Let us close with the key phrases of the speech’s conclusion: “Our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long.” Also, let us “once again engage in that noble struggle to bring justice and peace to our world.” For a fellow with a golden tongue, these are dollar-store clichés. I want justice and peace as well. I want justice and peace for the people of the Sudan and Burma, and I wonder if they’re asking: fine. Where’s our airlift? Will we get that in January? Sooner would be better, but January will be fine too. Keep in touch. You have our number.
One last thing: Obama said "That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand." But of course they must, and will, if national sovereignity has any meaning. If he defines the "wall" as the existence of factual reasons why some countries succeed and others do not, it is unclear how these facts will be overcome. There's not a wall around Zimbabwe that creates a special magical inflation zone. There is, in spots, a wall between the US and Mexico; are we to expect he will make a campaign stop at the border crossing, and ask Mr. Bush to Tear Down This Wall? In a sense that would make him the heir to Reagan - in the same sense Paris Hilton is heir to Conrad.
See you at buzz.mn - special Friday Lance Lawson, to make up for Thursday's server troubles.