Friday, August 05, 2011

Getting serious with items in series

In my letters to a certain high profile blogger, I've more than once inveighed against "items in series" -- that is, sentences that pack together a host of comma-separated items alleged to illustrate a thesis, often a purported precis of a public figure's alleged accomplishments or sins. It's so easy to smooth over a world of ambiguity, or incongruity, slipping in some highly questionable assertions, like the xeroxed dollars that a pair of drug addicts slips into a wad of cash in The Wire.

From Andrew Sullivan, here's a fresh example: a list of Obama's accomplishments:
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.
Take that middle item: "Justifying his Afghan Surge by killing Bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved" -- whew.  Is that what the Afghan war has been all about -- swallowing the spider to catch the fly?  And the remainder...just to save face, as Nixon aimed to do through four years of bombing in Vietnam? These claims are perhaps not wrong -- but so abbreviated, so packed with unspelled-out assumptions, they raise more questions than they answer.

Many other items on the list would elicit a large "yes, but" from readers on different ends of the political spectrum. And that brings me to what prompted this post: a nicely poised "yes but" Obama assessment from Kevin Drum.  This one is in list format, which allows more exposition than the comma-separated listing. It too necessarily bundles a host of assumptions. But it's factual. It's  balanced, rhetorically and conceptually. It matches my ambivalence of the moment. It satisfies me.   A sampling:
He passed a big stimulus bill.....but was too timid to make it as big as it needed to be.

He continued the pullout from Iraq.....but sent 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan, amped up the drone attacks in Pakistan, and committed the United States to yet another foreign war in Libya.

He ended torture.....but kept up the NSA surveillance program and military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.

He passed a historic healthcare law.....but based it on conservative principles and failed to fight for a public option.
In our polarized political arena, Sully stands almost solo in the center.  Perhaps that's why -- along with a propensity to render decisive judgment -- he rests satisfied with Obama's hedged and trimmed positions.  Drum is a progressive who put his finger fairly early on Obama's relative conservatism in the deficit reduction debate.  Hence his ambivalence.

P.S. Drum's post is called Good Obama, Bad Obama. I am inevitably, narcissistically reminded of a post of mine from way back in August '08, Strong Obama, Weak Obama, wich in some ways engages similar ambiguities in him, and ambivalence in his supporters (me).

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