Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chait channels Obama

When I read Jonathan Chait's extended argument that a) many Republican policies have deep roots in slavery and racism, but b) for liberals to assume that advocacy of core conservative policies is itself a marker of racism is illegitimate, my immediate thought was that Chait was echoing Obama:
 Apr 7 Hey, didn't Obama say that in March 2008?
In a followup post, Chait himself notes that Obama had more recently stolen his fire -- in an interview with David Remnick published this past January:
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history ...”
That is in fact a pretty exact match with Chait's thesis, as Chait asserts. But like almost everything Obama says -- in fact like almost everything most of us say -- it was close kin to prior pronouncements.  Here's what I had flashed back to, from Obama's great speech on race in the immediate wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. After recounting the roots of African American anger, Obama pivoted, in his on-the-one-hand-on-the-other manner:

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
The ability to at once rebut and affirm -- to recognize "legitimate concerns" wrapped in misguided resentments -- and, conversely, legitimate ideas historically associated with illegitimate prejudices -- bespeaks a kind of intellectual empathy that at regular intervals manages to astonish me afresh.  Obama similarly recognizes "legitimate" resentments in foreign adversaries -- as Remnick recorded in outtakes from the same interview: apologize for certain historic events out of context, I think, wouldn’t be telling an accurate story. On the other hand, I do think that part of effective diplomacy, part of America maintaining its influence in a world in which we remain the one indispensable power, but in which you’ve got a much more multipolar environment, is for other people to know that we understand their stories as well, and that we can see how they have come to certain conclusions or understandings about their history, their economies, the conflicts they’ve suffered. Because, if they think we understand their frame of reference, then they’re more likely to listen to us and to work with us.

 “So for me to acknowledge the fact that we were involved in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran is not to pick at an old scab or to do a bunch of Monday-morning quarterbacking. It’s to say to the Iranian people, We understand why you might have some suspicions about us; we’ve got some suspicions about you because you have held our folks hostage and murdered our people and threatened our allies. So, now that we understand each other, can we do business?

“That, I think, is useful and important precisely because we are far and away the most powerful country in the world. And, having lived overseas, the one thing I know is how much the world admires America, but also how much the world thinks America has no clue as to what’s going on outside our borders.”

Later, he added, “Now, if other countries don’t think we see them or know them or understand them, then they may grudgingly coƶperate with us where they have to, because it’s in their self-interest, but, at the margins—where we need them to participate in Iran’s sanctions, or we need them to work with us around a non-proliferation agenda—a population that thinks we hear them, we understand their history, is more likely to support their leaders when they work with us. That’s part of exercising effective power in the world.” 
Obama was not bullshitting the nation in 2007-8 when he promised to try to bridge the partisan divide.  He's found that signalling to adversaries "that we understand their stories as well" does not help much when they're hell-bent on destroying you, as Republicans have been from the outset, or when they relentlessly view national interest in zero-sum terms, as Putin does.  But while the ability to see the other side -- or try -- is not sufficient in itself, and can lead to self-delusion at times, and is not the same as strategic acumen, though it can feed it -- it is a rare and valuable form of intelligence.

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