As a navigator on a Coast Guard cutter, there were a couple of things I took for granted:
– You couldn’t chart a course without knowing your destination.
– If you took a navigational fix and it put you on one side of a rock and then you took another fix and it put you on the other side of the rock, don’t split the difference.
In Washington, however, it would be hard to find two rules more frequently broken as politicians and the media pursue the false god of moderation, centrism and post-partisanship.
Barack Obama’s team of revivals is almost a parody of this search, based on the childish illusion that truth’s safe passage lies halfway between the alternatives. The result, absolutely predictable, is a stunning lack of imagination, courage or simple willingness to try something different. And sometimes you run aground.
As Jerome Grossman put it in Populist America recently: “If the Democratic and Republican parties were to place top value on agreement, that would be a recipe for maintaining the status quo, for the easiest course would be to accept current conditions.”
Although centrism is supposed to produce the best possible results this is seldom the case. Decades of post partisanship on health care, for example, has produced a system that nobody wants, yet now still another president proposes to tinker with the program and, if successful, will have postponed the logical solution, single payer healthcare, for another decade or two.
The fiscal bailout was a disastrous example of charting a course without a destination, An unknown amount of money was granted to unknown entities for unknown purposes with unknown oversight largely because so few on Capitol Hill had the slightest idea what else to do.
To be sure, compromise is frequently necessary, but if you don’t have a final destination in mind then one has no way of judging the best compromise to make. For example, in healthcare, lowering the age of Medicare to 60 would not endanger the future of single payer the way that Obama’s approach probably will.
But politicians in Washington seldom have a destination beyond the next election and hence their compromises have little to do with the actual issue at hand and far more with such matters as sources of campaign contributions. Which is why in the current financial crisis so much aid has been given to those who give politicians money – i.e. financial institutions – and so little to those who merely give them their vote.
Obama didn’t invent the centrist scam even if he has engaged in it to the fullest. For example, the Clintonistas claimed the ability to arise above the petty disputes of normal life — to become “post-ideological.” For example, Clinton, upon nominating Judge Ginsberg to the Supreme Court called her neither liberal nor conservative, adding that she “has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” In one parenthetical aside, Clinton dismissed three hundred years of political philosophical debate.
Similarly, when Clinton made the very political decision to name conservative David Gergen to his staff, he announced that the appointment signaled that “we are rising above politics.”
“We are,” he insisted, “going beyond partisanship that damaged this country so badly in the last several years to search for new ideas, a new common ground, a new national unity.” And when Clinton’s new chief of staff was announced, he was said to be “apolitical,” a description used in praise.
Politics without politics. The appointee was someone who, in the words of the Washington Post, “is seen by most as a man without a personal or political agenda that would interfere with a successful management of the White House.”
By the time Clinton had been in office a few months he appeared ready to dispense with opinion and thought entirely. “It is time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy and put our best efforts to work on a crime plan that will help all the American people,” he declared in front of a phalanx of uniformed police officers.
And Clinton, of course, was not alone. The Third Millennium, a slick Perotist organization of considerable ideological intent, called itself “post-partisan.” Perot himself played a similar game: the man without a personal agenda.
The media also likes to pretend that it is above political ideology or cultural prejudice. Journalists like Leonard Downie Jr. and Elizabeth Drew don’t even vote and Downie, former executive managing editor of the Washington Post, once instructed his staff to “cleanse their professional minds of human emotions and opinions.”
Of course, in the postmodern society that Clinton and Obama have proposed — one that rises above the false teachings of ideology — we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.
Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants.
But there’s an even great danger involved in the cult of centrism. With few exceptions, the major threats to American democracy have repeatedly come from neither right nor left but from the center.
From that internecine struggle of two factions of the American middle known as the Civil War to FBI assaults on activist organizations in the 60s and 70s, from the Palmer raids to anti-terrorism legislation of the Clinton and Bush administration, Americans have traditionally had more to fear from people they have elected than from those on the fringes of politics. In fact, the latter have often served largely as an excuse for the American center to tighten its grip on the political and economic system. This is not to say that the left and the right would not enjoy being just as violent and repressive given the chance, but the American center has rarely allowed that.
Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the sort of threat the contemporary right poses, was powerful primarily because it was at the center, holding political and judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. And in the 1920s, both the Colorado governor and mayor of Denver were members of the Klan, the latter well enough regarded to have had Stapleton airport named after him.
Take one of our war stars as an example. A New Yorker review of the life of General Curtis LeMay, written by Richard Rhodes, noted that LeMay ran the air war against both Japan and North Korea, became head of the sacrosanct Strategic Air Command and was one of the military heroes of his time. Here are just a few of his accomplishments:
– The destruction of nearly 17 square miles of Tokyo with the loss of at least 100,000 civilian lives. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man.”
– The destruction of 62 other Japanese cities. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared — reserved for a different sort of horror. In sum, more than a million Japanese civilians were killed. LeMay himself would admit years later, “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.”
– The bombing of North Korean cities, dams, villages and rice paddies. Civilian deaths: more than two million.
– In short, with the enthusiastic blessing of the American center, LeMay was directly responsible for the slaughter of about half as many civilians as died in the Holocaust. To this day, establishment Washington won’t even face what happened at Nagasaki or Hiroshima, let alone even larger massacres occurring under the command of LeMay.
And LeMay had grander schemes. His plan for defeating the Soviet Union included the obliteration of 70 Soviet cities in thirty days with thirty-three atomic bombs and the deaths of 2.7 million citizens.
More recently, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the most disastrous conflicts in American history, were the products of an American center including politicians, academics and the media. According to one study, while tens of thousands of American troops were dying in Vietnam, between 1963 and 1968 only 220 deaths occurred in the U.S. as the result of fringe violence on the left and right.
The collapse of the American economy, the unprecedented assault on constitutional rights, the disastrous war on drugs, and the appalling abuse of the environment all came from the center.
Worried about hate groups? Name those that have posed anywhere near the threat to American minorities as the Bush administration.
One of the greatest myths of America’s elite is that it functions by logic and reason and that it is devoid of myth. In truth, elites function like other people; they choose their gods and worship them. The gods, to be sure, are different. For example, many in Washington believe fervently in the sanctity of data, the Ivy League, the New York Times op pages and the Calvinist notion that their power is a outer, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace.
They pose as wise and intelligent, yet their course is frequently a disaster and profoundly anti-intellectual for it denies inquiry, skepticism, new information and imagination.
If you ask important people in politics, think tanks or the media where they stand politically, many will say “in the center.” A lot of these folks like the center because it makes them sound reasonable and moderate. It also allows them to call other people extremists or gadflies or wishful thinkers for disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the moment. Some members of the American elite have made whole careers of being measured and cautious. They like to write somber columns asking pompous questions like “Can the Center Hold?” What they really mean is: can they hold on to their power?
They are the most dishonest of the lot in American politics. A true conservative is far more fun and useful to argue with, because they still believe in the need for argument as well as self-serving spin.
The centrists control our politics, our media and our campuses. They have directed the collapse of both the American empire and America democracy and yet are so self absorbed in their manic and destructive moderation that they don’t even notice.
Not only is the center the major cause of our problems, our solutions have overwhelmingly come from the left, whether it be emancipation, women’s rights, environmental consciousness, the labor movement or encouraging peace and sanity rather than war, the moderates’ favorite immoderate tool.
As Susan B. Anthony put it so well:
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”