Eyal Press is a Nation contributing editor and the author of Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times and Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America. He is also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
This comment appeared from a reader, responding to my post about how progressives view Obama and objecting to the notion that people who approve of his overall performance may not also harbor serious disappointment. As the reader put it:
If asked, I'd say that, overall, I approve of Obama's performance. However, the president has disappointed me on more than one issue since he was elected… So because I've been disappointed in some of the Obama administration's actions, I'm not supportive? If I express that disappointment and disagreement, I'm not supportive?
I'm really troubled by the trend of criticizing anyone who questions and disagrees with Obama. We are abdicating one of our fundamental rights as Americans if we offer unquestioning, blind allegiance to Obama or any other government leader.
A few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow appeared on Charlie Rose and announced that conservatives weren't the only ones disenchanted with Barack Obama. "The President has disappointed the left," she said. Rose asked her to be more specific – on what exactly? "I would say on the war, on healthcare, on economic [policy]… on civil liberties and on civil rights," Maddow said.
That's pretty deep disappointment. But if it's true, it begs the question of what, exactly, constitutes "the left." Certainly not most Democrats, 90 percent of whom approve of Obama's job performance (that's from the latest Quinnipiac survey; other polls have recorded even higher figures). Or most African-Americans, among whom Obama's approval rating is 94 percent. Or most Hispanics, 70 percent of whom think Obama is doing a fine job. Or most voters under thirty-five.
Maddow, presumably, was referring to a much smaller cohort of self-identified (white) progressives: people who favor a single-payer universal health-care system, have attended antiwar demonstrations, believe catastrophic global warming is imminent, support shutting down Guantanamo immediately, champion full equality for gays and lesbians, and perhaps supported John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary before finally coming around to Obama.
Other than consuming copious amounts of beer and barbecue food, what can Americans do on the Fourth of July to celebrate their freedom? Erwin Knoll, the late editor of The Progressive, used to pin a copy of the Bill of Rights to a tree at the parties he hosted. I'm not hosting any parties, and I'll spare you a virtual posting of the entire Bill of Rights, save for the Fifth Amendment, which merits special attention because Democrats and Republicans seem to have forgotten what it says. Here, then, is the forgotten fifth:
No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Before we push the story about Governor Mark Sanford's "hiking the Appalachian Trail" (i.e. seeing his lover in Buenos Aires) entirely out of mind, I'd like to call attention to some statistics that appeared on yesterday's op-ed page of The New York Times. There, courtesy of Charles M. Blow, we learned that the three states with the highest teenage birthrates in the country are Mississippi, Texas and Arizona. The three states with the highest number of online subscriptions to pornographic sites are Utah, Alaska and Mississippi. Eight of the ten states with the highest divorce rates are Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia.
What do all these states have in common? Yes, they are all "red states" that went for John McCain. The people preaching to us about what to do in our private lives and voting for politicians who espouse "traditional values" seem curiously incapable of applying these standards to themselves.
But, hypocrisy aside, my first thought when I heard the news about Sanford was the same thought I always have when a story breaks about a politician's personal life: namely, so what? Why is it our business to track who a politician is sleeping with so long as no laws have been broken? Why should press conferences be wasted on such matters? Sanford's case was an exception because he disappeared for five days, a matter of public significance, some would argue. Fair enough. But as a friend of mine pointed out a few hours after the story about his escapade to Argentina broke, the inevitable result of showering attention on such matters is to humiliate the individuals involved and to reinforce the puritanical strain in our culture. It's somehow newsworthy that (shock!) a public figure has been unfaithful to his or her partner, that a marriage may be unraveling, that lies have been told.
Rare in the news coverage of the murder of Dr. George Tiller were the voices of physicians who referred patients to him. That's because, in the media, abortion features as an "issue," a battlefront in the culture wars, and only secondarily, if at all, as a medical procedure. The letter below, written by a physician in response to my comment in The Nation on the murder, is a rare exception, shedding light on Dr. Tiller's role as a healthcare provider. Many thanks to Dr. Laurence Burd, its author, for writing it.
In his article, "A Culture War Casualty", Eyal Press underscores with accuracy that those who use hateful invectives, should not feign shock or dismay when their message produces murder and violence. This article, however, like the majority of others I have read following the death of George Tiller, MD, is fixated upon the abortion debate and neglects to recognize the real tragedy of Dr. Tiller's loss to the profession of medicine and to the American public. As a practitioner of Maternal Fetal Medicine, I have referred several patients to Dr. Tiller, since he was one of the very few physicians in the country, because of state laws and because of his desire to provide compassionate care, who provided late pregnancy termination services. He was an exemplary physician who believed very strongly in what he was doing. Both women whom I referred to Dr. Tiller's clinic in Kansas were carrying infants with birth defects that were incompatible with survival. One had anencephaly, a condition where a large part of the forebrain was absent, and the second had multiple midline defects, allowing vital organs such as the heart and the abdominal structures to lie outside the fetal body (Pentalogy of Cantrel). Dr. Tiller accepted my referrals graciously, and cared for these women skillfully, and by so doing, ended their risk of further complications inherent in any ongoing pregnancy. As a physician, I believe that the volume of the "abortion debate" has brought silence to the essence of the medical issue, and that is how to provide the best care to our patients. The assassin's bullet not only ended an honorable life, but ended a conduit to provide good medical care to the American public. We all are victims of this terrible, heinous crime. The beliefs of those on each side of the abortion issue will never be resolved. In all my years of medical practice, I have never met a patient who was glad to terminate a pregnancy, but only did so because of an awareness of danger to themselves. We must stop the shouting and name calling that has so divided our society and follow President Obama's suggestions to come together and devote our efforts to decrease the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies. This seems to be an approach that will end much hatred and violence and will greatly contribute to an improvement in the physical and mental health of all Americans.
"The world is watching," President Obama said yesterday about the confrontation currently unfolding on the streets of Tehran, where demonstrators are clashing with riot police in an extraordinary display of courage and defiance. Depending on how harsh the crackdown gets – and it looks, as of this moment, that it will be harsh indeed – Obama can and should issue a forceful condemnation. A policy of restraint should not be confused with a policy of cold-eyed indifference, particularly when ordinary people are risking their lives to challenge a brutal regime that claims its repressive conduct is divinely sanctioned.
But let's not forget, as the unrest spills into a second week and the popular uprising continues, how much good has come from the restraint that Obama has exhibited thus far, contrary to the claims of critics like Robert Kagan, who took to the Washington Post on Wednesday to argue that the abandonment of Bush-era "idealism" has somehow undermined the Iranian opposition and benefited the regime.
The opposite is the case. Imagine if, since assuming office, Obama had revived the "axis of evil" rhetoric, indicated he would never consider engagement with Iran, and made grandstanding speeches about spreading freedom and democracy to the Muslim world. Or imagine if, instead of Obama, John McCain were in charge, and in recent months had been calling for tough action, perhaps hinting at regime change. This would have discomfited Iran's supreme leader? To the contrary, what has discomfited the regime has been the shift away from the blend of belligerence, righteousness and aggression that characterized the Bush era and was so easy to dismiss and caricature. Fareed Zakaria explains why here, in an interview that is very worth reading:
The Internet is awash in dispatches, photos, poems and interviews detailing the extraordinary events that have taken place over the past few days in Iran. A growing number of the posts seem to be tinted green, in solidarity with the brave and inspiring Iranians who have taken to the streets to protest their leadership's latest effort to suppress their rights.
The display of solidarity is perfectly appropriate. We are at a potential hinge moment in Iranian history, with the corrupt theocrats of the Islamic Republic appearing to have misplayed their hand, rigging an election so blatantly that they have provoked a mass popular backlash. But however much we may wish to see the demonstrators prevail, grandstanding by the United States is not appropriate. The international community can – and should – voice support for the democratic rights of Iranians and refuse to recognize the election's legitimacy. But the last thing the courageous demonstrators in Tehran need right now is a headline-making show of support from Washington – through, say, a dramatic speech by Barack Obama addressed to the Iranian people aimed at destabilizing the regime, as Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard suggests here.
This is, in fact, something Iran's hardliners would likely welcome, proof that the protesters are acting at the behest of outsiders meddling in the region and promoting ‘regime change,' which is perhaps why the voices calling for Washington to step up the rhetoric appear to belong to western pundits, not Iranian dissidents and human rights activists. Regime change would, of course, be welcome in this case. But if it happens it will be Iranians, not Americans, who bring it about. Fortunately, President Obama appears to recognize this. How events play out over the next few weeks "is something for the Iranian people to decide," Obama said today. The statement may disappoint those who see it as America's unique mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. But let's not forget where this mindset took us in recent years.
Take the time, if you haven't already, to read the following post on Sonia Sotomayor and identity politics, by my good friend Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger at The Atlantic. In addition to being an original thinker with a highly original voice, Ta-Nehisi is the son of a black nationalist. I am the grandson of a Jewish nationalist (i.e. a Zionist). We've thus spent many evenings exchanging notes about what Ta-Nehisi once called ‘the perils and boons' of nationalism – the air of superiority but also the sense of empowerment that can be wrung out of thinking in terms of ethnic/racial categories and groups.
Like me, Ta-Nehisi apparently fell out of his chair the other day when he read this op-ed by David Brooks, in which the Times' columnist suggested that Sotomayor would have been better off if she had attended college in the 1950s, when the creed-of-choice among striving ethnic kids was assimilation, not the crusading multiculturalism that spoiled the atmosphere in the 1970s. Her problem was "bad timing," mused Brooks.
Sotomayor attended Princeton, as it happens, which did not begin admitting women until 1969. Sounds to me like her timing was pretty damn good! What was missing from Brooks' column? Something often missing when white guys who have enjoyed their share of privilege lament the scourge of identity politics – which, in its cruder versions, including the strain that flourished on some college campuses and certain enclaves of the left in recent decades, certainly does merit criticism. Ta-Nehisi identifies the curious omission here:
In case you were too busy watching the Sunday morning news shows, Roger Federer won the French Open yesterday, tying Pete Sampras' record of fourteen career grand slams and solidifying his claim to being the greatest tennis player of all time. Federer's victory over Sweden's Robin Soderling was not an exciting affair – he won in straight sets, in a match that seemed decided from the opening game, when Federer broke Soderling's serve and marched out to a 4-0 lead. But it was a sublime display of his artistry. Playing against a fierce hitter who had defeated his previous opponents (including perhaps the greatest clay-court player ever, Rafael Nadal) by bludgeoning the ball, Federer countered with a game of spin and misdirection. He sliced sharp-angled backhands crosscourt to draw Soderling forward. He floated devilishly disguised drop shots just over the net in the middle of rallies. He kicked his serves into seemingly every corner of the service box, including four consecutive aces in a masterful second-straight tiebreaker that effectively ended the contest.
Federer is too poster-boy perfect for some sports fans: too nice, too gracious, too Swiss. But in an age of Olympic doping scandals and A-Rod, his career stands as a beautiful illustration of the limits of brute force. Federer's greatest legacy will not be the number of grand slams he ends up winning (though his astounding appearance in 20 straight slam semifinals will likely last for decades, a feat whose greatness was underscored by Nadal's early-round loss on the surface where he was supposedly unbeatable). It will be his role in rescuing men's tennis from the Nuclear Age it entered fifteen years ago, when the combination of improved training and advanced racket technology seemed to strip the game of all subtlety; when big serves and short rallies seemed to decide everything and fans who longed to see world-class players display touch and accuracy were left to watch ESPN classics of Borg vs. McEnroe.
Now more than ever, as he creeps toward 30 in a sport dominated by men in their young 20's, Federer must rely on misdirection and guile to defeat players who can overpower him. This is how he won the one grand slam that had eluded him until Sunday. David Foster Wallace evoked this aspect of his game in his brilliant homage to the Swiss star, "Federer As Religious Experience," which ended with a glance at the generation of Federer-inspired kids we'll be watching a few years from now, after he's retired:
Barack Obama's remarkable speech in Cairo yesterday may or may not mark a "new beginning" in America's relations with the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine: it's not hard to imagine scenarios in each of these places that will make people forget his words. But one thing the speech clearly did mark was a dramatic shift in tone, and not merely because Obama didn't mention the word "terrorism" and projected respect and humility rather than the sneering arrogance (laced with ignorance and condescension) that prevailed under George W. Bush. More broadly, the messianic era of the Bush era appears to be over. A new age of tempered realism – or, perhaps, tempered idealism – has begun.
Here, for example, was Obama on democracy: "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other." Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger were surely smiling. But so were progressives who cringed every time George W. Bush invoked his messianic "freedom agenda" in recent years. Obama did not downplay the importance of freedom. He recast it as something that evolves organically in different societies as people aspire to fulfill their dreams. "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he said. "But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights."
This is a vision tinged with pragmatism and - daringly, for a US President - colored by an awareness that people who have yearned for these things in the past have often been prevented from having them by the West. A mere dozen lines into his address, Obama spoke of "colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations." A cynic might say these were mere words, offered by the same man who has increased the US troop presence in Afghanistan and delayed the withdrawal from Iraq. My sense is that the sentiments reflect what Obama actually believes, culled as much from his experience of growing up in parts of the developing world and being the son of an African as from briefing papers and books.