Suddenly everyone is having a “conversation.” The word has come of age. I see it bowing and scraping on the opinion pages and TV talk shows three or four times a day. Its formulaic sidekick is the equally irksome “if you will,” beloved of Wolf Blitzer, John King and other TV correspondents. “If you will” is something between a sheeplike cough and a verbal tail-wag, a signifier of decorum, itself a prime ingredient of the “national conversation.”
“National conversations” are clubby affairs. Their prime purpose is to exclude the unconversational, meaning intellectual or verbal excess–above all, unseemly questioning of the essential functionality of the existing system. Indeed, I began to keep an eye out for the term a few years ago, when I read a column in which some rabble-rouser was haughtily blackballed as most definitely not being part of the national conversation.
It’s possible that the “national conversation” got its start as an effort to dignify the interactions of the “chattering classes,” a phrase that had its origin as a right-wing snarl in the Thatcher years. Real men and real women didn’t chatter. They moved briskly forward with the business of “governance,” yet another irksome locution.
Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia about race stuck pretty carefully to the unwritten rules of a national conversation, in marked contrast to the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose stimulating rhetoric has caused such an extraordinary affront–if you will–to the conversing classes.
The junior senator from Illinois is a master at drowning the floundering swimmer he purports to rescue while earning credit for extending a manly hand in solidarity. I noticed this the first time I wrote about Obama, back in the spring of 2006, when Ned Lamont was trying to make the disgusting political conduct of Senator Joseph Lieberman part of the national conversation, at least among Democrats. Obama hastened to a big political dinner in Connecticut to cut the conversation off and denounce any deviations from support of his mentor Lieberman.
Obama repeated his fake-rescue technique when Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, got into trouble for likening conditions at Guantánamo to those in a Nazi or Stalin-era camp. This was one of Durbin’s finer moments, as he read an FBI man’s account of how he had entered an interview room “to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.”
“If I read this to you,” Durbin told his fellow senators, “and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.”
The right wing jumped all over Durbin, and he paid the penalty of having to eat crow on the Senate floor. His colleague the junior senator from Illinois duly rose to speak. Now the topic here, remember, was not the candidacy-endangering one of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man eager to grasp every nettle, tug it up by the roots and lash at the face of Empire with it. This was Senator Dick Durbin, who had quite properly denounced insupportable conduct by US government personnel. Courage should have required Obama to support Durbin.
But Obama is careful, far more than he is courageous. In this instance he lent a supportive hand to his beleaguered colleague Durbin by shoving Durbin’s head under the waves with the thrice-repeated use of the word “mistake.” “We have a tendency to demonize and jump on and make mockery of each other across the aisle, and that is particularly pronounced when we make mistakes. Each and every one of us is going to make a mistake once in a while…and what we hope is that our track record of service, the scope of how we’ve operated and interacted with people, will override whatever particular mistake we make.”
With Wright, Obama began by excluding him from the national conversation: “The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country–a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
A “perceived injustice” isn’t really an injustice at all. It’s a figment–if you will–of the paranoid black imagination. Israel is stalwart, and the perceived horror–if you will–of its siege of Gaza is not even to be mentioned, as against the perversities of Islam. Then comes anathema, as pronounced by any conversationalist: divisiveness. “Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”
Our tragedy is that we have three neoliberals left in the presidential race, at a time when neoliberalism has collapsed and life-giving divisiveness is on top of the Wanted list. I suppose, out of the three of them, I prefer Obama. McCain is an idiot and HRC wants Volcker, Rubin and Greenspan to lead a “high-level emergency working group” to recommend ways to restructure at-risk mortgages to help avert more foreclosures. But I don’t think Obama is a real fighter. He’s too pretty, and he doesn’t want to get his looks messed up.