Friday, February 09, 2007

What a tangled Webb we weave: a response

My more primary concern with Webb, which extends also to the mania surrounding Barack Obama (sorry, Obamarama) is the tendency in our political culture to gravitate to the nearest "great man" (rarely does our political obsession surround a woman, but we have the potential for "great woman" obsessions too, once we get past some of our deep sexism.)

A politics that transforms America from a deeply individualistic country to one that is based on ideals of community and of the common good cannot happen by some single "great man" sweeping in to the rescue. This is a matter of being the change we want to see in the world.--Koko

This post was going to be a "comment" on Koko's last post ("What a tangled Webb we weave"), but Koko's post was so thought-provoking that I decided to give my response a post of its own. What particularly interests me in Koko's post is his argument that we Americans (Koko is talking about those of us on the left, but, if we cared (we don't) we could easily imagine how it's true for the right as well) are always flocking towards the "great man." In a way, it's strange to think that Americans are susceptible to the "great man theory," since the Constitution of this country is, in a sense, grounded in a suspicion of the great man--checks and balances, impeachment (I won't dwell on this; this isn't a social studies class) are conservative notions that make it pretty much impossible for one person to completely change our way of life.

Koko is obviously right that Jim Webbs and Barak Obamas will not "transform" America; but I must ask him, will his "community" transform it either? Indeed, isn't the whole point of America's community oriented politics that it prevents real change from occurring? As it turns out, I've recently been reading the plays of the great George Bernard Shaw, Shaw, of course, was an avid Socialist, who very much distrusted Democracy. Towards the end of "Heartbreak House," characters ponder why, though Britain continually seems to be on the brink of revolution, "nothing happens." The reason? Here's what Lady Utterword has to say: "Get rid of your ridiculous sham democracy; and give Hastings [her husband] the necessary powers, and a good supply of bamboo to bring the British native to his senses." In this context, Utterword's comment seems like a sort of absurd joke (especially since her husband isn't, according to the other characters, the great man she imagines him to be), but readers who knew Shaw's other works would have understood that Utterword is mulling over a theory that Shaw had been writing about since his "Man and Superman." Here is a much earlier Shaw quote from "Man and Superman: "democratic republics" like "the United States...are neither healthy, wealthy, nor wise...The politician who one had to learn how to flatter Kings has now to learn how to fascinate, amuse, coax, humbug, frighten, or otherwise strike the fancy of the electorate."

Shaw's answer is Nietzsche's Superman, who will come and fix the "proletarian democracy," and, to be sure, this solution seems far less palatable post Hitler and Stalin. Nor am I saying that I by any means approve of Shaw's attack on democracy; when push comes to shove, I do believe (or at least hope) in the idea of a healthy, informed, brave, responsible electorate (where are they? well, let's save that for a different post). And yet, I completely understand Shaw's yearning for this great man (or even great woman! though Hilary, I'm sorry to say, isn't it); like many of us today, Shaw frantically wanted change, and needed to believe that change was possible--if not through democracy, than through an enlightened dictator. I don't think Obama--and my god, certainly not Webb!--is anything like Shaw's superman. My point is just this: what we American citizens want is the hope of something new. We want change, and we're tired of working within a system in which change is so impossible. Indeed, what's the good of checks and balances when right wing nutcases have control of each branch of government! It seems like the most the left can hope for these days is to somehow seize one of the three branches and, for a time, slow down the right wing agenda. For a time we've stopped media conglomerates from getting bigger. Hurrah!


one-handed betty said...

all good comments and references, magwitch. if my work in activis has taught me anything, however, it's that change and indeed any political engagement must begin at the local and community level -where one CAN get things done with a little grist and gustso, not to mention everyone's favorite activities - phone banking and door knocking; y'know, ORGANIZING. without engaging people at this level we can never hope for radical change at the top, and the national agenda will continue to be controlled by those with access to money and power- after all, these are the ones who most stand to be affected by national policies like corporate tax breaks. so even though local politics is not the sexiest politics (especially when obama's running for president) i do think it's where the beginning of a progressive answer lies. a president can't fix my community. the u.s.a. doesn't have an actual name - and exists as an almost haphazard alliance if communities - for reasons that reflect this vastness and intractability at the top.
p.s. did anyone else see the op-ed in the NYT today about a war tax - i think it is a superb idea.

Anonymous said...

another advantage of direct political engagement in one's community is that when you've interacted with people - organizers and local politicians, etc. - you can better hold them accountable. everything - including the promises and the rhetoric - is just less vague in local politics. and i do think these local experience come to shape peoples' national outlook.

values can ONLY be formed in a vacuum if you live a sheltered life and get all your political information from television etc. the age of TV and have definitely helped bush and his triumphant catchphrases as much as it hurt clinton. in neither presidency were images of LOCALIZED war violence and poverty shown more than the president's publicity appearances. because so many people are politically apathetic at the local level, they have learned to trust TV and this is why bush won twice. to learn about real issues that affect people, you must engage beyond the national. did i say that already?

in short, if you only focus on national elections you're not really participating in democracy. george bernard shaw, like george w. bush in regards to iraq, might have widened his view a bit about the meaning of democracy.