Thursday, October 15, 2009

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Race and Rage.

It is a sign of our weird political moment that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama will probably hurt him among some of his fellow citizens.

His opponents are describing the award as premature. The deeper problem is that the Nobel will underscore the extent to which Obama is a cosmopolitan figure, much loved in European capitals because he is the change they have been looking for.

Most Americans will probably be happy to have a leader who wins acclaim around the globe. But, paradoxically, a decision made in Oslo to honor Obama's peaceable intentions may make it more difficult for him to reconcile a body politic roiled by years of cultural warfare, partisan animosity and ideological extremism.

The effort to understand where Obama hatred comes from has been one of the few growth areas in the American economy.

There is no doubt that some of the anger is fueled by racial feeling, which is not the same as saying that all opposition to Obama is explained by racism. Most Obama opponents are simply conservative Republicans who disagree with him. But there are too many racist signs at rallies and too many overtly racial pronouncements in the fever swamps of the right-wing media to deny that racism is part of the anti-Obama mix.

Obama can't do much about those who are against him because of his race. Even a 1 percent unemployment rate wouldn't change the minds most scarred by prejudice. But there is a second level of angry opposition to which Obama needs to pay more attention. It involves the genuine rage of those who felt displaced in our economy even before the great recession and who are now hurting even more.

These Americans are sometimes written off as "angry white men." In analyzing anti-Obama feeling, commentators have taken to rummaging around the work of historian Richard Hofstadter during the 1950s and '60s, focusing on his theory that "status anxiety" helps explain the rise of movements on the far right. The idea is that extremism takes hold in groups that feel their "status" is threatened by new groups on the rise in society.

The problem with status-anxiety theory is that it focuses on feelings and psychology, thus easily crossing into condescension. It implies that the victims of status anxiety should be doing a better job accepting their new situations and plays down the idea that they might have something real to be angry about.

In fact, many who now feel rage have legitimate reasons for it, even if neither Obama nor big government is the real culprit. The September 2009 unemployment numbers told the story in broad terms: Among men 20 and over, unemployment was 10.3 percent; among women, the rate was 7.8 percent.

Middle-income men, especially those who are not college graduates, have borne the brunt of economic change bred by globalization and technological transformation. Even before the recession, the decline in the number of well-paid jobs in manufacturing hit the incomes of this group of Americans hard. The trouble in the construction industry since the downturn began has compounded the problem.

This is not a uniquely American problem. Last week I caught up with Australia's deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, who was visiting Washington for a conference on education. Though Gillard diplomatically avoided direct comment on American politics, she said what's happening here reminded her of the rise of Pauline Hanson, a politician who caused a sensation in Australian politics in the 1990s by creating One Nation, a xenophobic and protectionist political party tinged with racism.

Gillard, a leader of Australia's center-left Labor Party, argues that high unemployment, particularly the displacement of men from previously well-paid jobs, helped unleash Hansonism and "the politics of the ordinary guy versus these elites, the opera-watching, latte-sipping elites." Hansonism collapsed, partly because the Australian economy boomed. Gillard argued that the key to battling the politics of rage is to acknowledge that it is driven by "real problems" and not simply raw feelings.

No doubt some who despise Obama will see the judges in Norway as part of that latte-sipping crowd and will hold their esteem for the president against him. He can't do much about this. What he can do -- and perhaps then deserve the domestic equivalent of a peace prize -- is reach out to the angry white men with policies that address their grievances, and do so with an understanding that what matters to them is not status but simply a chance to make a decent living again.
(E J Dionne Jr)

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken it in the neck for awarding this year's Peace Prize to a nine-month old American presidency. There's been much mockery of pencil-necked Norwegian academics in faraway Oslo. This is unfair.

The committee said it chose Barack Obama for his "vision of . . . a world without nuclear weapons" and for "meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." I'd say that completes the argument over old and new Europe. This is a Nobel of decadence.

Let's be clear. This decadence isn't primarily about Roman Polanski or Silvio Berlusconi's playboy club or French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand's adventures in Thailand. Though these are not irrelevant.

This Nobel is about political decadence.

"Decadence," an enduring word, emerged from the Latin "de-cadere," which means "to fall down." Decadence stripped bare means decay.

When it was a vibrant garden of ideas, Europe gave the world more good things than one can count. Then it discovered the pleasures of the welfare state.

Old Europe now lives in a world of unpayable public pension obligations, weak job creation for its youngest workers, below-replacement birth rates, fat agricultural subsidies for farms dating to the Middle Ages, high taxes to pay for the public high-life, and history's most crucial proof of decay—the inability to finance one's armies. Only five of the 28 nations in NATO (the U.K., France, Turkey, Greece and Spain) achieve the minimum defense-spending benchmark of 2% of GDP.

The effect of arriving at a state of political decadence, of no longer being able to rise in the world, is that many people increasingly discover that soft moralism is a more congenial pastime than producing answers for the hard questions. As when David Cameron, the Tory leader and likely next British prime minister wonders: "The insatiable consumption and materialism of the past decade; has it made us happier or more fulfilled?"

This isn't to say that soft moralism is about nothing. But when matters such as climate change become life's primary concerns, it means one is going to spend more time preaching, which is easy, than doing, which is hard. One thinks of Nobelist Al Gore's unstoppable sermons.

Among the hardest questions Europe faced after World War II was the placement of anti-Soviet Pershing missiles on Europe's soil in 1983. Led by Helmut Kohl and Maggie Thatcher, Europe did something hard: It overcame its pacifists. A decade later, with the siege of Sarajevo, old Europe came to understand that making the hardest decisions was now beyond its reach.

Current hard questions include Pakistan and Afghanistan. Darfur is a hard question. Where to hold captured terrorists is a hard question.

Americans heard often the past four years how much Europe "hated" us because of that most complex of hard questions, the Iraq war. Unpopular wars cause bad feelings to be sure, but past some point Europe's antipathy toward the U.S. over Iraq began to sound a lot like moralistic decadence. It is a neurotic resentment of a superpower merely because it possesses the resources to do something Europe can no longer do, for good or ill.

Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland
.What we are in the process of discovering is just how much President Obama's worldview coincides with that of the continent that claims to have seen itself reflected in him and its Peace Prize.

Mr. Obama is at a crossroads in his presidency. As George W. Bush departed the White House, he said his successor would one day arrive at the need to make a decision that made clear the reality of being the American president. That moment has arrived. It is the pending troop-deployment for Afghanistan, a very hard decision.

After that, Mr. Obama will go to Oslo Dec. 10 to receive the Prize itself. That will occur in the middle of the Dec. 7-18 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, whose goal is among the explicit reasons why Mr. Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

Between Afghanistan and Oslo, we're going to get some clarity about the Obama presidency.

Perhaps the most intriguing onlooker to this education is European Nicolas Sarkozy. On his good days, France's president seems aware of the political and economic decay he has inherited. So it was striking at the United Nations last month when Mr. Sarkozy said that Mr. Obama "dreams of a world without nuclear arms." Then, describing Iran's nuclear threat, he said, "At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions."

By "us" he means that the U.S. must lead. In the West, only the U.S. president can still make decisions based on hard facts rather than recede into soft moralism. The day that is no longer true, the U.S. will finally deserve a decadent Nobel.

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