November 05, 2008

Conspicuous Egalitarianism

?You Fight, We Consume? is a leitmotif that runs throughout Andrew Bacevich?s criticism of American foreign policy. The phrase encapsulates much of Republican rhetoric over the past seven years in which the GWOT is billed as a ?transcendent challenge? rivaling America?s wars against Nazism and Communism, but then little to nothing is actually demanded from average citizens in the way higher taxes, austerity, military service, and the rest. The great terror war is marked not only by George W. Bush?s summons to ?end tyranny in our time? but Rudy Giuliani?s post 9/11 decree that New Yorkers should go shopping and buy Broadway tickets as a patriotic duty.

I generally think it?s a good thing the not much has been demanded of us, and certainly with the GWOT being so ill-defined and interminable, something like national service would have been politically impossible (not to mention ineffectual.)

But with the Era Obama upon us, we seem to be entering new territory, at least rhetorically speaking. Take this from last night?s victory speech

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it?s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers?in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Where to begin??perhaps with the non-sequiteur, ?[W]e cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.? Alas, Barack, ?Yes we can!? Indeed, this is what the Greenspan era of inflating credit has been all about. And anyway, Obama?s support of the bailout of Goldman Sachs and friends is an odd way of confronting the ?suffering? on Main Street. Then there?s Obamian ?patriotism,? which amounts to kind of hokey egalitarianism of ?one people,? all of whom are ?looking out for each other.?

I watched Obama?s speech at a local Park Slope bar and remember great shouts of joy emanating from the assembled urban hiptsters and granola yuppies when the senator said these lines. I wonder if my neighbors would actually be willing to collectively ?look out for each other,? which would seem to entail having their incomes redistributed down to their distant neighbors on Atlantic Ave. Would they really be willing to take part in some community organizing at the behest of the Obama administration? But at the end of the day, I don?t think Obama actually means it, and this happy talk of ?one people? and patriotic sacrifice will mostly be sacrifice-free egalitarianism?conspicuous consumption in our new liberal order. Or at least, I hope so… 

Update: Last night at a conservative gathering, my friend Todd Seavey observed that there’s good reason to believe that Obama’s “one people” socialism will remain mostly rhetorical. In his victory speech, Obama announced “Change has come to America!” Well, if the presence of a non-white man in the White House is the Change We Seek—the fulfillment of the Civil Right’s movement and the dreams of the Founders, an enactment of “America’s creed,” “Yes, We Can!”—then, well, I guess we can just leave it at that. There’s no reason to actually redistribute any wealth or demand much sacrifice after the country’s proven itself so virtuous by voting for a black man. Right?

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