November 7, 2008

The Parataxic Distortion of Obama

Project Into the Void
Judith Butler Essay Here
Parataxic distortion is a psychological term coined by Harry Sullivan to describe the misperceptions we can bring to new relationships. For those of us who are lucky enough to have fallen foolishly, immediately, and completely in love know first hand what the experience is like. We may carry in our mind a generalized idea of a perfect friend or lover (or president) and when we stumble upon a person who approximates our model, our idealism and reality get slurried together into an indistinguishable slop. 

This confluence of projection and reality can't hold forever. Eventually the words and actions of the "screen" stray from one's vision, and we become better at seeing what is really before us as the dream melts away. In the early days of Barack Obama's campaign I became turned off by some of his positions, notably, his desire to increase military spending after the the withdrawal from Iraq. It seemed to me that once again, priorities like education, health care, and the environment would take a back seat to the military industrial complex. Other folks running for president held positions that were more in tune with mine, so I voted to give voice (and vote) to my political views. 

Part of my relief from the outcome of the 2008 presidential election came from the end of the Bush era, and having an election that wasn't mired in post-balloting shenanigans. But reading through the reaction in the press, I can't help but think some parataxic distortion is taking place.

Some reactions from the press:
MEXICO: Former Foreign Minister Jorge CastaƱeda wrote in the Reforma newspaper that the Obama presidency represents a chance for Mexico to remake its relationship with the United States. "Obama's win ... opens to Mexico an extraordinary opportunity to re-position itself in the world because it will be infinitely easier to be a neighbor, ally and friend of the United States."

LEBANON: In a Beirut restaurant, Miriam, 28, said her two brothers, both members of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, saw Mr. Obama as a leader who was willing to take diplomatic risks to avoid military confrontations. "They think Obama will not damage the Middle East the way Bush did, and they were afraid if [John] McCain made it, the whole region would be in danger."

BRAZIL: In Rio de Janeiro, documentary filmmaker Ryan Steers said Mr. Obama could improve the U.S. image abroad. "Obama is someone the world can trust. That is the most important thing for America right now: regaining its trust in the world community."

KENYA: People danced in the streets in Mr. Obama's ancestral village of Kogelo, and President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a national holiday. In Nairobi's Kibera shantytown, carpenter Joseph Ochieng said, "If it were possible for me to get to the United States on my bicycle, I would."

JAPAN: "Americans overcame the racial divide and elected Obama," said Terumi Hino, a photographer and painter in Tokyo. "I think this means the United States can go back to being admired as the country of dreams."
For the first two quotes, I wonder if Obama's support for a Berlin wall along the Mexico border or pro-AIPAC position figure in to their views. More reactions in the LA Times.

It also seems that Medvedev sees a little JFK in Obama (and perhaps a little Kruschev in himself. Could the the Cuban missile crisis of the 60's become the Czech-Polish missile crisis of today (albeit with the roles reversed)? Closer to home, I wonder how many elated folks disagree with Obama's positions against gay marriage, for the death penalty, or his vote for the Patriot Act and the Wall Street bailout?

Even in Judith Butler's remarkable essay, Uncritical Exuberance?" she (hopefully) projects a bit of European-style socialism and multilateralism on Obama:
" seems reasonable to assume that we will see a new rationale for economic regulation and for an approach to economics that resembles social democratic forms in Europe; in foreign affairs, we will doubtless see a renewal of multi-lateral relations, the reversal of a fatal trend of destroying multilateral accords that the Bush administration has undertaken..."
Overall, Butler's piece is a must read (click on the link above). but I wonder if Obama's probable appointment of Clinton-era supporters of neo-liberal economic policies and Goldman Sachs cronies (read 7/2 update) will result in fundamental shifts in the way we control the markets, or will it be more tweaks and half-measures? I also wonder if Obama's willingness to act unilaterally against Pakistan jibe with multilateral picture that is painted of him?

Butler suggests that Obama needs to act quickly on issues that are important to liberals so as to avoid disillusionment. But might her proposed liberal acts disillusion the social or fiscal conservatives who also saw Obama as a champion of their agenda? If we are all to avoid post-crush disillusionment, it is better to look at the candidate that got elected, rather than our hopes and dreams. 

For all the divisiveness of the campaign, McCain and Obama held many similar positions as senators. By looking at their similar votes, we can see how much McCain we're getting in Obama:
Both voted to fund the military prison in Guantanamo Bay (April 13, 2005)
Both voted for a ban on torture (October 5, 2005)
Both voted to ban drilling in ANWAR (November 3, 2005)
Both voted for the Patriot Act (March 2 2006)
Both voted to move class-action lawsuits to federal courts, where corporations have a better chance of winning (February 10, 2005)
Both voted to tighten U.S. borders, designate English as the national language, and offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship (May 25, 2006)
(SJ Res 1) 
Both voted against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (June 7, 2006)
Both voted for embryonic stem cell research (July 18, 2006)
Both voted to fund a 700-mile barrier along the US/Mexico border (September 29, 2006)
Both voted against a plan to remove a pathway to legal residence from an immigration bill (May 24, 2007)
(S Con Res 70) 
Both voted for a one-year ban on earmarks (March 13, 2008)
Both voted to give retroactive immunity to telecom companies that conducted illegal spying for the government, both voted for legislation to combat global warming, both voted for stricter ethics regulations for the senate, and both voted to allow Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada. 

Neither candidate would have been another George W. Bush, so when you  feel the first twitches of buyer's remorse, remember that your current crush--no matter how flawed and ineffective--is better than your ex.

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1 comment:

  1. Some months later, it seems that other writers are picking up on Obama's Parataxis:

    Stanley Fish's blog bost at the NY Times points out:
    "The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you."

    In reference to Obama's inaugural address, Fish labels Obama's talking points as a, "succession of verbal ornaments," leaving us to slather them in our own dreams, hopes, and illusions.


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