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August 11th 2014 print

Roger Kimball

The View from Obama’s Ruins

When the current US President' s first term began with a pledge that he would be “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” As his second term draws to its sorry conclusion, there can be no doubt that he has kept his promise. The transformation has has wrought is tragic

empty suitSince Russia is once again in the news, let me paraphrase what the American President said about our relations with that country. “I knew that now was the time to strike back,” he recalled.

otherwise I would leave the impression to the press and through them to the world that I . . .  and the government I represented were dealing . . . from a position of weakness—militarily, economically and ideologically. I had to be firm without being belligerent, a most difficult posture to preserve.

Now, if you thought that an uncharacteristically crisp response from Barack Obama to the Russian leader, go to the head of the class and collect a gold star.  For the comment I paraphrased was from Richard Nixon in 1959 when, as Vice-President, he traveled to Moscow and was confronted by a hectoring Nikita Khrushchev. I think that you’ll agree that the contrast between the two leaders—between Obama and Nixon, I mean—is striking.

When Quadrant’s editor Keith Windschuttle asked for a title for this talk, I suggested “Fundamentally Transforming the United States of America.”  The line, as I’m sure most of you know, comes from candidate Barack Obama. The time was October 2008. The “Yes-we-can/Hope-and-change” express was speeding down the track. Obama stood before his adoring acolytes and told them that they were only “five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Here we are, almost six years into the most destructive presidency in the country’s history, and we can see that fundamental transformation at work just about everywhere.

Not that that’s a surprise. When Obama spoke those words, the United States was the richest, mightiest, and arguably the freest country the world had ever seen.  Were someone to undertake fundamental transformation of such country, which of those essential attributes could remain untouched?

And so it has been.  The United States is measurably less prosperous, less secure, and less free than when Obama came to power. Which is why I believe that we are witnessing the gradual, or possibly not so gradual, decomposition of the emotional consensus that put Obama into the White House in 2008 and, not without a struggle, returned him in 2012. On every front, domestic as well as foreign, statements that seemed apposite a year or two or three ago suddenly, ominously, have acquired new and less pleasing valences.  In 2008, when Obama’s promised to “fundamentally transform” the United States of America, he was greeted by wild cheers.

There aren’t many cheers now.  How could there be?

Consider the economy: During Obama’s first term, the credit rating of the United States was downgraded by S&P for the first time in history. That might seem pretty abstract: who cares about a country’s credit rating?  But then there’s news like this: Just last week, The New York Times reported that the net worth of the typical American household declined by a third since Obama took office.  Real unemployment—that is, the number of people who are looking for work added to the number of people who have despaired and given up looking—is in double digits. Among blacks it is something like 16 percent, even higher among some cohorts.

And speaking of blacks, how are race relations under Obama?  He was supposed to be our first “post-racial” President, the man who by virtue of the color of his skin would finally put an end to America’s troubled racial history. In fact, under Obama race relations are in a rawer state than I can remember, thanks to a president and an administration that have played the race card at every opportunity. The Cambridge, Massachusetts police acted “stupidly,” according to the president, in the way they handled the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the famous Harvard huckster, back in 2009.  If he had had a son, said the president, he would “look like” the thug Trayvon Martin, who jumped George Zimmerman and was shot dead by Zimmerman while pounding his head into the concrete sidewalk. And don’t get me started on Eric Holder, the race huckster that is the President’s Attorney General.

And then there’s the position of the United States on the world stage.  Obama came to office promising to engage in “smart diplomacy.” After Benghazi, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various adventures with China and Russia, the phrase is now a sort of joke.  “Smart Diplomacy” is never uttered these days without knowing quotation marks.

Obama & Co. came to power promising to hit the “reset” button not only with respect to our relations with Russia—how’s that working out?—but also with respect to our position in the world more generally. The bad old days of unilateral action under George W. Bush were to be banished in favor of a kinder, gentler America that was no more “exceptional” than was Britain or Greece. Obama has certainly done a lot to make that true. “Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991,” the historian Conrad Black observed, “and prior to that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.” Black continued:

What we are witnessing now in the United States . . . [is]  the backwash of inept policy-making in Washington, and nothing that could not eventually be put right. But for this administration to redeem its credibility now would require a change of direction and method so radical it would be the national equivalent of the comeback of Lazarus.

For the America-hating, transnational progressive Left, the disaster that is Obama must have been fun at first: warm and fuzzy speeches in Cairo about how, deep down, Islam is as American as apple pie, economically suicidal decisions like the veto of the Keystone pipeline, unleashing the Internal Revenue Service against groups that promoted things like patriotism or the tea party: wot larks!

But even the most irresponsible follower of Saul Alinsky, the Marxist radical and author of Rules for Radicals, must have some misgivings about the tectonic shifts that are happening under his feet.  The long march through the institutions of bourgeois capitalism is an amusing trek so long as you are the one giving the marching orders and commanding the funds and the security to make sure that, if there is any rough stuff, you are well out of it.  But when that changes? If there is a tune everyone will remember from the Obama administration, I predict, it will the percussive sound of scurrying, rodent-like feet hurrying to get off the ship.

So stayed tuned.  Obama drew (or didn’t draw: depends when you ask him) a “red line” about Syria: if Assad uses chemical weapons, then, then, then . . . like Lear’s famous aposiopesis he was reduced to blustering: “I will have such revenges on you . . . That all the world shall —  I will do such things —/ what they are yet I know not, but they shall be / the terrors of the earth.” In other words, toothless bluster.

In a melancholy passage of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that we can follow certain courses of action which will put us in situations where there is no right response.  Whatever we do, it will be wrong, or at least unhappy.  Confronted with the West’s habitual acquiescence in the face of Russian (and not only Russian) swagger and belligerence, Aristotle would no doubt have said, “See what I mean,” or words to that effect.

Skillful diplomacy might have headed off the crisis in Crimea.  But we did not field skillful diplomats. We sent John Kerry, backed up by Barack Obama, Susan Rice, and Joe Biden. As in 1854, “someone had blundered.” Tennyson recorded the result in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  Today, the “reset button” turns out to have been disconnected at the source. Obama really did push it. But Comrade Putin paid it no heed. Putin had taken the measure of the man long ago.  And if there was any doubt, in 2012, in a candid-camera moment, Obama pleaded with Putin’s protegée Dmitry Medvedev to give him more “space” about missile defense. “This is my last election,” Obama confided quietly to Medvedev, “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

The microphones weren’t supposed to pick that up. In any normal world, the remark would have gone a long way towards sealing Obama’s defeat in 2012.  But this isn’t any normal world. It is the world according folks like TV commentator Wolf Blitzer, who mocked Mitt Romney for describing Russia as, “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”

Oh, how Obama jumped all over that during the debates.  Remember? The mockery was non-stop. “The 1980s,” he said. “are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” It was a good line.  But it looks like Romney was right, doesn’t it?

Obama has threatened “sanctions” and described Russia as a second-rate power.     Meanwhile Putin has enacted what one commentator accurately described as a “slow-motion Anschluss” of Crimea, possibly with the rest of Ukraine, or at least a large part of it, to follow.

For nearly six years, Obama has been been jetting around the world at vast expense to apologize for America. He apologized to the Muslims. He apologized to Hugo Chavez. He bowed deeply to the Saudi despot. He cancelled the promised missile defense programs for Poland and the Czech Republic, thereby both selling out important allies and waving the flag of weakness to the country that, come to think of it, might just be American’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

There are good reasons to think that the Obama Express has finally jumped track. The preposterous and hideously expensive socialized medicine program that Obama shoved down the throats of the American people with no Republican support and against the will of a majority of the people: Nancy Pelosi said we had to pass it to find out what’s in it. Well, Obama bribed, cajoled, and threatened to get it passed, and now the American people are indeed finding out what’s in it. “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.” Obama said that over and over and over. He knew it wasn’t true. But he decided to lie to the American people in order to get on with his project of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” ObamaCare is increasingly mired in legal impediments and, just last week, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that a key feature of Obama’s signature domestic program is illegal. Many observers believe that that decision may mark the beginning of the end for ObamaCare.

Even the supine media is beginning to bristle. No one, left, right, or center, buys the fable currently being peddled by the IRS that it somehow irretrievably lost  two years worth of emails from Lois “I’ll-take-the-Fifth” Lerner, the senior IRS employee and Obama supporter who was at the center of the IRS scandal.

The question is, now that the rest of the world is waking up to Obama’s weakness and incompetence, what will happen? Obama  campaigned on a promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But he has gone out of his way to assure that it will. What then? A couple months back, China unilaterally extended its air rights in the South China Sea. What was Obama’s response?  More or less the same as his response to the downing of that Malaysian commercial airliner over the Ukraine a couple of weeks ago.  He said it was and outrage and then ordered a hamburger and fries.  As Charles Krauthammer said at the time, no one cares what Obama says any longer.

H. L. Mencken once observed that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.  That’s a pretty good witticism.  But it isn’t quite true. If only he had substituted “the American political class” or “the American media,” then it would have been true as well as witty.

Meanwhile, those very American people that our political class, like Mencken, hold in such contempt are waking up.  They do not like what Obama is doing to America. The recent tsunami of illegal immigration from Latin America is only the latest in a long litany of scandals. But its a big one. Which is why Obama’s approval rating is wavering between 39 and 40 points and is heading south.

What will happen? Again, I cannot claim to know the answer. But whenever I contemplate such a gloomy stack of troubles, I am reminded of Adam Smith’s observation that there is “a deal of ruin in a nation.” A few years back, I had occasion to quote Smith’s line to John O’Sullivan, a figure well known to the Quadrant community, and he replied “Especially this nation.” The U.S. economy had suddenly turned very interesting, in the dismaying way that your doctor finds your latest symptoms “interesting,” and a sentiment of gloomy inertia, a heavy, energy-sapping miasma, lay upon the land.

It’s a periodic affliction. Back in the 1940s, Cyril Connolly announced that “It is closing time in the gardens of the West.” Was he right at last? Or was Smith–O’Sullivan closer to the mark? Adam Smith had written to calm a young correspondent who contemplated with alarm British losses in the American War of Independence. As it happened, Britain absorbed the parturition of the United States with aplomb, growing ever stronger for more than a century. Where are we now? There’s lots of ruin about: no one disputes that. But how are we—we, the English-speaking peoples of the world—how are we faring?

I take it that that was the deeper question behind Keith’s questions about Obama’s plans for America’s role in the world. And I believe that when we turn our attention from America by itself to the Anglosphere of which it is a part, the situation looks somewhat more sanguine.

I am not sure who coined the term “Anglosphere,” but James Bennett gave it currency with his book The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-first Century. The Anglosphere Challenge endeavored to make good on its optimistic subtitle. The nineteenth century had been the British century. The twentieth century belonged to America. The twenty-first, Bennett argued, might well be a third, more capacious Anglo century. “If the English-speaking nations grasp the opportunity,” he wrote at the end of his book, “the twenty-first century will be the Anglosphere century.”

“If.” It’s a tiny word that prompts large questions. What were those opportunities that needed grasping? How sure was our grip? And who, by the way, were “we”? What was this Anglosphere that Bennett apostrophized? Winston Churchill’s opus on the English-speaking peoples, published in four-volumes in the mid-1950s, principally included Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. He commenced his story in 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar first “turned his gaze” upon Britain, and concluded as Victoria’s long reign ended. By the time that Andrew Roberts extended Churchill’s work in his magisterial History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, the Anglosphere had expanded to include Commonwealth Caribbean countries and, more to the point, India with its 1.1 billion people and the burgeoning capitalist dynamo that is its economy.

The inclusion of India shows, Roberts argues, that the defining quality of the Anglosphere is not shared race or ethnicity but shared values. It is a unity, as the Indian economist Madhav Das Nalapat puts it, of ideas, “the blood of the mind” rather than “the blood of the body.” Its force is more intangible than physical—set forth primarily in arguments rather than armies—but no less powerful for that. The ideas in play are so potent, in fact, they allow India, exotic India, to emerge as an equal partner with Britain and the United States at “the core of a twenty-first-century Anglosphere.”

The historian Alan Macfarlane, in his classic Origins of English Individualism, shows that the habit of freedom is far older than we have been taught to believe. According to the Marxist narrative, individualism is a “bourgeois construct” whose motor belongs to the eighteenth-century. Macfarlane shows that, on the contrary, “since at least the thirteenth century England has been a country where the individual has been more important than the group.” “Peasant” was a term the English used about others but not themselves. Why? Macfarlane locates the answer in the presence of a market economy, an “individualistic pattern of ownership,” and strong recourse to local initiative that were prominent features of English life at least since 1250. “In many respects,” he writes, “England had probably long been different from almost every other major agrarian society we know.”

Different in origins and different also in outcomes. Consider Britain’s record as a colonial power. “Thanks to English law,” Keith Windschuttle has written, “most British colonial officials delivered good government.” And the positive effects are not merely historical artifacts. They are patent everywhere in the world today. “The key regional powers in almost every corner of the globe,” Mark Steyn has written, “are British-derived—from Australia to South Africa to India—and, even among the lesser players, as a general rule you’re better off for having been exposed to British rule than not: Why is Haiti Haiti and Barbados Barbados?”

“English institutions” you might say, “the rule of law, and all that.” Well, yes, but why were the English peculiarly prominent among the bearers of that beneficence? Again, I do not have an explanation. It has something to do, I feel sure, with the habit of liberty, the contagious temperament of freedom. It’s a trait that has been widely noticed. The Czech writer Karel Čapek visited England in the 1920s. Writing about the country a few years later, he observed that the Englishman “stays in England all the time even when he happens to be somewhere else, say, Naples or Tibet. . . . England is not just a certain territory; England is a particular environment habitually surrounding Englishmen.” George Santayana registered something similar in his essay on “The British Character” in Soliloquies in England. “What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.” Santayana continued in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

Instinctively, the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself. Yet outwardly he is most hospitable and accepts almost anybody for the time being; he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.

The question is whether these mostly agreeable observations should be filed under the rubric “As We Were,” like E.F. Benson’s nostalgic look back at a vanished Victorian heyday. The alarming possibility that recent history has presented us with is that the assault of Santayana’s “scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics” may come as much from within the Anglosphere as from outside it. “Civilizations,” observed the political philosopher James Burnham “die, in truth, only by suicide.” What have we been doing to ourselves?

When we cast our glance over the subject of the future of the Angosphere, two themes predominate.  One is backward-looking and concerns the tonic relationship between the Anglosphere and political liberty. The second is forward-looking and stresses the extent to which the traditional epicenters of the Anglosphere—especially Britain and North America—have abandoned their allegiance to the core values Alan Macfarlane descried in English society three-quarters of a millennium past: individual liberty and its political correlative, limited government.

A growing influence of elites brings with it an erosion of local initiative as the blandishments of security are dispensed in exchange for a tithe on freedom. Tocqueville noted the perennial tension between the demand for freedom and the demand for equality in democratic regimes. And his great disciple F. A. von Hayek described the process by which “extensive government control” produced “a psychological change, an alteration of the character of the people.” “The important point,” he wrote, “is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives. This means, among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.” Evidence for the collapse of the spirit is not far to seek. Mark Steyn cites the deliciously awful spectacle of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown endeavoring to come up with a patriotic British equivalent of Independence Day for Americans. What did his government turn up? July 5, the anniversary of the inauguration of National Health Service — a fitting symbol of British surrender of personal freedom for the sake of a spurious security. “They can call it,” Steyn writes, “Dependence Day.”

Mark Steyn is quite right that “you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence.” We’ve had the assault and we are living with the consequences.

He is also right that “without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world.” The hopeful part of that prediction comes in the apodosis: the course may still be corrected. As Hayek noted about his own dire diagnosis: “The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time.”

There are, I believe, two main sources of hope. One lies in the past, in the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority. “The future is unknowable,” said Churchill, “but the past should give us hope.” The Anglosphere, James Bennett writes, “is not a fragile hothouse flower that can be easily uprooted and disappear forever.” There is a deal of ruin in a nation.

The second main ground for hope lies in the present and immediate future. In the United States, anyway, we have lately witnessed a new “revolt of the masses,” different from, in fact more or less the opposite of, the socialistic eruption Ortega y Gasset limned in his famous essay on the subject. To alter Marx, you might say that a specter is haunting America, the specter of freedom. The big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States is growing, but it is also increasingly under siege as the consensus that elected Obama falters.

“Real change,” I can hear the skeptics say, “will never happen. The bureaucracy is too entrenched, the demographic shifts have brought too many people who are more interested in security and than liberty.”  But that might have been said of Canada and Australia a short while ago, and those countries are now led by vigorous champions of freedom and capitalist dynamism.  The success of Stephen Harper in Canada and Tony Abbott in this country must give us all hope. After all, “fundamental transformation” can work in two directions. Even as Barack Obama pursues his war on prosperity by assaulting the coal industry, Prime Minister Abbott has wisely abolished Australia’s carbon tax. Speaking as a carbon-based life form, I am grateful for that consideration.

Are things bad? Is it late? Yes, and yes again. But as Lord D’Abernon memorably put it, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” Extend that observation to include the minds of the rest of the Anglosphere and I believe we have something to work with.

Roger Kimball gave this address to a Quadrant dinner in Sydney on 6 August 2014. He is editor of The New Criterion, New York, and publisher of Encounter Books. In a review of Roger’s most recent book, The Fortunes of Permanance: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, the American political scientist Michael Uhlmann called him “America’s foremost cultural critic”.