Pro-anti-anti-Obama; or, the follies of chic political cynicism

This post is written in response to a Facebook note by John Collins, who was in turn responding to a Facebook note by Adrienne Chung, who takes the position that Barack Obama—unlike Hillary Clintonis all rhetoric, nothing but empty “inspiration.” The original version of this post, in Facebook-note form, can be found here. To render any potential accusations of personal bias moot, I hope—and if not, to at least make my biases transparent—I should note that I have known and respected John Collins for many years and did not, until yesterday evening, know that Adrienne Chung existed.

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Just how easy is it to snap Barack’s neck?

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John, I am blown away by your cogent, rigorous, and truly eloquent (albeit in the Judith Butler sense) response, which came as a relief after the undercooked, logically bereft, and ignorant “argument” to which it was in reply. Reading sentences like this one“The disjointed rant above is a reactionary, hip response to a moment in history that does not readily fall prey to the cheap and easy cynicism of the disaffected youth who have, for too long, postponed their political responsibilities”I can see that you not only make your assertions, but have considered the serious arguments against them with as much impartiality as can be expected of anyone, and discarded them for intelligent, substantiated reasons. That sentence and many of your others, do something very much like what I tell my students to think of the word “incontrovertible” as doing: it telling us not only that something “is”—that is, it not only makes a positive assertion, it not only posits something as “veritable,” but carries with it the battle scars of having been tested—it has been challenged with a “contro” and successfully negated the challenge to itself with an “in”—it not only makes a positive assertion: it shows us the process by which it was proven legitimate—just as John shows us in his sentence structure the process by which came to his conclusions, so we may judge not only the conclusions themselves, which are verifiable and unverifiable to equal and therefore negligible degrees, but we may judge also the basic premises that ground those conclusions and the rigorousness of the thought process that undergirds them. This sort of intellectual transparency and goodwill toward ideas, if not their purveyors (the American Apparel comment is pretty low, John, regardless of its accuracy); this sort of convicted, well wrought, solid argumentation is to my mind the hallmark of good thinking.

To it, compare the following response, by Adrienne, to John’s suggestion that Clinton has attempted to coöpt Obama’s “change” mantle:

“He was the candidate for change…so she tried to establish herself as the candidate for change.” This is just untrue, especially with no citation. First of all, any Democratic candidate is campaigning under the assumption of “change” in the context of the nation’s current political climate in Congress. Any Democratic candidate’s proposals for “change” are, by definition, propelling him or her under the campaign for “change.” I am afraid I don’t buy into Obama’s monopoly on the word.

To begin with, we must note that what John says about Obama’s adopting the admittedly purely rhetorical term “change” prior to Clinton doing so is not “just untrue” but absolutely true by any relatively objective measure, as is his contention that Clinton adopted the change mantra only after it was shown to be politically expedient for the Obama campaign. To evince the absurdity of Adrienne’s rejecting that point of John’s for his failure to cite a source, I offer up the this Google search for “clinton adopts ‘change’ obama”—with its approximately 104,000 results (perhaps 20 or so of which are relevant)—as a hypercitation. I imagine a search with verbs other than “adopt” would yield more results, but I think “adopt” alone is sufficient demonstration of my point. To refute John’s account of these candidates’ respective adoptions of “change,” one would have to outright disagree with most all the factions in the American media, not to mention the Canadian and British media. Once can certainly do that, but only at risk of shutting down the conversation altogether on the assumption to everyone else, from the Washington Times to the Times of London, is just plain wrong. I am forced to conclude that Adrienne is either misinformed, informed by biased sources, or intentionally disingenuous in her presentation of the widely-agreed-upon facts. She is here ignorant at best and intellectually psychotic at worst.

That was to begin with, and I don’t really want to go much further. But to be fair to Adrienne, I should actually address her point as such in addition to her introduction to it. She says that Obama doesn’t have a monopoly on the word “change.” This is true, and John doesn’t address it, but the fact that John does not address it is precisely the point. John takes as a premise the meaninglessness of “change” and its multifarious equally-empty buddies. His argument is beyond questioning rhetorical vacuums, which he has long since learned to accept as a defining characteristic of our political discourse and of the postmodern era more generally. What John says is that Clinton saw that that void of a phrase was working for Obama and so adopted it herself. That doesn’t mean that “change” isn’t as meaningless coming out of Obama’s mouth as it is coming out of Clinton’s, and John doesn’t say that it does. Yet you wrote a response to that, to precisely the argument that John did not make and would not make, because to do so would be intellectually irresponsible. It would be immature, that is, to exploit the cliched tenets of most accounts of our postmodern/late capitalist society—that political rhetoric is empty (as in this case); that there is an irresolvable gap between reality and representation; that cause and effect don’t operate in the ways like to think they operate; etc.—as rhetorical tools in themselves. Sadly this practice all too common among people who are intelligent but simply haven’t thought things through rigorously; and it is Adrienne’s practice here. Rather than responding to John’s assertion that if she is upset about Obama’s bankrupt rhetoric she is thereby intellectually bound to be equally upset by Hillary’s equally bankrupt rhetoric, she routes us into the nebulous space of indeterminate rhetoric: “But what does he mean by that?! He’s not really saying anything!” True, but none of them ever say anything. John’s point is that Clinton stole Obama’s not-anything only after she saw it working for him—not that Obama is somehow entitled to a monopoly on the term, nor even that the term is anything but rhetoric. Adrienne exploits the indeterminacy of political rhetoric, a problem and a fact in every political discussion, to indict one single politician. Yet if you want to think critically about these issues, you need to adopt notions like “political rhetoric is radically indeterminate” as premises, not make arguments railing against them as though they’re a novel phenomenon—not fuss and futz around in them as one would in a sandbox—whether out of intentional dishonesty or innocent immaturity.

This is not, to be clear, a personal attack. I don’t think I’ve ever met Adrienne, and I imagine that if I were to, we would get along perfectly fine. (We could, if nothing else, discuss Beckett.) I mean simply to say that if Adrienne—the Adrienne, again, known to me solely from this exchange, who could be entirely unrepresentative—wants to have a serious discussion about this and be taken seriously by intelligent people who take these things seriously, she must rise to a level of argumentative rigor that she has clearly not risen to at present. The idea that we need to be “inspired” by someone in an entirely consuming way (or even to agree with his policies, for that matter) to support him for principled and even policy-oriented reasons, is just nuts, and until that realization becomes a cornerstone of the thought of people like the Adrienne of this note, they won’t have anything legitimate to say about our national discourse. Their understanding of the political and sociological principles that inform that system—again, that the media do x y and z to this and that and what have you; that opinion polls are inaccurate yet perversely have an effect (though we cannot consistently say what effect!) on voting; that people, all people, all of us, usually do not know what we want, and if we do, we probably don’t know how to best go about getting it, etc.—their understanding, in short, of the bedrock principles of our global sociopolitical media ecology, is simply too clumsy.

Adrienne seems to think that I need to “believe” in Barack Obama in some holistic way, to find earnest and unequivocal expression of my spiritual and ideological beliefs and policy desires in his “inspiration,” to be of the opinion that he has significant potential to change this country to an extent most of us have never before imagined to be actually possible. You can deny that possibility all you want, and you may well be right in thinking it will lead nowhere. But—and I excerpt this from John again because, again, I think it’s both a tour-de-force of a summary of the demerits of Adrienne’s argument and a downright beautiful sentence—“The disjointed rant above is a reactionary, hip response to a moment in history that does not readily fall prey to the cheap and easy cynicism of the disaffected youth who have, for too long, postponed their political responsibilities.” I don’t presume to tell anyone what his political responsibilities are, but to the extent that intellectual responsibility coincides with political responsibility in this particular exchange, Adrienne’s argument is one of the least politically responsible pieces of writing I’ve come across. Or, perhaps better, I should say that it is one of the least politically responsible arguments I’ve come across penned by someone who is obviously not a dolt. I’ve made a sincere attempt to take Adrienne’s points seriously, but because they are poorly researched and reactionary, I cannot. This does not mean I think the arguments she’s trying to make—especially those for Clinton’s undeniably stellar qualifications—cannot be made and made well. It means that she does not do them justice.

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Shortly after posting the note from which this was adapted on Facebook, I was sent an insightful analysis from Kai Stinchcombe that indirectly addresses aspects of Adrienne’s, John’s and my notes with frankness and moral bravery. It is well worth reading.

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