Friday, December 17, 2010

Close Reading

Politics is a murky, squishy topic and I do my best to avoid sinking into its swamp. Language, on the other hand, has engaged and nourished me all my life. On the rare occasion when I find someone approaching politics through language, I begin to think that a coherent view of current events might be possible. And that was the case when I read a piece in the London Review of Books by David Bromwich, professor of literature at Yale. It is called The Fastidious President, and this is a short excerpt:

Obama weighed in with the American public on the safety of deep-water drilling on 2 April. 'It turns out, by the way,' he said, 'that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.' On 20 April the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred. On 29 April Obama made his first mention of the spill, and on 2 May his first visit to Louisiana. In his campaign for president, he had treated Bush's uncaring response to Hurricane Katrina as an index of the incompetence of his administration. Here was a disaster of a similar magnitude, in the same state, and Obama avoided all contact with it. His address from the Oval Office on 15 June, concerning the spill, may have marked the moment when his public image finally tipped away from popularity. The pitch was businesslike, sombre and clipped:

Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al-Qaida wherever it exists. And tonight, I've returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.

Thus the environmental catastrophe was placed on a level with the human disaster of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the social disaster of the financial collapse, as if all three had been accidents beyond our control, each to be faced with a rigorous stoicism and determination to assist. But the wars were caused by Cheney and Bush, the collapse (which had 'touched the lives' of so many) by the profiteers of the mortgage bubble and their trading partners, and the oil spill by the corporate malfeasance of an unregulated oil giant. These plain words Obama found himself unable to say. And the metaphor most evocative of war was reserved for the spill itself 'assaulting our shores' as if by its own volition.

The speech ended solemnly by alluding to the custom of 'The Blessing of the Fleet' by 'clergy from different religions' as fishing boats headed out to sea. 'The ceremony,' said Obama from his presidential desk, 'goes on in good times and in bad. It took place after Katrina, and it took place a few weeks ago
at the beginning of the most difficult season these fishermen have ever faced. And still, they came and they prayed.' At this point no one with an ear and a heart could forbear to whisper: Bush! Versions of the word 'pray' occurred four times and 'bless' three times in the last 150 words of this speech, and the word 'God' three times.

Obama sought an effect of comparable solemnity in the speech of 26 August that declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In it he announced that the Iraq war 'has made America safer'. Doubtless he felt a need, as he called the war to an official close, to appease and comfort the soldiers and their families who had sacrificed so much, but the need to give satisfaction to any given audience is a compulsion he might have been warned against by the example of Bill Clinton. In this instance, it was a simple mater for anyone to find the text of Obama's contrary statement of September 2007: 'the Iraq war has left us less safe than we were before 9/11.' What were the soldiers and families to think when they placed those two statements side by side?

Tariq Ali's new book (above, with cover by Alex Ostroy) arrives in time to mark yesterday's passage of a budget that will extend Bush's notorious tax breaks for the super-rich. Today's San Francisco Chronicle reported that over the next two years, thanks to Obama's advocacy, a mere 6,000 unimaginably wealthy American "households" will retain $25 billion that would otherwise have been paid in federal tax.