Aching for Obama


There’s something in the air here in Hyde Park. And it isn’t the crisp winter chill or falling snow, which apparently Chicago has not had all that much of this year. Nor is it the sound of the occasional work in the street as the city of Chicago replaces water pipes in the neighborhood.

No, it’s the fact that favorite son, local resident and junior Illinois Sen. Barack Obama appears to be running for president. I say appears, because while he has all but announced his candidacy, he is still only "exploring" the option.

I know, the fact that anyone is running for president, is aching to become the "chief executive" of the United States of America, is not something any self-respecting anarchist like myself (or even libertarian, I suppose) ought to celebrate. As far as I’m concerned, the presidency is best left unoccupied, a vacancy unfilled and unstaffed, the residue of a long and frightening nightmare that once disturbed a sweet, sound slumber. A second-best solution would be to elect someone deep in a coma, a brain-dead individual capable only of drawing breath and taking nourishment from a tube, who could make neither speeches nor implement policy, incapable of signing treaties or ordering troops into battle. Such a comatose president would do wonders for the civil rights of the disabled, but this would only work if the vice-president himself (or herself) were also utterly uninterested in governing, perhaps instead in permanent thrall to nickel cigars or playing marbles in the dirt with children and grandchildren.

Such a presidency would, by necessity, have to leave vacant the zillions of national security and policy positions that accompany the executive like flies on a cow. The executive office buildings scattered across Mordor-on-the-Potomac would become dark and cold, haunted by the chain-ratting ghosts of dead bureaucrats and regulators as well as by clouds of bats. Or they could, with a little work, become fine homes for Washington’s many homeless. Frankly, I can’t think of a more honest solution to that problem anyway.

In short, I’d like to see an executive branch devoid of human beings who actually want power and want to use it. That’s an actual possibility in a monarchy (and one of its advantages), but it an almost completely unlikely outcome in a republic governed specifically by those who aspire to political power. Sigh. I can have my daydreams too.

We live in a society populated by statists, by people who believe in the efficacy and moral necessity of state action, of coercing others to either encourage the good or forbid the evil, that the arbitrary "we" of America are somehow "all in this together" and therefore must be led, Moses-like, toward whatever promised land the prophet-of-the-moment is promising. Or, as the case may be, frogmarched at gunpoint to that alleged promised land. And so we must suffer their occasional outbreaks of enthusiasm for various and sundry candidates for office, our aspiring prophetic leaders. (Is there still any real popular enthusiasm for George W. Bush out there? Anywhere?) Since this awful habit of electoral politics isn’t going away anytime soon — it is not likely that America will collapse into several hundred or several thousand tiny Hoppean monarchies (another one of my happy daydreams) — it would be best to try and appreciate the spectacle for what it is.

Obamamania appears to be just such a spectacle.

As a poor seminarian (I repeat myself?), I don’t have the wherewithal to get out much. I attend a very liberal school where the annoying (and meaningless) phrase "social justice" is spoken frequently, worship (only as often as necessary and when my wife and I cannot get to alternatives) at a very liberal church where every third sermon seems to focus on the evils of global warming. Hyde Park has money, and it could even be called a wealthy neighborhood, but most of that "wealth" doesn’t appear to have been really made (today) by anyone. Not really. Most Hyde Park residents are, to use a word I first encountered in Deirdre McCloskey’s recent book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, members of the clericy — academics, theologians, clergy, lawyers and the like. People of bourgeois sensibilities with romantic and revolutionary outlooks. (And oh, what damage such people have done to the world…) Their incomes are, I’m guessing, mostly salaries, the fat rendered from someone else’s land, either taxes taken by force or bequeathed from the trust of some dead industrialist who thought the way to make the world the world a better place was to invent "public policy."

I cannot say there is a universal Obamamania here, because as anywhere, most people don’t really care about politics. (The Bears are a much bigger deal…) But where political enthusiasm meets the real world, there appears to be an earnest love for the senator. I remember from high school the ache some people had for the very early 1960s, the few years of the Kennedy regime, and this ache for Obama has that kind of feel to it. It’s nostalgic and hopeful at the same time, a Janus-face looking both forward and backward. Truth is, Obama is an empty chest into which hopes and dreams are being stuffed by people who appear to yearn for an American future modeled after that of New Frontier: earnest Peace Corps and Vista volunteers and Freedom Riders, of noble and uplifting speeches inspiring to do and be better, of the never-ending expansion of Freedom and Security at the hands of a Just state led only by the Righteous and Virtuous. It’s the same old nonsensical Progressive/Social Democratic version of history as the never-ending expansion of freedom, that only the American state can lead humanity to a more perfect future, one in which we are all equal and free, and suffering and want are eventually banished for ever and ever. (The Republicans version of this teleology is not much better, just as state-centered and a lot more violent.)

But there’s a lot that Progressives choose to forget in their vision of the good and kind society. They forget the men and women the state bends and breaks on that ever-turning wheel of Progress, the men and women who must be broken if the promised land is to be reached. They forget the Great Society had international branch offices that had nothing to do with the Peace Corps — Cuba, the Dominican Republican, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And then there’s of course the most insidious legacy of New Frontier/Great Society era, that the best and brightest are capable of solving all problems, from urban unrest at home to Communist insurgencies abroad, without involving those they seek to help or even asking them.

Progressivism, in its 19th and 20th century versions (and most assuredly in its looming 21st century version as well) is a violent creed that demands the bending the individual human will for the convenience of and to the purpose of the collective. The individual only has value insofar as he or she is part of and participates in the great march of Progress. It may not be as overtly brutal or murderous as fascism or communism, but Progressivism is just as totalitarian, just as reliant on force, just as enamored of the state, and just as focused on the creation of a new kind of human being and a new kind of humanity (and the necessary destruction of the old).

What, after all, is the value of a single human individual life or soul when it’s the promised land we’re marching to?

But this Obamamania is tinged with fear. There are doubts I hear from Obama supporters — best articulated by a rabbi guest-lecturing in a class one evening. The fear is that the good senator will, as he seeks higher office, compromise his principles. I’m sorry, but I find this funny. He is seeking power, the power to coerce, compel, steal, kill and destroy. Power to annihilate. That desire has no principles to begin with, and certainly none it can compromise.

This isn’t to say that Barack Obama isn’t a brilliant politician. He is. He speaks well. You can’t hardly visit a small business in Hyde Park in which a picture of the good senator standing with the proprietor isn’t prominently displayed. He talks about God and religion honestly and sincerely, something most Democrats (and few Republicans) can do. About all muttering rightist detractors can seem to dream up is that he is a crypto-Muslim who would turn America over to the enemy first chance he gets. (I’ll leave the hard work on dissecting and deconstructing Obama to the fine folks over at — they have more time than I do and are also demonstrating the man has utterly no principles to compromise.) With 22 months between now and next presidential election, a lot can happen. But if the Republican Party implodes between here and there (as I expect it will, over Iraq and Bush Jong Il’s imperialistic foreign policy), it’s very likely the next president of the United States will be a Democrat. And that Democrat could very well be Barack Obama.

I look forward to the spectacle, but I don’t look forward to much else. I had thought that when I left Washington last summer, I was done with presidents and senators and other lesser congresscritturs and their minions. (Obama may live here in Hyde Park, but I’ve never run into him grocery shopping or anything.) I was looking forward to the fact that my daily life would no longer involve encounters with the Secret Service or the other Uruk-hai in the employ of our current Dark Lord. Obama runs for president, however, and that will change. The Secret Service will encamp here for the duration, with all the inconvenience that brings with it.

I will certainly let you know if I run into them.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.