Friday, May 11, 2012

He evolved

As you all know by now President Obama has shed those silly-looking gills and taken his flashy new lungs up onto permanent land residency; his lengthily evolving position on marriage equality has evolved itself right up to where some cavilers will say it should have been a year or three ago. Not me! And I'll tell you why.
Fins to limbs, from shark to Eryops. From McGraw-Hill Access Science.*
*Note by the way that the bottom three species—shark, coelacanth, lungfish—all still exist, while the others are extinct (the natural selection process is not, as vulgarizers of the theory and Tom Friedmans and the like continually allege, about new species replacing old ones but rather about new species exploiting new ecological niches).
Entertaining the question of whether Vice President Biden had jumped the gun by endorsing marriage equality earlier in the week,
“I had already made a decision that we were going to take this position before the election and before the convention,” Obama said in his interview with ABC News that aired this morning. (via Think Progress)
Do you see that weird little pronoun shift in "I" decided that "we" would take the position? This is not a mistake; it reflects the complexity of what we are talking about when we talk about "the" president; the citizen Barack Obama, the institution that is President Barack Obama (with the special US wrinkle that that is two institutions, the Head of Government and the Head of State), the forests of committees that carry out the institution's functions, and the fact that Obama really is, as poor George W. pretended to be, the "decider"—the ultimate chair of all those committees. Citizen-chairman Obama decided not just that the views of the institution were going to evolve, but which direction they were going to evolve in and how far.

The Obama who favored same-sex marriage when running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 was clearly Citizen Barack; and so was the one who rejected it in 2004, running for the US Senate and presumably thinking about voters black and white from outside his own sophisticated district (and not being very brave, perhaps, but not being exceptionally dishonest either).

The candidate, anyway, is never just presenting his citizen-self to the public, but is trying out for the role of the committee chair, whose speech must be more circumspect. This is a political thing, and it is not far removed from seeking out political positions that get votes, but it is not quite the same thing if the candidate is doing it the right way.

Willard Mitt Romney's Etch-a-Sketch approach is drawn from his corporate business background; it is basically applying for a job by offering to be a total toady for whatever your employer wants, personally or publicly. It's not very dignified, in comparison to applying on the basis of one's ability to carry forward the work of the firm, and it's really not wise to hire such a person, though I guess that's how the Masters of the Universe roll, recruiting their fellow psychopaths, measuring their ability to bully in the future by their ability to grovel today.

Obama's campaign technique is to sketch out a range of territory where he would be interested in acting, in such a way as to attract the most possible voters of course, often including some who are going to feel burned by what he actually does. Sometimes he cannot find a very broad range at all, as with closing down Guantánamo, and sometimes he can, as with the throwing together of all the different kinds of civil-union and marriage options.

After the inauguration, the citizen and the chair have to start negotiating their respective roles and contributions, which can get pretty complicated; it's here that the turning-round-an-ocean-liner metaphors come into play. The marriage equality issue was an especially easy one in some senses: Citizen Barack's views were on record (that would of course not bother Romney, who would simply deny that he had said anything of the sort), very important sectors of campaign money (Hollywood!) were for once on the radical side, and so were the rapidly moving trends of public opinion.

There was only one force arrayed against against marriage equality, but it was a very powerful one: the super-lagging indicator, Cokie's hairdresser, or the Village, or the Conventional Wisdom, or what I would like to start calling, after Flaubert, Received Opinion ("les idées reçues", from Bouvard et Pécuchet).These people were not themselves actually against marriage equality, or anything else for that matter—they never are—but they asserted without qualification that it couldn't be done, that it wasn't "politically possible", words that strike terror into the hearts of the Committee to Manage the President's Secret Identity.

This is where things stood in 2010 when Obama made his declaration that his own views on the subject were "evolving", and I think everybody should have understood exactly what he meant, instead of complaining about the coyness of the expression: that Citizen Obama had seized the tiller on this issue and would be leading it in his own preferred direction. There was only one direction in which it could be said to "evolve" in any case; bird species may on occasion stop using their wings, but they do not transform them into tiny velociraptor claw arms.

So for this week's announcement, it basically looks earlier than supporters had any right to hope—before the campaign even starts when I would have been betting on 2014. It's great news!

OK, Mr. P.? I've totally got your back on this one—now, can we start talking about holding prisoners without charges, and persecution of whistle blowers? Any evolution going on back there?

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