Friday, December 25, 2015

Forlorn hope and change

Cheery Xmas post!

The Devil’s Own” 88th Regiment at the Siege of Badajoz. Watercolour en grisaille by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (1856-1927). Via Wikimedia Commons.
From Patrick O'Brian's The Fortune of War, via Age of Sail:
Two weevils crept from the crumbs. “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.
“I do.”
“Which would you choose?”
“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”
“But suppose you had to choose?”
“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”
“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit — you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
I love that joke, which Jack tells three or four times, to increasingly annoyed friends and guests, in the course of the 20-novel saga.

What put me in mind of it is BooMan's piece yesterday on what he calls "take-my-ball-and-go-homism" on the part of those who are or claim they are (11 months before an election) too pure in heart to vote for some candidate apparently situated on the right of some point on somebody's one-dimensional scale of leftness-to-rightness and will therefore be forced to not vote at all. This refusal to "choose the lesser of two evils" is as childish as Boo suggests, but it's also rhetorically pernicious, and I want to argue that it's not even properly speaking of the left.

I learned an alternative concept from another cycle of Napoleonic Wars novels, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series (not great literature like the Aubrey-Maturin stories but terrific stuff), that of the "forlorn hope" (an inept mistranslation, it turns out, of the Dutch verloren hoop or "thrown-away heap"), for a band of soldiers sent to open up a breach in a siege defense on the understanding that they won't succeed, and probably will mostly die, but will make a space of which the next wave can take advantage. However bleak the situation, you can always insist on making a positive, active choice: not which evil should I resign myself to, but which course of action offers the hope, however forlorn, of a good outcome. To think of voting as choosing an evil is an essentially conservative approach—saying, basically, that things are already bad enough and any change is bound to make them worse, standing athwart the whatchamacallit hollering stop, as old Mr. Buckley said; it's what I've called the Eeyore position. A small-p progressive attitude is one that says we can get something out of this vote, however tiny, and the next campaign, or the next generation, can take it further. Not because it's less evil, but because it can bring some good, even if it's minimal.

And I don't mean voting for Reagan because his mismanagement will be so devastating that it will spark the Revolution, because guess what, that doesn't happen, and it's really just a variant lesser-evil approach. If you really want to spark the Revolution you'll vote for a more flexible and liberal education, family leave and minimum wage hikes, and other ways of freeing people to be revolutionary. A Reagan victory just makes the working class more frantic to stay above water, viciously competitive among each other and terrified of foreigners.

We voted for Obama in the 2008 primary not because he was the most leftist candidate, which he certainly wasn't, with his vapid insistence on ideas not being blue or red and all, and not because he was evil but not as evil as whoever either. We sent him into the general election in a way as a kind of forlorn hope, the most likely, if we were lucky, to succeed in ripping a hole in the superstructure to allow some fresh ideas—not necessarily his own—in.

And while we tend to focus on the things he hasn't done, the list of things he has done, as Peter Beinart formulates it in the current issue of the Atlantic, is really kind of astonishing:
President Obama has intervened more extensively in the economy than any other president in close to half a century. In his first year, he pushed through the largest economic stimulus in American history—larger in inflation-adjusted terms than Franklin Roosevelt’s famed Works Progress Administration. In his second year, he muscled [something like] universal health care through Congress, something progressives had been dreaming about since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose. That same year, he signed a law re-regulating Wall Street. He’s also spent roughly $20 billion bailing out the auto industry, increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, toughened emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the production of carbon dioxide, expanded the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate the sale of tobacco products, doubled the amount of fruits and vegetables required in school lunches, designated 2 million acres as wilderness, and protected more than 1,000 miles of rivers.
Not to mention the foreign policy successes with Cuba, Iran, Russia-in-spite-of-everything, possibly Syria (we won't have a clear sense of that for months yet), and certainly the extraordinary Paris agreement on climate change.

And some of his failures, as Beinart also notes, have had highly positive consequences too, leading to broad mobilization in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and the widening understanding of wealth and income inequality as a problem—you can't imagine Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton talking about that in 2007 the way Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders talk about it in 2015. (She always was to Obama's left in the domestic policy-wonk arena anyway, of course, though as First Lady she kept it primarily behind the scenes.) If elected, Clinton is really not going to re-deregulate the banks or dismantle the ACA or even set up that stupid no-fly zone in Syria. She's not! We have no idea what she will do, which will depend hugely on the kind of Congress she's given, but she will acquiesce far more, no matter what, in the leftward movement of the population as a whole (which is more significant than the political orientation of less-educated white men in particular) than a President Rubio would, or Cruz or, gasp, Trump.

If this primary season leaves us with the option of voting for Hillary Clinton in November or taking our ball and going home, people, voting for Clinton is not going to be a lesser evil—at worst a slightly dubious good, and at best a hope that's not even that forlorn.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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