What, Another Marxist Predicts the Collapse of Capitalism?

Vatican watchers in Italy are getting into a fever about the new “economic encyclical” by Pope Benedict XVI, due out in a month or so. The same thing happened almost twenty years ago, in 1991, just before Pope John Paul II issued his much-proclaimed economic encyclical "100th Year" (Centesimus Annus). Then, too, the beehive of the European Left was feverishly abuzz, fantasizing in print that the Pope would shortly move to the left of Willi Brandt, Neil Kinnock and all the other famous leaders of the European Left. Then John Paul II issued the most pro-enterprise, pro- human capital instruction of any pope ever (“In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources. -- CA #32). The hive fell unforgettably silent.

This time, the newspapers are touting a new diatribe recently released to the Italian press by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a German jurist much respected (they say) by the Pope. The main point of this distinguished jurist is that capitalism is now definitively dead. From his autopsy he concludes that the death was due to fundamental flaws in its original "logic."

As for sighting the definitive "end" and "collapse" of capitalism – well, here at the end of the first week in June, the U.S. economy has not yet reached the low point of 1983. And that low point occurred just before the biggest and longest-lasting economic expansion in the history of the world, from 1983 until 2008. The current downturn is, moreover, still far from being another Depression of 1929 – which did not kill capitalism. If the U.S. economy now collapses further, after the herculean one-trillion-dollar deficit spending of young President Barack Obama, the cause will not have been lack of State action, but death by State action.

* * *

There are three problems with the current ill-tempered attack on "capitalism" by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, distinguished German jurist.

First, the esteemed jurist argues in terms of abstractions and "logic" and "functional analysis." Good enough for the classroom. But real existing capitalism has been shaped by and is responsive to a world of contingency, happenstance, and constantly shifting roadblocks, and opportunities.

Contrary to Böckenförde’s analysis of its "logic," capitalism succeeds precisely because it is so adaptive to daily reality. Even its own internal reality is concrete, complex – different in different geographies and cultures. Capitalism is not a system of univocal logic and "a very few simple principles." It is rooted not in the speculative mind of the logician, but in the practical order of practical wisdom. Its adaptability to circumstances large and small marks it as a fruit of practical wisdom, not mere logic.

Second, like his mentor Marx, Böckenförde dreadfully misunderstands the "inner principles" of capitalism -- even its main motor force and energy. He is as blind as Marx to its distinctive differences from rival systems (ancient, medieval, traditional, fascist, socialist, Euro-socialist, and third-world agrarian). He does not grasp the secret of its creativity, its ennobling effects upon even small entrepreneurs, and its reliance on many moral principles, such as honesty, hard work, habits of cooperation, and the daily inventiveness of individuals. (Where personal morals are slack, capitalism cannot succeed, and peoples regularly fall prey to authoritarian rulers.)

Third, Böckenförde seems strangely uncritical about his own proposed remedies for the deficiencies which he imputes to capitalism. He recommends as a new point of departure "the" principle of solidarity (is there only one?), guidance and direction by the State, and special State concern for growing "gaps" of inequality. It might be instructive in regard to shifting "gaps" to note the rapidly rising years of average mortality even in the poorest nations, such as Bangladesh, and the quite rapid strides out of poverty for more than half of all nations and billions of people since 1945.

Moreover, we still have vivid memories of ugly regimes in the twentieth century, regimes that proposed to build a New Order precisely upon false conceptions of "solidarity," State guidance, and mirages of "equality." We are well to remember such regimes, full of exaltation and comradely "love."

Such terms as "solidarity," "the common good," “the guardian State," "close regulation," and even "equality" are, as history has painfully taught us, equivocations. Each is, tragically, subject to awful abuse. Unchecked by respect for individual persons and individual initiative, these can be principles of strangulation and death, not of vitality, life, invention and creativity.

That is why John Paul II delineated with such care his own conception of solidarity, as another name for universal love and concern. He was careful to show that genuine solidarity, unlike the false type, must respect the "subjectivity" of persons and the "subjectivity" of smaller communities. The Pope here had in mind, particularly in Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1981), a defense of the intersubjective culture of Polonia against Communist attempts to suffocate it.

This unique emphasis upon what in Anglo-Saxon cultures we call "the communitarian individual" (the individual who is not atomic and alone, but a member of many different, smaller communities) provides two different forms of protection from the State, one for the individual person and the other for what Edmund Burke called "the little platoons" of daily life.

* * *

The distinguished German jurist does, however, make two important observations (which he need not have attributed to Marx, as he did, since many others have empirically made more exact points). He points to two fundamental presuppositions of the twentieth-century welfare state in Europe.

The European welfare state first presupposes the family size of 19th-century families -- about seven young earners to pay (through taxes) for the benefits for each retiree-- and also the shorter average life spans of the 19th century. But the secular welfare states of today, it turns out, discourage large family size, and offer little motivation for the sacrifice entailed in nurturing large families during many long years of married life.

The second presupposition of the European welfare state was that each welfare nation could control its own borders, population flows, labor market, and currency. But today neither human beings nor human capital (ideas, skills, know-how, sound moral habits, etc.) are held prisoner by borders. Contemporary societies are far more open than in the past – and more peaceful, too.

Indeed, Professor Böckenförde wholly neglects to give praise to that particular combination of democratic (or more properly, republican) polity, inventive, adaptive and mind-centered economy, and humanistic culture (of specifically Jewish-Christian, not merely Greek origin) that have brought the last three generations of Europeans the greatest internal peace, easy prosperity, and getmütlich ways of living in many, many centuries. All this is very much a gift of that "capitalism" he so badly misunderstands. Real, existing capitalism is a capitalism properly and organically living in, and from, a specific polity and a culture of ordered liberty. [Do not ignore this trinity: culture, polity, economy.]

The motive force, the engine, of such an embedded and dynamic economic system is rooted in the hearts and minds of all enterprising creative citizens. It issues in the powerful urge to inquire into the nature and the cause of the wealth of nations (nations, not individuals; all nations, not just one nation). Its great systemic purpose is to break the immemorial chains of poverty which had held the human race in serfdom for millennia.

In what way, Montaigne asked ironically in his own time, do our common people live at a higher level than at the time of Christ? What has been done so far to improve the condition of the poor down all the long centuries? Men and women started making such inquiries in earnest. Gradually, they found a way to begin lifting up the poor of many nations, then more. With many successes to learn from, and much new wisdom won through hard experience, we are now closing in upon the ever narrower circle of those still living "outside the circle of development."

Adam Smith pointed out that universal development may not be the conscious intention of every individual economic agent. But given access to the system of natural liberty, he proposed, the various peoples of the world will reap the natural result of the law of our own natures, which presses onward through creativity exercised in liberty.

Thus, the inner energy of the system qua system is entirely moral -- and it has been transformative of the human condition. Freeing every woman and man on the face of the earth from poverty is not only its aim, but its steady, plodding achievement generation after generation. I myself can remember the war-torn brokenness and poverty of Europe even during the 1950s, and rejoice in its incredible prosperity today. Just in the last thirty years, to cite one more instance, more than a half-billion Chinese and Indians have escaped from the prison of poverty. The time is not far distant when all of Asia will also be middle class. Then Africa, next.

No other system takes the universal destination of all the goods of the earth as seriously as does capitalism. None has by dint of imagination and insight created more wealth and spread it more liberally in all directions than the capitalism much-maligned by Euro-socialists.

In our day, as Pope John Paul II so shrewdly noted in Centesimus Annus, the main cause of the wealth of nations is ideas, knowledge, know-how [caput]. That, more than profits, he saw, is the motive, the driving force, of economic action today. Profit, he also wrote, is a necessary measure of how well resources and effort are being used. It is not the main driving force. Economies that burn up a lot of labor and other inputs, only to yield nothing but losses are no boon to the human race. Such systems are immensely wasteful. (Inspect here the histories of European fascism and socialism, as well as third world kleptocracies).

Ask those who think that profits are obscene if they think losses are chaste? And which is better for the human race?

* * *

It would be odd if a creature such as man and woman, made in the image of God to be creative and inventive, and made to be provident over our own earthly good, were unable to discover the natural laws of ordered liberty and fruitful creativity. It would be odd if humans could not find in using these laws of our own souls the secrets to the wealth that the Lord God hid all throughout nature itself. For it is in humble things like tar and hardening crude oil in the desert that the great wealth – the black gold -- from oil refineries is rendered usable (but not until the late 19th century). It is in grains of sand that the silicon so vital to electronic communications lay hid.

Yet it is not only the useful arts, but also the highest forms of artistic creativity and the deepest forms of spiritual liberty that lie open before us – the beneficiaries of modern political economy. If we do not take advantage of the charitable, artistic, and spiritual riches open before us -- we who lack not for food nor drink, nor leisure, nor ample means for discovering and then developing our own talents -- then woe be upon us. We would then be the most unfortunate of all creatures.

Those who wish to destroy capitalism in its present humane forms, flawed as all human things must be (even the Church of Christ), should be terrified that their wish might come true. For what then? What shall happen to the poor then?

Those of us who were born poor, and now are not poor, can scarcely cease being grateful for the system that allowed us to seize our own responsibilities, as free women and men ought to do. If we do not live up to our possibilities, the fault lies not in our system but in ourselves.

Published in Liberal June 17, 2009

Sarah! A New Star is Born

I don’t know if the word has reached Europe yet, but Americans have been in a swoon about the authentic voice of most of America, whose favorite sport is hunting, shooting, and dressing moose and caribou in the Alaska wilds. She is a woman of the American West. She is confident and fearless. And she is so down to earth she seems like someone out of your own parents’ home. This is the kind of woman we all grew up with, the kind that have been the strength of America since the West was opened in the 1850’s. She introduced herself as a “hockey mom” (not soccer, in Alaska), and asked the crowd if they knew the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull. Hardly taking a pause, and with a defiant smile, she added: “Lipstick.”

Sarah, the Governor with an 80% popularity rating, has become the single most admired of the four running mates, more popular than Obama and Biden and McCain.

The Republican center and right regards her as a heroine, and are now wildly enthusiastic about their presidential ticket. Further, the Democrats made a bad mistake in making fun of small towns like Sarah’s Wasilla, Alaska. There are only 262 cities in the U.S. larger than 100,000, but almost 100,000 towns of 10,000 or fewer, such as Wasilla.

The millions of Americans who have disabled children in their extended family had tears in their eyes when Sarah raised her baby who has Down syndrome high above her shoulders, proud of him in front of the convention and the whole world.

New polls say that a majority of Americans regard the press attacks on Sarah as unfair. The sympathy vote has shifted to the Republicans – especially against the oh!-so-sophisticated journalists. The bitter, low-road attacks by the media and some of Obama’s supporters had the wonderful result of drawing an enormous television audience – one of the biggest in political history – to give the Republicans a good look.

Nearly as many Americans watched Sarah’s acceptance speech on television as Barack Obama’s. (Then McCain topped Obama’s total, the next night.)

This is a different country today than a week ago. This is a different election. You can see it on the stunned faces of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Both their confidence and their amour-propre have been wounded by the good-humored needles Sarah (and the other Republicans) have jabbed into them day by day. The presidency, Sarah said, is not a journey of self-discovery. Obama has written two memoirs, she pointed out, but not a single piece of legislation, in the US Senate or in the Illinois State Assembly. Speaking in her perfectly pitched Midwestern/Western twang, with sparkling feminine mischief, she had the audience rolling with laughter, almost as much as Rudy Giuliani before her.

The Democrats attacked Republicans last week with sneers. The Republicans replied with wit and humor and happy laughter.

Wise and intelligent observers of politics are beginning to say aloud that McCain and Palin will win on November 4th. But those who like to be sure they are not being carried away by momentary enthusiasm say the election is likely to be won by small margins in the last few days of the campaign. There are many hurdles for each of the candidates to jump before then. The good news is that Barack does so well in the big urban areas that the best way for him to add to his totals in the most highly contested states is to increase his vote in small towns. He may have lost that chance by the nature of his supporters’ attacks on Americans who live in small towns.

John McCain has never been a great orator. His arms are still stiff from almost six years of harsh physical torture. But his closely-watched speech was immensely touching, as he described how “America saved me” from that foreign prison, and how while he was in prison, he learned how not to put himself first, but forevermore to put his country first. Taking advantage of Governor Palin’s record as a reformer, he told professionals in Washington to “Watch out! Change is coming.”

With Sarah Palin standing beside him, he stole Obama’s campaign theme right out from under him. McCain is now the champion of change.

Which man’s words can you believe in, Obama’s or McCain’s?

Published in Liberal September 7, 2008 

Who is Governor Palin?

A Christian (non-denominational Protestant) and mother of five, Governor of Alaska, Commander of the Alaska National Guard, political reformer who has shaken the “old boy network” of corrupt government in Alaska, long ago a star of her secondary school State Championship basketball team, ardent fisherman and hunter, a long-time manual worker and co-president of a small family business, toughminded and no-nonsense campaigner, Sarah Palin’s nickname in basketball was “Barracuda.” Do not sell her short. I loved the comment of one man: “More valuable than a pearl is a wife who loves to hunt and fish.” And whose favorite food is Moose stew. A woman who hunts Moose and Caribou is not to be trifled with. Turn to see another facet: Behind her horn-rim glasses, Sarah as a young woman finished second in the “Miss Alaska” beauty pageant – take a look at her photo. She might well become the first Vice President who earlier worked as a journalist and, for a time, as a sportscaster. She has not yet been overawed by any journalist.

First thing she did as Governor was sell the gubernatorial jet plane. Next, she sold the governor’s limousine fleet. “Don’t need ‘em,” she said. She has bent the oil companies of Alaska to her will. She has fired incompetent and dishonest appointees in government, even though they were part of the Republican establishment. She has been a Governor of the people, by the people, for the people. Her approval rating among the people of Alaska is 80%. Governor Palin knows more about oil and natural gas than any other major candidate– it is Alaska’s main industry, treasure, and potential. She knows more about the military than Barack and Joe Biden multiplied by two. Her state lies fifty miles from Russia across the Bering Strait. She deals with international companies from all around the world. Her oldest son enlisted in the army on September 11, 2007, and will depart for Iraq on September 11, 2008. She is enormously proud of him – and is very grateful that John McCain will soon be his Commander-in-chief.

Her youngest son, born this past April, was diagnosed early with Downs syndrome. She insisted on bringing “this beautiful child” to birth. Her husband, who is part Eskimo, is a tall, handsome member of the Steelworker’s Union, in his capacity as a worker in the offshore oilfields. His other main business is commercial fishing, a family occupation for generations. This is a couple that both work with their hands (she helps work their commercial fishing vessel on weekends). They love sports. He is the World Champion Snowmobile Driver.

The nomination of Governor Palin sent shockwaves of joy throughout the social conservative half of the Republican Party, the pro-life voters most of all, and a great many ordinary Republican, Independent, and even Democratic women. Immediately money in support of the campaign and offers to volunteer poured in. Nothing has energized the Republican “base” like this choice. This campaign is now a very different contest. If Governor Palin makes no other contribution to the McCain campaign, this is an enormous one. A sine qua non. The day before where there was gloom, the day of her nomination brought joy and commitment. In 2004, some 65% of voters who were regular churchgoers voted Republican, whereas about the same percentage of those who seldom or never go to church voted Democratic. In America, the churchgoers outnumber the latter by a significant margin. Not long ago, most religious people – evangelical Protestants, Catholics and Jews – were the backbone of the Democratic Party. No longer.

To be sure, on Thursday August 28, Senator Obama did put on a convention “Spectacular.” He scheduled its last night in Denver’s huge football stadium, and designed it as for the most part a rock concert. He gave his usual star-quality eloquent speech. However, this time it was not unitive but highly partisan, a standard Democratic speech (promising to spend tens of billlions of dollars with every minute that passed). At its end, bathed in rapturous applause, before and afterwards surrounded by famous rock stars and singers, his program delivered a gigantic fireworks display above the Denver skyline, outlined against the dark Rockies just at the western edge of the city. The next two days showed a significant jump in the polls to a 48-42 lead. That sort of lead is a little lower than many recent Democrats at this stage in presidential elections. The reason national polls do not mean much this early is that most Democrats are bunched together in the large urban states. The Republican vote is scattered across the rest of the map. Thus, the large Democratic vote in a few places does not add up to a lead in electoral votes, which are apportioned among all the states. Still, Obama is expected to win this election – seldom or never have Republicans been so low, or Democrats so high in expectation.

On Monday, September 1, the Republicans begin their much more modest convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, usually a Democratic state (home of two Democratic presidential candidates in recent years, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale). At the same time, a huge, dangerous Hurricane Gustav is bearing down awesomely on New Orleans, Louisiana, just as Katrina did three years ago. The Republicans may have to delay the start of their convention by at least a day, for Gustav is predicted to hit land on Monday morning. Some Democrats are gleefully praising God for their “luck” – not such a good thing to speak of while many Louisianans (a usually Democratic state) are in harm’s way. Maybe, though, the local government in Louisiana – city and state – along with federal assistance will do a much better a job in 2008 than during Katrina. In that case, that difference might redound to Republican credit. However the politics turn out, many Americans are thinking of relatives and friends in that region, and praying that they will come through the danger happily.

One should never forget that John McCain in his youth was a fighter pilot, and in many ways he still thinks like one. A fighter pilot must struggle for concealment in sun and clouds, hoping for surprise until the very last moment before swooping down on his prey. McCain loves surprise. He hates to be part of a herd. That is what “maverick” means, isn’t it? McCain showed his love for surprise in picking a woman of the people, a passionate and no-nonsense reformer, a tough and experienced executive for the past ten years (as mayor of her small town, now as governor) – a governor with a popular rating in Alaska about 65% higher than the U.S. Democratic Congress (now at 14 %).

Wednesday night September 3 will be a night of high drama. Governor Palin is scheduled to give her acceptance address to the excited Republican convention - and to the nation and the whole watching world.

The choice of this tough western governor was a high-risk sortie that candidate McCain took. It has tremendously excited Republicans, and added bold new lines to the profile of what is now the McCain-Palin ticket.

And every time Democrats complain that McCain’s new running mate is too inexperienced to be Vice President, they call attention to the even more grievous inexperience of their own choice for President.

Published in Liberal, September 2, 2008

The USA in 2012 Under President Obama

One of the wisest American former officials I know asked me two nights ago: “Michael, put on your thinking cap, and tell me where the United States will be four years from now, it Barack Obama is President.” I had been trying to avoid that question in my own mind. I have tried to tell myself the old proverb (told me by my father) “God takes care of children, drunks and the United States of America.” I have tried to imagine that Obama will NOT be President.

But I should try to do the responsible thing: Apply Obama’s announced principles and policies to their probable effects, based upon how we have learned that the world actually works.

The number one issue, orders of magnitude greater than others, is what will happen in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other sources of worldwide terrorism – suicide bombers, haters of Israel, and would-be destroyers of the United States and her allies. What will happen in Iraq? What will happen in Iran? What will happen in Pakistan?

Our Democratic Party ever since George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 has wished and wished, like an undisciplined child, for a benevolent world of peace, in which we could “talk to” and “reason with” those leaders whom earlier Administrations had learned they could neither trust, nor deal with as rational, benevolent partners. Earlier Administrations had also hoped that other leaders of nations respected us, and meant us well. Events like the bombing of the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole, and September 11, 2001, plus the subsequent fury and irrational cruelty of jihadists around the world disillusioned them. But not, apparently, Obama and not all of the left-wing generation he represents.

The partisans of the welfare state demand peace, in order to pay for its insatiable needs to keep handing out more and more benefits. That is why left-wing statists take peace as their natural inheritance. They cannot go on without it. They do not intend to pay any price for it, there are no funds left for that.

Given the historical record of the last two hundred years (and more), what can we expect from this nursery room fantasy? An untypical, even unprecedented era of peace? – Or, on the contrary, the salivating determination of enemies to celebrate our visible moral weakness, and to slay their hated enemy while we bow our heads, standing there as weak and frightened supplicants? When a head is lowered from weakness, they strike it off.

In my experience, unwillingness to fight earns one contempt, further furies of terror, and truly bitter war. But perhaps other observers trust human nature more than I.

If the United States shows signs of weakness, surrender, and a one-sided departure from Iraq, the rejoicing of those who predicted that they would in the end defeat us will profoundly strengthen their resolve for the next battle. Further, without an offensive thrust in Iraq, solely sheltered in a defensive enclave, any airfields of ours or military forts would announce to those who hate us that they should keep killing two or more Americans every day, drip, drip, drip, until the American people cannot stand it any more. Weakness once shown invites fiercer aggression.

Iran will thus have its nuclear weapon by 2012, secure in the knowledge that Americans have no heart to do battle to prevent it.

In Pakistan, forces of economic and political development will know that they can no longer count on the Americans as a last resort. They would soon – to save their families – begin to yield more and more space to jihadists, terrorists, and promoters of Sharia Law. Free nations by 2016 will be far weaker than now, with far less space in which to alter the direction of terrorism.

Domestic Policy

Meanwhile, if Obama keeps his pledge to raise taxes on the top ten percent of income-earners (or even on the top two percent), he will give them enormous imperatives to alter their behavior, so as to show lower income. Since this tiny proportion of income earners pay something like 25 percent [check] of all income taxes paid by all Americans, any declines in their income mean steep declines in tax revenues. Obama seems to have no comprehension that raising tax rates at the top dramatically lowers revenue coming in. He will learn the hard way.

His policies on quasi-universal health care will change all the incentives in our current health system – and for the worse. Studies show that a high proportion of demands for health care are the result of personal behaviors – eating or drinking too much, not exercising enough, leading a dissipated life, not taking advantage of preventive care, spending health dollars heedlessly (because they are paid by the State, not the responsible individual).

Many older doctors will leave medical practice rather than become employees of the State, constantly regulated, badgered, and demeaned. The idea of medicine as a proud, independent, inventive profession will be profoundly wounded. In hospitals, paying benefits for patients (even if they practice irresponsible behaviors) will demand ever more dollars, which must necessarily be pulled out of research and invention. Long bureaucratic lists of those needing particular operations will force even the neediest patients to wait long months before they can get care.

Neither Obama nor his party seem to understand how incentives motivate human behavior – not force, not coercion, not mockery, not nursery-school regulation, but real possibilities of good fruits up ahead for free and responsible actions,. They do not understand the wellsprings of a virtuous, free and prosperous society. They are still entangled in the fantasies of the European left of a hundred and fifty years ago.

Thus, Obama is now the creature and the prisoner of the American far left, which has learned nothing from the failures of socialist and statist and anti-capitalist ideas during the past hundred years. Many leftists learn nothing, know nothing, and propel themselves not with practical wisdom, but with outrage and contempt and a desire to punish those who not agree with them.

My friend himself thought, he finally revealed, that the West has come to an epochal axial point in history. From now on, economic and political progress would grow far less quickly than ever before, and a long-lasting, precipitous decline was about to begin. Overseas, and also at home.

Morally, too, virtue and character and responsibility for oneself would be mocked and discouraged. The State would take over more and more of life. Although licentiousness would be glorified on big screen and small screen (the Democrats favor the Hollywood view of the world, and vice versa), neither self-directed liberty nor self-mastery nor responsibility for the consequences of one’s own behavior would be encouraged. These would be treated as retrograde ideas. All virtue would be attributed to the motherly caring State – and to its political managers. Woe to the “right-wing” dissenters!

Well, maybe I am wrong. But that is how I see things, admittedly through a cloudy glass.

My only two suppositions are (1) that Obama will do exactly what he now says he will do; and (2) that we may dimly discern the consequences likely to flow from his words and actions, based upon what we have seen happen in other decades and other generations.

My most hopeful moments derive from imagining that Obama, as President, will be dissuaded from acting as he now says that he will. In that way, God will once again take care of those who are drunk on statist illusions, and He will once again take care of the United States, despite itself. It is when I take Obama at his word that pessimism floods over my heart. Published in Liberal May 14, 2008

Now Indiana and North Carolina

As the endless Democratic campaign is sailing swiftly toward crucial contests in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday, May 6, the seas are high and the horizon keeps bobbing up and down. It is hard for anyone to see where we are. Ten days ago those doing the cold analysis of the numbers were writing that, mathematically, Senator Obama cannot lose. But then Obama’s clever, self-promoting pastor from Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, took to national television for three successive appearances, and almost derailed the Senator’s campaign.

Cunningly and mischievously, Reverend Wright went on and on about his peculiar racist theories. He opined that whites and blacks by nature think with different parts of their brain, and learn in different ways, so that whites tend to excel in book knowledge, logic, and measured, reasoned music, whereas blacks tend toward subjective interactions, more passionate musical beats, unique rhythmic clapping, and on and on. The Reverend seemed to insist that black brains are constructed differently – but this is the kind of crackpot thinking that once led to separate, segregated schools, as well as to deep feelings of racial inferiority. His rant was horrible stuff.

Worse, Reverend Wright accused the American government of deliberately inventing AIDS to subdue the black population, of encouraging drug traffic to destroy inner-city blacks, and of practicing worldwide terrorism equivalent to that of Al Qaeda. He blamed America for September 11, 2001. His words have outraged a large proportion of Americans, and forced many on the left to disassociate themselves from his absurd claims.

Yet worse again, this intensely self-satisfied Reverend announced in front of cameras that Obama was now acting only from political motives in separating himself from his Pastor, leader, and friend of these past twenty years. Pastors tell the truth, politicians must dissemble.

This charge cut Obama to the quick, for it destroyed in minutes thecampaign image that Obama had been cultivating all through these long, hard months: that the young Senator is a man “above politics,” who “tells the truth” and transcends “the old, outmoded methods of politics.” Indeed, these claims are the Obama campaign. His campaign has been (and is) all about him and his superior being, which by the very accidents of his life transcends the “old divisions” between black and white, Republicans and Democrats, government and citizens.

There are virtually no differences of policy between Obama and Senator Clinton. Both are to the left of their party, he only a bit more so (on the Iraq war). There are no known examples of Senator Obama playing a significant bipartisan role in the Senate, “reaching across the aisle” as Washingtonians call it. Obama has been running a campaign based on his personal identity.

So now Senator Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father who not long after fled from the family, so that Barack (soon called Barry) had to be brought up by his white mother and her family, has for twenty years been nourished, brought to Christ , taught, counseled, and treated as a beloved son by the same Reverend Wright. Suddenly he must reach an anguishing decision. One can easily imagine the intense ripping apart of his soul -- in public, unavoidably so, and everyone looking on.

There was nothing for Barack to do except break from Reverend Wright and his principles openly, on national television, with as much ashen-mouthed passion as he could bring himself to show.

Now, here reporters differ. Some wrote that Obama’s face as he delivered his remarks paled from the loss of blood in his cheeks; and wore the look of a man heart-sick, defeated, deflated. He had known, of course, that this moment was coming; he and Reverend Wright had spoken of it months ago. Now at last Obama did what he had to do – he denounced Reverend Wright and his awful principles, lest he have to give up any hope of winning the presidency. He did not quite succeed in looking manly, for he was too inwardly wounded.

Other reporters – most of those in the national press, it seems – took this ritual of denunciation on its face. They wrote that Obama looked sincere and brave, and that he had done what he had to do, so now the campaign could move on. His wife said she was proud of his courage.

However, none of Obama’s famous friends stepped forward during those five dark days to stand with Obama – not Ted Kennedy, not Oprah the television talk-show hostess, not the Obama supporters among mayors of several large cities. For the last two days Obama stood all alone. Then, after his severing of relations with Pastor Wright, his supporters started coming back. Most of the press cheered for him. But the polls started trailing downwards, some of them fairly sharply so. Hillary moved ahead of Barack by five points in Indiana, and was cutting into his lead in North Carolina.

How could the polls not move? Obama’s sudden public wrestling against Reverend Wright, the great father figure described in his autobiography revealed Obama’s unresolved questions of maturation. It is not believable that a man like Reverend Wright could for twenty long years hide his core principles from his “son.” Something here is not truthful. And that suspicion is draining Obama’s campaign of the meaning he had poured into it.

Obama stands revealed as no white knight, no imperturbable and masterly hero. He is only a man. Besides, from now until the November election, on any given day, Reverend Wright may attack Obama’s credibility again, in response to Obama’s separation from him, and Obama’s denunciation of his core principles. That, too, would be human. Nonetheless, the numbers look as though Obama cannot be stopped.

The Democrats have a habit of falling in love with relatively unknown presidential candidates, whom they briefly idealize. McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, even the obscure Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Beyond that, most of the Americans who make their living chattering in public – professors of social science and the humanities, journalists, television and Hollywood stars, artists, street activists – favor the Democratic Party, or even movements yet more to the left. Such persons tend to have an idealized, noble picture of their own professions – and themselves. They love leaders who appear to be ideal, heroic, moral figures.

Of the seven national television networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX – six are governed by the dreams and perceptions of the left. Virtually all the major big-city newspapers, at least on the East and the West Coasts, set the national standards for what should be honored and what ignored. Virtually all of them are in the Obama camp.

The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr used to refer to Protestant liberals and secular saints as “the children of light,” who imagine themselves to be locked in a struggle against “the children of darkness.” (That is, Republicans, big corporations, and business elites). Niebuhr warned that this abiding tendency to sentimentalize reality, without irony and without tragedy, is for its own part bound to end in irony and tragedy. A kind of remorseless Greek Fate unrolls, irresistibly, before our very eyes, generation after generation.

Whatever the electoral arithmetic and the metaphysical undertow may be, the only real hope of Senator Hillary Clinton is that Senator Obama should stumble so badly that Democratic Party leaders will decide that his cause in November is hopeless. Since neither candidate can win enough votes at this point to qualify as the winner, these “super-delegates” will cast the deciding votes, after all the scheduled elections are completed, early in June. They dread having to deny Obama the election after his strong performance (until now), lest they cause black voters, one of the largest blocs in the Party, to abandon Senator Clinton in anger.

Moreover, one of the most surprising facets of this year’s primaries is how sharply many in the press and the Democratic party have turned against Hillary. Although some even try to pretend that she no longer exists, she keeps fighting and fighting.

Should Senator Clinton should happen to win a decisive victory in Indiana (a state that borders on Senator Obama’s Illinois), and reduce Obama’s large early margin in North Carolina (whose huge black population tilts the Democratic Party in his direction), she will have one more strong argument in favor of her candidacy. And Barack’s campaign will emerge even more battered.

But the opposite may also happen. If Barack defeats Hillary decisively in North Carolina, and also ekes out a win in Indiana, Hillary’s campaign will be severely undercut.

But who knows what ironic turns this race will take on May 6? Both candidates even now look bruised, battered -- and not a little puzzled about what on earth has hit them.

Published in Liberal May 5, 2008