Lev Tolstoy and Mr Obama

One of the themes in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (of many) concerns the ability of great leaders to control the vicissitudes of fortune. In this manner, Napoleon is seen as not, as so many regarded him at the time, as a master of his fate and controller of his and many other’s destinies. But instead he was just the highest chip in the froth. That it was not his will that drove France to Empire and thereby pushing he and they willy nilly to disaster in the Russian snows (giving us Mr Minard’s completely amazing graph as well). Now Lev Tolstoy may have offered that a Higher Power determined the course of history. Alternatively in this modern era, one might instead propose that aggregate behaviour of the crowds might be the driving force.

Mr Obama is the head of our state. But he is likely less in control of events than we pretend. Now it is true that like, Mr Kerry, Mr Obama has been striving for the Presidency much of his adult life. While I find this personally distasteful ambition, I cannot project my personal animosity for the seeking for power on others. There may actually be admirable aspects to ambition even if they are a far cry from my personal makeup.

Joe Carter today at First Thoughts offers the following on Mr Obama (and like the last time discussed an essay of Mr Carter’s … this isn’t the main thrust of his post):

I have a confession to make: I don’t dislike Barack Obama.

Oh sure, I dislike his policies and wish he wasn’t the most powerful leader on the planet. I also believe that some of the views he holds are—there’s no other way to put it—evil. Nevertheless, he appears to be a decent guy (at least compared to some of our creepier past presidents like JFK and Richard Nixon).

Because his is such a relatively normal chap, I suspect he’s somewhat appalled by the messianic adoration of his most eager supporters. Not enough to not exploit it and use if to his advantage, of course. After all, cults of personality can certainly be useful—particularly when you’re the personality. Still, he must cringe when his supporters are carried away in their POTUS-love.

Back when I was in college, not as I tell my kids when the dinosaurs roamed and we all had to walk 10 miles a day to and from school uphill both ways, there was a popular Chicago political columnist Mike Royko. While he mostly wrote quite acerbically about Chicago politics once had a few words to say about whether he would welcome the chance to meet the President (then Reagan). He offered that he would not. After all, if he did get a chance to meet him, he would almost certainly like him, and likely like him a lot. And that this would interfere with his job, which was to intelligently provide criticism of Mr Reagan (and other politicians). He thought keeping these men at an arms distance was necessary for him to do his job well. If, heaven forbid, I was given an opportunity to meet the President (or a future one more in tune with my political and personal beliefs), I would refuse citing this reason given by Mr Royko.

I would concur with Mr Carter on his strongly stated opinion on many of Mr Obama’s policy positions. On the other hand, I have never watched an interview with Mr Obama nor have I ever listened to his speeches nor read either of his two (!)  autobiographies. It might be added that this might also be said of the prior four Presidents as well. In fact I have not listened to a (real) political speech in three decades, and the few times when occasional channel surfing brought me in contact with one, I have to say, political speechifying in the modern era is execrable. Every three sentences is punctuated by a stultifying talk, pause, applause, pause (repeat until you flee) pattern.  While I very much enjoyed hearing James Earl Jones read the Gettysburg address and found the other very moving rhetoric on big or small screen to be Gerard Depardieu in Wadja’s Danton giving a speech at his trial before the tribunal.

But to get back on message, the point is that Mr Carter may be only half right. Mr Obama might not even personally hold or believe half of the “evil views” that his policy and speeches promulgate. His messages are so plastic that it might be that Mr Obama in part shares Lev Tolstoy’s view of history with one small addendum. If the main view of history is that the person in the seat of power has no control but is just, like the rest of mankind, a pawn in the grips of greater forces. This might be modified by the viewpoint that once in a while a person, or that “highest chip in the froth” might only rarely get put dip their oar in the water and push the mass in a direction of their choosing. This might explain why a person who does indeed hold to that view of history, might do two of the things that it seems Mr Obama is willing to do readily. The first is to deny and “throw under the bus” principles and people he strongly affirmed days or weeks earlier for the sake of expedience. After all, the “chip” has to stay at the “top of the wave” if it is to have influence at that occasional opportunity. The second is to seek that position at the top of the froth in the first place.

All this might boil down to the question of “how or on what does Mr Obama” think on a matter or topic is likely far less relevant than we imagine. How the gestalt of the various inner circle White House social networks “think” and act might be more relevant. Thinking of the agent/actor at the head of our state as a gestalt of a social network might be more fruitful than thinking of it as a man.

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7 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    I agree with you that most political speeches are ‘plastic’. They are designed to be. Most of Bush’s speeches, aside from the gaffes were quite plastic as well. Even a great rhetorician like Reagan gave more than a few plastic speech. The President has a lot of ceremonial power (included is being the ‘leader of the free world’. In what sense has he ever been its leader? Sure in theory he could order nukes to every corner of the planet. Aside from that, though, he isn’t really the leader if you think about it seriously) and ceremonies often involve the ‘plastic speech’.

    As for Obama’s “messianic adoration “. 9 times out of 10 when I hear Obama and Messiah (or some variation) mentioned in the same sentence, it isn’t from an Obama supporter but from some critic. In fact, I would put forth there’s a big epidemic of ‘Reverse Obama Syndrom’ out there whose cheif symptom is some right winger who identifies some fault in Obama and wants to jump up and down screaming ‘see he isn’t The One’. I think most Obama supporters take a more nuanced view of him. Part of this is due to the fact that liberals tend to enjoy being skeptical people who like to load all their beliefs up with lots of qualifiers. I think when you do find “messianic adoration” from Obama supporters it is coming from a “local boy strikes it big” type of adoration whose influence is highly overrated by the right (the Obama Chia Pet speaks for itself here)

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    I think most Obama supporters take a more nuanced view of him.

    I see when a WH photoshopper limns his outline with a halo of light that’s not Messianic emanations from the left, but when someone on the right notices that’s a Reverse Obama Messiah syndrome. Supporters swooning at rallies, not messiah, right wingers noticing, reverse-messiah. I think you’re wrong there.

    Well, we shall see how plastic his campaign promise to not raise taxes on any but the upper class turns out when he breaks it.

    In what sense was Napoleon leader of France? How is Mr Obama not a leader in that sense?

  3. Mr Obama might not even personally hold or believe half of the “evil views” that his policy and speeches promulgate

    WTF? What “evil views?” Are we talking about abortion?

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    Scare quotes apparently don’t mean what they used to, what I meant by that was that that he doesn’t personally believe the views that one might expect based on his policy and speeches.

  5. Boonton says:

    In what sense was Napoleon leader of France? How is Mr Obama not a leader in that sense?

    French History is not my strong suit but wasn’t Napoleon a dictator. Obama must navigate a lot of power centers both formal and informal to get anything done beyond a lot of ceremonial stuff. In this sense a President needs to accumulate a bit of adoration since there’s almost nothing he can do on his own. I recall reading somewhere that pre-Civil War some Presidents felt they shouldn’t even veto a bill unless they felt it was unconstitutional. The strong President has evolved on top of a framework designed for a relatively weak President.

    As for adoration I still think most of the serious people on the left have a more balanced view of Obama. I think you’re equating goodwill from many with Messianic adoration. I won’t deny, though, that people will go overboard. I spend most of my time in the world of text reading how people argue for or against various things and I can’t say I haven’t seen any leftist arguments in support of Obama that run along the lines of “trust it because Obama says it” or “Obama’s the ONE!”. Far more typical, IMO, is arguments like Paul Krugman who says “this policy is far short of what should be done but it’s OK”. In face more than a few time you’ve highlighted various left bloggers who’ve openly broken with various policies by Obama.

    This type of discussion is hard to have because it is so easy to find ancdotes to toss up against a thesis and since my main reason for believing this is a vague sense of the ‘zeitgeist’ I have to admit I might be confusing my own personal selection of media with the larger society’s….but I find the left is more apt inclined to signal their indivduality. They do this by sometimes breaking with the ‘party line’ or loading it up with lots of qualifiers (“we won’t support anything without a public option”, “single payer or bust@!”) IMO the right tends to move more in lockstep and if individuality is demonstrated it’s by variation in how the case is made for the party line. Ask yourself who was better at isolating and shunning those who went against the party line on, say, Medicare part D or the Iraq War? Yes you can find examples here and there but I think the right more often than not turns on those who break ranks. This might be a cultural thing. The right likes to think of itself as a beseiged minority in a hostile liberal culture…hence a reluctance to challenge one of your own. The left likes to think of itself as the center of rational discourse…hence its inability to close the tent off to anyone as long as they aren’t shouting too loudly.

    Anyway, I don’t think Messianic adoration is a very viable trait for the left to hold onto too much…esp. if the subject of that adoration is actually in office rather than a martyr who was denied office (say George McGovern or Adlai Stevenson) or was in office only in the past (JFK, Bill Clinton). Like it or not a pro of inclining more towards a relativistic POV is that its pretty hard to maintain a serious stance of Messianic adoration for very long. In contrast see how conservatives treat Ronald Reagan today.

  6. Boonton says:

    But instead he was just the highest chip in the froth

    A more accurate mental image I think is of a man hang gliding off a cliff. Is he at the mercy of the winds and drafts? Yes. Does that mean he is just a chip in the froth, that his skill and concentration will make no impact on the outcome? No

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    That wasn’t Tolstoy’s thesis. He was claiming that even a Napoleon, as Emperor, was not in control but just had an illusion of the same. More like a raft in a class 5 rapids than a hang glider.