Unfortunately for the 2012 election I had a class scheduled on Wednesday morning here in Singapore so was unable to follow the results live as they came out. Fortunately though after midday I could catch up and although MSNBC is not on cable here I found a web link to some dodgy rebroadcast and I could watch Rachel Maddow and her crew of commentators. Later that night I did some commentary myself on radio and then television. The sound is not the best but someone posted a clip on youtube:
On February 8, 2009 The Washington Post published an op-ed by the distinguished historian Michael Kazin entitled “A Liberal Revival of Americanism.” For the last four months it has sat in one of the piles on my desk and today as I cleared off things in preparation for summer working on a book I rediscovered his piece. Inevitably when I clean up the material on my desk I discover things that months ago seemed worthy of keeping, but now get assigned to the recycle bin of history. Just today for instance I put a review of The Flash Press in my paper bin after making sure that my library had the book. But Kazin’s piece continues to interest and worry me.
When I put it aside I had planned to look again at William Appleman Williams’s 1959 book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, a work that indites the conduct of American foreign policy for serving basically imperialist goals under the name of liberal good fellowship. I haven’t had the time to look at Williams’s book so my characterization of the it here is somewhat rushed and from memory, but that book, now 50 years old, did tell us something about the problems that occur in the world when American notions of their own essential goodness are projected on to the world.
Kazin’s piece does not directly engage with American foreign policy save to note that “since liberals turned against the war in Vietnam 40 years ago, they have struggled to prove that they love their country even while opposing most of the policies of its government.” For Kazin liberals have been able to reclaim the mantle of patriots because of the disaster of the debacle in Iraq. Kazin points to the “immensely attractive and remarkably supple creed” that is Americanism and notes that battles, are fought over just what this means and how America’s founders envisioned the nation. To a certain point Kazin is simply restating truisms. Political change in America comes when enough people are convinced that American ideals are not being upheld by an existing arrangement of power.
When Kazin reminds liberals though that America must have a “privileged place in their hearts” I worry somewhat. It seems a fine line between loving American ideals and demanding that the nation live up to its better self, and seeing, as did liberals in the 1950s and 1960s that the nations ideals would be best served by an intervention in Vietnam. Perhaps I read too much into the phrase “privileged place in their hearts,” but to my mind it was an ability to put aside such notions that let some liberals see the wrong of the war in Vietnam. I hope those who do determine they love America can still oppose wrong policies.
For what it is worth I met Michael Kazin twenty years ago and between 1989 and 1993 had a couple of interactions with him. On those ocassions he was certainly more generous to me than he needed to be.
News came this week that John McCain plans to request that President Obama pardon Jack Johnson. Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champ of the world (1908 to 1915) was hounded out of the USA on charges of committing immoral acts basically because he had sex with a white woman. He later served a year in jail on the charge.
Jack Johnson became the world heavyweight boxing champion on December 26, 1908 at the Stadium in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, Australia. In the mid 1990s I lived in Rushcutters Bay. The Stadium was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for a suburban rail line. In the 1964 The Beatles played there on their Australian tour. Occasionally I used to go for a beer at the Rushcutters Bay Hotel. The Hotel, also since demolished, served the working class population of the nearby area, which had diminished greatly as more and more old properties that were rooming houses were demolished for new apartments. The front bar of the pub was somewhat ill-lit and I remember being staggered on my way to the gents to discover a small corner of the bar was devoted to Jack Johnson and his memorable fight. I wish I had photographed it. I never did find out why the tribute was there, Johnson was not exactly a household name in Australia. Perhaps the pub owner was a fight fan.
The first I knew of Jack Johnson was through a piece by the writer Jack London. London renown as a socialist writer, his most famous book is either The Iron Heel or The Call of the Wild, was a racist; or in his words a white man first and a socialist second. He was in Sydney for the fight and reported on it for the Australian Star and the article also appeared in the New York Herald. Tracing that report was one of the first pieces of original research I did. London’s views made me lose my appetite for his work.
My post on Obama and Comics received so many hits that I decided to update it with an additional longer comment about the possible significance of Obama having read Conan.
On the Monday broadcast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe Stephanie Stanton of NBC News reported from a newly burned to the ground house in Yorba Linda, California. She proceeded to show viewers the debris and picked up some papers left there, which she could not decipher simply noting they contained some sort of “Asian writings.” Ah the media is such a class act sometimes.
The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees citizens against unlawful searches of their persons and houses, to be exact: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause … .” I guess that does not apply to media organizations sifting through the detritus of your newly burned house.
Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald reprinted Jeff Zeleny’s story from the New York Times on the possibility of Obama having to give up his Blackberry because of the Presidential Records Act. The erstwhile SMH changed the heading of the article and added a paragraph. The new heading? -“Obama might have to kick his CrackBerry habit.” Read it and weep.
From the UK Daily Telegraph comes the news that Obama collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comic books.
For me the issue is not just how reliable the “collects” might be, perhaps he just read them when younger, but if even remotely true was he a fan of the Barry Windsor-Smith pretty boy Conan or the Frank Frazetta style rough as guts Conan?
And to be more obvious does Arnold know?
Addition November 23.
Such is the interest in Obama that my very small post here about his interest in comics has generated a lot of hits. Perhaps there are things to be learned from the comics Obama apparently enjoyed; mostly I suspect those are very simple things such as the sorts of escapism he sought at a younger age. Spider-Man is an obvious choice for any young male. All that teenage angst and super powers too. And of course Peter Parker’s motivation for do-gooding: the realisation that seeing wrong and doing nothing to stop it eventually results in consequences for oneself. For the non comic book readers and non film goers: he does not stop the thief and as a result Uncle Ben dies. Peter Parker then sets out to fight crime.
Conan the Barbarian is somewhat of another case, at least on the surface. A wild youth with a penchant for combat Conan roams the mythical Hyborian Age earth. Marvel Comics and writer Roy Thomas based the 1970s comic book version Obama probably read on pulp stories from the 1930s by Robert E. Howard. The stories fit a Sword and Sorcery genre. Conan is somewhat of a scallywag: a thief, pirate, and general all round miscreant. But one with a code of honour and a direct manner that contained more honesty than found among rulers and their satraps. Mostly these are generic conventions. What sets Conan apart is how well Howard, and later Thomas, brought to life a character with “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.” If Obama was reading these comic books in the 1970s then he may well have read the various Howard stories on which they were based and the black and white Savage Sword of Conan comic. These stories often dealt with Conan’s destiny to become the most powerful King of his world. The youthful Conan stories could be read then as narratives of a wayward youth who acquired the necessary knowledge of men and women to lead them. The wikipedia entry on Conan becoming King is wonderfully evocative: “In his forties, he seized the crown of the tyrannical King of Aquilona, the most powerful kingdom of the Hyborian Age, having strangled the previous ruler on the steps of the throne.” Again these are generic stories so strangling the King is sort of metaphorical. As King, if I remember rightly from my youthful readings, Conan ruled with a firm but fair hand, remembering from whence he came, and always astute to the machinations of his court.
To take these sort of ideals from a fantasy world and project them onto, or into, the realities of American politics would be a tad foolish. It is easy to make metaphorical connections between strangling a tyrant and taking his throne and winning a Presidential election contest. But governing as an absolute monarch and as an elected President are two entirely different endeavours. Trying to ascertain a person’s character from the comics they read when younger will only get you so far. That said the smaltzy line from the Spider-Man movies “with great power comes great responsibility” is not the only tag from comics to hope Obama will live up to. A little bit of Conan’s understanding of the oft venality of the powerful will go a long way.
At 6am here in Singapore on the 5th of November it was 5pm ET on November 4 in the USA. I spent from 6am my time to about 11pm at my temporary election center in my living room:
I had CNN on the television and MSNBC on the IMac and various blogs and the like on the Airbook. I was to put it midly fixated with the process. In the course of the day there were two thunder storms and when the rain hits my windows directly the place springs a leak; we’re talking tropical downpours here. I had visions of going up in smoke. Fortunately the wind like the US electorate was blowing in the right direction. No jokes intended about weather men.
CNN called the election at about 11am my time. That meant I spent the next 12 hours looking at updates for states like Virginia, Florida and increasingly Indiana and North Carolina. At 11pm I was down to checking on the Senate race in Minnesota. I staggered off to bed eventually because I had to get up at 6am today to do a spot on Channel News Asia’s Primetime Morning.
On the day I found McCain’s concession speech gracious, Obama’s victory speech nicely balanced, and the sight of Jesse Jackson and others crying moving. Overall it was a day to me when America lived up to its promise. Will Obama disappoint people: yes, all Presidents do. Is racism dead in America: no unfortunately. Is the USA a beacon on a hill to the world: well maybe not, but yesterday it shone very brightly.
And now back to grading essays.