The Magazine

Obama in Leftland

Don't know much about history...

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Barack Obama is America's first major party presidential candidate to have come of age after the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and '70s. Americans who reached adulthood before or during the Cultural Revolution often differ over the big events of recent history. Americans who came of age afterward, on the other hand, don't necessarily know any recent history. And what they do know is often wrong. Every candidate makes mistakes on the stump, and voters allow for the gigantic g-forces exerted by the presidential campaign as it whirls candidates around the nation at terrific speed. But we have an obligation to ponder Obama's views of American reality in the context of his membership in the first generation fully shaped after the Cultural Revolution. Let's call it gen-CR. (The same applies to Sarah Palin, but she hasn't said the sort of crazy things Obama has.)

We know what to expect of gen-CR. Unless they have grown up in regions or families with an unusually strong grasp of tradition, patriotism, and reality, gen-CR'ers tend to have a fuzzy view of history, an unconditional belief in tolerance and diplomacy, and contempt for the military and war-making. Their patriotism (such as it is) tends to focus on the "global community" or "the planet" or some other large, meaningless object. (Beyond a certain point, patriotic devotion spread too thin simply evaporates-which is a good way to get rid of it if you are, say, an English intellectual trusting to the European Union to eradicate this primitive emotion.)

Before considering what sets Obama apart, consider what he has in common with the former candidate he resembles most, George McGovern-both affable, well-spoken gentlemen of the Democratic left with fanatic youthful supporters, who picked the wrong running mates. (McGovern was forced to call the bullpen and send in Shriver for Eagleton partway through the campaign.) McGovern was a wartime candidate, like Obama; both planned on widespread opposition to the war and dislike of the incumbent (aka "a need for change") to power them to victory. Of course Bush is no Nixon; nor is he up for reelection. In any case, McGovern got plastered. True, Obama passes for mainstream more effectively than McGovern ever did; on the other hand, thanks to a dramatic change of commanders and strategies, the United States is now winning its faraway war against terrorist armies and murderous ideologues underwritten by foreign powers, leaving Obama stuck for a foreign policy message.

Yet all those things applied to Vietnam in 1972 just as they do to Iraq today. Thanks to the substitution of Abrams for Westmoreland in May 1968, the war was slowly and surely being won. But the final outcome was a catastrophic defeat for the United States and (even worse) for all Vietnamese who had ever counted on us. Washington politicians collaborated in that defeat. If Obama is elected, the danger is real. America had better try to understand whether he thinks for himself or is a true-blue member of gen-CR, who has been taught that losing wars is character-building and that serious Americans find their own history embarrassing (and the less you know about it, the better). Consider three Obama pronouncements.

Last July he listed crises America has faced, including "the bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor." He spoke of "constantly evolving danger," not of "enemies"; he said that we had "adapted to the threats posed by an ever-changing world," not beaten our enemies. Gen-CR recoils from the idea of enemies. As for "the bomb," Obama was presumably conflating Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. However that may be, the statement is a prime specimen of gen-CR thinking.

Obama has proposed a "civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded [as the military]." Later he seemed to say (maybe) that this organization would support the military in noncombat duties. But in that case, why does it have to be so powerful? Whatever he had in mind, he was obviously not bothered by the ugly historical overtones of muscular national police forces or parallel armies. History is full of such organizations, from the Committee of Public Safety wreaking bloody havoc in revolutionary Paris to the immense terror-force of the Stalinist NKVD to Mao's murderous Red Guards. Because Obama (evidently) does not listen to history, he seems to have no sense of its hints and warnings.

His announcement that he would meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions shows exactly why a president must not merely know history but have a decently nuanced view. It was wrong for Chamberlain to meet Hitler and foolish for JFK to meet Khrushchev, but right for Begin to meet Sadat and for Churchill to make repeated long, dangerous journeys to meet Stalin. It's obvious to all sorts of Americans-as it was obvious to Hillary Clinton at the time-that Obama's offer was dangerous and wrong, but the reasons are not easily reduced to a formula. "World leaders should not meet with other world leaders unless they know what the agenda is, so you don't end up being used," was the way Joe Biden, then an Obama opponent, put it. "Don't invest American prestige in a high-risk meeting where you are likely to take a bath" is another way to put it; "don't invest American prestige where it tends to legitimize an international outlaw, unless urgent American interests stand in the balance" is still another. Either way, you have to understand "American prestige"-which is not a gen-CR-type concept.

If the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, it is no place for remedial education either. The problem with Obama is not so much that he lacks experience but that he talks-like so many others of his generation-as if he had a child's view of modern history and (hence) of modern American reality. Obama's candidacy also poses a more subtle and sinister problem. He didn't create it, and it's not his fault; but it's frightening nonetheless. Start with a given: An Obama administration might still bring about defeat in Iraq; speeded-up troop with-drawals might weaken this new democracy and bring on its collapse like a burnt-out log into a blaze of terrorist violence. But if it did-if the left's policies proved tragically mistaken-Obama's supporters would never know it. What would the collapse of America's noble project in Iraq look like in the funhouse mirrors of the New York Times, NBC, Time and Newsweek and NPR and the rest of the establishment media? "In the end, Bush policy plunged Iraq into chaos, but Obama was smart enough to pull out before more American lives were lost." And that's what Democrats would "know" about Iraq.

In broader terms, Obama is a warning: The CR generation is now in full flood and coming on strong. Those who think that the '60s revolution has run its course, that Americans are about ready to come home and live on friendly terms with their own history and traditions, should think again. Of course Joe Biden has reassured us that you don't have to come from gen-CR to talk nonsense. (Biden last week recalled how President Roosevelt appeared on TV to calm Americans after the stock market crash of '29.) Yet Biden may well have forgotten more history than Obama ever knew.

Nothing is more traditional than change. For every "morning in America" campaign there are ten New Deals, Fair Deals, New Frontiers, Great Societies, and Kinder, Gentler Americas on offer. Youth wants change by definition. The fervor of young Bob Dylan telling us in 1963 that "the times they are a-changin'  '' is still sad and touching. Obama is the quintessential child of the Cultural Revolution, who grew up in a society that was up to its neck in change. Those were the big change years (Obama is small change by comparison), and some of the changes were marvelous. The near-eradication of race prejudice within a single generation is an achievement that Americans will always (or should always) be proud of. But in most other respects the Cultural Revolution was a disaster-one which is still unfolding. Obama is the herald of Phase 2, in which self-conscious leftism is replaced by unconscious leftism, and culture-leaders who misinterpret history by a new generation that barely knows any history to misinterpret.

Members of the CR generation who had mainstream, establishment educations have been trained like pet poodles to understand where romping is allowed and where it is forbidden. The permissible range of thought on such topics as protected minorities, protected species, protected psychosexual deviations, et al. is clearly spelled out from kindergarten onward. Young teachers in the 1970s proudly acknowledged their political biases: They were the New Left in action, on a long march through the institutions. But many of today's young teachers-in consequence of the long march's brilliant success-don't even realize that they are left-wing ideologues. As far as they know, their ideas are innocuous and mainstream-just like the New York Times!

To understand this generational shift in the making, consider the resignation of Harvard president Lawrence Summers in 2006, under attack for having said that, just possibly, the far greater number of male than of female scientists might have to do with innate differences between men and women-something that a large majority of working scientists (male and female) almost certainly take for granted (whether or not they are willing to say so). But Summers had expressed a forbidden thought, and (despite his abject confessions and apologies at the Harvard show trials) was duly banished. In the gen-CR age now approaching, such embarrassing accidents will no longer happen. Forbidden ideas simply won't occur to the Harvard presidents of the future.

Obama is the perfect model for a modern Harvard president. He might look back at his nation's history and see only a blur. But it's hard to imagine him ever thinking (much less saying) the sort of erroneous thought that doomed Summers. America's future has been intellectually housebroken. That's progress.

David Gelernter, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and professor of computer science at Yale.