The Magazine

Obama in Leftland

Don't know much about history...

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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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.