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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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!