Monday, November 17, 2008

Melanie Phillips the miserablist

Written days before Obama's election victory, this article addresses Melanie Phillips' jingoistic piece "Is America Really Going To Do This?" At the time, somewhat astonishingly, I couldn't find a worthwhile rebuttal of La Flips' apocalypticism but I found it here. Mel's piece is linked to for reference.

Kanishk Tharoor

28 - 10 - 08

Melanie Phillips the miserablist

At least one person in Europe isn't going all soft and misty-eyed for Obama. The irascible Melanie Phillips recently penned a fevered attack against the presidential hopeful, warning that Obama "will take an axe to America's defences at the very time when they need to be built up." While The Spectator may not be regular fare across the pond, equally frenzied denunciations of Obama have become common in the last few weeks in the US. Evangelicals beseech their co-religionists to vote for McCain in order to stave off a "far-left agenda [that] would take away many of our freedoms as a nation, perhaps permanently." Elected Republicans try to tar and feather Obama as a radical: "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." In terms that echo the shrillest of these fear-mongers across the pond, Phillips claims an Obama victory would invite apocalypse.

For a hack who imagines the end of western civilization around every corner, Phillips unsurprisingly finds the most self-destructive instincts of the west in him. "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor," she writes. "Obama thinks world conflicts are basically the west's fault, and so it must right the injustices it has inflicted."

According to Phillips, Obama is the epitome of the guilt-ridden, multicultural self-hater. His inevitable failures as president would not only be those of diplomatic compromise, but of cultural and historical surrender. Overreaching minorities will be coddled within their obliging societies. Terrorists will become objects of politically-correct sympathy. Iraq and Afghanistan will be evacuated. Israel will be sacrificed to the Arabs. Obama will strip the US - and ultimately, the "West" - of the right to assert its identity and strength. Under an Obama presidency, there will be no safe buffer zone - political and psychological - between the west and the rest.

Of course, Phillips has no real interest in looking at Obama seriously. She only wants him to be a woodcut in her shadow world of demons and angels. So it makes sense that her rant impresses other paladins of the clash of civilisations (see the comments below her piece on The Spectator website). It's as willfully deaf to reality as they are.

Never mind that there are perfectly reasonable, moderate arguments for (a) negotiating with Iran, (b) scheduling withdrawal from Iraq, (c) limiting US support for Israel, (d) searching for non-military solutions in Afghanistan, and (e) rethinking the frame and phraseology of the "war on terrorism".

The fact is that Obama is not a foreign policy sans culotte, hungry to uproot the American interest for the sake of global common good. A casual glance at his platform, his team of advisers, and his speeches throughout the campaign (notably the one given before AIPAC, the pro-Israel pressure group) show that Obama is far less ideological in his world view than John McCain, and certainly less so than the Bush administration. His cool temperament is matched by an equally cool appraisal of America's role in the world. Even "defenders of the West", like Phillips, should welcome the arrival to Washington of his style of pragmatism.

But what I find much more worrying about Phillips' piece is how she understands Obama as a symbol. She claims that "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor." This is a remarkable inversion.

Obama does indeed "stand for" something larger in the racial history of the United States: its transcendence. His sober and moving speech on race asked all Americans to both recognise and overcome the past; it did not demand "white guilt". Were Obama to reach the White House, he would "stand for" the traditions of openness, possibility and innovation that have, in large part, made America the superpower it is today. Obama's story is a quintessentially American one.

It's telling that Phillips spins this glowing narrative into one of benighted minorities and the "third world" lording it over the feeble west. Perhaps Phillips is stuck in a peculiarly bitter, European understanding of belonging and identity, one that is too narrow to accommodate the American significance of Obama's rise. Surely, the prospect of a black president of clearly moderate political bent need not plunge conservatives like Phillips into such gloom. But it seems for her that the line between miserablism and racism is quite thin. I'd rather she stayed miserable.


At 7:09 AM, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

It's a waste of space, talking about the ideas of a such an uninformed person.

On Israel/Palestine, Obama flanked McCain on the right. His Afghan policy is more aggresive than either Bush or McCain's.

The worst part of responding to a person like that, is that she knows what she says is nonsense.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Ren, I'm not so sure she knows what she writes is nonsense: I've read many of her pieces and she seems genuine, not cynical. Decades of isolated introspection can make a person believe anything it repeats to itself frequently enough.

Personally I can see her ride off into the sunset, accompanied by a few likeminded Knights of the Apocalypse; perhaps Mark Steyn, Bat Yeor, Paul Belien and Daniel Pipes.


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