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When I talk to friends who are worried about an Obama candidacy and possible administration, I hear the following:

  1. Americans will not elect a black man
  2. Obama is inexperienced and soft
  3. The optimism of Obama and his supporters seems dangerously naive
  4. Obama is simply a politician, like the rest, and no more like to put principle ahead of political expediency

I’ve written enough about (1). So In this post I’ll address (2-4).

Experience and Conformity

I frankly find (2) to be baffling. Perhaps that’s my own elitism and workplace cynicism, but consider the following. I’m sure plenty of your co-workers are experienced, in the sense of having been in the workforce for a long time, and yet either incompetent or competent but highly unsuited to positions involving authority or leadership. These people are notoriously difficult to weed out during the hiring process. The kinds of resumes that appeal to HR people (often not the brightest bulbs) are highly conventional and so inherently risky: it’s just as easy for less attractive candidates to jump through hoops, acquire certifications, and rack up years of “experience” as it is for mis-educated highschool students to ride a conveyor belt from one grade to another.

On the other hand, there are highly competent or even brilliant people who have jumped through the same hoops. Clearly some of these candidates stand out by virtue of their very shiny hoops — Harvard, prestigious firms, the expected career ladder, and so on. But even for these over-achievers there’s a second layer to the problem of evaluating “experience”: even they are not necessarily the most creative, independent minded, or ethical human beings. In fact, that they have gotten where they are is often the result of significant conformity: teacher’s pet, straight A’s, regurgitation of professor’s lecture onto blue book exams, all the right clubs and activities and political alliances, the right career choice, and so on.

In other words, experience often implies conformity.

This conformity has its place, because the teaching of artistic and technical pursuits depends initially on the passivity of their apprentices. Good teachers are authorities, and good students respect this authority. As a consequence of this respect they become vessels for the “knowledge” — today “information” — that their mentors pour into them. In the end, there is a body of knowledge to which the student must conform.

When generalized to the moral and political domains, this model of education fails. In fact, it is dangerous. That’s because these domains — and their study, Philosophy — depend critically on non-conformity rather than conformity; the challenging of received views rather their absorption; and a comfort with the lack of resolution of their primary questions, rather than their artificial dissolution into easy certainties. As a consequence, there is no such thing as “expertise” and “experience” in statesmanship: there are no technical facilities that you can develop to become a great leader. It is not like learning guitar, or becoming an accountant, or even like becoming a writer or artist. More critical are character, passion, independence of mind, and comfort with decision-making involving situations that are so unique as to be without real precedent: in other words, political and moral decisions cannot be learned like times tables, or as algorithms developed either from book-learning or “experience.” Experience is of course important in the broad sense — i.e., any experience that develops character and judgment. Years spent in office, or years spent in Washington, D.C. are not what’s relevant here.

In fact, one ought to be wary of strictly political experience when it comes to looking for a good leader. The more political a profession, the more likely an acolyte’s conformity is a preliminary to corruption or incompetence. Experience in politics means having been around long enough to have achieved enough mutually back-scratching relationships; it means making the winning of elections more important than standing on principle.

That is why Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War is so important to many of us. It was a vote of expedience, conformity par excellence. It is “experience.” You will see a certain amount of this conformity, at least in the public sphere, in any politician, including Obama. But there are clear differences between Clinton’s conformist opportunism and Obama’s independent judgment. And Obama gives one the hope that even where winning depends on toeing the line, he will be much more independent in his use of power when he acquires it.

Experience and Toughness

“Experience” is also meant to be a synonym for “toughness.” Obama is soft, the idea goes, because he hasn’t been tempered in the fires of political backbiting for long enough.

This argument is just a coded command for the conformity discussed above. Obama’s detractors are worried that he isn’t sufficiently cynical enough to keep his political enemies at bay by out-conforming his opponents. Clinton’s gas tax holiday and public beer-swilling are experience and toughness, again par excellence. So are talk of flag pins and the pledge of allegiance and patriotism in general: the point is to create doubts about Obama’s sufficient conformity to a grandiose American self-concept; about how un-reflectively committed he is to the American Tribe; about whether he will let the teeming hordes of The Other — muslims, Hamas, angry black men — storm Castle Americana. Obama is not tough enough, according to this argument, because he is not paranoid enough about the rest of the world; because he might not share the knee-jerk, xenophobic hysteria of his fellow countrymen; because he might hesitate to “obliterate” our enemies — their women and children with them; because he might be other himself — muslim, black christian militant, Kenyan, Indonesian, Hawaiian, elite ….; because as other, he might cast an uncomfortably critical eye on America itself — might be able to admit to himself some of the failings of its foreign policy, for instance.

Here the definition of toughness just is slack-spirited, weak conformity: toughness means sharing the patriotic delusions of your countrymen and rashly and even self-destructively striking out at the first sign of danger. Toughness is the cool, hostile posturing of the adolescent. Of course, we all know what “toughness” covers up in the United States just as much as the adolescent: profound insecurity, profound weakness. Demands for “toughness” and for “experience” are demands for conformity to this weakness: they are not about American national security but about American psychological security. They demand that a certain identity, a certain self-conception, remain unscathed, that a certain public mythology be perpetuated: it is the image of toughness that is to be preserved, even if it means gravely endangering the real United States (as for example, by going to war in Iraq instead of dealing with grave domestic security problems). What is meant to be “tough” is the shell preserving the posturing psychology itself — as transparently insecure, weak, and reactively belligerent as it is.

So insofar experience is meant to convey “toughness,” it really is just another conformist rejection of real strength: independent judgment, diplomacy, self-examination and even self-critique, and a willingness to change, negotiate, compromise. Real strength comes at an incredible psychic cost, which is why most of us don’t often achieve it: it explodes the myth of one’s invulnerability. At the national level, it threatens the idea of the United States as perfect and all-powerful. It threatens our imaginary, psychological security, which demagogues then transubstantiate into national security. Real strength is not in the rigidity of one’s delusions of grandeur, but in the steadfastness of one’s willingness to engage in self-examination — as a means to well-considered decisions.

And as we have seen, that self-examination can be hindered by experience, if experience just means developing one’s uncritical acceptance of the principles of national pride and collective narcissism.

So when you hear of anyone talk about “experience” in a political context, I encourage you to ask yourself whether what they really mean is “conformity.” And when you hear anyone talk about a leader’s “toughness,” I encourage you to think of this as just a way of describing the rigidity of the surface-level shell that hides a gooey center of insecurity.

Naivete and Politicians

Some people I’ve talked to are turned off by the enthusiasm of Obama supporters. “Yes we Can” and “Hope” amounts to naivete on two counts: first there’s Obama’s lack of experience and toughness, second there is the fact that he is not a messiah — not pure, not above political calculation.

I’ve dealt with the first reason for rejecting enthusiasm, and that analysis shows that it is not entirely consistent with the second. On the one hand concerns about experience and toughness are concerns about Obama’s non-conformity; while cynicism about his motives involves a suggestion that he is more conformist than he seems.

I think it’s enough to say here that most of Obama’s supporters do not see someone as a political pure savior. They see him as someone who’s unusually decent and honest for a politician. Any amount of decency and honesty in American public discourse is a reason for enthusiasm. But beyond that, Obama supporters are enthusiastic about the implications of his character for the presidency. We may be mistaken about his character and judgment, but it is still the right criterion. That’s because we’re looking for someone who displays real strength and independent mindedness, an independence is crucial to our national security at a time when the lemmings of conformist, “experienced” belligerence are leading us over a cliff.

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