I received yesterday the following email from a friend of mine recuperating at the University of Virginia Hospital, and I know he would have no qualms about sharing part of it with the readers of the Postmodern conservative blog. It goes on for a while—he is a professor of cultural studies—but its message is well worth considering, all the more so because of the remarkable circumstances under which it was written.
It could not have occurred at a more inopportune moment.
Like all of my friends, I invested most of my mental and moral energy last year in the campaign to elect Barack Obama. I thrilled at the prospect of a New Era, not only of peace abroad, but of sane policies at home. Eight years of a bumbling religious fundamentalist, driven by a naïve ideology in foreign affairs and an outmoded attachment to markets (and to wealthy friends) in domestic affairs, were enough. More than enough.
We truly needed change. And yes—I, an academic, was not ashamed to embrace a slogan—we needed “change we could believe in.” I even put a sign on my front lawn, like everyone else in my diversified neighborhood, testifying to that very point. With Obama’s historic victory in November, I began to dream of a new order—of acres of new wind turbines silently generating clean energy, of sleek bullet trains seamlessly linking our great metropolises, and of a modernized tax system under which the rich would finally pay their fair share. Even when the great financial crash occurred last September, which all recognized would place new burdens and constraints on the new administration, there was still a basis for hope. The crisis could be “leveraged” politically by our new President to help usher in the New Era.
Everything was moving in the right direction in January, with the President’s Inauguration and his stirring address to Congress. Then suddenly, on February 1, 2009, feeling suddenly extremely tired in a way I had never experienced before, I was taken to the University of Virginia Hospital. The first few moments I dimly recall, the thermometer being stuck into my mouth, the gray band being wrapped around my arm to take blood pressure, and the series of annoying questions being asked about my health insurance policy (which I thankfully reassured myself, even in that debilitated state, would very soon be a thing of the past). Then everything went blank.
I can only reconstruct things now, with the help of the nurses who have been assisting me for the past two days in figuring out what had happened. It appears that I fell asleep that night in the emergency room and did not awake until yesterday. The doctors, including some of the great specialists of the commonwealth—the University Hospital boasts of being one of the 100 institutions in the country—were confounded as to an exact diagnosis. Their best guesses were either sleeping sickness (also known as trypanosomiasis) or “Rip Van Winkle disease” (officially known as Kleine-Levin syndrome), which sounded more kosher to me. But the truth is no one really knows.
In any case, I woke up yesterday, nearly six months after my “Great Hibernation,” the term I have adopted to describe the event. To my dismay I realized that I had missed completely the dawning of the New Era, almost as if I had been there for the creation of light, but then was wisped away only to return on the day of rest. Physically, though, I felt perfectly fine—so fine, in fact, that I wanted to go home immediately. Yet as the cause of my disease was unknown, the medical staff insisted on keeping me at least a couple of days for observation.
After visiting with my family, I have now had time to begin to catch up on the events over the past six months, relying on a couple of the back weeks of the New York Times and some copies of Newsweek that are down the hall in the lounge. Plus my room gets network TV and a few of the cable news channels like CNN and MSNBC. And what an exhilarating day it has been! I have learned just how much has changed, how a New Era with a new way of thinking established itself and how the Old Era with its “old think” has begun to recede. Picking up a Times from last week, I saw just how much ground “old think” has had to yield. I read that in the Old Era, the CIA had concocted a crazy plan, engineered with the support of Vice President Cheney, to try to kill leaders of Al-Qaeda, all the while concealing this matter from Congress. Thankfully, though, in the New Era, no one now is falling for this kind of stuff. The Speaker of the House will no longer permit Congress to be disparaged: A lie is called a lie.
It is also gratifying to learn that the era of post partisanship has in fact arrived in Washington, replacing the bitter division and cynicism of old. One representative of “old think,” which was expressed in a letter in the Times, tried to insist that there had been more efforts at bipartisanship in the Old Era, in measures such as No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Benefit Plan. But this is nonsense. I watched President Obama’s news conference last night, and he established beyond any question that the truest test of post partisanship is not whether one receives support from the other side, but whether the majority “listens” to what the other side says. By this new and superior criterion, endorsed by E. J. Dionne and others, the administration is clearly exceeding all expectations. It is even doing so by listening to Republicans, which is a sign of just how far the President has been willing to go.
It was heartening, too, to see how well the administration’s signature legislative achievement, the stimulus package, has been succeeding. I remember, before the Hibernation how excited I had been at the thought of the thousands of “shovel ready projects” that were to be assisted. Here at the University, our deans wrote to urge us to get our research projects “shovel ready” in an effort to scrape up some of the funds. Above all, I recalled a press conference with an enthusiastic, yet stern, Vice President Biden telling us all, “We got to get it right.” It turned out that a few of the assumptions on which the package had been based had been flawed—this was a residue of “old think”—but the Vice-President was up to the task, boldly urging, in the spirit of the “new era of responsibility,” that we spend our way out of bankruptcy.
The New Energy plans are only now getting going. I read of a slight setback on this score, when T “Wind Mills” Pickens, who in January had promised to cover the entire Texas panhandle with a wind farm, had to pull back because of economic considerations. But clean energy with hundreds of thousands of new jobs is still in our future, and the administration has already begun by supporting further ethanol subsidies, which the “best science”—and not mere politics—has proven to be a boon to the environment.
One of the best things about the New Era is the open and frank conversation we are having about race, led by the president. I was pleased to see it on display at the press conference I watched last night, when the president spoke so eloquently about the flight of his friend, poor Skip Gates, and the indignity he had to endure from a racially insensitive white police officer. One thing is clear, the President had learned something from his Philadelphia speech on race last spring, when he made the error, as some so infelicitously out it, of throwing his own grandmother “under the bus.” Rest assured that Professor Gates will not be placed in that position.
A new Foreign Policy, I learned, has been put into place, and its effects have been at once enormous and beneficial. By an aggressive use of soft power, chiefly the product of the President’s own stirring rhetoric, we have already reversed the bad image of America in the world. Pew polls realized just today document the shift. If the President was able to win over the people of Iowa, mesmerize millions in Berlin, then why should he not able to be able to bring the entire Muslim world into his camp, as he did in his speech in Cairo? And we know that it worked. The people of Iran, many speculated, may have turned on their own mullahs as a result of this speech. Still, in an abundance of prudence, the administration’s wise new realist thrust determined that it was in our nation’s interest not to meddle in Iranian affairs and to continue the dialogue with the current authorities, even as it was clear that our national interest dictated that we work with President Chavez to help bring the deposed Mr. Zelaya back to power in Honduras.
But the most exhilarating development of all, however, has been the change of tone in the press. I have to admit here that maybe proponents of “old think” had half a point when they complained that it was not always a good thing for the Press to exhibit an instinctive adversarial relationship to the president, as much as that posture may have been justified in the case of Mr. Bush. Perhaps journalists had become, too much so, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it has been welcome, in reading The New York Times and Newsweek, and in watching the network news, to pick up a hint of a new and more generous spirit being shown to the President. We are not witnessing, of course, the development of anything like a spontaneous Ministry of Truth in the private sector—such a thing I could never endorse, even if it supported my own views—but simply an honest rendering of the facts. Plus I note that the Times still retains a critical edge: just after chief commentator David Brooks writes a column ranking Mr. Obama among the greatest presidents, he surprises (and disappoints) you by writing another suggesting that he could be ranked among the lesser figures.
The message goes on, but I leave off at this point wishing my friend a speedy recovery and a future of sleepless nights.