‘Is he ready to lead yet?’ Never: John McCain, Despair and the Politics of Destruction

In “McCain Tries to Define Obama as Out of Touch,” Jim Rutenberg reports that “Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency.” Primarily, says Steven Schmidt, “the czar of the Bush war room,” the McCain campaign is asking ‘Is he ready to lead yet?’ about Obama. The resounding answer for them is “No he is not.”

We are in an extraordinarily dangerous moment in American history: the attempt to complicate real issues by falsely manipulating images, rather than engendering a frank and honest–and honorable—discussion about the future of America.

It is clear that John McCain finds himself without a vision, without a voice, so the only recourse is to rely on descructive and desperate approaches focused not on Obama, but rather, on the exploitation of the media because, the McCain campaign believes, they in turn control the uninformed and immature American voter. This is an old practice. And this is why today we find ourselves in such a confusing state of affairs.

McCain’s despair emphasizes the politics of conservatism that follows lock step the Bush approach. I’ve already pointed out the historical antecendents to this in “Why John McCain Won’t be President.” Now in the new book U.S. Versus Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security, J. Peter Scoblic points out that by promoting an aggressive foreign policy drafted in absolute moral terms, the conservative movement has actually made the United States more vulnerable to attack. Thus the conservatism of the past 50 years, Scoblic tells us, has actually undermined American security.

We have never been more vulnerable. It is obvious that we are having a difficult time coexisting in a complex world, particularly when we insist on a Manichaean worldview. Pursuing an aggressive campaign focused on falsehoods undermines the very core of democracy and freedom. This is a key point, particularly since McCain likes to speak about such lofty ideals as honor and virtue. McCain lacks both, showing that he will do anything to win, even if it means continuing policies that undermine the very idea of America.

“Is he ready to lead yet?” No, John McCain consistently demonstrates that his actions speak louder than his rhetoric; that he is bombastic; that he seeks not to influence by logic and reason, but rather, by forceful manipulation and indecency.

John McCain is the embodiment of the decline of American culture. And though I agree with Scobic’s argument that covers the last 50 years, historically, this decline began a long time ago. The first to note this was Henry James, in 1877, in his novel The American.

The opening scene defines the new American arrogance. It announces the blindness that characterizes this level of privilege. Christopher Newman sits in a “great circular divan” that occupied the centre of the Salon Carré in the Louvre, in Paris. He had taken “serene possession of its softest spot, and, with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched, was staring at Murrillo’s beautiful moon-borne Madonna in profound enjoyment of his posture.” In fact, Newman, says James, “suggested the sort of vigour that is commonly known as toughness.”

This is the newman for a new America. The world is for the taking. In an over sexualized posture, Christopher Newman is not enthralled by the Murrilo; he is “in profound enjoyment of his posture.” Here, James shows that this new and tough American is enjoying his position in this the old world. He is going to tame it, dominate it. This is who we believe we are.

But this image in inverted in the final chapter when, according to Newman, “the most unpleasant thing that had ever happened to him had reached its formal conclusion, as it were.” At this point, Newman had “no prayers to say.” “Now he must take care of himself,” alone. This is America, alone, trying to take care of its overstepping, its reaching far beyond what is morally and ethically feasible. We are vulnerable and alone today in the world. We can only blame ourselves, though.

In the end, for James, Christopher Newman is a challenge for America: as we reach out and grab, will we take responsibility for our actions? Will we ground our pursuit of freedoms on honor and virtuous action?

Never has a culture been so free as ours; never have individuals been so free to pursue dreams; and never have we experienced the resounding chorus of people around the world asking that we pursue our ambitions ethically–ethical ambition.

John McCain has failed ethical ambition. His is the last breath of a long line of blind ambition. His is ambition for the sake of ambition; his is ambition for the sake of the few who wish to keep the United States isolated from humanity. If we believe the manipulations of McCain’s aggressive, unethical machine, tomorrow’s America will be dark and isolated.

Is John McCain ready to lead? How can he be? He is already being lead by the dark forces of a vituperative conservatism.

Coming Into Paris One Early Morning

Early in the morning and fifty or so kilometers from Paris, the green fields roll gently in the early morning mist. The sun rises slowly to the east. It’s as if I’m watching a French film, its deliberate meditative pace, through the lozenge window of my tiny black Renault Twingo. In the middle of the green fields, stucco and tile farmhouses interrupt the eye, draw it in and make you wonder about the length of time these places have been here. You feel the age of the land, its harmony.

Then the outskirts of Paris ease in—first a neighborhood of mid sized buildings, then corporations that dot the suburbs, big buildings. Until suddenly there it is, the sign “Paris-Centre”. The traffic slows and narrows, though still in 6 lanes. A tunnel—and Paris rises beyond it, the Siene running along the highway urging you on.

It was a long way to get here—literally and metaphorically. The day and night before I crossed southern Sweden, a half of Denmark, and a major part of Germany—Hambourg, Hannover, Douseldorf to, finally, Luxemberg where I saw my first grape vines and I smiled because I knew France was near.

I began the day by leaving Lund at 7AM and got to about 100kilometers of Paris by midnight or so. The key to my apartment was being held in a café (very French) and I tried frantically to call on my cell but I was doing something wrong and couldn’t get through. I knew they’d be closed by the time I entered France—besides, I didn’t want to tackle streets and things in the dark without the guarantee of a bed to lay my head. So I did what I would have done 30 or years ago—I’m glad I recalled—I slept in a truck stop in my car. I slept through the night and awakened a bit stiff at 5AM, washed up, drank a double espresso and began the journey into Paris.

I don’t know, maybe I’m overly romantic, but when I saw “Paris-Centre,” I got emotional. Perhaps it was simply that I was working really hard to erase all images I have of Paris, all of which come from literature and film, and of course, my family, mostly my mother.

The emotions escalated when I realized that the entry to Paris, the way I came in, is almost identical to the entrance to Buenos Aires. Even the first signs of the city immediately catapulted me to Buenos Aires. I was in two places at once—a very Borgesian experience; or to put it in the tradition of contemporary French philosophy: since I’m here, I was always who I am, always being the other I find now. I have always been here, though I was seeing it for the very first time. I was seeing myself in this light for the first time. This implies that psychologically I had been ready for this experience and that all my experiences leading to this moment had prepared me for my first visit to Paris. I was always already in Paris.

I hugged the Seine and drove ever so slowly. The pay off for sleeping in the car was coming into a city yet to awaken—this awakened me. I drove carefully, deliberately, my eyes on the classic beauty, the barges, the old buildings, the narrow streets—and the street signs and my map. That’s how I did it. I’d go so far, stop and look at my map; memorize routes and street names, calculating how much time I’d travel to get to my next stop. Then do this again.

Within ten minutes of being in the city, I found the Restaurant Retirement, which held my keys. Unbelievably, they were cleaning and I had to wait only five minutes for the keys, held by the manager. She gave me an envelop with my name on it and I opened it. In it, the keys and the address—no directions. Very French! This, too, made me feel as if I was in Argentina—same minimalist approach to everything, letting one fend for himself. Argentina and France share a similar aesthetic in that the native wants the tourist to interpret signs, thus moving him or her towards becoming a visitor, one who is not there to merely look at sites, but rather, one who is there to be affected by the place, its people and history.

I got some directions, but I knew, between their French-English and my English-French, that I wasn’t being told the entire story. Back to the map. Immediately I found the street on the map, but I had to go through a series of circles, “DO NOT ENTER” circumlocutions until, a half hour later, I found the place.

I lived on Rue Mouffetard,a street in the Ve arrondissement, near the Sorbonne. It is a quiet, narrow little area; it’s very neighborly, a real community, which is what I like. I was on the first floor of a beautiful building with a wonderful interior garden—something you read about or find in French movies. Outside, next door, a Creperie, of course; and down the block, about 50 meters, a small grocery store from which I purchased eggs, juice and, yes, bread and wine. And right in front of the little grocery store, a wonderful circle, all cobblestone, lined with cafes. Right around me are streets such as Diderot, Pascal, Descartes.

When I arrived at my studio apartment, obtained through Parissimo, specializing in short term rentals, the city was barely awakening. I could hear the voices outside from my opened French balcony windows. I could also hear the birds and the pigeons. It was overcast and cool, so good for walking. Numerous church bells sang, calling. And I felt very, very lucky. Very fortunate, indeed.

Other Images from France:









St. Rémy:




How to Sit in a Sidewalk Café—Lessons from Paris

Paris– In between le café La Contrescarpe and le Delma, in Montparnasse, Paris, on a chilly, overcast evening, though it’s June, I sit. And I observe carefully. Rain may come—then again it may not.

There is a proper way to sit in a café.

In Paris, all café goers lining streets, whether with one partner or several, face the passersby. In case of several people sitting at one table, the art is to construct an experience where one eye is on the intimacy of the moment while the other is watching, observing, taking in the street, the activity. This is very different in other places.

I just came down from Lund, Sweden, where café goers face each other, sometimes even sitting in cafes that are behind small iron fencing or behind a waist high canvas partition sporting the café’s name. The experience is about what’s happening right on the table or across from you.

In Buenos Aires, the sister city to Paris, the Argentineans face one another. Perhaps this has something to do with how Argentine culture has evolved, its blending of Spanish, Italian, French, English and German smudged with strong Mediterranean roots, has produced an amiable culture where intimate contact is de la rigueur. Even the embrace in Argentina is different: it’s not the soft, proper joue á la joue, one side then the other, but a strong kiss and often an embrace—between men, between men and women, woman to woman, and so on. Thus the Argentinean is fixated on the other, the third essence—the state of being—that’s created in an intimate exchange. For the Argentinean it’s about the here and now; there may not be another time. Argentine history bares this truth.

This is not to say that the significance of the intimate exchange is wasted on the French. Not at all. It’s different, looking to bring into the intimate fold a larger, more expansive experience that looks beyond the immediate; that acknowledges place and fleeting time; that gazes with anticipation for the welcomed unknown.

Jacques Derrida says that, “In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and ‘l’avenir.’ The future is that which—tomorrow, later, next century—will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it’s l’avenir in that it’s the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”

The proper way to sit in a sidewalk café—facing passersby—is the only way to look with anticipation for the unpredictable. No other culture looks with such total expectation towards the unforeseeable. It is here where “a real future” resides; it is also where the imagination can be given full play. One eye on the other sitting beside you, also looking out, and one eye looking with anticipation for the Other surely to arrive at any moment.

The unpredictable is constant. In American culture, with its demands on ideology buttressed by reason, the unpredictable is condemned. This is why one Holiday Inn looks like another, whether in New York or Kansas City. Why we gorge on fast food. We don’t want to experience the jolting emotional effects unpredictability brings. We want the stultification of the predictable.

The French, however, an older culture, have learned to welcome unpredictability, a friend. It is a future that, emotionally and intellectually, comes as a surprise. Change is in the offing. This is a good thing.

In one of the most literate cultures of the world, the appreciation of unpredictability and change is a habit that’s been taken to an art form in the café. Even sitting across a small square from another café, eyes meet, contact is made, and the unpredictability of that encounter, which suggests possibilities, never fails.

L’avenir is always occurring; it is always unpredictable. We watch for it. The past can only teach us, if we listen; the present is fleeting, here one minute, gone the next. But the future, well, it comes without us being able to anticipate its arrival—and this makes all the difference in the world.