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Thanks, Obama

Thanks, Obama

I’ve had a complicated relationship with the 44th Commander in Chief.

For starters, I helped get him elected. I served on the New Media Team as a volunteer for his first presidential campaign in 2008. I got to work with some incredible people: Chris HughesArun ChaudharyDan Siroker, Michael Slaby, Gray Brooks, and many more, all of whom went on to do extraordinary things.

I was in Denver for the 2008 convention where, though not able to score an invite to the floor, I was able to witness an America divided by the hot button issues of the day, some of which are still with us: same-sex marriage, abortion, the war in Iraq, and immigration. I watched the DNC convention speeches with anticipation and excitement for the next eight years, fully swept up in the anti-Bush furor and pro-Obama fervor of the time.

Despite some misgivings, I was all in on Obama. I thought his vision was the right thing for the country at the time. I thought his story, and especially his race, were poignant symbols of the progress America had made. He didn’t need to play the ‘race card’ because his candidacy was the ultimate race card. He proved to America that leadership, eloquence, savvy and hard work transcend race and class. He was also the ultimate foil to eight years of George W. Bush: the president that America loved to hate. Bush was born rich and coasted to the presidency. Obama was born poor and worked his way into it. Bush was a clumsy orator. Obama’s words soared. Bush was the voice of the special interests and the past. Obama was the voice of the disenfranchised and the future.

When we pulled the lever for Obama we believed we were making the world a better place. For a brief moment in history, Obama made us believe that Hope and Change were achievable political values. When we gathered in Grant Park in Chicago on Election Day, the minute the California polls closed and CNN flashed its projection, the crowd was so swept up in the profundity of that history-shaking moment that time seemed to freeze. I hugged a stranger that night and we cried.

As Obama would say on his way out of office eight years later, reality has a way of asserting itself. There really was no post-racial America, no progressive wave, no hope, and no change. America hated Bush enough to elect the most liberal candidate in history, and America corrected itself two years later when the Republicans took back the House of Representatives. The post-Obama swing has arguably continued into the 2016 election, bringing us the biggest wildcard in American history.

Even so, for the first couple years, I had more or less a positive feeling about Obama’s policies, and politics, until 2011 or so when my economic and political thinking took a hard libertarian tack and I found myself alienated towards my former political idol and the Democratic Party I thought reflected progress. The economy didn’t magically get better; healthcare wasn’t magically solved. I went through a personal journey that paralleled, perhaps, that of many in my generation: disillusionment, alienation, resentment, political realignment. I was probably one of many who watched with excitement and anticipation in 2009 when Congress voted on ACA, hoping that it would pass, and three years later nearly lost my mind when the Supreme Court refused to rule it unconstitutional.

Obama was still the president, but for me, for years he represented the worst of American politics. In my view, he was the face of the arrogance of Washington DC. His rhetoric that I had once praised as transcendent became bitter and divisive. He condescended to the masses with placations and platitudes and they bought it hook, line and sinker. I pulled the lever for Gary Johnson in 2012 and never regretted it.

Then, strangely enough, in 2013, my relationship to Barack Obama changed again. Living in the liberal capital of San Francisco, despite our political differences I happily partnered up with Max Slavkin and Aaron Perry-Zucker of the Creative Action Network, whose first product was a folio of pro-Obama propaganda (or as we called it, art). As their first CTO, I spent the next year creating an ecommerce and art submission platform to sell a litany of poster campaigns geared towards progressive causes with impactful results, including See America which now has a great book selling in the national parks. In San Francisco, I found myself pulled back into the progressive network of creatives and intellectuals I had spent the previous two years trying to avoid. I came to see that, despite our disagreements on many issues, their hard work to make the world a better place was admirable, and many of them continue to be close friends.

All the while, Barack Obama was my president, and the distance between us started to shrink. Second term Obama was my flavor much more than first term Obama. I admired his work on criminal justice reform. I was extremely supportive of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and watched with dismay as that fell apart. His actions on Cuba and Iran were exciting. I even cheered Kerry’s recent foray into the thorny Israeli settlement issue. I celebrated when Obama ‘evolved’ on same-sex marriage, and celebrated more so in San Francisco the week the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Obama wasn’t perfect by any means, especially when it came to his expansion of drone strikes, surveillance power, executive privilege, his handling of Syria, and more. But over the last three years I have developed a newfound begrudging respect for the community organizer from Illinois.

Did Obama leave me, or did I leave Obama? And once separated, did he come back to me or did I come back to him? Did he become more centrist, more pragmatic in recent years? Or did we evolve towards each other, like a divided America dancing in disagreement towards a common truth? I know that my progressive friends feel somewhat betrayed by the Obama presidency, for the same reason that my conservative friends have felt warmer towards him in recent years. Maybe we all are changing in ways we wouldn’t like to admit. Or maybe Obama, the great pragmatist, has had his finger on the pulse of our generation in a way no one ever has.

Like all presidents, he leaves office with a mixed legacy. But for me, Obama was simply my president, for better or for worse. Like postwar Eisenhower, he is the president historians will feature when they turn the page into the 21st century. I think John McCain would have made a fine president, as would have Mitt Romney. But despite all my distrust of #44 and my concerns about his achievements, I have grown accustomed to That One and will be sad to see him go. Because, for better or for worse, America is turning the page again, and though we don’t know what the next chapter will bring, this one wasn’t all that bad.

In many ways, it is impossible for me to disentangle the history of Obama with my own history. It’s impossible not to think about the most powerful person in the world–someone who is always in your living room and on your computer screen–as part of your life. And like any other relationship, mine with Obama has had its ups and downs, and must now sadly come to an end. Not sadly because change, or even Trump, are inherently bad, sadly because Obama is the president I have gotten to know through the years and now he’s about to ride off into the sunset.

So, it is with only a tinge of irony that I close this obituary of my relationship with Barack Obama, happy to see the country still standing, hopeful for the next four years, and appreciative of the accomplishments of this undeniably impressive politician and man.

Thanks, Obama.


January 12, 20171 commentRead More
Modern Psychohistory

Modern Psychohistory

I have been reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and although it is a mediocre work of fiction with limited literary value (sorry fans), it does shift one’s perception of our own time; and, indeed, makes our age seem wholly insignificant.  The Galactic Empire of Foundation is a civilization that has existed for 12,000 years and according to the predictions of one scientist is doomed to fail for a 30,000 year interregnum, a prediction that has made the Empire squirm with unease.  The source of this apocalyptic prediction is the study of “psychohistory,” a science of Asimov’s own invention whereby large bodies of people have inertia and follow historical trends that can be calculated and predicted.  The larger the group of people, the larger the psychohistorical inertia.  Even with the small scale variance of chance, in the long run a civilization will follow a predictable path–so claims the school of psychohistory.

It is hard not to see our current world in the same light.  A world that had 800 years of Roman civilization, only to fall into a 1,000 year interregnum, emerging as it did in the 17th century with little knowledge, strength or civility which it has since had to learn.  Of course, the Romans were not a perfect civilization, and neither is ours, and neither were any of the civilizations that fall outside the traditional western historical sphere, but I think it can be said for our present civilization that the psychohistorical inertia of mankind has rendered it incapable of truly altering its course, and it is so that we tumble deeper and deeper into the abyss.  All through history we have feared the apocalypse, and looking back even 30 years we see the minutes of the Doomsday Clock tick ever closer to midnight as the Soviets played war games, and the surely predicted fall of civilization in the emergence of Islamic terror, financial catastrophe and skyrocketing prices in the stagflation of the 70’s.  And now we find ourselves precariously in an even worse position, with the institutional levers of our economy collapsing and seemingly nothing that can be done about it.

Why is this the case?  Psychohistory tells us that it is the responsibility of purely human emotion and instinct, for instance, fear.  Fear people have of losing what little stability they possess in order to gradually cede more power to rulers.  Fear rulers have of losing their power to the hungry and restless people.  Fear the intellectuals and the journalists and the artists have to stand up and tell the truth, no matter the consequences.  And fear of god: that almighty fear which has driven people to do stupid things and believe in them to the end.  I don’t often look to FDR for inspiration or guidance, but his ominous calling to be rid of fear of fear was prescient.  He of all people, a cripple with his own challenges, would know that people are not fallible.  That death is inevitable.  That we are always, always circling the drain.

In the lens of psychohistory, one sees not the European debt crisis as austerity vs. the Euro, or socialism vs. capitalism, or good vs. evil.  One only sees the inevitable decline of Europe as a great power due to the folly of mankind.  It is as sure as mathematics that the Eurozone will collapse, because its fate has been preordained from the beginning:  A monetary union backing several disparate political interests with a history of brutal warfare.  A fantasy of European socialism calling for borrowing a health and happy lifestyle at the expense of the working poor and the next generation, not to mention the immigrants whom Europeans spit upon.  The legacy of nationalism that makes Europeans immune to self criticism or introspection.

In the lens of psychohistory, one does not see the American politics as anything more than a page in a play of history.  We trade jabs about the relative power of corporations and unions, the responsibility of banks, the rights of the downtrodden, and of course, where our European and Chinese foes fit into the equation.  But the equation spits out the same answer:  We continue to borrow from our own prosperity and refuse to acknowledge our inevitable decline.  Although America has been luckier than most; insulated from the baggage of the past, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the world, with an imperfect constitution that Americans just happened to have respected and supported this last quarter millennium, we continue to put faith in our leadership to right the ship even though Americans feel the inevitable pull of fate.

In the lens of psychohistory, what is Iran, with its petty, fumbling dictator and its all-but-certain nuclear weapon?  Do we really think that the people of Iran have any less motivation, drive or ambition than the people of California?  Do we really think that Iranians have any interest in destroying Israel, or the US, or anywhere else, rather than proceed forward with mutual cooperation, trade and respect?  If the lesson of South Africa teaches us anything, it is never the people that are the problem, it is it the rulers.  And what of the rulers?  Why have we created democracies that ensure us that we empower rulers to cede the will of the minority to the tyranny of the majority?  Or, what is worse, cede the tyranny of the majority to the special interests of the entitled minority?  We have either dictators on thrones stolen at the point of a gun, or presidents on electoral thrones smoldering in their own hypocrisy.  These presidents give us a false sense of security and guard us against the barbarians at the gates, while they pick our pockets and promise us guarantees they don’t have the money to pay for.  Americans have it better than the Europeans, but how much worse are those false democracies elsewhere?

In the lens of psychohistory, all people are the same.  We do not have any differences that are not determined by birth or circumstance.  We all behave with the same motivations.  We all fall in love and get screwed by society’s pressure.  We all discover new things.  We all fail to get recognition for our accomplishments and get castigated for our failures.  We all don’t get what we deserve.  We all don’t deserve anything.  No one is special, and if there is anything I have learned in my travels, it is that people follow only one rule: Do by myself and my family.  If I have extra time, help others.  If I have a tender heart, go out of my way to do something nice for someone else.  But at the end of the day, every person will follow the same rule: Me and my family.  And when societies embrace that individual drive, they thrive.  And when they deny that, they destroy freedom, happiness and prosperity.  When a government provides an avenue to success through thuggery and murder, people will take that road.

Psychohistory tells us that we are hitting an inflection point, one which will push us over the abyss or lead us to the greatest period of wealth and prosperity the world has ever known.  We do not know when the inflection point will hit.  It could be with the Greek election on Sunday, or it could be at years end.  It could be when that first nuclear strike from North Korea backfires and lays waste to the desolate deathtrap of the miserable Kimtatorship.  It could be when Justin Bieber becomes elected president and, through momentous incompetence, fails to accomplish anything significant which might be the most productive thing he could do for our country.  It could be the rising of the oceans that swallow up our greatest cities.  Or, true to the mathematics of psychohistory, some unforeseen change in the human processing of external stimuli may occur, throwing off any and all predictions for better or for worse.  A larger-than-life figure may appear, altering the course of humanity by defying the natural bounds of human fear and consciousness.  Or an external alien force may puncture our self-contained system and introduce unknown variables of physics, science and culture that change our perceptions of ourselves and our humanity.

June 17, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More