Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Schadenfreude meets Schande

Schadenfreude meets Schande

Regular visitors to the Left Blogosphere will have noticed that lately two topics have dominated the conversation there. The first topic is the mesmerizing self-destruction on which the Republican Party appears to have embarked. This we may term the schadenfreude topic, adopting that wonderfully expressive German term that translates variously as “shameful joy” or “guilty pleasure.” The second topic is the failure of Barack Obama to strike a radically progressive stance in his many actions since being inaugurated as President, a failure that has produced progressively greater dismay among progressives, and has led them to cry “Shame!” This we may call the schande topic.

Progressives [among whose number I occupy a position on the extreme left wing] see these two topics as unrelated to one another. The first is a source of pleasure, the second of pain. The general view on the left, it is fair to say, is that in a better world, we could enjoy the delights of the first and be spared the disappointments of the second. The Republicans, having simply come unglued, will continue to entertain us with their flamboyant death throes for many election cycles to come. Meanwhile, were Obama only the man we hoped but secretly doubted he would be, we could have show trials for Bush, Cheney, Yoo, and Bybee, full-scale single-payer medicine, immediate repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the infamous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and a glorious revival of the dormant Progressive spirit in America.

I yield to no radical in my lust for revenge, but what remains of my rational faculties after thirty years of Republican disasters tells me that there is a more intimate relationship between schadenfreude and schande than is commonly supposed. To put the point as simply as I can, the bizarre self-immolation of the Republicans is directly related to, and in no small part a consequence of, the style and substance of Obama’s young administration.

When I was a youth, I listened faithfully to a daily fifteen minute radio program called “The Shadow.” The central character, Lamont Cranston, had studied in The East, where he had learned techniques of mind control that enabled him to seem invisible to his enemies. Of him it was said that he had “the power to cloud men’s minds.” [Rather like Obi Wan Kenobe in the original Star Wars movie, when he and the young Luke Skywalker ride into town to hire Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.”]

Obama’s eerie self-possession, laid-back cool, and steadfast refusal – perhaps sheer inability – to engage in the partisan street brawling with which we have all become so familiar drive the Republicans wild. The more fantastical their attacks, the cooler he becomes. He stands there, quietly articulating rational policies and seeking consensus, even when it is denied him, and they froth at the mouth, embracing their inner Limbaugh and rejecting as rank apostasy all calls from their few remaining rational fellow Republicans for more constructive and inclusive policies.

Were Obama to do as we all so fervently wish that he would, and engage with them in a street brawl, he would thereby alter the entire framework of debate, and – oddly enough – make it easier for them to adopt an apparently rational and self-controlled stance.

As I watch Obama’s performance, mesmerized by a political skill the likes of which we have not seen in this country in three quarters of a century, I become convinced that we cannot have the schadenfreude without the schande. We must continue to press for the progressive policies so dear to our hearts – that goes without saying. But we must also recognize that even though we may win this battle and that, we will never persuade Obama to become the flaming radical we wish he were, and we ought to be glad that we cannot!

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