Away for a couple of weeks, so one from the archive. This is from September 2008, on the eve of Obama's first election, and seems kind of relevant in this American election year.
“I love the Jews really only en masse, en détail I strictly avoid him.” – Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted by Hannah Arendt
Luckily, Alice Walker will almost certainly never read this post. “Sometimes, reading a blog, which I do infrequently, I see that generations of Americans have been crippled, and can no longer spell or write a sentence.” Oh well.
Ms Walker provocatively opens her recent piece on the American presidency like this:
I remember seeing a picture of Fidel Castro in a parade with lots of other Cubans. It was during the emergency years, the "special period" when Cuba's relationship with the Soviet Union had collapsed and there was little gas or oil or fertiliser; people were struggling to find enough to eat. It was perhaps Cuba's nadir, as a small Caribbean island nation considered a dangerous threat by its nearest neighbour, the United States - which, during this period, tightened its embargo. Fidel, tall, haggard, his clothes hanging more loosely than usual from his gaunt frame, walked soberly along, surrounded by thousands of likewise downhearted, fearful people...
However poor the Cubans might be, I realised, they cared about each other and they had a leader who loved them. A leader who loved them. Imagine. A leader not afraid to be out in the streets with them, a leader not ashamed to show himself as troubled and humbled as they were. A leader who would not leave them to wonder and worry alone, but would stand with them, walk with them, celebrate with them - whatever the parade might be.
This is what I want for our country, more than anything. I want a leader who can love us.
Now, I have some admiration for Fidel Castro and what he has achieved, against all the odds. And I think that the American trade embargo on
has been a cruel, counterproductive, vindictive policy, which has done nothing to further democracy and only helped immiserate the people of Cuba . Cuba
However, Castro’s regime has been a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love does not extend to letting them choose who should rule them, or letting them listen to or read any dissenting voices, or letting them access the internet or have a free press or borrow books from their libraries which challenge his worldview. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love is expressed through a system of neighbourhood informers who ensure political conformity, through the imprisonment of dissidents, through the outlawing of homosexuality, through allowing the sex tourism industry to flourish to bring in hard currency. If Castro loves the people of
, he does not love them enough to let them form free trade unions, to let them go on strike or to let them travel abroad. Cuba
Whatever Bush’s faults, none of these things can be said about him. But Bush,
says, is all about “killing, under order, folks we don’t know; abusing children of whose existence we hadn’t heard; maiming and murdering animals that have done us no harm.” That, she says, is how we know Bush loves neither us nor himself. Walker
John Kennedy, in contrast,
says, did love the American people. Maybe I’ve read too much James Ellroy and Gore Vidal to have a clear view of Kennedy, but he was the man who ordered the ridiculous Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro’s government, the man who declared a war on Communism and turned a tiny military operation into the Vietnam war, the man who authorising the bombing, burning and napalming of Vietnamese civilians. In other words, sending Americans to kill folks they don’t know, abuse children, and, yes, maim animals. Walker
Regardless of which picture is more accurate, though, I don’t think it is right to ask for a president who loves the American people. As soon as someone invokes The People, with that definite article, I get worried.
Hannah Arendt was famously rebuked by her friend Gershom Scholem for not loving the Jewish people enough. She replied (addressing him in her letter, I think, by his original German name Gerhardt):
“I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons… I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”
As I’ve said before, those who most love Humanity en masse, as von Humboldt puts it, in the abstract – The People – are those who least love actual humans en détail, in the flesh – who care least for real people, including real Americans. In fact, those who most love The People in the abstract are often those most able to kill and abuse and maim real people in the flesh.
Alice Walker, it seems, is a woman who cannot love her own daughter or grandson, yet loves the whole American people, despite their inability to write a sentence, despite them being “racist and sexist and greedy above all”. If I were an American, I would not want a president who loved me as Fidel loves the Cuban people or as Alice Walker loves the American people. I would want a president who loves her friends and her children.
If I were an American, I would vote for Barack Obama, but, as Noga says, his strongest supporters don’t make that easier.