Writing at The American Conservative, though said to represent “the antiwar left,” Michael Tracey paints a verbal portrait of himself as a man at his wit’s end, “in a disoriented daze,” mystified by the conduct of a major political party and its leaders, the latter happening to include the nation’s chief executive. When I summed up Tracey’s article on Twitter as a display of “incomprehension before American democracy,” Tracey took my reaction as “lulz”-worthy “snark.” I thought I was capturing his clear intention, and I still find his piece insistently uncomprehending, even if its author does not seem to comprehend why I would say so.
Like several other observers (Conor Friedersdorf, for example) – Tracey was especially put off by exhortations at the Democratic National Convention, most dramatically from the Vice President, to cheer the death of Osama Bin Laden:
This was a major thematic refrain of the convention. Osama bin Laden was dead! Barack Obama deserved all Americans’ gratitude for courageously making The Call! And therefore, the muscular Obama-Biden team deserved a second term (also, Mitt Romney is a big wuss and insufficiently reverent of our military). John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, posed the challenge: “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago!”
Tracey connects the theme to a supposed militarization of American society, and he describes seeking out well-known political and political-media figures who he hopes might share his “revulsion,” and offer “guidance” or “spiritual counsel.” All to no avail: After a long digression concerning a Ron Paul delegate among more mainstream Republicans, Tracey closes with some melodramatic reactions to “ominous” new threats of “state violence” relating to Libya: He has “a sinking feeling”; he’s at a “point of no return,” without “anything left to do… other than pray.”
Preferring narrative and personal testimony to political critique, Tracey leaves us with little reason to assume that the DNC’s enthusiasms are any less sensible than his mounting horror, especially since the former, at least in the sense of commanding wide allegiance and bidding to move decisive masses of voters in a modern mass democracy, clearly seem to qualify as more practical. Tracey or his editors hear a “demand for war” by the Democrats, but we can as easily identify a forthright, perhaps overly forthright, acknowledgment of historical necessity by those who hope to remain entrusted with American leadership. At the DNC they were accepting, and proclaiming the acceptance, that American democracy – born in violent revolution; assembled amidst genocidal war; re-born in civil war; shaped and brought to global political-economic ascendancy by world war – still requires and receives sacrifice of life from its defenders and from its enemies, potentially from any of its citizens, and even from the innocent.
Tracey may believe that we can and should do entirely without such sacrifice or without the civic-religious, never merely rational love of country that both supports and is empowered by it. Whatever his personal feelings about or definitions of patriotism, he focuses scorn on any supposition that killing Bin Laden could constitute a sacred service to “all Americans,” to America as a nation – that, paraphrasing Biden, the act could provide a healing of America’s heart; that it could in closing a circle of justice also validate the President’s leadership all but irrefutably. In other words, what the bloody demagogy of the DNC effectively comprehends, and what Tracey seems to reject peremptorily, is what makes American democracy work to whatever extent it still does work, and not just work in the sense of “function,” but work for his fellow citizens as a source of shared meaning and collective identity. This national-political eros informs both halves of Biden’s trademark slogan. “Bin Laden dead/GM Alive” means or is supposed to mean that American national greatness is still alive under Obama’s leadership; Biden symbolically offers a piece of that greatness to all who choose to renew the faith: Under Obama, Biden is saying, Americans are still what made us who we are: Biden is asserting that Americans can still become who and what we are meant to be and want to be: He’s claiming that we really are the ones we were waiting for.
There is a difference between the messianic “we” of “we are the ones” and the more emphatically and traditionally nationalistic “we” of the re-election campaign, perhaps attributable to experience and great events as well as to the other side’s deranged attempt to brand the President an enemy alien. As for Tracey and those like him, they seem determined to refuse or even to flee this version of the patriotic call (or Call!), though how deep the resistance goes is unclear, and may not be knowable at all until some moment of irrevocable with-us or against-us decision. In the meantime, however important the refusal may seem to the one who refuses, a nation of 300 million can easily absorb a few or even quite a few objectors and all of their prayers or curses, or even take their duly noted protest votes as tribute.