On Point: Nowhere man

 Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

It may well be that Vladimir Putin’s clever and opportunistic seizure of Crimea will stand as a turning point not only in world politics but in history’s evaluation of the Obama presidency.

I sense two local consequences of Putin’s brazen use of national might. One is enhancement of a spirit of despair and resignation in our elites, and the other is the end of the promise of the Obama presidency.

When we Americans come to realize that even our president is not up to events, we think more of our own inadequacies and become short-sighted and defensive. This does not auger well for our being capable of giving forth the leadership we need to reinvigorate our economy, resolve once and for all the achievement gap experienced by too many of our students, and overcome the pettiness of gridlock in our politics.

I caught a bit of President Barack Obama’s remarks on Crimea spoken in the White House press room. He looked more than ill at ease. He had very poor eye contact with the reporters and the TV camera. His shoulders were curved down and his head lowered. This was not the posture of a leader of the world, I felt. He looked like a man caught out and therefore not up to assuming responsibility.

Then I read Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal, wherein she offered this sharp critique of our president: “a secretly anxious professor who makes himself feel safe with the sound of his voice.”

But there was no speech on Crimea from the White House to the nation and the world.

Was Noonan right? This time, did the professor’s anxiety overcome the power of his words to reassure himself and the rest of us?

Remember past crises of national concern? Our presidents spoke out and provided learning and guidance. Kennedy on the discovery of Soviet Missiles in Cuba; Johnson on Vietnam; Nixon on China and Vietnam; Carter on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Reagan in Berlin; George H.W. Bush on Saddam’s invasion of Iraq; Clinton on the Oklahoma bombing; George W. Bush on 9/11.

Where was Obama’s speech on Crimea?

He had time to show up on the Ellen DeGeneres show.

A few days later I was driving my old car, which provides only for cassette tapes as entertainment. A Beatles tape was on and the song “Nowhere Man” came on. It was so appropriate I winced.

“He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody

“Doesn’t have a point of view. Knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

And there’s the link from our president to us — “isn’t he a bit like you and me” — feeling helpless and confused?

For a few years, John Lennon in particular had a killer instinct for the new zeitgeist coming into being with sensibilities of the Baby Boomers. Allen Ginsburg said the Beatles turned their Liverpudlian insecurities into a universal “center of consciousness.”

The Beatles’ metaphor of “nowhere man” was not just a lyric but an insight into what was coming. A new generation of wanderers with many hidden insecurities was coming into cultural power. They lived in a kind of “nowhere” land, cutting themselves off from tradition and their parents while not focusing on a future that was too much in the distance but much, much closer to the here and now. They were just sort of drifting with no enthusiasm for accepting responsibility.

Just so did the Beatles sing: “Nowhere Man, don’t worry. Take your time. Don’t hurry. Leave it all till somebody else lends you a hand.”

In 1950 Harvard sociologist David Riesman, in his once-famous book “The Lonely Crowd,” had called what the Beatles were to name as “Nowhere Man” an “other-directed” personality type. “Other directed” individuals, according to Riesman, were always checking whatever social media was readily at hand to be sure that they were in sync with their peers. They were always looking for “somebody” to lend them a hand and reassure them that all was OK. They were not, and really could not be, leaders for tough times.

And the times have now turned tough. Do President Obama and his national security team accept as fact that the tide of world affairs has swung toward power projection without benefit of law or ethics? If the world system has so turned, what are they going to do about it?

Will China now seize the rocky ocean isles it claims from Japan and push Japan to the brink of war? Will China seek to control passage of all ships through the South China Sea?

Who will bring Hafez Assad and other dictators to heel now?

Will any multilateral negotiations conducted under the aegis of norms such as human rights and human dignity, comity and mutuality, be successful in the future?

Is the world really sliding back to 19th and early 20th century power politics?

Faced with these questions and not having reassuring answers, I too feel a bit like a “Nowhere Man.”

The complex, confusing, cumbersome rigging of our health care system by the Affordable Care Act, out of touch with many personal preferences, is another instance of being in “nowhere land” where “nowhere plans are made for nobody.”

The combined but coincidental psychological impacts of Putin’s military sortie in Crimea and the misalignment of the Affordable Care Act with political realities, in retrospect, will set the high-water mark for the progressive elitism in politics that has animated the Democratic Party for five decades.

From here on out, it will be regression toward a more sensible norm.

“Obamacare” has demonstrated the hubristic overreach of “right-minded” intellectuals trying to convert private goods in health care to fully public goods rationed by the state for our benefit as they conceptualize what our benefits should be.

Assad’s unpunished use of chemical weapons on his own people and Putin’s unpunished flouting of Russia’s treaty obligations to Ukraine have demonstrated that diplomacy without the threat of effective force is a farce. A generation of progressive foreign policy advocates who bet the farm on high and good standards of post-Cold War decency in human relations and cooperation for the common good has been shown up as naïve.

It will be interesting to watch whether Hillary Clinton’s posturing for a possible presidential campaign in 2016 will morph to take account of these new realities. She and her husband Bill are very much of the “Nowhere Man” generation.

She was secretary of state for four years under the old rules of be nice and play nice. Will she now “discover” new insights about how to build a better world, one free from war and promoting just economic growth?

On the domestic side, will she agree to use more market mechanisms to align health care services cost effectively with personal needs? Will government programs or business-based job creation be her way forward to reduce income inequality?


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