Bullying and Obama's Politics of Appeasement

Today, the White House opened a conference on bullying, just in time for Peter King's assault on American Muslims, the Wisconsin Republican steamrolling of the democratic process, and Barack Obama's official capitulation to the dangerously autocratic, indefinite detention policies he once decried. Bullying is "not something we have to accept," the president declared at the anti-bullying conference, but, not surprisingly, his rhetoric is no reflection of his policies or negotiating style, from his endorsement of the Bush/Cheney war on civil liberty to his concessions on tax cuts for the super-rich. I don't doubt Obama's sincerity in urging us not to "accept" bullying. But in practice, he apparently regards it as "something we have to enable."

Liberals and progressives persist in urging him to use his bully pulpit, but they're speaking out of hope (more desperate than audacious), not experience. Present this president with a bully pulpit, and he'll use it to beseech us to just get along. By nature and instinct, Obama appears to be a mediator (as many have observed and as his first two years in office have suggested) and the penchant for compromise, the desire for bipartisanship (putting aside fantasies of post-partisanship) that might have made him a valuable senator, especially in ordinary times, have made him a disastrous president in an angry, hyper-partisan era when politics, as practiced by his Republican opposition (and personified by Chris Christie), is just another word for bullying.

But while Obama is Placater-in-Chief, he is not alone in trying to appease far-right Republicans. NPR, for example, responded to the latest O'Keefe sting by firing its president, Vivian Schiller. But, as Dan Kennedy has observed, while the NPR board may have had good reasons for firing her, the foolish hope of placating its right-wing opponents was not among them. House and Senate Democrats join Republicans in opposing civilian trials for detainees, among other war-on-terror measures (although, to be fair, they may be motivated by a sincere contempt for civil liberty as much as a desire to please Republicans).

The president, too many congressional Democrats, and other risk-averse institutions targeted by the far right (notably NPR) don't seem to have absorbed the obvious lessons of political, social, and organizational life: to defeat bullies you have to confront them with conviction, not cater to them in fear. Maybe the grade school and high school bullies who inspired today's White House conference can benefit from counseling, consciousness-raising, or lessons in empathy and compassion; maybe some were once victims of bullying instead of victimizers, whose grievances deserve to be heard. I'm generally agnostic about approaches to curbing bullying in schools (so long as they don't involve restrictions on various forms of "offensive" or "hurtful" speech or criminal prosecutions, except in extreme cases involving physical assaults or actual, repeated threats of violence). But adult bullies are not candidates for therapy or mediation: when they hit you hard you have to hit back harder (metaphorically speaking, of course) or risk being pulverized.

Consider the consequences of appeasing the anti-democratic anti-terror industry. Now that Democrats have committed to keeping Guantanamo open, now that the president has endorsed indefinite, no-trial detention, Republicans remain unappeased. TPM reports that House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon is working with Lindsey Graham and John McCain on legislation to strip the Justice Department of jurisdiction over detainees and leave their imprisonment, interrogation, and status reviews to the sole discretion of the Defense Department. They hope, perhaps not unrealistically, to draw bipartisan support for what can accurately be described as martial law (which, considering the military's extensive use of contractors and consultants, would be enforced partly by private agents utterly unaccountable to the public). If they succeed in passing this legislation and the president declines to veto it, and martial law is imposed on non-citizen terror suspects, will the autocrats be appeased? Don't bet your rights on it.