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Moraff '14: Lesser of two evils not that important


Everyone on campus currently being paid six figures to give political advice to President Barack Obama, raise your hand.

No one? Okay. Obama has a team of operatives older and richer than we are, dead inside though they may be. He pays them a whole lot of money to tell him what will hurt him politically and what will not. The very last thing that Barack Obama needs is a crack squad of unpaid political advisers proclaiming that any given position he might take would be "politically unwise" or some such thing.

But that's exactly what he has.

Mention that the president has continued many of the worst Bush-era civil rights policies and dollars to doughnuts — whatever that might mean — and a wise and pragmatic Brown student within earshot will wisely and pragmatically explain that no matter how much they might agree, we simply must understand that the president is doing his best, and that in today's political reality, we simply cannot expect ideological purity from our elected officials. Mention that the president's unabashedly nonsensical rhetoric on how government is like a family, a wise and pragmatic et cetera, et cetera.

This will often lead into someone pointing out that Obama is basically a good president — the best we have had in 50 years, maybe. Optional is a quick rundown of how crazy Michele Bachmann is and how much worse off we would be if she were president. If they are really into it, they will shake their head and sigh deeply.

The first problem is this assumes there is a mostly fixed political reality and our behavior should conform to that reality. But political realities are fluid. They come from somewhere. The president cannot, say, criticize Israel in any real way because he knows that an organized and determined group of people will stand up to him. American pro-Israel activists did not waste their time worrying about election silliness, and that is why political reality on Israel policy is what it is.     

Now it's obligatory concrete example time. In 1960, there was a presidential election between a candidate who was not particularly interested in civil rights and a candidate who was essentially Satan. Imagine if everyone involved in the civil rights struggle had accepted they would, for the time being, have to operate within that framework. Imagine if, whenever anyone criticized Kennedy, they had it pointed out to them that at least he wasn't Satan. We would have gotten nowhere because, as the next few years showed, that is not how one makes change in American society.

Our only job is to decide what we believe in and, if so inclined, to work for it. That is how political realities are going to shift. This work can take the form of supporting candidates in primary and general elections (sort of effective), talking to people (sort of effective when not annoying) and working within organizations and in our neighborhoods and all that good stuff (more effective). It is very much not our job to compare the status quo to Michele Bachmann before we do anything.

Secondly, we do not need to make a final judgment of Barack Obama. We are not deciding whether Obama gets into Judeo-Christian heaven or whether he gets to be our best pal at summer camp. He's a politician. He'll do some good things, some bad things, some terrible things and some things that are just okay. Good president, bad president, whatever — when he's wrong, he's wrong and should therefore be criticized and fought. Unless you view policy-making as one long presidential election, talking about Obama's overall performance is a massive non sequitur.

No one is saying to go vote for Ralph Nader. Well, some people are saying that. Sometimes you see them in magazines. But I am not saying that, because that misses the point. It's an election. If you think the strategic thing to do in that election to advance your agenda is to vote for Barack Obama, fine. Voting behavior in a presidential election is not the point, because it's not the main thing or the only thing that matters.

A few of us have very little idea of what effect our actions, in the end, will have. The rest of us have no idea. We are too young and too dumb. The only way to gain this kind of knowledge is omniscience. Barring that, the only way to possibly approach some rough idea of this kind of knowledge is through extensive study, even-headedness and bitter experience, which, being 20 years old and still relatively hormone-soaked, we do not have a whole lot of access to.

All we can know is, from labor rights to civil rights to women's rights, change happens when we work for what we believe in. The rest of it — the fortune-telling and political theorizing — is not particularly useful. It's intellectual wankery and a lousy substitute for actually fighting for something.



Daniel Moraff '14 is an urban studies concentrator from Lexington, Mass. He can be reached at



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