When Presidents Get Bored

by Corey Robin on June 17, 2014

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.

Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places.

Usually abroad, in foreign wars and imperial exploits. As the British prepared to fight the Opium War, Tocqueville privately exulted, “I can only rejoice in the thought of the invasion of the Celestial Empire by a European War. So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!” Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of London, which threatened to diminish France’s role in the Middle East and aroused cries for war throughout France, Tocqueville wrote Mill that though he was wary of the rush to war, he thought it “even more dangerous” to “chime in with those who were loudly asking for peace, at any price.”

Or, if these action intellectuals look inward, it’s to the politics of reaction and counterrevolution. Thus, in 1848, Tocqueville was among the leading voices calling for the full suspension of civil liberties, welcoming talk of a “dictatorship” in order to preserve “the alienable right of Society to protect itself.” Whence the exhilaration? Whence the passion with which he defended a polity he had spent the better part of two decades denouncing? In his memoir of the Revolution of 1848, he offered an answer:

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.

Defending liberalism against radicalism, Tocqueville was given the chance to use illiberal means for liberal ends, and it’s not entirely clear whether it was the means or the ends that most stirred him.


There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.

(Recall the words of Christopher Hitchens after 9/11: “I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”)

Perhaps we have less to worry from Obama’s boredom. After all, he’s a writer and a politician who embraces—luxuriates in—moderation, skepticism, irony, and doubt. At least publicly.

Then again, so was Tocqueville.


So it turns that that Obama quote, with which I led off my post, is not in fact a direct quote from Obama, as the Financial Times had reported, but is instead a paraphrase, by one of Obama’s aides, of something Obama said. Slate‘s David Weigel has the whole story.



NomadUK 06.17.14 at 2:41 pm

Yeah, killing people by remote control is so boring…

Maybe someone needs to school Barack on the alternatives.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 06.17.14 at 3:00 pm

I think this was all the schooling President Obama needed.


Jacob McM 06.17.14 at 3:41 pm

Doesn’t this somewhat undermine your thesis that these yearnings for action and heroism are necessarily characteristic of the right? While I’ve no doubt that many reactionaries have expressed such sentiments, if these feelings are also found among a good number of liberals and radical leftists (there’s no shortage of Communists who were attracted to the movement for the adventure and romanticism it offered), then they might bespeak some deeper aspect of the human condition.


Corey Robin 06.17.14 at 3:51 pm

Jacob McM: Was waiting for someone to ask me *exactly* this question! My position isn’t that this sentiment is a right-wing sentiment. It’s that the argument that elevates this sentiment into a doctrinal position — usually in the form of a theory of decadence, tied to the weaknesses of a ruling class — is right-wing. In other words, as you say, the feeling or emotion of boredom, ennui, and the rest: these are probably universal features of the human condition. But the transformation or elevation of these feelings into a political philosophy: that’s the part that’s conservative. People have mistaken me for arguing that conservatives are somehow more prone to these feelings or I’m claiming that conservatives are personally motivated, psychologically, by these feelings. But again I’ve argued — unsuccessfully, I realize, judging by the confusion it’s created — that what’s distinctively conservative is the transformation of this experience into a political philosophy or ideology.


Anarcissie 06.17.14 at 4:18 pm

‘Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.’

I find there’s plenty of opportunity for trouble on the Left, but if through some accident, some gaffe, we ‘won’ instead of always losing, maybe things would become intolerably bland?


Corey Robin 06.17.14 at 4:29 pm

“But if through some accident, some gaffe, we ‘won’ instead of always losing, maybe things would become intolerably bland?”

As John Gray once said to me, the problem with Rawls’s Theory of Justice is that it is “a transcendental deduction of the Labour Party in 1963.”


n 06.17.14 at 4:54 pm

Indescribable what a letdown this man is, despite all efforts at cynicism. Some people still think the fight for (sorry, retreat from?) the remains of this society’s postwar way of life is an epochal affair. He can barely be bothered with it now unless a situation like ACA blows up on him. Oh and then there’s that imminent threat to civilization itself?


geo 06.17.14 at 5:25 pm

the problem with Rawls’s Theory of Justice is that it is “a transcendental deduction of the Labour Party in 1963

Why is that a problem? 1963 looks awfully good at the moment.


Opie Elvis 06.17.14 at 5:45 pm

Tyler Cowen has written that war spurs innovation. His latest in the NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/14/upshot/the-lack-of-major-wars-may-be-hurting-economic-growth.html. seems to follow along the same lines.
Isn’t this part of the whole man of action, lust for action that seemed to drive folks like TRoosevelt? Like a bored teenage boy they want movement and action and if that drive can’t be channeled in a positive way it can easily become destructive.
Early on Mr. Obama was compared with MLKjr a good bit. The difference I see is that Mr. Obama seems disengaged or separated most of the time. King could engage on the stirring rhetorical level but he also was a truly great organizer and seemed to passionately care for the details of tactics along with greater strategy. The president seems unwilling to engage at lower levels of strategy or tactics.


Phil 06.17.14 at 5:47 pm

+1 to geo. I’ll tell you about the country I grew up in some time, with its 33% income tax and its strike votes in canteens, footballers on a worker’s wage (with nothing on their shirts except stripes) and bus drivers employed by the local council. (Imagine that – you don’t cheek the bus driver because he works for the (local) government! And so does your Dad, most probably.) Stiflingly boring. Dreadfully predictable. Terribly safe.

I’d go back there tomorrow.

As for Tocqueville and Hitchens, you know who’s the middle term in the trifecta?

Go on, you do really.

Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. … Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

It is all very well to be “advanced” and “enlightened,” to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England? As I was brought up in this tradition myself I can recognise it under strange disguises, and also sympathise with it, for even at its stupidest and most sentimental it is a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia.


Corey Robin 06.17.14 at 5:58 pm

geo: Oh, I agree. Was just channeling this sensibility, which Anarcissie was pointing to, and giving it a face.


Dr. Hilarius 06.17.14 at 6:05 pm

Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (Revised) is a tool for the diagnosis of clinical psychopathy and prediction of criminal recidivism. (Question to client: “Why did you do it?” Client: “I was bored.”)

glib and superficial charm,
need for stimulation
pathological lying
cunning and manipulating,
lack of remorse
poor behavioral controls
parasitic lifestyle
sexual promiscuity
early behavior problems
lack of realistic long-term goals
failure to accept responsibility for own actions
many short-term marital relationships
juvenile delinquency
revocation of conditional release
criminal versatility


shah8 06.17.14 at 6:11 pm

You know…this is a lot more true of Bill and Hillary Clinton than it is for Obama, drone notwithstanding, who has consistently tried to make the world a bit more boring in a way that isn’t true of most of, if not all of his 20th and 21st century predecessors.


shah8 06.17.14 at 6:32 pm

You know, Edward Luce sets up his editorial so that he could kinda sock-puppet Obama’s quote with a different sensibility than what Obama probably meant.


Ronan(rf) 06.17.14 at 6:42 pm

re 1963, I’m not going to bother going into it,but this


although I dont really buy it all and is half bullshitty has some truth to it. Also I’d throw in a superpower rivalry with the potential to escalate to nuclear war, a part of Britain (Northern Ireland) about to decend into sectarian war (and the UK about to experience a decades long terrorist campaign) Obviously racism, homophobia and misogyny were FAR MORE prevelant in western countries at the time. Footballers might have made a working mans wage, but they could also generally look forward to a life of poverty post career (or at least a life of some hardship) People might have been mannerly, but they probably just knew their place, jobs might have had more security(or perhaps everyone just followed their fathers down the mines/into the factory, which wasn’t great either) I’d say some things were better, some things worse, depending on who you were and how honest your memory is. Most things are better today, I would say. Some obvious things worse.


LFC 06.17.14 at 6:59 pm

Phil @10: “the sand of the desert is sodden red” is a close paraphrase of a line from Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ (“play up play up and play the game”), but I have no idea who the author of that (rather stupid) passage you’ve quoted is.

As for Tyler Cowen (see comment @9), he would appear to be out of his ******* mind. I suppose I shd read the piece but i am not going waste the time, at least not rt now.


Rob in CT 06.17.14 at 7:14 pm

Well, not good form for the President of the US to whine about politics being boring. On the other hand, the truth of the situation is that the US political system is gridlocked, with one party holding the HoR and adopting a strategy of near-total obstruction. That party is expecting to make gains in the mid-terms, possibly gaining a Senate majority. Thus, the GOP isn’t going to change course (except, perhaps, go even harder Right, because of course they will). Obama has been using executive orders and other executive powers (EPA regs on coal power), but I can understand frustration and boredom setting in at some point. You still don’t whine about it in public (and as POTUS, just about everything is public) though.


between4walls 06.17.14 at 7:50 pm


The author is George Orwell.


DavidtheK 06.17.14 at 7:53 pm

Are we sure Pres. Obama is bored? This gentleman sounds suspiciously like on of Ron Fournier’s dinner companions. This post may be a good evaluation of de Toqueville’s philosophy and perhaps a general discourse in political psychology – but about the current President – perhaps not so much.


Igor Belanov 06.17.14 at 8:01 pm


I suspect Phil was quoting Orwell.


bob mcmanus 06.17.14 at 8:22 pm

Long address, I hope the link works:2nd hit on 1st line of blockquote in 10

Google Books

A Review of the 1940 edition of Mein Kampf by George Orwell


geo 06.17.14 at 8:56 pm

Ronan @15: Most things are better today, I would say

You may be right. But John Gray @6 seems to have had in mind distributive justice, which is mainly (though of course not entirely) what Rawls’s theory is about, and suggesting that the greater equality and security Rawls argued for would, if achieved, be kind of dull. At least that was the point of my bon mot, which may, like most intended witticisms, have simplified matters somewhat.

Fascinating Orwell quote @10. Undoubtedly people do “at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.” But why look to “patriotism and the military virtues” to satisfy that need? Why wouldn’t struggling with problems in number theory or novel-writing, and sacrificing oneself to the cause of providing literacy, clean water, sanitation, mosquito nets, simple pharmaceuticals, inexpensive cleft palate or vaginal fistula repair, etc to the hundreds of millions of people who lack these things, be enough? Must the struggle and sacrifice involve violence? Must a soci*list utopia be dull?


Ronan(rf) 06.17.14 at 9:28 pm

My apologies geo, I guess I was just using it as an opportunity to jump on my favourite hobby horse.


The Temporary Name 06.17.14 at 9:44 pm

Must a soci*list utopia be dull?

World Cup is on. People can have those struggles relatively harmlessly.


LFC 06.17.14 at 9:49 pm

Thank you to everyone, above, who informed me it was Orwell (and to mcmanus for the link).


LFC 06.17.14 at 9:59 pm

the cause of providing literacy, clean water, sanitation, mosquito nets, simple pharmaceuticals, … etc to the hundreds of millions of people who lack these things

This is actually a question of basic human rights. Esp. timely as the Millennium Dev. Goals are coming due in 2015. (Jon Mandle had a post here a while ago related to this.)


Bruce Wilder 06.17.14 at 10:13 pm

It’s not the nature of social institutions to seek, let alone find, a stable equilibrium, though there may be periods when forward motion imparts a kind of gyroscopic stability from repetitious reproduction of forms. Add in a bit of incremental progress, and an impulse toward complacency may well re-assure itself, even while stripping out any sense of agency. A certain cast of mind really does want to retire from understanding the world, even or especially when the world seems to work reasonably well (at least for one’s self and one’s own) and to resist the prophetic voices whining away in criticism. Ah, how pleasant seems the end of history, at first. But, the same cast of mind that greets the end of history will soon find itself thinking, “this time is different” in the next heady boom, and excitedly cheering a farce, that echoes some past glory.

It’s a sequence of events, a cycle, an anacyclosis. And, I think people do sometimes struggle and sacrifice themselves, in pursuit of literacy, clean water, problems in number theory, or novel-writing, but always with a consciousness of doing so as a social movement and for or against institutions. It’s what the Impressionists were doing, and Klimt and the Vienna Secession, no? Sometimes, it is comical, like the example recently given, of Schoenberg catching WWI patriotic fever and apparently imagining that the invasion of Belgium had something to do with atonality, as a wit on these boards had it. Think of all the “Young XXXX” so popular in the 19th century: Young Turks have the honor of becoming a cliche, but manifest destiny was the doctrine of a Young America movement, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a conspiracy that encompassed at least one representative of Young Bosnia, etc.

I was struck by the irony in Corey Robin’s claim, what’s distinctively conservative is the transformation of this experience into a political philosophy or ideology with an example from 1848, when socialism was at least as infatuated with a prospective do-over of the French Revolution as the Right (though, of course, what the Right had in mind was more a second coming of the Man on Horseback than a new declaration of the Rights of Man). If Marxism isn’t attempting to transform the heady experience of “world-historical” rebirth in political struggle and revolution, into an ideology, what example could we adduce?

We do get carried along . . . and away. All of us. Life and Times, writes the biographer of great men, but it could be said of lesser mortals, as well.

Prophets, who engage in the slow boring of hard boards, often don’t get to enter the promised land. It’s a consequence of history paced by generational change.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the international system built around American hegemony is coming apart, the New Deal economy has expired, and a new institutional order, domestically and internationally is being birthed. The potential for violence is in the coming apart, and the difficulty in seeing the future without the familiar frames of the past in place.

1848 for a lot of people without literary pretension or political ideas was about desperation and hunger, and the stubborn callousness of the well-fed and in-charge to take responsibility for seeing that common people had enough to eat. The institutions of the haute bourgeois July Monarchy really did become decrepit very rapidly — I don’t know the details of Tocqueville’s role as a legislator, or how his satisfaction related to the general inability or unwillingness to adapt. I don’t recall anyone, in imitation of Louis XIV, melting his dinner service to buy grain for the populace.

It isn’t just that reactionaries or conservatives get carried away with the drama of the times — we all do that — it’s that they can do so with so little awareness of how, in their defining hypocrisies, they irresponsibly create the suffering and desperation they turn around and label as great evils. What is at base, rank incompetence is held to be honorable and principled. Watching Iraq come apart one can wonder at the people, who would repeat the Bush debacle, or, from a distance, wonder at the forebearance shown populations suffering the administration of the Euro, or . . . the list of headlines from any given week now is incredibly long.


Harold 06.17.14 at 10:49 pm

Because in a private letter he exclaimed that he found the work of legislation taxing and bourgeois, we may know that de Tocqueville only very superficially and insincerely a liberal. At the bottom in his inmost heart of hearts: his *real*, “essentialist” self, lurked an evil, reactionary aristo, who would doubtless have preferred running orphans over with his carriage and his enemies through with his sword, in the penetrating analysis of Corey Robin.


Lee A. Arnold 06.17.14 at 11:22 pm

I would think that foreign exploits have livened things up a bit. The military gains by the ISIL in Iraq could signal the final end of Sykes-Picot and crack Iraq into three: Kurd, Sunni, Shi’ite. Since al Maliki kicked the U.S. out and is as thirsty for tribal bloodletting as anyone could be, then in place of dealing with him, the U.S. might effect a rapprochement with Iran. I would say thing are getting very interesting.


floopmeister 06.18.14 at 12:45 am

Yeah, it’s enjoyable reading Nietszche as stumalting thought experiment and and invitation to question sacred cows, but it’s less edifying to hear such thoughts expressed by rulers and military commanders:

What they would fain attain with all their strength, is the universal, green-meadow happiness of the herd, together with security, safety, comfort, and alleviation of life for every one, their two most frequently chanted songs and doctrines are called “Equality of Rights” and “Sympathy with All Sufferers” – and suffering itself is looked upon by them as something which must be DONE AWAY WITH. We opposite ones, however, who have opened our eye and conscience to the question how and where the plant “man” has hitherto grown most vigorously, believe that this has always taken place under the opposite conditions, that for this end the dangerousness of his situation had to be increased enormously, his inventive faculty and dissembling power (his “spirit”) had to develop into subtlety and daring under long oppression and compulsion, and his Will to Life had to be increased to the unconditioned Will to Power – we believe that severity, violence, slavery, danger in the street and in the heart, secrecy, stoicism, tempter’s art and devilry of every kind, – that everything wicked, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and serpentine in man, serves as well for the elevation of the human species as its opposite… Beyond Good and Evil, chap 2, 44

Which is all well and good when you sit in the corner office and others deal with the …severity, violence, slavery, danger in the street and in the heart, secrecy… everything wicked, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and serpentine in man….

Then it is indeed ‘invigorating’ for the spirit of man (or your spirit, at least…).


bob mcmanus 06.18.14 at 1:54 am

30: Caprioni: “The dream of aviation is cursed, but what would you choose – a world with pyramids or one without?”
Jiro: (Pause) With pyramids.

But we like Miyazaki, huh. Oh, that movie is easily as feelthy dark as Nietzsche, if not worse. All the horrors of the age are there in the corners of the frame, everyone of them.

Jiro tells his wife near the end of the movie: “But the rising wind also brought you to me.”

Well, yeah. darling cute meet on the train, wind blows off Jiro’s hat and Naoko leans out and catches it. Then they quote Valery to each other.

That wind that blows off Jiro’s hat? Generated by the 1923 earthquake.

Ain’t a single one of us not standing on a mountain of skulls. Not one.


LFC 06.18.14 at 2:04 am

Re the OP:
I don’t sense all that much affinity betw. Obama and those whom Teddy White (I had forgotten or not known he was the originator of the phrase) called ‘action intellectuals’. The Kennedy admin’s inner circle to some extent made a fetish of masculinity and toughness, as these things were seen c.1960. Roughly a half-century has passed since the New Frontier; a good deal has changed in the culture. I don’t think Obama’s foreign-policy decisions, whatever one thinks about them on the merits (and I disagree pretty sharply w some), have been esp. driven by a sense that he has to prove his ‘toughness’.

Re Corey R.’s comment @4: I have not read all of The Reactionary Mind but I have read some of it, and istm the last essay in the bk in particular (and I note btw that one of the quotes from Tocqueville in the OP is also there, on p.236 — in fact most all the stuff about T. is on pp.235-36) is very much an argument about psychology, at least w/r/t T. The distinctively conservative thing may be the theory about decadent ruling classes supposedly needing to be revivified by violence, but the stuff about T. is individual psychology:

He welcomed talk of a dictatorship — to protect the very regime he had spent the better part of two decades disparaging. And he loved it all: the violence, the counterviolence, the battle. (p.236)


Publicly presenting himself as the consummate realist,… Tocqueville was actually a closet romantic.(p.235)

But is there really any evidence that Obama shares T’s “romanticism”? That the two experiences of “boredom” in question are comparable? Istm this puts more weight on a short quote from one newspaper column than it can really carry. But the OP ends on a somewhat ambiguous or ambivalent or uncertain note, so perhaps this is implicitly being acknowledged.


LFC 06.18.14 at 2:17 am

Also one other thing:

[Tocqueville’s] drift from the moderation of the July Monarchy to the revanchism of 1848 demonstrates how easily and inexorably the Burkean conservative will swing from the beautiful to the sublime, how the music of prudence and moderation gives way to the march of violence and vitriol. (pp.234-35)

Granting (for the sake of argument) that T. was a Burkean conservative, Obama is not.


Harold 06.18.14 at 2:26 am

Is a Burkean conservative the same as a De Maistre reactionary?


john c. halasz 06.18.14 at 2:46 am


Yes. Haven’t you been studying your lesson book?


Keith Ivey 06.18.14 at 2:55 am

Dave Weigel wrote about that Obama quote which is not a quote.


Corey Robin 06.18.14 at 2:59 am

LFC at 32: “I have not read all of The Reactionary Mind but I have read some of it, and istm the last essay in the bk in particular (and I note btw that one of the quotes from Tocqueville in the OP is also there, on p.236 — in fact most all the stuff about T. is on pp.235-36) is very much an argument about psychology, at least w/r/t T. The distinctively conservative thing may be the theory about decadent ruling classes supposedly needing to be revivified by violence, but the stuff about T. is individual psychology:…”

Right. To say that my argument is that conservatism elevates and transforms this experience into a distinctive philosophy is NOT to say that conservatives (like liberals or leftists) don’t also have this experience.

Also: “But the OP ends on a somewhat ambiguous or ambivalent or uncertain note.”



Harold 06.18.14 at 3:47 am

I think Obama is *exactly* like de Tocqueville.


Corey Robin 06.18.14 at 3:58 am


LFC 06.18.14 at 3:59 am

Thks for the reply, Corey.

Ok, I can’t resist this slightly irrelevant-trivial-whatever aside, b.c it just occurred to me, and then I’m out of here: One of Obama’s teachers at Occidental College, whom he has entertained as a guest at the White House, was Roger Boesche (I hope I’ve remembered the correct spelling of his name), who happens to be a scholar of [wait for it] Tocqueville.


Corey Robin 06.18.14 at 4:06 am

LFC: Not only that: He also edited an edition of Tocqueville’s letters, which I quote at length in my first book (and somewhat here), and he wrote one of the best studies ever of Tocqueville, *The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville*.


Meredith 06.18.14 at 6:01 am

Tonight’s dinner, like last night’s, was disrupted by the need to get the dinner on the table at an odd hour for yet another school committee meeting my husband needed to attend (as a member of said committee). I’m a reactionary, I guess: we joke (is it a joke?) that if he were to sign the papers to run for still another term on that committee, he’d also be signing divorce papers.

Hard to say when a person’s sense of life as family and friends, and of him or herself as a brief dot with consciousness that counts in the world just for breathing in and out, finds itself in conflict with the communal endeavors supporting those relationships and that sense of personal integrity and adventure (I am here! I enjoy ice cream with my children!). I kinda hear in Obama’s (alleged) boredom a longing for life as lived by actual people, for his own life, his children’s, his wife’s. Yes, in his position he holds much power over the larger framework for their lives, others’ (others’ = like, the world’s). But to lose contact with the quotidian, to pretend you’re not bored by another discussion of some communal problem whose solution requires endless maneuvering, when you could be enjoying ice cream with your children or a nice dinner with your wife….

Seems to me a healthy response, Obama’s (and others’, even Bush 2’s).


Phil 06.18.14 at 9:26 am

Yes, my quotes were from good old St George. I was looking for the “England my England” passage & found it on Wikiquote; the Hitler passage was just above it so I took that as well. (I was really looking for a late-1939 letter from GO to the anarchist Herbert Read in which GO explains that he’s suddenly realised that patriotism takes priority after all – I suppose I could find it in print, but my CEJL is upstairs.)

Bruce –

I think people do sometimes struggle and sacrifice themselves, in pursuit of literacy, clean water, problems in number theory, or novel-writing, but always with a consciousness of doing so as a social movement and for or against institutions.

The interesting thing about Orwell, sticking with him for the moment, is that he was well aware that people thought like this and he hated it – people talking about “the struggle” and meaning the struggle for soc*alism fell under the heading of “the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia”. (I may pursue this at greater length on my own blog – don’t close this thread!)

Ronan(rf) – I’m not qualified to talk about global trends, but on the domestic scale what you’re describing is the triumph of liberal individualism. Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft – everything, including collective identities articulated in terms of ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, class. One person’s as good as another, if they can prove it; one product’s as good as another, or it isn’t (buyer beware); one employment contract’s just as bad as another (or it’s not, and we denounce it as an unfair advantage). We spend our lives competing and shopping around, to an extent which would have struck our parents and grandparents as insane – but we don’t fight, because what is there to fight about?


Barry 06.18.14 at 12:01 pm

In terms of people wanting danger, violence, etc., it should be noted that the Nazi Party scored very, very low in German elections until the Great Depression hit. At that point, most people had little chance of that stultifying prosperity and safety. They were in danger, and voted for the parties which preached satisfying answers to that danger.


MPAVictoria 06.18.14 at 1:51 pm

That was really well put Meredith.


bob mcmanus 06.18.14 at 2:23 pm

Wiki: Contemporary society generally views the family as a haven from the world, supplying absolute fulfillment. Zinn and Eitzen discuss the image of the “family as haven […] a place of intimacy, love and trust where individuals may escape the competition of dehumanizing forces in modern society”.[25] During industrialization, “[t]he family as a repository of warmth and tenderness (embodied by the mother) stands in opposition to the competitive and aggressive world of commerce (embodied by the father). The family’s task was to protect against the outside world.”

42: Wiki: Family Model and Fascism

Also, the romance of the quotidian and associated devaluation of civil society and collectivism was definitely a constructed functional ideology of modernist capitalism, Fordism, Taylorism, fascism and state capitalism. Divorce rate going down among managerial class while bowling leagues and fraternal service organizations disappear.


William Timberman 06.18.14 at 2:36 pm

Well, one sees Nietzsche’s point, and Orwell’s. Or bob mcmanus’ grim parsing of et in Arcadia ego, for that matter. But still…. Do we really need a psychoanalyst to tell us that war and the lesser mayhems are forms of bad sex — sex reduced to an infantile vampirism as intense, and as fruitless as, say, pedophilia?

We all live in the shadow of our own mortality, and so, for better or worse, we’re always on the move — the willing drudge is a rarer creature, I think, than literature sometimes pretends. I don’t find it all that strange that Meredith’s peaceable kingdom has a worm or two in it, or that the boredom of wrestling day after day with recalcitrant things and people can tend to make frustrated libertarians of even the most steadfast of us. The eternal, however, doesn’t come to us in the guise of endless days spent looking out over the meadow with a glass of wine in our hands. Goethe was right: Verweile doch, du bist so schön is an invitation to the devil.


James Wimberley 06.18.14 at 3:32 pm

Nobody has brought up de Tocquevuille on Algeria. A slightly kinder, gentler, profit-maximizing colonialism. It would have been an improvement on the methods of “le père Bugeaud”, but that’ s not saying much.


Harold 06.18.14 at 3:35 pm

Who are you, lady? And how do you know my name?’

‘I am Pallas Athené; and I know the thoughts of all men’s hearts, and discern their manhood or their baseness. And from the souls of clay I turn away, and they are blest, but not by me. They fatten at ease, like sheep in the pasture, and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground; but, like the gourd, they give no shade to the traveller, and when they are ripe death gathers them, and they go down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.

‘But to the souls of fire I give more fire, and to those who are manful I give a might more than man’s. These are the heroes, the sons of the Immortals, who are blest, but not like the souls of clay. For I drive them forth by strange paths, Perseus, that they may fight the Titans and the monsters, the enemies of Gods and men. Through doubt and need, danger and battle, I drive them; and some of them are slain in the flower of youth, no man knows when or where; and some of them win noble names, and a fair and green old age; but what will be their latter end I know not, and none, save Zeus, the father of Gods and men. Tell me now, Perseus, which of these two sorts of men seem to you more blest?’

Then Perseus answered boldly: ‘Better to die in the flower of youth, on the chance of winning a noble name, than to live at ease like the sheep, and die unloved and unrenowned.’

Then that strange lady laughed, and held up her brazen shield… —Charles Kingsley, The Heroes (1856)


Harold 06.18.14 at 3:47 pm

“Che Fece …. Il Gran Rifiuto”
For some among us there comes up a day
when either the great Yea or the great Nay
must needs be spoken. He who has the Yea

ready within him, straightway stands revealed
and, giving it utterance, passes to his field
of self-expression. He who did not yield

assent, never repents. If Nay or Yea
were asked again, he would repeat his Nay,
though that right word afflicts him night and day.
Translated by John Cavafy

(Poems by C. P. Cavafy. Translated, from the Greek, by J. C. Cavafy. Ikaros, 2003)
[1889, 1901]
The Great Refusal.
On another site I found this note:
“The title is from Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3.60: “After I had recognized some of them,
I saw and knew the shame of him who
through cowardice [viltà], made the great refusal”

The poem refers to Celestine V, who became pope in 1294 and abdicated five months later, saying the great ‘No.’ Dante sees this as an act of cowardice, Cavafy as one of honor.”

Benedict was thus the second Pope to resign from his office.

“Say not the struggle naught availeth …” [or not]


NomadUK 06.18.14 at 5:51 pm

Okay, so, here you go.

(Everything I need to know in life I learned by watching Star Trek.)


Doug Weinfield 06.18.14 at 6:33 pm

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I’d be worried if Obama didn’t get bored. Set aside that I find Obama hugely disappointing (as well as bearing some significant accomplishments). Set aside that Obama didn’t say that he’s bored (as per the link above).

Obama obviously had much bigger goals in mind, yet he is stymied by the the degenerated state of political affairs, largely driven by the Republicans/conservatives/tea partiers and their various large-money backers. He’s had to deal with two ill-conceived and horrendously executed wars.

I can fault Obama on many counts, but boredom? I fart in your general direction.


novakant 06.18.14 at 7:05 pm

Politics is inherently boring, full of boring people – does anybody doubt that?

Also we shouldn’t forget about the dinners themselves. Of course it’s more fun to hang out with your favourite celebrities discussing art, life and whathaveyou.


Phil 06.18.14 at 8:05 pm

Turns out I imagined the Orwell/Read letter (there are two, but both from when Orwell was still in his immediately-pre-war revolutionary defeatist stage). I’ll keep digging.


roy belmont 06.18.14 at 9:21 pm

McManus @ 31:

As in most formal serious situations, footwear is key here.


DaveL 06.19.14 at 12:13 am

Politics is only intermittently non-boring. Even totalitarian politics is boring in a modern bureaucratic state. So, people who are running for President (much less the local Board of Selectmen) should know this before they start, and expect it to be the case. My guess is Obama expected it; he has his faults but he is not stupid. He likes to play golf, which is also boring but at least you don’t have to spend your life in meetings.

Only journalists and novelists think politics is exciting.


Peter T 06.19.14 at 5:04 am

Ze’ev Sternhell notes the connection between fascism and syndicalism. The latter certainly emphasised action for its own sake, and has at least one serious political theorist (Sorel). It’s a bit hard to place on the left/right spectrum: syndicalism merged with fascism in Italy, but IIRC sided with the republican cause in Spain. George Bush in a flight suit reminded me of JP Taylor’s encapsulation of Italian fascism: a photo entitled “Cabinet Minister Jumping Motorcycle Through Hoop of Flame”.

More broadly, the dangers of frustrated boredom should not be underestimated. A few decades of high and constant levels of political struggle over every small thing led both elites and masses to see war as at least a relief in 1914.


bob mcmanus 06.19.14 at 5:31 am

57: “syndicalism merged with fascism in Italy”


Italy 1920

Yet, trouble was not long in coming. In November the Perrone brothers were the first big businessmen to start pouring funds into Mussolini’s fascist groups, which began to mushroom into a mass movement at this time, enrolling 300,000 people during the first six months of 1921. Two years of constant strikes, of sitting on the edge of revolution, had provoked anger and fear among the professional and property-owning strata, the small business class and lower-level officials in government and industry. It was mainly from these strata of the population that Mussolini was gaining recruits. As the funds poured into Mussolini’s coffers, he was able to provide the fascist squads with vehicles and other equipment, which facilitated rapid strikes against the labor movement, so-called “punitive expeditions” that terrorized whole communities. (See the article “Mussolini & Syndicalism” )

Mussolini was an opportunist whose motivation was that of making his own personal mark on history. The weaknesses of Italian socialism and the nationalist fervor during World War I convinced him that nationalism was a more promising vehicle for his personal ambitions.

Nonetheless, Mussolini got very little support from the working class for his new patriotic, pro-war position. Working people in Italy had seen too many instances of troops and cops being used to repress workers struggles to identify the military as “theirs.” However, Mussolini did succeed in convincing the main leadership of the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) of his patriotic position by early 1915. At the USI’s congress in 1915, its general secretary, Alceste de Ambris, and other leaders such as Filippo Corridoni, tried to sway the organization into a pro-war position. It is this event that gave rise to the myth of syndicalist support for Mussolini.

However, Armando Borghi and other anarcho-syndicalists were able to win the debate and the overwhelming majority of USI members rejected the arguments of the pro-war faction, who were only able to break out a few thousand members of USI to set up a new nationalist union, the Italian Labor Union (UIL). Mussolini’s movement was mostly not built from within the working class, where anti-militarist sentiment was deeply rooted.

An employers offensive began to take shape in February of 1921 with wholesale dismissals and attacks on the shop stewards’ movement. In April of 1921, taking advantage of the new economic and political situation, the heads of Fiat demanded that the shop councils confine their activity to non-working hours — the same demand that had precipitated the Turin general strike the previous April. Once again troops flooded into the factories and the workers were locked out.

But this time the strike/lockout took place under the worst possible conditions — with high unemployment, widespread disillusionment and with union halls and leftwing newspaper offices being sacked and burned by fascists all over northern Italy. The shop stewards eventually threw in the towel and the workforce returned to the factories in May.

A mass mobilization by the USI defeated an attempted fascist attack on Parma in early 1921 but this was the exception as the fascist onslaught built up throughout the year. Leftwing and union organizations were often forced into a semi-underground existence, as local police and army personnel cooperated, more or less openly, with the fascist groups. Local authorities would routinely grant gun permits to fascists and just as routinely deny them to socialists. Nonetheless, the Socialist Party leadership still insisted upon a legalistic approach. “Call the police!” was their response to a fascist attack. Eventually groups of socialists began to form Arditi del Popolo — a people’s militia — for self-defense. But it was “too little, too late.”

I can come back to this after some re-reading, but Mussolini had a ton of personal charisma and credibility, and shocked the Italian Socialist community by changing to support for the war. He basically split off and took control of the reformist parliamentarian wing of Italian Socialism, merged with Christian Democrats, and immediately attacked the radicals and syndicalists. Kinda like if the Mensheviks had merged with Kerensky, and Lenin/Trotsky weren’t around. And the terror of Bolshevism was his best tool.

So, again, roots of fascism are in bourgeois liberalism and middle-class nationalism.


Meredith 06.19.14 at 5:47 am

William T, yes, this is a concern, Verweile doch, du bist so schön. (Ah, Helen!) Which is why the dinner is on the table at an odd and inconvenient hour.

Peter T, “More broadly, the dangers of frustrated boredom should not be underestimated.” Of course not. Which is why the dinner is on the table at an odd and inconvenient hour.

But what is it all about, in the end? Surely, in part at least, the pleasures of that dinner? (Not a libertarian position, I think. Something else.)


Harold 06.19.14 at 6:05 am

The Church got right behind Mussolini. They had never endorsed Italian unification and parliamentary democracy. http://www.npr.org/2014/01/27/265794658/pope-and-mussolini-tells-the-secret-history-of-fascism-and-the-church

Here are your reactionaries.


Peter T 06.19.14 at 7:00 am


Thanks for the correction.


bob mcmanus 06.19.14 at 11:10 am

61: No problem. There is more to the story involving Sorel and Pareto and their critiques of capitalism, but let’s just say European intellectuals were grabbing at lifelines in the chaos 1918-1922. With the exceptions of Britain and Red Vienna for a while, labor pretty much got stomped. (Scandanavia?)

2) The last line of 58 was just tendentious and premature. The coalitions that moved toward fascism are described better in the blockquote: petty bourgeois, disaffected veterans, social democrats frightened of Bolshevism, industrial and financial interests, etc.

3) Besides Gramsci studies, two books on Italy I liked recently were Richard Drake’s Apostles and Agitators which covers Italian revolutionaries up to WW II and isn’t a hard read, and Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven which goes from WW II thru the 80s and is fairly dense with theoretical Marxism (who and how to organize). I also have on my to read list two histories of the autonomists, a book on the Futurists, another book on Italian intellectual fascists, and biographies of Mussolini and Togliatti. And a shelf of early Negri.


Adam Hammond 06.19.14 at 5:03 pm

We got saddled with the likes of GWB and governor Hulk Hogan as a result of the complacency that sets in when things are relatively comfortable and (apparently) stable. It is not just leaders that get bored.

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