Barack Obama’s Inauguration was chock-full of pomp and circumstance, a first-class spectacle, enough to impress the masses. But underneath the glitter, we find the same old rust of an utterly corrupt and criminal status quo.
Left Reflections on Barack Obama’s Not-So Non-Ideological Inaugural Address
By Paul Street | January 24, 2009 | [print_link]
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Set thine house in order
– 2 Kings, chapter 20, verse
The Obama administration makes a very big point of claiming to be above and beyond “ideology.” It’s all about the “pragmatic” goal of “getting things done” with no particular “ideological” axe to grind.
“Ideological” approaches and divisions are from the dysfunctional bad old days, before the new president wiped the slate clean and started History anew.
Like his previous famous speeches , however, Barack Obama’s somewhat leaden Inaugural Address last Tuesday was chock full of, well, ideology. It was loaded with customary bourgeois, nationalist and imperial canon and colored by the power elite’s standard crackpot history, suggesting that The One is another ruling class politician.
Let’s take a closer look at Obama’s latest grand oration.
BUSH’S “SERVICE TO OUR NATION”
Those who still cling to Obama’s “change you can believe in” campaign promise are in for a serious disappointment as Obama’s policy moves define imperial continuity instead of a shift from business as usual. In that sense, although Bush left town, the plutocracy he so flamboyantly represented remains in safe hands.
Obama started by thanking ex-President George W. Bush “for his service to our nation.” I doubt there was any way for Obama to avoid this, but the fact remains that George Bush II was and remains an especially egregious arch-offender. He viciously exploited 9/11 to greatly further the upward concentration of wealth and power and to shred civil liberties at home and abroad. He launched a monumentally illegal and immoral war of aggression on thoroughly false and concocted pretexts.
It is a great disgrace that the Congress in which Obama served did not act on their constitutional duty to have impeached and removed Bush and Dick Cheney for crimes against humanity, international law, and U.S. law.
Obama’s expressed reluctance to investigate and prosecute the Bush administration’s transgressions is applauded by dominant media as an example of his desire to “heal the nation” and “look forward, not backwards.” But it does not bode well for his responsible utilization of the imperial presidency’s awesome powers. At the same time, meaningful healing and reconciliation require acknowledgement of – and real consequences for – terrible crimes.
“THE IDEALS OF OUR FOREBEARS”
In times of crisis, Obama said, “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.”
Not really. A vast literature and empirical record shows that “our” founders and their documents were quite explicitly authoritarian. They were harshly classist (as well as racist and sexist) on the whole, deeply convinced (in accord with the dominant bourgeois-republican ideology of their time) that the poor and property-less majority posed grave threats to civilized order and good government. The early American Republic ‘s well-propertied architects (many of whom were slave owners) believed that, as John Jay put it, the people who own the country should run it. They set up an elaborate constitutional mechanism to keep popular governance and the “rabble” (the majority of the citizenry) at bay. Real democracy was the Founding Fathers’ worst nightmare.
Peoples’ movements – the labor movement, the abolitionist movement, the farmers’ movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the peace movement, for example – subsequently enriched, expanded and (really) created American democracy from the bottom up.
“OUR NATION IS AT WAR”
“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” Obama said. “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”
Where’s the “war?” It’s in Iraq , Afghanistan , and (most recently) Gaza. And it’s a very one-sided imperial and U.S.-imposed affair. Its main victims are civilian Arabs, Pashtuns, and (more broadly) Muslims who have done nothing to the American people.
It’s not over here. “At war” Americans aren’t dodging IEDS and sniper fire and F-16s and Blackhawk Attack Helicopters on their way to work, school, and shopping center. They haven’t been displaced from their homes like millions of Iraqis. They have been encouraged to carry on with private lives of work, family, entertainment, and mass consumerism while U.S.military masters conduct wars of occupation without meaningful popular consultation.
Just a small and disproportionately working-class share of the U.S. population provides soldiers for the nation’s bloody colonial wars through the “All Volunteer” Armed Forces. If the U.S. government tried to make military “service” mandatory for young adults across the socioeconomic spectrum it would encounter considerable popular resistance.
The “far-reaching network of [Islamic] violence and hatred” is largely a U.S. creation. It is critically fueled (and was in fact originally financed) by the United States’longstanding petro-imperial presence in the oil-rich Middle East – a presence that is intimately related back to the mass consumerism that induces Americans to devour global resources on a spectacular scale. As far as much of the world – the Muslim world especially – is concerned (with good reason), the U.S. military (replete with more than 730 bases located across more than 130 countries) constitutes the planet’s leading “far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”
“OUR COLLECTIVE FAILURE”
“Our economy is badly weakened,” Obama said, “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
This statement evades the special agency and culpability of the financial elite. Of course all citizens should work to create “a new [economic] age.” But it shades into vicious victim-blaming to suggest that the country’s broadf populace shares equal responsibility with the investor class for the nation’s dire economic straits. The U.S. working- and lower-class majority possesses less than negligible power when it comes to the the direction, of “our [corporate-managed state-capitalist] economy,” in which the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and 57 percent of all claims on wealth.
OUR WONDERFUL “FREE MARKET CAPITALISM” AT WORK
“Homes have been lost;” Obama whined on Tuesday, “jobs shed; businesses shuttered.”
Has the “progressive” and highly educated and intelligent young president (recently praised by left-liberal journalist John Nichols for “know[ing] not just the rough outlines of the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda, but the specifics”)  studied the history and nature of the profits system — of the so-called “free market capitalism” he repeatedly aligned himself with during the presidential campaign and in his 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope?“
If he has then surely he knows that capitalism does all this and more (worse) over and over again. It sheds and shreds jobs, people, communities, livable ecology, and democracy by its very essence, militantly opposed to human need and social health. It’s the nature of the beast.
MISSING DEEPER POINTS ON HEALTH CARE
“Our health care,” Obama added, “is too costly.” But whose health care, exactly, is too dear? America’s 2.5 million millionaires and the rest of the nation’s rich easily afford the best medical services ever while more than 47 million Americans lack basic medical coverage and hundreds of millions struggle with (yes) overly expensive (and often inadequate) care.
The deeper problems are that “our health care” is too corporate, too private, too commodified, and too unequal. It is absurdly allotted primarily through the job market, making it a major contributor to both unemployment and overwork. It is placed under the cost-fueling control of bloated private insurance companies Obama to whom has pledged a powerful “seat at the table” of “health care reform.”
High quality health care can and should be provided for free to all on an equal basis by the government. Reflecting his deep corporate captivity, Obama refuses to advance the most effective democratic and cost-saving health care solution: single-payer national insurance.
“UNITY” OVER “CONFLICT AND DISCORD”
“On this day,” Obama said last Tuesday, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
Citizens beware! The elevation of “unity” over “conflict and discord” is rife with authoritarian meaning. Democracy brings “conflict and discord.” Those who believe in popular and participatory governance should hardly welcome neo-Bonapartist rulers who claim to rise above supposedly harmful “ideological” and partisan divisions to abolish “discord and conflict,” inducing (ex-) citizens to close their mouths and minds.
“On this day,” the new president elaborated, “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
More democratic danger here. Obama did not specify precisely what he meant by “recriminations” and “worn out dogmas.” Still, we can safely conclude from his past rhetorical record that he includes “radical” and “Marxist” notions of a core conflict between the working and lower-class Many on one hand and the rich and powerful Few (his leading sponsors) on the other. And that’s a problem, for democracy disappears when that supposedly “worn out” conflict is removed from the spectrum of acceptable debate.
“THE GREATNESS OF OUR NATION”
“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation,” Obama said, “we understand that greatness is never a given.” But what is so “great” about our nation? We are 4 percent of the world’s population but consume a quarter of the planet’s resources, with disastrous environmental consequences at home and abroad. “We”:
* have the most unequal distribution of wealth in the industrialized world.
* were founded and grew largely on a basis of genocide and mass enslavement, terrible crimes with deep prices we continue to deny and cloak.
* lead the world in terms of mass incarceration, disproportionately imposed like so much else that is bad in American life on blacks and Latinos.
* afflict African-Americans with a national median-household wealth-gap of seven black cents on the white dollar and with numerous interrelated forms of institutional racism even as the nation celebrates Obama’s election as a symbol of its transcendence of racial bigotry.
* account for nearly half the world’s military spending, a great drag on our social and spiritual health.
And “we” seem chillingly incapable of acknowledging our crimes past and present. Even the “antiwar” and great liberal hope Obama, for example, will not admit that the invasion of Iraqwas criminal and immoral or that it has led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis. He has never criticized the occupation as anything worse than a “dumb war,” a “strategic blunder.” Last year (in Janesville Wisconsin) he even campaigned on the notion that the U.S.was spending too much money helping Iraq instead of the U.S. 
Consistent with his claim (to CNN’s Candy Crowley last summer) that the U.S. should NOT apologize for its crimes (since the U.S. is obviously what he called “a force for good in the world”), moreover, Obama has refused to call even the Vietnam War – the vicious U.S. assault that ended 2-3 million Indochinese lives between 1962 and 1975 – anything worse than a “mistake.” He even argued (in the foreign policy chapter of “The Audacity of Hope”) that “the greatest casualty of that [Vietnam] war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government” (p.287) — as if the deaths of millions of Indochinese and 58,000 U.S. GIs were secondary and as if popular American skepticism towards the designs of the U.S. foreign policy establishment isn’t a sign of democratic health.
There is an intimate relationship between America ‘s failure to admit its transgressions abroad and its denial of savage disparities and oppressions at home. U.S. political culture’s doctrinal faith in the United States ‘ “exceptional” magnificence feeds American’s inability to acknowledge its criminality on the global stage.
Like imperial presidents of the past, Obama cannot let go of the standard and dangerous national-narcissist mantra: “We are Good, We are Great.”
“FOR US THEY FOUGHT AND DIED IN KHE SANH”
Midway through his speech, Obama announced an interesting perspective on the great prior sacrifices that produced “the greatness of our nation.” According to the new president:
“Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. …It has as been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”
“For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.”
“For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.”
“Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.”
Here Obama strangely wove the savage racial oppression of slavery (“endured the lash of the whip”) together with European immigration, American frontier settlement (involving the genocidal removal and slaughter of millions of indigenous people – a detail he omits), industrial labor exploitation (“toiled in the sweatshops”), the American Revolution (“Concord”), the Civil War (“Gettysburg”), World War II (“Normandy”), and the U.S-colonial War on Vietnam (the battle of Khe Sanh took place in illegally invaded South Vietnam in 1968) as part of a patriotic storyline wherein hard-working patriots pulled together across divisions of race, class, and party to selflessly create liberty and abundance for future generations of their fellow Americans.
This is sheer Orwellian nonsense. It falsely imposes a retrospectively virtuous tale of shared national “service” and commonality back on the pervasive possessive-individualist selfishness, rampant imperial hubris and savage racism and classism behind the founding and often murderous settlement (conquest) of the country, the brutal exploitation of slaves and garment workers, and the rapacious execution of a bloody and expansionist foreign policy. Are we really supposed to honor the ferocious high-tech Superpower assault on the peasant nation of Vietnam – an imperial onslaught that significantly undermined U.S. economic strength by the way – as some sort of noble moment (along with two and half centuries of black chattel slavery) in the selfless creation of contemporary “prosperity” through the ruggedly righteous labor of anonymous toilers embodying the spirit of the Protestant Work Ethic? 
BEYOND GOOD GOVERNMENT
“What the cynics fail to understand,” Obama claimed, “is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”
Here our new President approached but fell short of a real insight. Beneath the battle between so-called “free market” and supposedly anti-government (laissez-faire) “conservatives” on the right and more “pro-government” liberals and progressives on the left lay a deeper conflict between those who want the state to work for the privileged Few and those who want it work for the common good of the working- and lower-class Many.
Today as in previous periods of American state capitalism, nobody’s actually against government per se. It’s not just about “good government” (a “government that works”). The real question is whose class interest government is going to serve.
But then this is a supposedly “ideological” point raised mainly by people who hold what the “realistic” corporate-neoliberal Obama team considers a “stale” perspective, full of the tired old “recrimination” that lay at the heart of “outworn” class-struggle “dogma.”
AN ISSUE NOT “BEFORE US”: THE GOODNESS OF “THE MARKET”
“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill,” Obama proclaimed.
Many good Americans beg to differ. I, for one, agree with the left U.S. economist and visionary Mike Albert, who speaks for many progressives’ observations and experience when he notes that:
” ‘ Markets are a no-confidence vote on the social capacities of the human species’….markets mobilize our creative capacities largely by arranging for other people to threaten our livelihoods and by bribing us with the lure of luxury beyond what others have and beyond what we know we deserve. They feed the worst forms of individualism and egoism. And to top off their anti-social agenda, markets munificently reward those who are the most cut-throat and adept at taking advantage of their fellow citizens, and penalize those who insist on pursuing the golden rule…Mutual concern, empathy, and solidarity have little or no usefulness in market economies, so they atrophy.” 
I also agree with Laurence Shoup, who observed last summer that Obama’s campaign trail declarations of “love” for the market “failed to note that the market loves and rewards those who already have money and power, not those lacking these advantages. To say that you ‘love the market’ is akin,” Shoup added, “to saying that you love the ruling class (the top 1 percent of the population that controls 20 percent of the country’s income and nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth) and do not care about the great majority (the 60 percent of the population that controls only 25 percent of the income and 5 percent of the wealth). To say ‘I love the market’ — at a time when the financial system is deflating because of decades of lies about how great unregulated markets are which fueled rampant speculation, phony valuations, and deceitful assurances — is to be deaf to the reality of how powerful interests are protected by the government while everyone gets a lecture on personal responsibility. ‘Change we could believe in,’ would involve confronting the perversity of market-driven capitalism….” 
The market’s “goodness” – along with the virtue of the market’s tyrannical Frankenstein creation The Corporation – must be “a question before us.”
“WE ARE READY TO LEAD ONCE MORE”
“As for our common defense” the new head of the American Empire proclaimed Tuesday,..”Our founding fathers’ ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all the other people and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and children who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
Obama left it to “ideological” others to point out that America follows in the footsteps of past global powers by covering its imperial ambitions and agendas with flowery claims of special benevolent and idealistic credentials and intent. Be that as it may, the U.S. is widely perceived – with good reason – as an enemy of the peace and dignity (and democracy and justice) sought by billions, including the Iraqis (victims of a murderous U.S. occupation Obama has depicted as an expression of America’s excessively “good intentions”), the Afghan people (victims of repeated U.S. civilian slaughters for which Obama says the U.S. should NOT apologize), and the Palestinians (on whose fate President-elect Obama was deafeningly and damningly silent). Do the children and families of Gaza and of Afghan villages (the latter are on the wrong end of what Obama considers Bush II’s “good” and “proper” war) “we” have unapologetically pulverized in the name of freedom “seek a future of peace and dignity?”
“Ready to lead once more”? The avowed Christian Obama (who said Tuesday that the U.S. must “lead” through “the force of our example”) might want to take a closer look at the imperial “homeland.” Reflecting on its rising U.S. unemployment, poverty (destitution for some), desperation, incarceration, madness, and inequality, he could consult “Scripture’s” (his term) call to “Set thine house in order” (2 Kings, chapter 20, verse 1) before talking so boldly about America “leading” others.
The repair of broken societies and the fixing of failed states begin at home.
“WE WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR OUR WAY OF LIFE”
Claiming that “we are the keepers” of earlier U.S. policymakers’ “legacy” of “prudent” “humility and restraint,” Obama said that “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan….We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Here Obama proclaimed his buy-in with the false and bankrupt notion that Islamic terrorists assaulted the U.S. because of their hatred for ” America ‘s” supposedly democratic “way of life,” NOT because of the United States ‘ provocative imperial conduct in the Middle East 
The phrase “inducing terror and slaughtering innocents” refers to 9/11 and other moments of extremist Islamic terror against the West. It makes no intended reference to leading U.S. client state Israel’s recent “mass slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage [Gaza] with nowhere to flee” (Noam Chomsky ). A good “friend of Israel [‘s brutal policies],” Obama has been shockingly but predictably silent on that horrific crime, conducted with U.S. military technology and under U.S. “diplomatic” cover. “We” are not determined to “outlast” and “defeat” the apartheid and occupation state of our close allyIsrael.
Obama reasserted his disastrous commitment to deepening the imperial quagmire in Afghanistan, an ill-conceived adventure as illegal as the War on Iraq.
Obama’s commitment to “begin to responsibly leave” Mesopotamia is loaded with qualification. “Beginning to leave” is not leaving. The caveat of “responsible” departure leaves room for staying when Superpower determines (as seems likely) that “circumstances on the ground” – e.g. “excessive internal violence” and/or “Iranian influence” (imagine) and/or broader Middle Eastern “instability” – mandate continued significant U.S. military presence for an indeterminate time.
“Apologize” or not, the U.S. does need to drastically change its corporate-coordinated mass-consumerist “way of life” both for the sake of livable ecology and in order to reduce its deadly, oil-related entanglement in the Middle East .
Still, what in the name of “God” (a frequent Obama reference) would be so bad about, well, apologizing to the world for the damage our interrelated consumerist and imperial ways have done to life on the planet?
For what its worth (not much in the dominant narrow-spectrum U.S. political and intellectual cultures), “humility and restraint” strike me as curious reflections on the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee massacres, the bloody occupation of the Philippines, the unspeakable crimes of Hiroshima and (even worse) Nagasaki, the overthrows of Arbenz, Mossadeq, and Allende, and the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s phrase at the height of the U.S. attack) during the 1960s and 1970s.
“IF YOU ARE WILLING TO UNCLINCH YOUR FIST”
“To the Muslim world,” Obama said, “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
How bitterly these words must have fallen on the ears of many Palestinians who heard them! The Palestinians and their many supporters across the Middle East and the world watched the famously wordy President-elect Obama stand mute, claiming that “institutional constraints” prevented him from commenting on the United States and Israel’s recent dreadful massacre in Gaza even while he gave regular proto-presidential speeches on the economy and condemned the terror attacks in Mumbai.
Does Obama really think we will soon forget his silence of complicity on Israel ‘s clenched and founding fist as his handlers prepare to try to make him look like a great new Middle Eastern peacemaker? Surely his team (loaded from the top down with militant “friends ofIsrael “) was consulted on the terrible attack and approved of it on the condition that it would be “wrapped up” – like the murdered corpses of Gazan children – by his Inauguration. Another glorious chapter in “the West’s” noble record of “build[ing],” not “destroy[ing]” within and beyond the Middle East.
Would Obama care to comment on the critical roles “corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” play in sustaining ruling class power in the United States ‘ “dollar democracy”? And would he like to comment on the credibility of the U.S. admonishing Muslims and others to “unclench their fist[s]” in the wake of the U.S.-Israel assault on Gaza and during an ongoing bloody six-year U.S. invasion that has killed more than 1 million Iraqis?
According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in the December 2007 edition of the mainstream journal Current History, “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century. Only fools talk of solutions now. There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”
One wonders what Rosen would have had to say about the following comment offered by Barack Obama to autoworkers assembled at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin on February 13, 2008, just before that state’s Democratic primary: “It’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together.”
For those who knew the depth and degree of the destruction inflicted on Iraq by two U.S.invasions, one ongoing, and more than a decade of deadly economic sanctions (embargo), this statement was nothing short of obscene. So was Obama’s following 2006 comment (to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs): “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in support of the Iraq invasion]. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”
“THOSE BRAVE SOULS WHO PATROL FAR-OFF DESERTS AND DISTANT MOUNTAINS”
“As we consider the road that unfolds before us,” Obama said last Tuesday, “we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie inArlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.”
Does Obama really need to go so far in demonstrating chilling deference to reigning doctrines of imperial and military nationalism claiming that Superpower’s global gendarmes protect Liberty at home by colonially subjugating others abroad?! It gets tiresome and nauseating to hear him again (as during his campaign) fold the United States ‘ brazen imperialism into his offensive narrative of shared national “service.
Who the Hell (his God perhaps?) does our new “antiwar” (so many left liberals insist on believing) president think appointed the U.S. to “patrol” Iraqi desserts and Afghan mountains?
No, Mr. President, no. Bring the troops home from the criminally and provocatively occupied hinterland. “We” have no business – zero legitimate role – “patrolling” (and testing the latest high-tech mass murderous military technologies in and on) distant others’ deserts, forests, cities, villages, hills, rivers, caves, rivers, seas, and skies, and telephone calls and e-mails. The United States does not own the Middle East. “We” do jot own the world. And freedom, justice, and democracy at home are undermined, not protected, by Empire.
“ONE COMMON DANGER”
Proclaiming a “new era of responsibility,” Obama said that “God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” He asked Americans to remember how “In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).'”
I find it disturbing to hear the nation’s first black president citing the founders’ rebellion against England (1763-1783) as an example of how we Americans need to stand together “against one common enemy.” Many American slaves and indigenous people found very good and logical reasons to favor the British over the colonists in the war between Englandand the rising new racist and settler-imperialist slave state . The new republic’s snows and soils and forests and tobacco, rice, and cotton and killing fields had long been stained and even occasionally soaked with the blood of its First Nations victims and its growing population of black chattel. The fate and struggle of the “homeland’s” early black and red victims foretold the future struggles of Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners caught on the wrong side of “freedom”-loving America ‘s imperial guns, alliances, and doctrines.
SOME THINGS NOT MENTIONED
There was nothing in Obama’s Inaugural Address, really, about rising poverty and stunning socioeconomic inequality in the “homeland.” He spoke not a word about the vital need to restore union organizing and bargaining rights in the U.S. and bringing the labor movement – accurately described as “the leading anti-poverty program in American history” by John Edwards during the presidential primaries – back to life in the U.S. by passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
The new “antiwar” and “progressive” President was silent about the desperate need to significantly roll back the $1 trillion annual “defense” (Empire) allotment and bring about the forgotten peace dividend that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew to be required to fund social uplift and stave off the nation’s “spiritual death.” .
I don’t care how many preachers they put up on the speakers platform, be they right wing creeps like Rick Warren (giver of the Inauguration convocation prayer) or decent men like civil rights veteran Joseph Lowrey (giver of the benediction), that terrible “spiritual death” (Dr. King’s phrase to describe the consequence of privileging war over social health in the federal budget) continues apace.
As far as I can tell, poverty and its core connection to the problem of inequality has been kicked to the curb of American political discourse since the excessively “populist” and pro-labor John Edwards was unceremoniously relegated (before his adultery scandal) to the political margins.
Refusing to make any reference to horrific crimes against Palestinian humanity during the last three weeks, Obama did not utter the word ” Gaza ” once during a speech that denounced “those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents.”
STAND DOWN, MR. PRESIDENT
I will now uncharacteristically (since I tend to think that “speaking truth to power” is a waste of time) offer Barack Obama a bit of advice.
My counsel to the new President: step down from the American Exceptionalist Imperial Hubris that has run so strongly in your campaign statements to the foreign policy establishment, whose approval you required to reach the White House. Your only chance to leave the world better off (if that is your concern) starts with you standing down from all that ridiculous nonsense, Mr. President.
You will only exacerbate tragedy and decline if you insist on expanding the criminal U.S. war — replete with your newly inherited Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters (named after forgotten victims of the supposedly virtuous settlement of the U.S. West), the same models recently used to help kill 1300 Gazans (a racist-imperial atrocity on which you remained silent) — in the imperial graveyard that is Afghanistan. And Afghanistan carries dangerously into nuclear Pakistan like Vietnam carried over into Cambodia .
Stand down, President Obama. Stand down, for your own sake and everyone else’s too.
Oh and by the way – if you show some global humility and do some half-reasonably pseudo-social democratic things at home, they’ll probably start advance-carving you a new face on Mt. Rushmore, stolen from the Sioux.
“THE REAL ISSUE TO BE FACED”
Four days after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day gave way to Barack Obama Day, I wish readers to consider one of King’s many purple passages – this from a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope”:
“Millions of American are coming to see that we are fighting an immoral war that costs nearly thirty billion dollars a year, that we are perpetuating racism, that we are tolerating almost forty million poor during an overflowing material abundance. Yet they remain helpless to end the war, feed the hungry, to make brotherhood a reality; this has to shake our faith in ourselves. If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused. Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends. In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” [Martin Luther King Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” January 1969]
This (along with much else you can find in King’s speeches and writings) doesn’t fit very well with the officially domesticated history of Dr. King as a polite middle-class reformer who sought little more than the desegregation of lunch counters and the right of certain black Americans to run for higher office.
I know there are lots of key differences between the United States and its (colonial) wars in the time of Dr. King’s execution and the same in the time of the Obama’s ascendancy. This is a period of recession and perhaps depression, not growth.
Iraq (2003-present), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Vietnam (1962-1975) are very different imperial crucifixions.
We need to add (at least) sexism and the war on livable ecology to King’s list of America ‘s “interrelated flaws.”
Still, I am struck by how relevant King’s words remain more than a generation later, how poorly they match the domesticated (bourgeois) King the dominant historical narrative has created, and by how different his final perspective was from that of the militantly incrementalist and power-accommodating Obama.
King would be 80 years old today. My sense is that his excitement over the election of the “deeply conservative”  Obama would have been strictly qualified in accord with his airbrushed radical sentiments, which went far beyond the goal of making a symbolic skin-color shift in the power elite.
BEYOND “EXPECTATION MANAGEMENT”
Meanwhile, a new depression looms and the specter of ecological catastrophe grows ever more real. Under the totalitarian rules of corporate-“managed democracy” , the required radical and egalitarian solutions to the deepening crisis of humanity seem to all be officially “irrelevant,” “unrealistic,” “ideological,” and “obsolete.”
Two nights ago millions of Americans saw an arrogant grade B actor named Cuba Gooding Jr. tell Jay Leno that the election of Obama is helping sell “the American brand” around the world – a noble sentiment. The fact that “we have an African-American in the White House,” Gooding proclaimed, “proves that our democracy does work.”
This childish sentiment is ubiquitous and not just in the Orwellian corporate media. It has trickled down into the minds of numerous ordinary people I know for whom the Obama extravaganza has been yet another excuse not to become seriously engaged in activism beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted candidate-centered election spectacles.
Still, I find glimmers of hope beneath and beyond top-down spectacles for the weak of mind and heart: the Chicago factory occupation, the recent Oakland riots, the New School action, anti-eviction battles, union organizing triumphs, and the recent and ongoing left- and youth-led rebellion in Greece, the birthplace of Western democratic thought. There’s a lot of “unreported resistance” (Howard Zinn’s useful term) at home and abroad: people acting for the real meaning of democracy beneath and beyond top-down coordination and “expectation management” (Obama’s top public relations task at present). There’s more to come, more hope that cannot be contained by anything less than “the radical reconstruction of society itself…the real issue to be faced.”
In the meantime, some fellow Americans would like to apologize to the world for “our” nation’s all-too imperial and ecologically and socially disastrous ways of “life.”
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author and writer in Iowa City , IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Street’s books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), order at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987
1. For Left critiques of the centrist Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address, his March 2008 Philadelphia Race Speech, his August 2008 Berlin Speech, and his election night Victory Speech, please see Paul Street: “Keynote Reflections,” (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), read at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=5951;
“Obama’s Latest ‘Beautiful Speech,'” ZNet (March 22, 2008), read athttp://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16947; His High Imperial Holiness Obama Does Berlin,” Black Agenda Report (July 30, 2008), read athttp://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=717&Itemid=34; ‘Anyone Out There?'” ZNet (November 10, 2008), read athttp://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19414.
2. John Nichols (who thinks Obama is a left progressive in centrist clothing), “How to Push Obama,” The Progressive (January 2009), read athttp://www.progressive.org/mag/nichols0109.html
3. WIFR Television, CBS 23, Rockford , Illinois , “Obama Speaks at General Motors inJanesville ,” February 13, 2008, read athttp://www.wifr.com/morningshow/headlines/15618592.html
4. There is precedent in Obama’s already vast rhetorical record for this sort of strange and reactionary historical conflation. An especially nauseating part of Obama’s first famous speech – the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address that turned him into an overnight sensation – came when he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of “hope:”
“I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too…In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.”
The “young naval lieutenant line” was a reference to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s participation in a previous imperialist adventure, one that took millions of Vietnamese lives. It took no small and reactionary chutzpah for Obama to lump African-American slaves’ struggles and spirituality with the imperial and racist U.S. assault onSoutheast Asia under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. Perhaps “God” (the officially highly religious Obama’s Keynote Address made repeated references to “God” and “the Creator”) gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for “better days ahead.” It was not clear who or what told Obama that the Mekong Delta was Kerry and his superiors’ territory to “patrol” – the same arrogant, nationalist and racist sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own slaves, steal land from Mexico and Native Americans and which allowed the Bush administration to seize Iraq as a neocolonial possession?
5. Mike Albert, PARECON: Life After Capitalism ( New York : Verso, 2003), p. 65.
6. Laurence H. Shoup, “Obama and McCain March Rightward,” Z Magazine (September 2008), p. 27
7. For a thoughtful critique of that pervasive notion from within the foreign policy national security establishment, see Anonymous, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror ( Washington DC , 2004).
8. Noam Chomsky, “‘Exterminate All the Brutes’: Gaza 2009,” ZNet, January 20, 2009).
9. WIFR, “Obama Speaks at General Motors.”
10. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq ,” Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs,Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), available online athttp://obama.senate.gov/speech/061120-a_way_forward _in_iraq/index.html. Of all places to pick to claim to demonstrate American “sacrifice” in criminally invaded Iraq , Obama could not have chosen a more provocative and telling locale than Fallujah, site of epic U.S.-imperial assaults on civilians and infrastructure in the spring and fall of 2004.
11. Alfred Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).
12. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time to Break the Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City , NY , April 4. 1967.
13. As Larissa MacFarquhar noted in a carefully researched May 2007 Obama portrait titled “The Conciliator”: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). See also Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008). “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Lizza noted, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” See also Paul Street , “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read athttp://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; Paul Street , Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder,CO: Paradigm, 2008).
14. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism ( Princeton , NJ : PrincetonUniversity, 2008)