Cyrano's Journal

Obama's Audacious Deference

to Power | Paul Street




No wonder the media love him —selling false hopes is what they do best

Barack Obama's latest book reveals the presidential aspirant to be a rank racial accommodationist and political opportunist. The Illinois Senator urges empathy for those in power, labels critics on the Left cranks and zealots, and whitewashes America's past and present crimes. In the final analysis, Obama is an ‘authoritarian corporate imperial insider' - a front-running candidate for betrayal. "Obama's book is the product of a relentless ideological triangulator, a clever racial accommodator and political opportunist." (Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, NY: Crown, 2006)

Now that Barack Obama has made the obvious next to finally official by declaring a presidential "exploratory committee," we can be sure that the Republicans Noise Machine will portray him as a dangerous agent of the "left." The claim that the centrist, corporate-neoliberal Obama is a man of the left will be totally absurd (see Paul Street, "The Obama Illusion," forthcoming in Z Magazine, February 2007).

But this will hardly stop numerous commentators on the nominal portside of U.S. politics from claiming Obama as a "progressive" ally. Certain to be encouraged by Obama and his handlers, this confusion will reflect the desperation and myopia that shaky thinking and a narrow-spectrum electoral system tend to induce on the liberal left in the U.S.

Scialabba mystified A recent example of this misunderstanding can be found in The Nation. In the January 29th issue of that left-liberal weekly, critic George Scialabba includes Obama's ponderous campaign volume The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts Towards Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) in a review of books dedicated to defending "democratic governance," the common good and the legacy of the New Deal against corporate depredation. The books appraised by Scialabba include four manuscripts strongly rooted in the populist, anti-plutocratic tradition: David Sirota's Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government (New York: Crown, 2006); Mark Green's Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans For Profit (Sourcebooks, 2006); Steven Hill, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: An Owners' Manual for Concerned Citizens (Polipoint, 2006); and Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse (Dutton, 2006).

At the end of his review, Scialabba claims that "just about all" of Obama's positions are "reasonable" and "progressive." He praises Obama as "the most intelligent, honest and idealistic of the Democratic presidential candidates" (George Scialabba, "The Work Cut Out For Us," The Nation, January 29, 2007, pp. 23-27).

This does not say much for the depth and degree of the Democratic Party's progressivism - or Scialabba's.

‘Longing for Order'

It also leads me to wonder if Scialabba bothered to read Obama's book beyond the dust jacket. Did Scialabba see the part where Obama relates youthful discomfort with his college roommates' "irresponsible" criticism of "capitalism" and then confesses respect for Ronald Reagan's supposed success in embodying what Obama calls "American's longing for order" (p. 31)? How about the part where Obama commends "the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections" for "prevent[ing] Democrats...from straying too far from the center" and for marginalizing "those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry" (p. 38) and "radical ideas" (like peace and justice)?

Centrist to the core Obama also praises fellow centrist Senators John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for "believing in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military" and embracing "the virtues of capitalism" (p. 38). He applauds his "recognizably progressive" Third Way hero Bill Clinton for showing that "markets and fiscal discipline" and "personal responsibility [are] needed to combat poverty" (pp. 34-35). That's an interesting reflection on the neoliberal Clinton administration's efforts to increase poverty by eliminating poor families' entitlement to public cash assistance and privileging deficit reduction over social spending (see Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity [New York, NY: Verso, 2003).

Downsizing Popular Hopes for the Neoliberal EraCuriously enough for Scialabba‘s identification of Obama with defense of the New Deal, Obama contends that defense of New Deal and Great Society programs is contrary to "the changing circumstances of globalization" (p.38). Following the Clintonian path of centrist triangulation, Obama claims that the 1960s New Left expressed the same self-indulgent "moral absolutism" (pp. 26-33) that animated the New Right.

"Serious concern over the nation's harsh disparities is consigned to leftist ‘cranks' and other assorted ‘unreasonable zealots.'"

The American people, Obama argues, harbor only modest expectations of their government (p.7), reflecting little concern (by Obama's account) with traditional left goals of social justice and equality. There's no room in Obama's downsized image of popular "hopes" for the citizenry's widespread disgust at savage socioeconomic inequity in the United States. In Obama's brand of "progressivism," serious concern over the nation's harsh disparities is consigned to leftist "cranks" and other assorted "unreasonable zealots" - people walking in the "absolutist" footsteps of Marx, the New Left, and (though Obama would never acknowledge this) the democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Noble Constraints of Birth and Rank and the ‘Intoxicating Danger' of EqualityI wonder if Scialabba saw the passage where the "progressive" Obama praises the United States' founders for "recognize[ing] that there were seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality." If "everybody is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order," Obama asks, then "how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?" (pp. 86-87) How that's for openly embracing authoritarian class rule?

Empathy for the OppressorThen there's the section where Obama claims that the monumental war criminal, arch-authoritarian and hyper-plutocrat George W. Bush "and the people around him" - a reference that would especially include the filthy rich crypto-fascist Dick Cheney - "to be pretty much like everyone else." The Bush-Cheney gang-bangers are "possessed," Obama says, "of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries as the rest of us." It would be interesting to ask some long-injured Vietnam or Iraq war veterans if they share the same perspective on the Vietnam-War-supporting but draft-dodging Bush and Cheney, who had "other priorities" than "serving" in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s.

"Obama feels poor Americans need to understood how well off and ‘free' they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America."

Such veterans shouldn't harbor bitterness towards their war-evading superiors, Obama says. He argues that "those who are struggling - or those who claim to speak for those who are struggling" are not "freed from trying to understand the perspectives those who are better off." The duty to feel "empathy," he feels, is shared by the "the powerless" and "the oppressed" as well as "the powerful" and "the oppressor" (p. 68).

Slaves need to understand and empathize with their masters. At the same time, Obama feels, poor Americans need to understood how well off and "free" they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America (pp. 54, 150). Obama deletes less favorable contrasts with Western Europe and Japan, the most relevant comparisons, where dominant norms tolerate slighter levels of poverty and inequality than what is found in the militantly hierarchical U.S.


Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it's cowardice.—George Jackson


Whitewashing History

If Americans have rejected "Jefferson's advice to engage in a revolution every two or three generations," Obama says, this "is only because the Constitution itself proved a sufficient defense against tyranny" (p. 93). There's no room in that formulation for a large number of facts and development relevant to the distinctive weakness of radicalism in U.S. history: America's rich historical record of repressing radicals (e.g. Haymarket, the Palmer Raids. McCarthyism, COINTELPRO); the extreme racial, ethnic, religious and territorial fragmentation of the nation's working-class and populace; the alternately deadening and cooptive influences of imperialism, mass consumerism, Winner-Take-All electoral politics, corporate media and more. There's no room either for the remarkable persistence of tyranny - business-class (corporate-capitalist) and white-supremacist rule, the reign of the military sector, and the rise of a powerful prison-industrial system for example - inside the U.S. today.

Obama is impressively committed to whitewashing the American past in accord with dominant national doctrine. He cites early Americans' purported faith in "self-reliance," "hard work," and "free will" (p. 54)as the source of the early Republic's "free market" development, ignoring slavery's role in (a) violating the nation's proclaimed republican virtues and (b) laying critical capital-accumulationist foundation for the early expansion of the American "free market" empire. He writes warmly of the "grand compromise" (p.75) found in the Constitutional bargain between the Northern and the Southern states - the one that approved and empowered black chattel slavery as the core, defining and federally protected political-economic institution of the U.S. South. He deftly inserts "property rights" (p. 86) into his list of the great "individual liberties" guaranteed by the Founders, deleting a critical conflict that shaped the early republic: that between human rights and property rights, the latter referring to the special, structurally super-empowered citizenship rights granted to the relatively small part of the population that owned large amounts of property.

Obama falsely conflates "democracy" with "the republican form of government" that the Founders preferred as an effective barrier to their ultimate nightmare - popular democracy. He appears not to understand that the nation's constitutional fathers saw republican governance as a bulwark against democracy and a more reliable protector of "property rights" and class privilege than monarchical absolutism. He misses and misrepresents the main reason that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders argued for a geographically extensive nation-state: to more effectively preserve the tyranny of the propertied few and keep the threat of popular democracy at bay (pp. 87-94).

Obama incorrectly claims that Abraham Lincoln was "unyielding in his opposition to slavery" (p. 97). He praises Woodrow Wilson for seeing that "it was in America's interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples [emphasis added] and provide the world a legal framework that could help avoid future conflicts" (p. 283).

Too bad the Wilson administration's extreme racism found expression in the brutal U.S. invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As Noam Chomsky observes, "Wilson's troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery and demolished the constitutional system in Haiti." These actions followed in accord with Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing's belief that "the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization" and possessed "an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature."

"While supervising the takeover of Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Chomsky notes, "Wilson built his reputation as a lofty idealist defending self-determination and the rights of small nations with impressive oratory. There is no contradiction [because] Wilsonian doctrine was restricted to people of the right sort: those ‘at a low stage of civilization' need not apply" for the rights of democracy and self-determination; they remained subject to their racially and culturally superior colonial overlords (Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.44, and Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues [Boston, MA: South End, 1993], pp. 202-203).

Obama praises U.S. Cold War foreign policymakers for combining "Wilsonian idealism" with "humility regarding America's ability to control events around the world" (p. 284). He justifies lovely examples of that "humility" like the U.S. overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) and the sponsorship of mass-murderous dictatorships in Indonesia and Latin America by recycling the imperial myth that the U.S. was protecting the world against an expansionist and totalitarian Soviet Union (p. 284). He notes that Saddam Hussein "butchered his own people" (p. 294) but deletes the unpleasant fact that the Iraqi dictator murdered many of his subjects with U.S. support. Not content merely to whitewash American history, Obama whitewashes the reactionary whitewashing of the American past in U.S. history texts! "Even the standard high school history textbook," he inaccurately claims, "notes the degree to which, from its very inception, the reality of American life has strayed from its myths (p.8). Wow. Obama might want to have a look at James Loewen's bestselling book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong [New York, NY: New Press, 1996]).


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