Against Obamania

A specter haunts liberal and progressive America: Obamania. With BaRockstarObama appearing on Oprah, the Today Show, the covers of Men’s Vogue and Vanity Fair, conducting a 13-city book tour, being featured in New York Times op-eds by (a fawning) David Brooks and Frank Rich and now having finally gone public (on the NBC Sunday morning show “Meet Tim Russert,” formerly known as “Meet the Press”) with his long-obvious presidential ambitions, it’s a good time for an Obama intervention.

Few things are more indicative of the desperation and myopia that weak minds, battered hearts, and limited electoral choices instill in some leftists and left-liberals than the success the openly “Hamiltonian” (Brooks’ gushing description) Obama has achieved in convincing progressives that that he’s one of them.

I’m writing a piece on the Obama record to date, one that looks at his state-level legislative record and incorporates key information from other critiques (including one that David Sirota did for The Nation earlier this year)and from Obama’s latest book (which appears to be a quick read…looks like I can knock it off in a couple of hours at the Barnes & Noble).

Here (below) I have taken the liberty of pasting in two past ZNet essays I’ve done on the 2008 presidential hopeful. The first one – a rapid response to the sickening 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote address that did so much to crystallize Obama’s national prominence – received an astonishing outpouring of response (about 95 percent positive) from literally hundreds of ZNet readers (truth be told, it had me feeling a little bit like an Internet rock-star for a couple of days). The second, annotated one (with an oddly religious approach that might falsely suggest that I am a Christian…I am no such thing) is from ZNet’s paying Sustainer system and received a nice but smaller response.

1. Obamania Intervention Number One (2004)

Keynote Reflections
ZNet (main website)
July 29, 2004

I come from the same Chicago neighborhood (Hyde Park) as the nation’s official new political rock star Barack Obama. I work in urban policy and civil rights and I’ve recently been telling leftists to engage in “tactical” presidential voting – for Kerry in undecided states and for leftists like Cobb or Nader in “safe” states. So I must have really liked the charismatic former civil rights attorney Obama’s much-ballyhooed keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, right?

Not really. Sorry, I might be (rather unenthusiastically) advising people to vote Kerry in some jurisdictions next fall but I’m still a leftist – the real thing, not the mythological sort created by the crackpot right, which conflates the disparate likes of (say) Bill Clinton, The New York Times, Tom Daschle, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara as part of the same ideological vision.

Equality Versus Equal Opportunity

And as a person of the radical left, I am opposed to social inequality in and of itself, whatever its origins. The massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life would be offensive to me – and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good in my world view – even if all at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equal position at the starting line of a “level playing field.” There is no such field in really existing society, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth (along with a probably higher percentage of America’s politicians and policymakers). As the great democratic Socialist Eugene Debs used to say, the point – for radicals, at least – is not to “rise from the masses, but to “rise with the masses.” Serious left vision is about all-around leveling before, during, and after the policy process.

The world view enunciated in Obama’s address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance” and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. “My story,” one (he says) of rise from humble origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence, “is part,” Obama claimed “of the larger American story.” “In no other country on Earth,” he said, “is my story even possible.”

Obama quoted the famous Thomas Jefferson line about all “men” being “created equal,” but left out Jefferson’s warnings about the terrible impact of unequal outcomes on democracy and popular government. He advocated a more equal rat-race, one where “every child in America has a decent shot at life, and the doors of opportunity [the word "opportunity" recurred at least five times in his speech] remain open to all.”

Sorry, but those doors aren’t even close to being “open to all.” America doesn’t score particularly well in terms of upward mobility measures, compared to other industrialized states (and Brazil’s current chief executive was born into that country’s working-class). Every kid deserves “a decent life,” not just “a shot” at one. And such a life isn’t about living in a world of inequality or (see below) empire.

Democracy Versus Polyarchy

Real leftists are radical “small-d” democrats. They believe passionately in substantive, many-sided, root and branch democracy. By democracy they mean one-person, one-vote and equal policymaking influence for all, regardless of class, wealth, ethnicity, and other socially constructed differences of privilege and power. They are deeply sensitive to the core Jeffersonian contradiction between democracy radically defined and capitalism’s inherent concentrations of wealth and power. They advocate a political and social life where real, regular, and multi-dimensional popular governance is structured into the institutional fabric of daily experience and consciousness.

They are hardly enthralled by what passes for political “democracy” in the United States, where highly ritualized, occasional, and fragmented elections are an exercise in periodic pseudo-popular selection of representatives from a “safe” and small circle of privileged “elites.” One term to describe really existing US “democracy” is “polyarchy,” what left sociologist William I. Robinson calls “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choices carefully managed by competing [business and business-sanctioned] elites.

The polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes Robinson, “is an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively than authoritarian solutions” (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 385).

Obama’s address advanced a truncated, passive, and negative concept of democracy, one where we are supposed to be ecstatic simply because we don’t live under the iron heel of open authoritarianism. It is an American “miracle,” he claimed, “that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door” and that “we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted — or at least, most of the time.”

Never mind that what we say and think is generally drowned out by the giant, concentrated corporate-state media cartel and that our votes – even when actually counted – are mere political half-pennies in comparison to the structurally empowered super-citizenship bestowed upon the great monied interests and corporations that rule our “dollar democracy,” the “best that money can buy.” Jefferson and Madison tried to warn us about that power disparity.

“Pleding Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes”

Real leftists are suspicious of those who downplay internal national divisions, “patriotically” privileging “homeland” unity over class differences and over international solidarity between people inclined towards peace, justice, and democracy. We are deeply critical, of course, of war and empire, which advance inequality and misery at home and abroad. Global humanity – the species – and not “fatherland” or nation-state, is the “reference group” that matters to us.

That’s why many leftists cringed when they heard the newly anointed Great Progressive Hope Obama refer to Americans as “one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” Its part of why I was uncomfortable when Obama praised “a young man” named Shamus who “told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week.” One of Shamus’ endearing qualities, Obama thinks, is “absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service.” “I thought,” Obama said, “this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child.” Not me. I hope for children who regularly and richly question authority and subject the nation and its leaders/mis-leaders to constant critical scrutiny.
Many of us on the left should have been disturbed when Obama discussed the terrible blood costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation purely in terms of the U.S. troops “who will not be returning to their hometowns,” their loved ones, and other American soldiers dealing with terrible war injuries.

What about the considerably larger quantity (into the tens of thousands) of Iraqis who have been killed and maimed as a result of U.S. imperialism and whose numbers are officially irrelevant to U.S. authorities? One of the problems with the American exceptionalism that Obama espouses is that it feeds indifference towards “unworthy victims” among peoples and nations less supposedly favored by “God” and/or History than “beacon” America. This racially tinged coldness goes back to the nation’s founders, who thought their “City on a Hill” had been granted the Creator-ordained right to eliminate North America’s original, Godless and unworthy inhabitants.

In the part of his speech that came closest to a direct criticism of the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated has “shad[ed] the truth” about why “U.S. troops were sent into “harm’s way.” He added that the U.S. must never “go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”
It’s hardly a “war,” however, when the most powerful imperial state in history attacks and occupies a weak nation that it has already devastated over years of deadly bombing and (deadlier) “economic sanctions.” “Securing the peace” is a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant, self-serving description of the real White House objective in Iraq: to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged populace of a nation that understandably resents an imperial takeover it rightly sees as driven by the superpower’s desire to deepen its control of their strategically super-significant oil resources.

And “shade the truth” doesn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated lying – that the Bush administration used and is still using to cover their real agenda, understood with no small accuracy by the people of Iraq.

The low point in Obama’s speech came, I think, 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.”

Sorry, but this leftist takes exception to this horrific lumping of antebellum African-American slaves’ struggles and sprituality with the racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia – “the young naval lieutenant line” is a reference to John Kerry’s “heroic” participation in a previous and much bloodier imperialist invasion, one that cost millions of Vietnamese lives – under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. I suppose “God” (Obama’s keynote made repeated references to “God” and “the Creator”) gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for better days ahead.

What told Kerry and his superiors that the Mekong Delta was theirs to “patrol”? The same arrogant sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own chattel slaves and allowed the Bush administration to seize Iraq as a neocolonial possession.

Popular Struggle, Not “Elite” Saviors

Need I bother to add in conclusion that leftists believe in organizing and fighting alongside ordinary people for justice and democracy at home and abroad, not in holding up as saviors great leaders from (whatever their alleged humble origins ala Obama or John Edwards) within the privileged “elite”? It was probably inherent in the nature of Obama’s keynote assignment that he would finish by saying that the swearing in of Kerry and John Edwards as president and vice president will allow America to “reclaim its promise” and bring the nation “out of this long political darkness.” It’s inherent in my leftist sense of what democracy and justice are about and how they are attained to say that a desirable future will be achieved only through devoted, radically democratic rank and file struggle for justice and freedom and not by hoping – or voting – for benevolent “elite” actors working on behalf of any political party and/or its corporate sponsors.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com) will be published in September, 2004.

2.Obamania Intervention Number Two (2006)

June 16, 2006
Obama’s Path to Hell
ZNet Sustainer Commentary
By Paul Street

In the spring of 1967, after he went public with his strong and principled opposition to the Vietnam War, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was approached by liberal and left politicos to consider running for the United States Presidency. King turned the activists down, saying that he preferred to think of himself “as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather being a political candidate…I’ve just never thought of myself as a politician” (1)

The minute he threw his hat in the American winner-take-all presidential ring, King knew, he would be encouraged to compromise his increasingly leftist and fundamentally moral message against racism, social inequality, and militarism. Reflecting his chastening confrontation with the concentrated black poverty and class oppression in the “liberal” urban North and the horrors of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, King had come to radical conclusions. “For years I have labored with the idea of refining the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there,” he told journalist David Halberstam that spring. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values”

The black freedom movement, King told a crowd at the university of California-Berkeley, had shifted from civil rights to human rights, involving “a struggle for genuine equality” that “demands a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” It would be hard to find mass political support for this goal, King said, “because many white Americans would like to have a nation which is simultaneously a democracy for White America and a dictatorship over Black Americans” (2).

By this time, King had identified the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and denounced U.S. support for U.S.-investment-friendly Third World dictatorship, all part of what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation [capitalism], and militarism (3).

These were not winning ideas in the racist, plutocratic, and corporate-imperial U.S. electoral system. They were truth-based moral observations that contained openly acknowledged radical policy implications. They were richly consistent with what Frederick Douglass called “the Christianity of Christ,” very different from what Douglass considered the false American Christianity that justified slavery, Indian Removal, and other abominations and forms of oppression (4). As the prolific Catholic scholar Gary Wills notes in his recent book What Jesus Meant, the Jesus that emerges from a serious reading of the gospels is an uncompromising enemy of wealth and hierarchy who said that “it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich to enter into God’s reign” (Mark, 10.23-25) and counseled his followers to “protect yourself against every desire for having more” since “life does not lie in the abundance of things one owns” (Luke, 13.15). Opposed to all forms of hierarchy, not just economic inequality, the Jesus “rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others” (5), saying that “everyone lifting himself up will be abased and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up” (Luke, 14.11).

“There cannot be a clearer injunction of hierarchy of any kind,” says Wills, adding that Jesus was “absolute in his opposition to violence” (6) and remarkably indifferent to politics, saying “Caesar’s matters leave to Caesar” (Mark, 12.17)

Following the gospels’ radical message, which he knew quite well (7), King didn’t want to end up like the odious Barack Obama.

A former neighborhood organizer on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, Obama claims fealty to the ideals of Jesus and King. Still, he:

* “refuses to take any options,” including the supremely sinful strategy of preemptive nuclear war, “off the table” in attempting to deter Iran from doing something U.S. global strategy would seem to strongly recommend to that nation: developing nuclear weapons.

* voted to fill the nation’s top diplomatic jobs (of all offices) with a mendacious war-criminal named Condaleeza (“Chevron”) Rice.

* refuses to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from illegally and mass-murderously occupied Iraq, placing more value on maintaining America’s blood-soaked “military credibility” than on recognizing standard world norms of civilized state behavior or on honoring Jesus’ and King’s commitment to nonviolence.

* distanced himself from fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) courageous criticism of illegal U.S. torture practices in Guantanamo Bay.

* followed the counsel of the rich men of corporate America by backing a “tort reform” that makes it more difficult for ordinary people to attain just compensation from business that cheat and damage.

* voted to close filibuster proceedings that would have attempted to block the appointment of the reactionary Judge Alito – a known civil and women’s rights enemy.

* voted to re-authorize the Patriot Act, which uses real and imagined foreign threats created by empire to roll back liberty at home.

* fled fellow Senator Russ Feingold’s (D-Wisconsin) motion to officially censure the Bush administration for its monumentally criminal actions at home and abroad. * applies his campaign finance Midas touch to the reelection efforts of his “mentor,” the de facto Republican Senator Joe Liberman (“D”- Connecticut), a close ally of Bush’s occupation, and a leading architect of the nation’s oppressive and racist “welfare reform,” which slashed basic government assistance for the most disadvantaged members of the industrialized world’s most unequal, wealth-top-heavy society.
In the horrible 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote address that did so much to catapult him into national prominence, Obama set some centrist tone for his subsequent predictable betrayals of cherished principles and leaders. In that instantly celebrated speech, Obama:

* claimed that the U.S. is the ultimate “beacon for freedom and opportunity,” the “only country on earth” where “my story” (a supposedly Horatio-Alger-esque tale of climb from poverty to prominence and now [thanks to some generous book deals] prosperity) “is even possible.” This despite the fact that the U.S. is actually the most rigidly hierarchical nation in the industrialized world, home to a stultifying corporate plutocracy, massive persistent and highly racialized poverty, astonishing incarceration rates (also quite racially disparate) and low mobility from lower to upper segments in its steep socioeconomic pyramid.

* said that “every child in America” should “have a decent shot at life,” not that every kid deserves a full and decent life now and thereafter

* expected Americans to be ecstatic over the “miracle” (!) that they don’t live under the iron heel of open state repression (he made not exceptions for the nation’s 2 million prisoners, nearly half black), as if democracy is just the absence of a police state and not the power of the people to run their own society in an egalitarian fashion (talk about low expectations for freedom).

* praised a Marine enlisted in the racist and imperialist oil occupation of Iraq for (of all things) “defending the United States of America” and (supposedly) expressing “absolute faith in the country and its leaders.” Now there’s a nice democratic sentiment: such chilling “faith” is the stuff of the very police state whose absence in the U.S. Obama called a “miracle.”

* scaled new heights of cringing, pseudo-patriotic nausea-inducement by making disturbing “hope” parallels between: “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs:” “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta;” and the “hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.”

The “lieutenant” referred to in his speech was Democratic presidential candidate John “I Participated in the Crucifixion of Southeast Asia” Kerry, whose government’s imperial right to “patrol” great rivers on the other side of the world during the 1960s Obama took as axiomatic. The “skinny kid” referred to a young Obama, grooming himself for a Harvard education while growing up with his white grandparents in sunny Hawaii.

The connection with “freedom”-singing slaves? A shared belief in what Obama called “God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation – a belief that there are better days ahead.”

Yes, the brutalized black slaves of racist antebellum America were looking forward to the glorious white-imperialist rape of Southeast Asia, when their faith in “better days” would find glorious realization in the napalming of Vietnamese children, the images of which shocked Martin King to denounce the Vietnam war in strident and forceful terms.

How unimaginably and hideously grotesque. For a more detailed critique of Obama’s great breakthrough speech, see my article [the most popular Internet piece I've ever published by far] “Keynote Reflections,” ZNet Magazine, July 29, 2004 (available at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=33&ItemID=5951)

In a recent New Yorker piece, Obama is quoted at length as an example of Democratic Party centrism. The community-organizer-turned-U.S.-Senator responds as follows to writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s query on whether the Democrats should focus on defending the American public against the U.S. government’s assault on its civil liberties: “Americans want to feel good about themselves and their government. They can be called upon to sacrifice and they can be ashamed when we fall short of our ideals but they don’t believe that the main lesson of the last five years is that America is an evil hegemon”( 8).

It’s hard to know how Obama thought that revealing passage addressed illegal federal wiretaps and the like, but his statement contains a revealing assumption that deserves consideration on its own ground. The assumption holds that the important question isn’t whether or not “America” (or perhaps its imperial government) is “an evil hegemon,” but rather whether “Americans” (translation: American voters and especially American campaign-financers) perceive their nation-state to be such a terrible entity. Political calculation trumps the quest for moral truth.

But what if “America” (or at least its government) is, well…”an evil hegemon” (probably the majority world view of the U.S. state, for what that’s worth)? If true, that terrible fact, by Obama’s standpoint, should not be openly addressed because it works against Democrats efforts to enhance their chances of election and re-election by helping “Americans feel good about themselves and their government.”

The contrast with Martin King’s courageous left-Christian, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and democratic-socialist sentiments is quite pronounced. For King, the relevant calculations were very different. He was compelled to call “America” on its global violence and its related domestic injustices regardless of the difficulties the U.S. citizenry might face in acknowledging their own and their government’s role in the enforcement of empire, inequality, and oppression at home and abroad. The imperative was hardly to help “Americans” “feel good about themselves and their government.” It was to encourage them to be true to themselves, to each other, and to the rest of suffering humanity by facing up to “the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Obama’s descent into Hell is almost certainly about a desire to be an American Caesar. The path to the White House is not paved with na*ve crusades against the politically inconvenient truths that King felt compelled to expose and oppose. It requires regular reassurance to the rich and powerful few and to the militaristic instincts of Empire that the opulent minority seeks to inculcate among the marginalized multitude. Whatever Jesus is reputed to have said about who may enter heaven, the keys to the earthly kingdom are reserved for those who play by the rules set by the masters of wealth and war.

Obama is what happens when a young leader sells his soul for power, wealth, and personal advancement in a militantly hierarchical society. It’s what happens when you invest your energy in “jockey[ing] for authority over others.” It’s a very old story, making Obama one of many actors in a timeless and tragic drama.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer, speaker, and activist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005).

1. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [New York, NY: 1986], p. 562).
2.Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 562.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” 1967, reproduced in James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: 1986), p. 250.
4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), appendix.
5. Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York, NY: 2006), p. 44
6. Wills, What Jesus Meant, p. 58.
7. Paul Street, “Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic Socialist,” ZNet Sustainers Commentary, January 14, 2006, available at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2006-01/14street.cfm)
8. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Central Casting,” The New Yorker (May 29, 2006)

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