The Audacity of Reaction



As I’ve been saying since one day after the 2004 speech that made him the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Barack Obama is a walking delusion and deception machine. Here’s the latest from the self-declared “American exceptionalist” Obama, the supposed “progressive” peacenick and civil libertarian who holds such a powerful death grip on the hopes, hearts and minds of millions of liberal and other Americans: “I categorically denounce any statement,” Obama proclaims, “that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies.” This lovely statement can be found on The Huffington Post (March 14, 2008) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barack-obama/on-my-faith-and-my-church_b_91623.html.


Wow.  This stark and sweeping utterance came in response to the public release and broadcast by numerous television stations of “inflammatory” (Obama says) statements made by his longtime South Side Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright.  Besides denouncing the “United States of White America” for advancing and being “based upon” racism past and present, Rev. Wright ruffled the feathers of imperial and nationally narcissistic political correctness by having said the following (millions of media consumers have recently learned) on the Sunday after the terror attacks of 9/11: “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africa, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards.  America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” 


Wright’s comments may have been technically accurate in critical ways but Obama has no choice but to distance himself from them and his “extremist” pastor – no choice if he is serious about winning the Democratic presidential nomination, that is The words of the charismatic Afrocentric pastor who once brought Obama “to Jesus” have to be “reject[ed] outright” and condemned as “appalling” – Obama’s words on The Huffington Post. The urgency of doing so is particularly great after Clinton campaign has challenged Obama’s qualifications to be “commander in chief” – prompting the "antiwar" candidate to assemble a team of retired U.S. military commanders to declare their manly and martial support for “No Drama Obama” at a bizarre special press conference in Chicago – and as Obama girds his imperial loins for an epic contest with the American military hero and Iraq invasion uber-hawk John (“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”) McCain. 




While I don’t have a lot of problems with Rev. Wright’s comments – they accurately describe key aspects of American reality with greater accuracy and honestly than do the depressing centrist twaddle, vapid bromides, and false populist posturing that is regularly served up for the bewildered herd by Hillary Clinton and her moral-ideological twin Obama – I do get that Obama has to run from the man who baptized his children if he wants the nomination. "No shock Barack" (as one of the retired generals deployed to Chicago called him) has to run from "radical" Reverend Wright if he wants to be president (not an especially honorable ambition, in my opinion), anyway.


But the claim to “denounce any statement that disparages our great country” is a little too over the top even for the audacious Obama, who takes special delight in saying remarkably reactionary things even while pandering to the left. It carries extremist rightward and nationalist implications that ought to send a chill down the spines of anyone who wishes to see the rescue and expansion of a democratic political culture in a nation that has been slipping further and further into a form of what the prolific left political analyst Charles Derber calls "Fascism Lite." Such a culture requires honest and comprehensive scrutiny of existing national and social structures, policies, and practices. It privileges critical thinking and candid societal self-examination over blind obedience to flag, blood, and soil.  It values rigorous truth-seeking and truth-telling over the often negative and authoritarian reference group that is the Nation State.  It expects a nation’s defenders to respond to criticism of that nation’s policies or social structures or culture (or fill in the blank) with reasoned argument, not cold and "categorical" DENUNCIATION.


Don’t like hearing that imperial U.S. global policy helped create the context for 9/11, Mr. Cheney and Mr.Obama? Don’t like to hear that the United States is deeply and persistent racist?  Well, Dick and Barack,  perhaps we could have an honest evidence-based debate about how and why those assertions may or may not be true.


Obama has given that sort of consideration — privileging reasoned discussion over flat denunciation —  to the many good Republican friends he’s made at places like the Harvard Law Review, the Illinois State Assembly, and the U.S. Senate. 




Obama’s comment suggests that one indulges in malevolent / “anti-Americanism” if one dares to acknowledge and criticize any or all of what Dr. King called “the triple evils that are interrelated” (racism, economic inequality/poverty, and militarism-imperialism) in relation to the United States. 


Does Obama “categorically denounce” Dr. King’s reference (at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967) to the U.S. as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world” – a description that holds all too much relevance and accuracy more than forty years after King advanced it, in a time when the U.S. has undertaken a five year assault on Iraq “more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century,” as the respected journalist Nir Rosen notes in a December 2007 Current History article titled “The Death of Iraq.”


Equally suspect under Obama’s Huffington Post formulation, it would seem, are honest descriptions of the U.S. as the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world or the world’s leading mass incarceration state. How about the many writers and activists (including people who are by no means radical) who acknowledge that America’s much-vaunted electoral democracy is a corporate plutocracy?  All of these descriptions of the U.S – as savagely unequal, as a (racially disparate) prison state, as a plutocracy – are (like the description of the U.S as a global empire) substantively accurate, as even many non-radicals acknowledge. Should they be suppressed given the fact that they can easily be understood to “disparage our great country?”




Here it seems worth remembering that “although he often cites his background as a civil rights lawyer, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worst attack on civil liberties in the last half-century. It allows,” Matt Gonzales has recently noted, “wholesale eavesdropping on American citizens under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.”


The Patriot Act was justified and enabled, of course, by the terror attacks that Rev. Wright had correctly but unacceptably (for Obama, Cheney, the rest of the U.S. power elite and the broader conventional “American exceptionalist” wisdom) linked to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, consistent with James Madison’s observation that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense again real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.”




Explaining why he once associated with the “appalling” Reverend Wright, Obama’s Huffington Post essay notes that, “Rev. Wright preached the gospel of Jesus, a gospel on which I base my life.”


Is that right? In the spring of 1967, after he went public with his principled opposition to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King 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." 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" (how that’s for “disparaging our great country”?).   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 dictatorships.”


As King knew, his critical perspectives on America were not winning ideas in an American political system that functioned in accord with the intertwined imperatives of business rule, global empire, and white supremacy. They were moral observations that contained openly acknowledged radical-democratic policy implications that led far beyond the barriers of really existing U.S. politics.


They were also 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. As the prolific scholar Gary Wills notes in his book What Jesus Meant (2006), 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, this Jesus "rebuke[d] the followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others," 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" 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, King didn’t want to end up like Obama, who tries to wrap his candidacy in the coats of Jesus and King but who has made repeated statements and votes in defense of concentrated wealth and capitalism, who has repeatedly funded and defended the occupation of Iraq and the bloody invasion of Afghanistan(1)and who routinely supports the murderous and yes, to quote Rev. Wright “state-terrorist” actions of the Israeli Olmert government  against Arab people within and beyond Palestine. Building his life around “jockeying for authority” over fellow humans, Obama has further rejected the gospels he claims to hold dear by recently becoming a millionaire, thanks in part to his publication of a book whose title is stolen from a Jeremiah Wright sermon – “The Audacity of Hope.”  The book and the sermon are miles apart, morally and ideologically, reflecting Obama’s deep rightward drift into the maddeningly mealy-mouthed centrism of pseudo-progressive corporate-imperial neoliberalism.





It is a great testament to the abject degradation of U.S. political culture that Jeremiah Wright is an officially designated monster for daring to speak in strident terms about U.S. crimes of empire and racism but Obama gets to maintain his absurd reputation as a serious opponent of the Iraq occupation when he cannot even commit to banning Blackwater Worldwide from Mesopotamia and when he says things like this: “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.” (Obama speaking to General Motors workers in Janesville, WI on February 13, 2008)


“Putting Iraq back together?” Oh, Great One, is that what we’re doing with the current imperialist and racist (Rev. Wright is right about that) invasion, recently and credibly estimated (by the British polling agency Oxford Research Bureau)on the eve of its fifth anniversary to have killed 1.3 million Iraqis so far?


Yes, by all means, let’s stop sacrificing to “put Iraq back together.” That was a sick and scary thing to hear from the notoriously mealy-mouthed Senator Obama, who sent me a flyer asking me to “join the movement to end the war” by caucusing for him in Iowa. For those who know the depth and degree of the destruction inflicted on Iraq by two U.S. invasions, one ongoing, and more than a decade of deadly U.S.-imposed economic sanctions (embargo), Obama’s comment was nothing short of obscene. It’s actually quite appalling if you ask me.





The closer we get to the general election, the more and more it is going to dawn on entranced Americans that Obama is just another capitalist politician.  As the neoconservative New York Times columnist William Kristol – no common or natural ally of this essay’s author – recently noted in the wake of the Wright revelations:


“Obama seems to have seen, early in his career, the utility of joining a prominent church that would help him establish political roots in the community in which he lives.  Now he sees the utility of distancing himself from that church….”


“The more you learn about him, the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign.  But there’s not much audacity of hope there.  There’s the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit – all covered over with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate is different” (William Kristol, “Generation Obama? Perhaps Not,” New York Times, 17 March, 2008, p. A23.).


Penned though it may be by any leftist’s moral and ideological enemy – by a leading and enthusiastic advocate of the racist, arch-criminal, mass-murderous, and petro-imperialist Iraq occupation (launched with what Obama considers to be  "the best of itentions")– Kristol’s well-crafted judgment strikes me as all too perfectly accurate and on-point.  


Paul Street is an author, historian, and activist in Iowa City, IA.  His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). He can be reached at [email protected]


*This essay was written on the morning of March 18th 2008 as Obama delivered his certain-to-be worshipped "More Perfect Union" speech, addressing race and Reverend Wright in Philadelphia, PA. In that speech, Obama can be counted on to put some softer and more peaceful and loving edges around the authortarian nationalism accompanying his distancing from Rev. Wright on the Huffington Post. Fine, but the notoriously mealy-mouthed candidate should be held accountable for the Huffington essay on its own right, regardless of whatever spin he and his consultants and writers decide to choose this morning or tomorrow or next week.





1.  For some of the relevant details, please see Paul Street, "The Audacity of Deception," Black Agenda Report (December 12, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=463&Itemid=34; Street, "Obama’s Good and ‘Proper’ War," ZNet (March 5, 2008) read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16760


Leave a comment