Things Not Heard in Obama’s Acceptance Speech

The men and women who gathered there could have heard many things


- Barack Obama, speaking of the people who listened to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech (on August 28, 1963) during his Democratic Convention Nomination Acceptance Speech in Denver, Colorado, August 28, 2008. 


Barack Obama’s grandiose oration before 84,000 listeners at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last Thursday night was a masterpiece in the combined arts of mass propaganda and managed democracy.


Brand Obama directed anger and criticism at the arch-regressive Republican agenda, the “failed policies of George W. Bush,” and the dangerous and deceptive John McCain. Obama delivered clever and biting lines on McCain and the Republicans’ aristocratic distance from the lived realities of economic pain in the American heartland. Obama mocked the Republicans’ self-serving notion of an “Ownership Society,” observing that this phrase translates into the abandonment and shaming of ordinary working people.


His eyes flared as he skewered McCain and the Republicans for supporting “tax breaks for big corporations,” the privatization of Social Security, and the like.


He invoked the difficult experience of working Americans struggling to reap “the American promise” of upward mobility and economic security for those who “play by the rules” and work hard while exercising “personal responsibility.” 


He showed a glimmer of the populist outrage that has been so sorely missing from his campaign, leading many observers to see him as Dukakis/Gore/Kerry 2.0.   


Fine, but anybody who wants to believe that Obama’s Latest Greatest Speech placed his campaign outside the standard capitalist, and imperial parameters of the American political tradition is living in a dream world. They are interpreting power as they wish it to be, not as it is.  


Beneath occasionally populist-sounding rhetoric, Obama offered no fundamental challenge to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. His populace-pleasing anger was for show.  It was meant to provide deceptive rebel’s clothing for a deeper underlying commitment to empire, inequality, and American exceptionalism, incorporated.


Obama’s latest celebrated sermon made no effort to transcend the narrow and elitist boundaries of the American “one-and-a-half party” system and authoritarian, narrow-spectrum business- and Empire-friendly U.S. political culture. Its proposals came nowhere close to meeting the real needs of the poor and working-class majority whose plight the millionaire senator Obama used as a rhetorical device to recapture his recently faded standing in the daily tracking polls. It did not begin to match the monumental misery caused by U.S., institutions, policies, “values,” and practices at home and abroad.   


Like John McCain, Obama made no call for an immediate end to the criminal occupation of Iraq – an occupation Obama will clearly continue and which he has long supported in numerous ways both fiscal and rhetorical.


Like McCain, Obama made no mention of the 1.2 million Iraqi’s killed by America’s wicked invasion – an attack Obama has absurdly attributed to the Bush II administration’s supposed noble but excessive commitment to exporting democracy. 


Obama had nothing to say about the illegal, immoral, and brazenly imperial, oil-driven nature of “America’s” rape of Mesopotamia.   


He did not call for an end to the equally illegal occupation of Afghanistan, a bloody imperial incursion Obama hopes to escalate.


He repeated his offensive claim that the U.S. is “a nation at war” – a preposterous way to describe an imperial state that is waging one-sided colonial campaigns on another side of the world. Most Americans go through their daily lives entirely free of “war’s” demands and sacrifices while “their” government imposes a veritable Holocaust on Iraq and murders civilians in Afghanistan.  


Obama did not call for deep cuts in the U.S. military budget to free up billions and even trillions of dollars for social programs to end poverty and reduce inequality in America. He did not pick up on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that the U.S. should stop spending half of its federal budget on a mammoth “defense” (actually about what the Pentagon calls “forward force projection”) system that maintains more than 720 foreign military bases (located across nearly every nation on Earth) and accounts for half the world’s military spending.


Obama did not note that this vast and expensive Empire poses a grave threat to the physical and economic security and the political freedom of U.S. citizens by diverting money from social programs, provoking “anti-American” anger and “blowback” around the world and justifying U.S. attacks on civil liberties at home and abroad.


Obama did not join King in observing that a nation reaches “spiritual death” when it spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year on a cancerous military-industrial complex while millions of its own children live in poverty.


He did not call for the introduction of free health care for all, paid for by the federal government.


He did not propose a government guarantee of meaningful, socially useful and decently remunerative employment to everyone who needs a job. 


He did not call for massive government housing relief for millions dealing with foreclosure and eviction.


He did not call for a guaranteed national income set at the real cost of a minimally decent living in the U.S.


He did not denounce the grotesque mal-distribution of wealth in the U.S., the world’s most unequal industrialized and wealth top-heavy state by far – a nation where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and a probably larger share of its politicians and policymakers. He said that “this country of ours has more wealth than any other nation” without bothering to mention the profoundly regressive way in which that “national wealth” is allotted insides the U.S. He said nothing about the harshly fixed lines of class immobility which ensure that the children of rich parents tend to stay rich (no matter how “personally irresponsible” the Few’s progeny may be) while children of poor parents tend to stay poor no matter how “personally responsible” they may be in the U.S.


He did not mention the shocking and growing number of Americans living in poverty and extreme poverty


He did not call for radical changes in the nation’s tax and spending policies to fund social uplift and reconstruction.


He did not advance union organizing rights to rebuild and expand the labor movement, the single greatest anti-poverty program in American history.


He did not call for the introduction of participatory and egalitarian labor process and workplaces or for the re-orientation of the nation’s core economic activities around social utility and use value, not hierarchy and private profit. 


He gave no mention to the deep and persistent problem of institutional racism in American life, a difficulty so great that the median black household’s net worth is equivalent to seven cents on the median white household dollar.


He did not call for an end to the racist War on Drugs, which feeds a globally unmatched U.S. prison state that places a million black Americans behind bars and saddles one in three adult black males with the lifelong mark of a felony record.


He did not note the danger that his candidacy and the success of other prominent, upper-class blacks threatens to deepen “post-Civil Rights” America’s chronic national blindness to persistent underlying racial oppression while reinforcing white America’s toxic habit of explaining racial disparities purely in terms of black Americans’ own alleged personal and cultural failures. This is a habit that Obama has furthered on more than one occasion, both directly and indirectly.


For all his claims of anger at the “politics of the past,” Obama did not call for the full public financing of U.S. elections or for other measures to end the wildly disproportionate influence of the privileged and corporate Few on America’s “dollar democracy” – the best that money can and did buy. 


He did not call for the reform of election laws to open political debate and contest up to progressive non-corporate parties and thereby to create electoral choices that accurately reflect the real spectrum of U.S. public opinion on key policy issues.


He did not call for restricting the right of corporations to draft laws governing their industries.


He did not advocate making it illegal for corporations to use shareholder funds for political purposes.


He did not call for forbidding former high-level politicians from becoming business lobbyists for ten years or more.


He did not advocate forbidding former high-level corporate officers from sitting on commissions with regulatory power over their industries.


He did not call for making it illegal for corporations to try to influence their employees’ votes.


He did not call for the repeal of “investor rights” clauses in trade agreements, which let foreign and multinational corporations sue a national government for passing environmental, safety (job and consumer), labor, and/or anti-discrimination laws.


He did not call for the break-up the powerful corporate media monopoly through the vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws and the introduction of strict limits on what percentage of local and national media can be owned by single firms.


He did not call for the expansion of public media and the provision of significant new public subsidies and other resources for alternative and grassroots citizen’s media.


He did not call for new corporate charters that redefine big business as a public entity required to serve the public interest and the common good and to be accountable to the broader community.


Blaming America’s problems almost entirely on the Republicans, Obama gave no indication of knowing that his own corporate-captive and militantly militaristic party has been fully complicit and centrally involved in crafting and implementing the corporate-neoliberal policies of Empire and Inequality that have done so much interrelated harm at home and abroad.  Corporate Democrats remained invisible in his discourse.



Of course, there is nothing surprising about Obama’s deafening silence on policies and other matters that would be at the forefront of any serious progressive left “change” agenda.  As Howard Zinn noted last March, “the Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from fellow, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”  There is no radical or populist “rebellion from below” worth mentioning right now. There’s nobody holding Obama’s feet to the fire on the left and from the bottom up at present.  Indeed many of the people who should be doing precisely that have become captive, Kool-Aid-drinking Obamaniacs. The “antiwar movement’s” miniscule showing in Denver was due in part to many “Left” leaders’ childish and/or cynical notion that Obama is a progressive antiwar candidate.  


Serious progressives need to get over that illusion – they might need to see their hero operate in the oval office to do so – and to aggressively embrace the progressive agenda that Obama did not give voice to last night. Along the way they need to appreciate the wisdom of Noam Chomsky’s commentary on the eve of the last great corporate-crafted narrow-spectrum candidate-centered U.S. election spectacle:


“A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’  But it isn’t.  It’s only a small part of politics. ..The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power…  In the election, sensible choices have to be made.  But they are secondary to serious political action.  The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (Chomsky, Interventions [San Francisco, 2007] pp. 99-100).        


It is true that Obama couldn’t say much of what I criticize him for leaving out without opening himself up to massive and deadly corporate assault. The big money actors who run the hidden ruling-class primary behind the egalitarian façade of America’s “managed democracy” have their ways of undermining anybody who seriously questions concentrated power. So yes, the deeply conservative Obama’s silence on issues that matter to true progressives reflects the rules of the U.S. electoral game.  Those rules must be followed by any candidate who is seriously “in it to win it.”


Fine, but then maybe – as Chomsky suggested right before the last great presidential freak show – progressive U.S. politics aren’t primarily or even all that much about presidential elections. Maybe progressives need to do more to demote the capitalist ballot game and focus more on movement activism across and between election cycles.  Maybe the real and urgent politics that matters most is about rebuilding and expanding popular organization and democratic institutions and values and capacities beneath and beyond the big clashes of mass-marketed candidate brands. Maybe it’s about developing a grassroots political culture and movement and a regularly engaged and participatory citizenry, not expanding a managed “electorate” that is “bamboozled” and “hoodwinked” by Democrats and Republicans alike. Maybe true progressives need to de-emphasize the Masters’ personality-focused political burlesque and “Election Trap” (Charles Derber’s excellent term) and focus more on “serious political action” before and after the partial, deceptive, and predictably betrayed promises and telling silences of the quadrennial election spectacles.



Paul Street’s latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987) Paul can be reached at [email protected]

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