Theater of the Absurd

If want to keep up with United States political culture, you’d better have a strong stomach for the absurd. Four days ago (I am writing on Sunday, May 24th), for example, U.S. President Barack Obama made a stirring speech to graduating U.S. Coast Guard cadets about the scientifically proven reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Obama discussed climate change as a grave peril to “our national security” that “undermines the readiness of our [military] forces.” He failed to note that the ecological impact of AGW has transcended nuclear war as the leading threat to the continued viability of human life on Earth.

That was pretty absurd.  So was the spectacle of the president speaking against the specter of AGW after he had just recently cleared the way for the giant global and climate-changing oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to petro-pillage the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. The company’s drilling leases are in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a decent future.” Environmental groups have long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

More than five years ago, Obama almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the skids for the United States’ fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of so-called energy independence. Such is the record of a president who was elected on a promise to (among other things) reduce climate change.

And the “first green president” is not done contributing to the very process he described to Coast Card graduates as a dire threat to U.S. security. Obama is pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress over and against the public’s understandable suspicion of such “free trade” (investor rights) agreements. As the environmental group Friends of the Earth reminds us, the TPP is “a platform for economic integration and government deregulation for nations surrounding the Pacific…The TPP is a potential danger to the planet, subverting environmental priorities, such as climate change measures and regulation of mining, land use, and bio-technology.”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to Obama’s Arctic Ocean move, but surprise is not one of them.

Next time you see a liberal Democrat U.S. environmentalist, ask him (to amend the absurd Sarah Palin): “so how’s that hopey-climate-changey thing working out for ya?”

Populist Hillary Clinton
Meanwhile, the front-running U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has recently been spending a lot of time in Iowa in local coffee shops, restaurants, and community colleges.  She’s impersonating a nice middle-class lady who wants to fix the rules of game so that the wealthy corporate and financial Few no longer dominate the country and “everyday people” get a fair shake.  She’s striking the populist pose.

It’s a farce. As New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan recently noted, the Clintons “operate…in an international orbit” and “a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place.” Mrs. Clinton enjoys a net worth of $13 million and “a high-flying lifestyle” (Politico). New disclosure forms revealed last week that she and her husband “earned” $30 million since January of last year. Most of that money – more than $25 million — came from roughly 100 paid speaking engagements given largely to elite corporate and financial audiences.

The Clintons’ long pro-Big Business, militantly neoliberal policy record (a topic I addressed in a recent ZNet essay) is richly consistent with these opulent wealth and “earnings” (takings). It’s unsettling to see Hillary masquerading as a champion of “everyday people” in their struggle with the plutocratic 1 percent. It’s absurd.

Still, many “mainstream” media personnel seem absurdly willing to play along with the fake-populist ruse.  During a recent discussion of the social Democrat Bernie Sanders’ bid to challenge Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries on the “P”BS Newshour, the constantly smiling political commentator Amy Walter pronounced that Hillary had gone so far left that “on economic issues, I don’t know that there is that much room for somebody like Bernie Sanders to outflank her.”

That was an absurd comment. There’d be quite a bit of such room if reporters and commentators like Walter would decide to function as serious investigators instead of corporate hacks.  Any honest and thoughtful look at Sanders’ 12-point program would identify numerous areas where he stands well to the progressive portside of Hillary Clinton on economic issues.

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders
Not that Sanders is beyond nonsense. He has courageously identified himself with the social-democratic policies of Scandinavia, going on ABC News to say that the US has a lot to learn Sweden, Norway, and Denmark when it comes to social programs and the distribution of wealth and income.  He fails, however, to call for the significant reductions in the United States’ giant “defense” (empire) budget, which eats up 57% of U.S. federal discretionary spending and accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. Giant cuts in the nation’s gargantuan war budget would be required to implement his populist economic program and implement the “Nordic model” of welfare capitalism. The Scandinavian states have tiny military budgets compared to the U.S., something Sanders fails to mention in accord with his continuing faith in, or refusal to openly question, the necessity and virtue of the Pentagon System – and in accord with his own captivity to so-called military Keynesianism. Here he is repeating the most elementarily obvious mistake of previous Democratic Party- and Empire-captive U.S. “socialists”– people like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington – who failed to forthrightly oppose the military system even as it strangled the War on Poverty in its fiscal cradle. Absurd.

Of course, you can almost hear Sanders and his advisors discussing the untouchable nature of the US military budget in light of media reports on the continuing forward march of the barbaric and arch-reactionary Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria, and (apparently now even) Libya. Who could make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency calling for the slashing of the Pentagon budget while the nightly news carries regular chilling images of depraved, arch-fundamentalist IS head-choppers on the black-flagged rise?

The deeper absurdity, of course, is that the IS is largely the creation of the very U.S. military empire that no serious U.S. Democratic presidential candidate is willing to seriously confront.  The mindless devastation criminally imposed on Iraq – on absurdly false pretexts – by the  world’s greatest killing, dismembering, destroying, and displacing machine (the U.S. military) in the openly absurd name of “Iraqi Freedom” gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq and then to the Islamic State. U.S.-led Western support for a prolonged and bloody armed uprising in Syria re-destabilized Iraq and expanded the jihadist base in Syria (where al-Qaeda-like elements easily hijacked the “moderate opposition” to the Assad regime).  As the heroic British Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes:

“ISIS is the child of war…The movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.  Just as violence in Iraq was ebbing, the war was revived by the Sunni Arabs in Syria…it was the war in Syria that destabilized [bordering] Iraq when jihadi groups like ISIS, then called al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a new battlefield where they could fight and flourish…It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.  They kept the war going in Syria, though it was obvious from 2012 that Assad would not fall…He was not about to go, and ideal conditions were created for ISIS to prosper.”

Nobel Peace Farce

Elected in the brand name of peace, Barack Obama has joked to his White House staff that he is “good at killing people.” He is also proficient at broadening the political and ideological spread of jihad by widening the geographic reach and the frequency of America’s practice of murdering people suddenly from the sky. George W. Bush may have him beat when it comes to body count, but Obama takes the prize when it comes to technologically sophisticated killing scope and personal involvement in imperial homicide. Obama individually oversees the Pentagon and CIA’s Kill List, which designates “bad guy” Muslims for remote-control assassination without the irritating technicalities of law and politics – and without the risk of U.S. casualties. These cowardly killings and their considerable collateral damage have been remarkably effective, emotionally potent jihadist recruiting bonanzas from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and indeed in Muslim communities around the world.

They have also mocked the Nobel Peace Prize that some silly Scandinavians preposterously gave Obama in 2009 – and the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King that sits behind Obama in the Oval Office.  Perhaps the Nobel committee hoped that Obama would be guided by the revered award in the same way that Dr. King was four decades earlier. As King said on April 4, 1967, explaining why he could not stay silent on the U.S. crime in Vietnam, “a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace.”

Obama has taken a rather different path, keeping the American “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn’s excellent metaphor). In light of extensive advance warnings produced by a hardy cadre of U.S. and other (e.g. the Australian writer and filmmaker John Pilger) Left writers and activists (this writer included), it was foolish for the Nobel selectors to expect anything else from Kill List Obama.  It’s a useful reminder that the United States has no monopoly on elite absurdity.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


  1. Chris Reed May 30, 2015 10:12 am 

    Paul:’ Back in 2012 Obama had an opponent in the primary. Seems
    That a jail bird from Texas used some obscure technicality to get on the ballot and he got 42%. the polite white tennis club circuit was all aghast, a trigger happy to the point of pointing their finger at the country cousins down in the coal fields, if truth be told the hillbillies down that way aren’t real keen on being the foil in the mile wide inch deep rocky shores of what passes for multiculturalism. (Remember when Obama sideswiped the PA Hillbillies on the campaign trail in 08′). Cruising through South Hills in 2012 you would see a blue out of Obama Biden signs. Recently there was a flap when the school board was talking out re districting part of that district down to South Charleston. Quelle Horror! It’s one thing for Biff and Muffy and all the scions of coal barons to put a sign in the yard, quite another matter to send their kids to school with the Johnsons and Washingtons. More shrimp please!

  2. Chris Reed May 29, 2015 9:30 am 

    Paul: Thanks to you guys at Z and Black Agenda. Y’all been given as the
    skivy on that chump from day one. Seems like it’s much the same story
    every where you go across this fair land of ours.’Democrat Party is ate
    Up with a bunch of third rate jocks, Ivy League legacy babies, carpet baggers, and the occasional parlor pink-hope changey pretty much got the first three nailed down.
    And the Hannity’s and linebaugh crowd swears on a stack of proverbial bibles that he is not a Fabian but a closet Bolshevik. I haven’t spent much time in Chicago-but I did spend a week their at the McCormack back in ’75 with my best bud the future South Hills bank robber whose dad fought Max Baer and Joe Louis twice and was left standing in one fight, but I digress. It seems to me at this point that America public has a little trouble processing radical politics. I’m not saying us hillbillies on the Kanawha can hang with you’re alls south Siders, but we can take down our country cousins down in Kentucky in football, and take down the Texans in roundball. What I’m saying is that the politicos ain’t got no game. Whose that fool postin up on the mean streets of Honolulu-Chang and some Japanese kid. I’m guessing the Filipino kids were given him more than he could handle. By the way, no body surfing is not a sport. Back here in the hills the Greek and Arab kids got game and even the Jewish kids could talk a little smack. The hillbilly girls slide in head first and take down a deer with an arrow from 50 paces. I got one word for that turkey “soft.”

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