Killing is Personal
Reflections on Morality, Structure, and Crimes of State
“I Like Obama”
Recently at a reception on a tour promoting my book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power, a young lady from Chicago refused to be photographed with me. When asked why later, she explained that “I can’t be pictured with Paul Street. I like Obama.” When told of this comment I flashed immediately to a comment by the prolific left author Chris Hedges. Reflecting on the power of advertising and manufactured illusion in the creation of a superficial “junk politics” culture that privileges personalities and trivia over substantive engagement with policy and morality, Hedges observed that:
“Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.”1
Based on the discussion I had with the young lady in question prior to the photograph that did not occur, I am fairly certain that she does or at least would (if properly informed) not NOT approve of the Obama administration’s monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, and its undermining of serious global carbon emission controls at Copenhagen last December She does or would not give a thumbs up to the Obama White House’s refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of key promises to labor and other popular constituencies, its escalation of imperial violence in South Asia, its record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, its roll-over and repackaging of George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights, its continuation and re-branding of the war on immigrants, its extension of the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, its aiding and abetting of a thuggish right wing coup regime in Honduras, and numerous the betrayals of its “progressive base” – the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate and military sponsors and backers. I’m pretty sure the young lady in question is opposed to such policies as these.
“Spectators are Not Supposed to Bother Their Heads With Issues”
But so what? She “likes Obama” and, thanks in part to that, it is questionable how much she has bothered to learn about his real policy actions. This is where we are in a political culture where millions of atomized citizens are reduced to the status of a corporate-managed electorate and led to make narrow-spectrum candidate decisions not on the on the basis of policy but in terms of who they want to “have a beer with” (not that the policy differences between the corporate-sponsored candidates are terribly great) and to define such limited exercises in fake popular governance as “politics” – the only politics that matters. 2 As Noam Chomsky noted in a speech in Boston in early February of 2008, the corporate, government, and academic elites who have crafted “modern democracy” since the rise of the American corporate and imperial eras have long believed that “the important work of the world is the domain of the ‘responsible men,’ who must ‘live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,’ the general public, ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ whose ‘function’ is to be ‘spectators,’ not ‘participants.’” Further:
“And spectators are not supposed to bother their heads with issues. The Wall Street Journal came close to the point in a major front-page article on super-Tuesday, under the heading "Issues Recede in '08 Contest As Voters Focus on Character." To put it more accurately, issues recede as candidates, party managers, and their PR agencies focus on character (qualities, etc.). As usual. And for sound reasons. Apart from the irrelevance of the population, they can be dangerous. The participants in action are surely aware that on a host of major issues, both political parties are well to the right of the general population, and that their positions that are quite consistent over time…It is important, then, for the attention of the herd to be diverted elsewhere.” 3
Chomsky’s observation here were consistent with his observations on a “public” radio story he heard in the early fall of 2006, by which time Obama’s candidacy for the presidency was easy to predict:
“When I was driving home the other day and listening to NPR – my masochist streak – they happened to have a long segment on Barack Obama. It was very favorable, really enthusiastic. Here is a new star in the political firmament. I was listening to see if the report would say anything about his position on the issues – any issue. Nothing. It was just about his image. I think they may have had a couple words about him being in favor of doing something about the climate. What are his positions on the issues? It just doesn’t matter. You read the articles. It’s the same. He gives hope. He looks right into your eyes when you talk to him. That’s what’s considered significant. Not ‘should we control our own resources? Should we nationalize our resources? Should we have water for people? Should we have health care systems? Should we stop carrying our aggression?’ No. That’s not mentioned. Because our electoral system, our political system has been driven to such a low level that issues are completely marginalized. You’re not supposed to know the information about the candidates.” 4
“Killing is Personal”
Hearing about the “I like Obama” comment, I also flashed to comments made by former Alaska senator Mike Gravel and an angry young Afghan man last year. After leading antiwar protestors in the chant, “Hey Obama, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today,” Gravel told activists not to “be afraid to make it personal when you criticize the president. Killing,” Gravel said, “is personal.” Indeed it is.
“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” Thus spoke a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day that Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Obama,” the man added, “has only brought war to our country.” The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of one hundred gathered around the bodies of twelve people, one family from a single home. The twelve had been killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late-night raid. “Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?” another village resident asked. “He claims to want to bring security to us, but he brings only death. Death to him.”Al Jazeera went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where an Obama-ordered U.S. bombing had butchered dozens of civilians the previous spring. “He doesn’t deserve the award,” a young woman said. “He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home.”5 In early May of 2009, U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in her village Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:
‘In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country. ‘
‘“The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,” Mr. Farahi said.’
‘ “Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.”
Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said.’6
The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many such mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan since October 2001 – was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province. 7
By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people of 9/11.8 The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died – stories that taken seriously by "mainstream" (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media. Orwell, Vonnegut, and Kafka would have been impressed. The U.S. subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that reduced the civilian body count drastically and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of U.S. bombs.9
Seven days after Obama received his Nobel, Yemeni opposition forces testified that many dozens of civilians, including a large number of children, had been killed in U.S. air raids in the southeast section of their country. The fighters reported the deaths of sixty-three people, twenty-eight of whom were children, in the province of Abyan.10 The killing command came directly from the president. As left commentator Barry Grey noted:
“US President Barack Obama personally issued the order for US air strikes in Yemen last Thursday which killed scores of civilians, including women and children.”
“US warplanes used cruise missiles against alleged Al Qaeda camps in the Abyan village of al Maajala, some 480 kilometers southeast of the capital Sana’a, and in the Arhab district, 60 kilometers to the northeast of Sana’a. The US strikes were apparently coordinated with the US-backed dictatorship of Yemen President Ali Abdallah Saleh.”
ABC World News reported that U.S. warplanes had been involved in the attacks. “White House officials tell ABC News,” reporter Brian Rose said, “the orders for the US military to attack the suspected Al Qaeda sites in Yemen on Thursday came directly from the Oval Office.” ABC also noted that Obama called Saleh after the slaughterer to “congratulate” him on the attacks.11 The Nobel-honored peacemaker Obama told Yemen’s ruler that the operation “confirms Yemen’s resolve in confronting the danger of terrorism…”12
Obama stayed in Oslo, Norway, where he got his Nobel, for just twenty-four hours, skipping the prize committee’s traditional second day of festivities. “This miffs some in Norway,” the Associated Press reported, “but reflects a White House that sees little value in extra pictures of the president, his poll numbers dropping at home, taking an overseas victory lap while thousands of U.S. troops prepare to go off to war and millions of Americans remain jobless.” A headline in Ohio calmly reported, “Nobel-Winning Obama Defends War in Call for Peace.”13
“The Roots are in the System Rather Than in Men or Faulty Operations”
I am aware of one common radical response to such moral criticism of the sort of disagreeable ruling class immorality as Obama has exhibited during his first 20 months in the White House. Obama, this response goes, “is just an outward reflection of deeper structural and institutional forces that brought him into being and which shape, delimit, and determine his choices and behavior. Let us not foolishly exaggerate the role of the individual and morality in history, the argument runs. Let’s not turn our take on his actions into some sort of silly little Charles Dickens moral fable like Oliver Twist, Hard Times or A Christmas Carol.” As George Orwell noted in a brilliant 1940 essay criticizing British Communist Party efforts to claim Dickens as a Marxist (“proletarian”) author,
“there isn’t a line [in Dickens’ work] that can be properly called Socialist; indeed, [Dickens’] tendency is if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough – that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: if men would behave decently the world would be decent.”
“Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of ….Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the Good Rich Man….always a kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and from, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail, and, in general, acting the fairy godmother.”
“It seems [Orwell noted,] that in every attack Dickens makes on society, he is always pointing top a change of spirit rather than a change of structure [,something that reflected Dickens’ failure]to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance.” 14
It’s the system, man! In the 1867 preface to the first German edition of Capital, Volume 1, Karl Marx famously acknowledged that he “paint[ed] the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose,” but denied that he had any particular moral gripe with individual capitalists. In Capital, Marx said, “individuals are dealt with only so far as they are the personification of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history,” Marx wrote, “can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (Volume 1, p. 10).
I was reminded of Marx’s formulation, oddly enough, by Barack Obama’s speech to the U.S. Congress on behalf of corporate-managed “health reform” in early September of 2009 After regaling his listeners with various ways in which “insurance companies treat their customers badly -- by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates” – Obama morally absolved the CEOs at the helm of these practices. “Insurance executives,” the president said, “don't do this because they're bad people; they do it because it's profitable. As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill, they are rewarded for it. All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called ‘Wall Street's relentless profit expectations.’"
Well, okay. I’m not much on making pleas for capitalists as individuals or a group (“the business community”) to behave in a more socially responsible and moral way. I do not share the great 19th century British novelist Dickens’ attachment to, and hope for, benevolent bourgeois elites who try to make things right for a few select members of the lower classes (e.g., Mr. Brownlow’s rescue of young Oliver Twist and the “good Scrooge’s” kind turn towards the Cratchets in A Christmas Tale). I do see the president largely as the chance personification of class relations and imperial, geo-strategic forces and interests. Consistent with the deeper systemic critique offered by the strong Dickens’ appreciator Marx, I give a strong thumbs-down to private property (and the profit motive) as operative forces in society’s key economic institutions and an equally strong thumbs up to “rebellious workers” (and rebellious citizens). In doing so I draw inspiration (for what its worth) not just from Marx but also, curiously enough, from president Obama’s supposed inspiration Dr. Martin Luther King, whose final address to the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called for the Civil Rights Movement amounted to a break with capitalism as the dominant principle and institutional forces in American society;
“I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about ‘Where do we go from here,’ that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”
“The black revolution,” King wrote in a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” Consistent with Marx and contrary to sentimental middle-class moralists and reformers before and since Dickens, King agreed with the New Left that, in his words in 1967, “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in men or faulty operations.”15
Still, I can’t completely shake the notion that insurance executives and imperial attackers of small children are “bad people,” or at least people behaving badly (to understate matters when it comes to bombing toddlers and denying them health coverage) in ways that deserve exposure and condemnation. People from the presidency on down are not simply vectors of empire and capital. The parasitic and deadly corporate, financial and imperial systems Obama and a mass of office-holders have chosen work for are socially and morally constructed phenomena. The dangers they pose to civilization, democracy, and human survival are grave and living human agents – especially those with wealth and power – bear no small measure of ethical responsibility for their persistence and transcendence. It is one thing to point out (in good structural/Marxist terms) that counseling the moral reform of individual capitalists on the model of Dickens’ benevolent bourgeois heroes falls short of the radical systemic change and related popular struggle required to undo the toxic profits structure that lay at the taproot of modern oppression and so many contemporary tragedies. It is another thing altogether to claim that individual capitalists are beyond personal and shared moral responsibility for contemporary evils. “Doing it because it’s profitable” and in accord with “Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations” is a moral decision on behalf of tyranny, one that brings terrible consequences for human beings and other living things. Much the same can be said with justice about the ugly Obama policy record mentioned above and recorded in greater detail in my new book The Empire’s New Clothes.
Like U.S. presidents before him, Obama has exhibited the pathological behavior and mindset of an imperial, plutocracy-serving war criminal. He has not behaved decently at all. Ask the survivors of his escalated, child-butchering drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ask the loved ones of activists slaughtered by the right wing government the Obama White House helped install in Honduras last year. No amount of structural and institutional analysis can or should exonerate the president or those who claim to “like Obama” while turning a blind and/or indifferent eye to the real content of his policies and, I would argue, character. “Then you like a murderer and terrorist who feeds the rich while poor folks starve and suffer,” is a fully appropriate response “Killing is personal” (Gravel) and immoral. So is torture, which continues under Obama at Guantanamo, at Bagram Air Force base and at other imperial outposts. So are illicit, neo-Hooverist FBI raids, recently ordered by the Obama Justice Department on antiwar activists in Chicago, the Twin Cities and other locations. So is the administration’s aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers (Pfc. Brad Manning, for example) willing to risk their freedom and lives to expose the truth about criminal U.S. policies. And so is the transfer of trillions of federal dollars to aristocratic financial interests who destroy economic health while millions of Americans are left to ask “where’s my bailout?” as they run out of ammunition in the war against economic destitution.
We must not be reluctant to denounce these things in personal and moral terms. And we must not be bedazzled by the smiling, jocular, charismatic, and colorful personalities the masters push out front to put a seemingly human, like-able face on the savage inequalities and injustice imposed by the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street is currently completing a book titled “Crashing the Tea Party,” co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Chris Hedges, “Buying Brand Obama,” Truthdig (May 3, 2009), read at http://www.truthdig.com/
2. Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, 1-8; Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 126-132 Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2009); Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006). Paul Street, “Bush, Kerry, and ‘Body Language’ v. ‘Message.’ Notes on Race, Gender, Empire and Mass Infantilization,” ZNet Magazine (October 12, 2004).
3. Noam Chomsky, “’Good News’: Iraq and Beyond,” ZNet (February 16, 20088), read at http://www.zcommunications.
4. Noam Chomsky, What We Say Goes: Conversation on U.S. Power in a Changing World (New York: Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 52-54.
5. Al Jazeera English, “Afghans Anger at Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize,” YouTube, December 10, 2009, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=
6. Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, "Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War," New York Times, May 6, 2009.
7. Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths;”
8. Christina Boyle, "President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake' After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York," New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, "Presidential Plane's Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, "Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco," Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.
9. Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/
10. “U.S. Kill 63 Civilians, 28 Children in Yemen Air Strikes,” Press TV Video Report, December 18, 2009, atwww.informationclearinghouse.
11. Barry Grey, “Obama Ordered U.S. Air Strikes on Yemen,” World Socialist Web Site, December 21, 2009, atwww.wsws.org/articles/2009/
12. “Yemen Opposition Says Government Attack Killed Civilians,” Reuters, December 18, 2009.
13. Ben Feller, “Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize With Robust Defense of War,” Associated Press (December 10, 2010). See alsohttp://www.wgal.com/politics/
14. George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” (1940), reproduced in George Orwell, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 416-17, 427-28
15. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), chapter two reproduced in King, A Testament of Hope, quotation on 642. By “materialism” and “the system,” King largely meant “capitalism,” whose “evils” he had come by the middle and late 1960s to call “as real as the evils of racism and militarism.” In a 1966 speech to his staff, King said that “we are saying that something is wrong with…with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America should move toward a Democratic Socialism.” According to one of his aides, King would commonly demand that his assistants “turn off the tape recorder” while he held forth on the virtues of “what he called democratic socialism” and his belief that the needs of the poor could not be met under capitalism. “If we are going to achieve equality," King told a young Civil Rights worker (Charles Fager) in a Selma, Alabama jail in the winter, “the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism. See Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (New York: Maryknoll, 1996), 101; David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986), 382.