Obama's Audacious Deference
Obama's Audacious Deference
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (
Now that Barack Obama has made the obvious next to finally official by declaring a presidential â€œexploratory committee,â€ we can be sure that the Republicans Noise Machine will portray him as a dangerous agent of the â€œleft.â€ The claim that the centrist, corporate-neoliberal Obama is a man of the left will be totally absurd (see Paul Street, â€œThe Obama Illusion,â€ forthcoming in
But this will hardly stop numerous commentators on the nominal portside of
A recent example of this misunderstanding can be found in â€œThe Nation.â€ In the January 29th issue of that left-liberal weekly, critic George Scialabba includes Obamaâ€™s ponderous campaign volume â€œThe Audacity of Hope: Thoughts Towards Reclaiming the American Dreamâ€ (2006) in a review of books dedicated to defending â€œdemocratic governance,â€ the common good and the legacy of the New Deal against corporate depredation. The books appraised by Scialabba include four manuscripts strongly rooted in the populist, anti-plutocratic tradition: David Sirotaâ€™s â€œHostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Governmentâ€ (New York: Crown, 2006); Mark Greenâ€™s â€œLosing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans For Profitâ€ (Sourcebooks, 2006); Steven Hill, â€œ10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: An Ownersâ€™ Manual for Concerned Citizensâ€ (Polipoint, 2006); and Greg Palastâ€™s â€œArmed Madhouseâ€ (Dutton, 2006).
At the end of his review, Scialabba claims that â€œjust about allâ€ of Obamaâ€™s positions are â€œreasonableâ€ and â€œprogressive.â€ He praises Obama as â€œthe most intelligent, honest and idealistic of the Democratic presidential candidatesâ€ (George Scialabba, â€œThe Work Cut Out For Us,â€ The Nation, January 29, 2007, pp. 23-27).
This does not say much for the depth and degree of the Democratic Partyâ€™s progressivism â€“ or Scialabbaâ€™s.
â€œLONGING FOR ORDERâ€
It also leads me to wonder if Scialabba bothered to read Obamaâ€™s book beyond the dust jacket. Did Scialabba see the part where Obama relates youthful discomfort with his college roommatesâ€™ â€œirresponsibleâ€ criticism of â€œcapitalismâ€ and then confesses respect for Ronald Reaganâ€™s supposed success in embodying what Obama calls â€œAmericanâ€™s longing for orderâ€ (p. 31)?
How about the part where Obama commends â€œthe need to raise money from economic elites to finance electionsâ€ for â€œprevent[ing] Democrats...from straying too far from the centerâ€ and for marginalizing â€œthose within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotryâ€ (p. 38) and â€œradical ideasâ€ (like peace and justice)?
Obama also praises fellow centrist Senators John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Hilary Clinton (D-NY) for â€œbelieving in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. militaryâ€ and embracing â€œthe virtues of capitalismâ€ (p. 38). He applauds his â€œrecognizably progressiveâ€
DONWSIZING POPULAR HOPES FOR THE NEOLIBERAL ERA
Curiously enough for Scialabbaâ€˜s identification of Obama with defense of the New Deal, Obama contends that defense of New Deal and Great Society programs is contrary to â€œthe changing circumstances of globalizationâ€ (p.38).
Following the Clintonian path of centrist triangulation, Obama claims that the 1960s New Left expressed the same self-indulgent â€œmore absolutismâ€ (pp. 26-33) that animated the New Right.
The American people, Obama argues, harbor only modest expectation of their government (p.7), reflecting little concern (by Obamaâ€™s account) with traditional left goals of social justice and equality. Thereâ€™s no room in Obamaâ€™s downsized image of popular â€œhopesâ€ for the citizenryâ€™s widespread disgust at savage socioeconomic inequity in the
In Obamaâ€™s brand of â€œprogressivism,â€ serious concern over the nationâ€™s harsh disparities is consigned to leftist â€œcranksâ€ and other assorted â€œunreasonable zealotsâ€ â€“ people walking in the â€œabsolutistâ€ footsteps of Marx, the New Left, and (though Obama would never acknowledge this) the democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since they reasonably reject â€œideologyâ€ and the â€œmoral absolutismâ€ of both Left and Right, Obama feels, the moderately (barely) hopeful American people know better than to push for equality. They embrace â€œrealistic,â€ scaled-down ambitions that are marvelously aligned with the neoliberal project of reducing governmentâ€™s essential functions to serving the needs of the investor class, fighting wars, punishing (and warehousing) the poor and repressing dissent.
THE NOBLE CONSTRAINTS OF BIRTH AND RANK AND THE â€œINTOXICATING DANGERâ€ OF EQUALITY
I wonder if Scialabba saw the passage where the â€œprogressiveâ€ Obams praises the
How thatâ€™s for openly embracing authoritarian class rule?
EMPATHY FOR THE OPPRESSOR
Then thereâ€™s the section where Obama claims that the monumental war criminal, arch-authoritarian and hyper-plutocrat George W. Bush â€œand the people around himâ€ â€“ a reference that would especially include the filthy rich crypto-fascist Dick Cheney â€“ â€œto be pretty much like everyone else.â€ The Bush-Cheney gang-bangers are â€œpossessed,â€ Obama says, â€œof the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries as the rest of us.â€
It would be interesting to ask some long-injured
Such veterans shouldnâ€™t harbor bitterness towards their war-evading superiors, Obama says. He argues that â€œthose who are struggling â€“ or those who claim to speak for those who are strugglingâ€ are not â€œfreed from trying to understand the perspectives those who are better off.â€ The duty to feel â€œempathy,â€ he feels, is shared by the â€œthe powerlessâ€ and â€œthe oppressedâ€ as well as â€œthe powerfulâ€ and â€œthe oppressorâ€ (p. 68).
Slaves need to understand and empathize with their masters.
At the same time, Obama feels, poor Americans need to understood how well off and â€œfreeâ€ they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and
If Americans have rejected â€œ
Obama is impressively committed to whitewashing the American past in accord with dominant national doctrine. He cites early Americansâ€™ purported faith in â€œself-reliance,â€ â€œhard work,â€ and â€œfree willâ€ (p. 54)as the source of the early Republicâ€™s â€œfree marketâ€ development, ignoring slaveryâ€™s role in (a) violating the nationâ€™s proclaimed republican virtues and (b) laying critical capital-accumulationist foundation for the early expansion of the American â€œfree marketâ€ empire. He writes warmly of the â€œgrand compromiseâ€ (p.75) found in the Constitutional bargain between the Northern and the Southern states â€“ the one that approved and empowered black chattel slavery as the core, defining and federally protected political-economic institution of the U.S. South. He deftly inserts â€œproperty rightsâ€ (p. 86) into his list of the great â€œindividual libertiesâ€ guaranteed by the Founders, deleting a critical conflict that shaped the early republic: that between human rights and property rights, the latter referring to the special, structurally super-empowered citizenship rights granted to the relatively small part of the population that owned large amounts of property.
Obama falsely conflates â€œdemocracyâ€ with â€œthe republican form of governmentâ€ that the Founders preferred as an effective barrier to their ultimate nightmare â€“ popular democracy. He appears not to understand that the nationâ€™s constitutional fathers saw republican governance as a bulwark against democracy and a more reliable protector of â€œproperty rightsâ€ and class privilege than monarchical absolutism. He misses and misrepresents the main reason that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders argued for a geographically extensive nation-state: to more effectively preserve the tyranny of the propertied few and keep the threat of popular democracy at bay (pp. 87-94).
Obama incorrectly claims that Abraham Lincoln was â€œunyielding in his opposition to slaveryâ€ (p. 97). He praises Woodrow Wilson for seeing that â€œit was in Americaâ€™s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples [emphasis added] and provide the world a legal framework that could help avoid future conflictsâ€ (p. 283).
Too bad the
â€œWhile supervising the takeover of
Obama praises U.S. Cold War foreign policymakers for combining â€œWilsonian idealismâ€ with â€œhumility regarding
Not content merely to whitewash American history, Obama whitewashes the reactionary whitewashing of the American past in
Wow. Obama might want to have a look at James Loewenâ€™s bestselling book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong [
â€œOUR GREATEST ASSETâ€: CAPITALISM
I wonder if Scialabba read the part where Obama roots the greatness of
It is left to alienated carpers, â€œcranksâ€ and â€œmoral absolutistsâ€ of the â€œunreasonableâ€ left (Obamaâ€™s basic understanding of radicals) to observe the terrible outcomes of â€œourâ€ distinctively anti-social (and incidentally heavily state-protected) â€œmarket system.â€ Those unfortunate results include the marvelously â€œefficient,â€ climate-warming contributions of a nation that constitutes 5 percent of the worldâ€™s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planetâ€™s carbon emissions. Other notable products include the innovative generation of poverty for millions of
It is left the radical lunatic fringe to decry the American Systemâ€™s not-so efficient allocation of half the nationâ€™s wealth to the top 1 percent of the population. â€œUnreasonableâ€ Marxists, left-anarchists and â€œconspiracy theoristsâ€ are left to note that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal â€œindividual initiativeâ€ from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of imbecilic operations conducted for such unbearably long stretches of time that ordinary Americans are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the grand â€œdeliberative democracyâ€ (p. 92)that Obama trumpets as the Foundersâ€™ great gift to subsequent generations.
COLOB BIND: REASSURING THE MASTER RACE
Then thereâ€™s the chapter (simply titled â€œRaceâ€) where Obama tries to cover his ass with white
Never mind that lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continue to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Or that multidimensional racial discrimination is still rife in â€œpost-Civil Rights America,â€ deeply woven into the fabric of the nationâ€™s social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of centuries of not- so â€œpastâ€ racism. Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black â€œracial victimizationâ€ is a â€œthing of the pastâ€ was remotely accurate (see, for example, Joel Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations [New York, NY: Routledge, 2000] and Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society [Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003]).
White fears that Obama will reawaken the tragically unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights are further soothed by his claim that most black Americans have been â€œpulled into the economic mainstreamâ€ (pp. 248-49). Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh (!) that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty.
EMBRACING THE ASSAULT ON PUBLIC ASSISTANCE
I wonder if Scialabba read â€œprogressiveâ€ Obamaâ€™s claim that â€œconservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare.â€ The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claims, â€œsappedâ€ inner-city blacks of their â€œinitiativeâ€ and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including â€œindependence,â€ â€œincome,â€ â€œorder, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoplesâ€™ lives.â€ He argues that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is â€œthe single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city povertyâ€ (p. 256).
Never mind the absence of social-scientific evidence for the â€œconservativeâ€ claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated â€œintergenerational poverty.â€ Forget the existence of numerous studies showing that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and â€œwelfare dependency.â€ Disregard research showing that black teenage pregnancy reflects the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nationâ€™s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos. Forget that the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner-city poverty would be to make the simple and elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income â€“ something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and that other dangerous left â€œmoral absolutist,â€ Richard Nixon. And never mind the dominant place in the U.S of a structurally â€œpervertedâ€ (as King used to say) social order that grants hundreds of millions of dollars to parasitic hedge fund manipulators and murderous war masters while plaguing those who want to work for democracy, peace and social justice with constant economic insecurity.
â€œTHE WORST CASUALTY OF THAT WARâ€
Some of the worst parts of Obamaâ€™s paean to the
â€œThe disastrous consequences of that conflict â€“ for our credibility and prestige abroad, for our armed forces (which would take a generation to recover), and most of all for those who fought â€“ have been amply documented. But perhaps the biggest casualty of that war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government â€“ and between American themselves. As a consequence of a more aggressive press corps and the images of body bags flooding into the living rooms, Americans began to realize that the best and the brightest in
It is left to hopelessly alienated carpers of the â€œmoral absolutistâ€ left to point out that Vietnam wasnâ€™t Americaâ€™s to â€œloseâ€ in the first place and that the U.S assault on Indochina was consistent with the wider U.S. foreign policy aim of subordinating Third World development to the perceived needs of world capitalist order.
As for the supposed tragedy of the frayed â€œbond of trust between the American people and their government,â€ it is left to the aforementioned â€œunrealisticâ€ carpers and â€œcranksâ€ to note that the so-called â€œVietnam Syndromeâ€ is a healthy thing. Itâ€™s wonderful, many progressives know, that the American people subject â€œtheirâ€ foreign policy establishment to skeptical scrutiny and turn against a racist, imperialist, and illegal war. Itâ€™s fantastic that some of us understand the class basis of the imperialism that Obama sees as the mythological creation of left â€œcaricatureâ€ (p. 288).
Obama cannot acknowledge that the previous supposed â€œbond of trustâ€ (whose dissolution he mourns) between the American people and â€œtheirâ€ government was based largely on Establishment lies calculated to â€œscare the Hell out of theâ€ citizenry with exaggerated Soviet and international â€œCommunistâ€ threats. The deceptions were meant to induce the
Its left to unreconstructed radicals like this reviewer to note that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom the technically black Obama loves to quote and cite with the radical content deleted) was among those â€œon the leftâ€ who saw the Vietnam War as an expression of Americaâ€™s imperialism and racism and its related captivity to what that radical leftist Dwight Eisenhower reasonably identified as the â€œmilitary industrial complex.â€ King came to those conclusions and went beyond them by tying it all to race and class rule within the imperial homeland.
It is left for â€œunreasonableâ€ â€œzealotsâ€ of the radical fringe to note that â€œbiggest casualtyâ€ of the war on
With perhaps as many 700,000 Iraqis killed so far by â€œOperation Iraqi Freedomâ€ (O.I.F.), the people of
A DUMB WAR BUT NOT A CRIMINAL ONE
Given his terrible take on
The over-obvious petro-imperialist ambitions behind the occupation go completely unnoticed in â€œThe Audacity of Hope.â€ So does the opposition of most American and Iraqi people to the illegal invasion.
Obama does, however, cite opinion data meant to illustrate what he considers to be the real danger in the wake of the ongoing
AGAINST INDEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT
Any doubt the imperialist foreign policy establishment might have about whether Obama shares their opposition to independent development outside American supervision comes on page 315. I wonder what Scialabba thinks of the passage where Obama criticizes â€œleft-leaning populistsâ€ like â€œ
Obama ignores a preponderance of evidence of showing that the imposition of the â€œfree marketâ€ corporate-neoliberal â€œWashington Consensusâ€ has deepened poverty across the world in recent decades. Millions are left to live in ever-more extreme poverty as Obama lamely instructs â€œdeveloping nationsâ€ that â€œthe system of free markets and liberal democracyâ€ is â€œconstantly subject to change and improvement.â€
Those who have the time and energy to examine the American â€œhomelandâ€ might want to note the ever-escalating inequality of
ADVANCE PROMISE OF DEMOCRATIC BETRAYAL
Scialabbaâ€™s unfortunate reflections aside, Obamaâ€™s volume would be more accurately titled â€œAudacious Deference to Power.â€ Whatever its dust-jacket might say about Obamaâ€™s desire for â€œa government that truly represents [ordinary] Americans,â€ â€œThe Audacity of Hopeâ€ is carefully designed to reassure the corporate-imperial plutocracy, the foreign policy establishment and the white majority that an Obama presidency would show proper [Alexander] â€œHamiltonianâ€ deference to dominant social, racial, and global structures and ideologies of inequality. Beneath false humility, populist pretensions and consultant-crafted claims of â€œfreshness,â€ â€œoutsiderâ€ status and non-ideological â€œpragmatism,â€ â€œThe Audacity of Hopeâ€ is the work of an authoritarian corporate-imperial insider. It is dedicated to recycling timeworn and heavily ideological ruling-class doctrine. It is the product of a relentless ideological triangulator, a clever racial accommodator and a clever political opportunist.
Following in the Third Way footsteps of the similarly slimy pseudo-progressives Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Obamaâ€™s â€œAudacity of Hopeâ€ reflects and builds on his broader record (see Street, â€œThe Obama Illusionâ€) to suggest strongly that we could count on an Obama presidency â€œto,â€ in Edward S. Hermanâ€™s words, â€œmake populist and peace-stressing promises and gestures that are betrayed instantly on the assumption of powerâ€ (Edward S. Herman, â€œDemocratic Betrayal,â€