Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City
Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City
I recently witnessed a disturbing event. I was among the ten thousand predominantly white Iowans who listened to Barack Obama speak at the scenic "Pentacrest," on the
A BEAUTIFUL DAY
It was a beautiful day in
Did Obama have good things to say? Did he say them well?
The answer is yes on both counts. He denounced
He noted that human-caused global warming is no longer debatable and called for major reduction of carbon emissions through increased reliance on alternative fuels and improved fuel efficiency.
He advocated diplomacy over a foreign policy of "military incursions." He criticized "a war [on
He called for the end of a "cynical" politics whereby "power trumps principle," where voters end up selecting "the lesser of two evils," and where powerful lobbyists and other big money special interests exploit the gap left by the retreat of disempowered citizens from active involvement in public affairs.
He called for citizens to "write a new chapter in American history" by rejecting cynicism for civic engagement.
He said that "we are our bothers and sisters' keepers," and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on how "an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere."
He said he was motivated to enter politics by the positive example of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), not by any personal hunger for power. He made repeated positive references to the Movement and to King, concluding with King's famous statement that "the arc of the universe bends slowly but it always bends toward justice."
He said that the main lesson of his three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago during the 1980s was that "ordinary people can do extraordinary things."
He criticized the failures of a
He called for college tuition assistance, increased funding for early childhood education and higher teacher pay.
He criticized the notion that "the economy is doing well" when millions of Americans are experiencing job insecurity and stagnating incomes. He noted that "
He called for regular minimum wage increases
He denounced the terrible notion "that government can't make a positive difference" in peoples' lives. He reminded his audience that there is no shortage of basic "things we could do right now" to fix the nation's deepening social and ecological problems.
"Now" is "the time," Obama said, for Americans "to turn the page" on the "old" and "cynical" money- and power-dominated "politics." We must invent a "new politics" based on "the ties that bind" Americans together in pursuit of "justice and equality."
He said that the American people are basically good "once they focus" on real facts and things that matter. He called for citizens to "transform the country" by acting in accord with the historical lesson that "change comes from the bottom up, NOT from the top down."
Obama can deliver a speech.
Did I mention it was a beautiful day? At one point, I saw a hawk soar just above the crowd and the Senator; it made a graceful pass and disappeared west, over the
So why wasn't I dancing and singing along? Why did I have a terrible taste in my mouth two hours after Obama's speech even as the sun shone and the warm spring breeze passed through my den just a mile east of the Pentacrest?
Part of it was the narcissism of the self-presentation. Obama does this creepy thing after being introduced. He approaches the stage only after a good 5 minutes of passing through a parting sea of applauding audience members.
Please. Candidates should stand humbly by the side of the stage and walk up right after being introduced. I do not attend political rallies to see a pretend savior savoring popular adulation as he dances through the cool stream of the multitude.
Obama's speech began with fifteen minutes dedicated to the self-serving story of his own life. That story advanced a charming populist narrative that deleted his elite private education (from a privileged
That's worse than getting a $400 hair cut.
Please. Save yourself, Senator.
But the main reason I sat out the Obama dance was that I knew too much about the Senator's slippery centrist record and agenda to play along with the progressive, humanitarian and populist pretense (See Street 2004 and Street 2007a-2007e).
Take the war question The Senator got his
But I'll be damned if he said one word about the 700,000 Iraqis killed so far because of the criminal
Did I say "criminal
Last night on MSNBC, it was left to Kucinich to call for the impeachment of executive branch officials for deceptively leading the
Obama even claims that war was motivated by a well-intentioned desire to "impose democracy" (Obama 2006, p.317; Street 2007b). This is a childish fairy tale. Most of the world, including the great majority of Iraqi people, knows very well that O.I.F. was fought to deepen the
A PRO-WAR RECORD
Then there's the matter of his actual policy and political record. If Obama is such (as many "progressives" seem to need to believe) an "antiwar" candidate, why has he offered so much substantive policy support to the criminal occupation and the broader imperial "war on [and of] terror" of which Bush says O.I.F. is a part? Here are some highlights from a summary of Obama's U.S. Senate voting record recently sent to me by the Creative Youth News Team (CYNT 2007), a progressive African American advocacy organization:
"1/26/05: Obama voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State. Rice was largely responsible...for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims in unnecessary wars...Roll call 2"
"2/01/05: Obama was part of a unanimous consent agreement not to filibuster the nomination of lawless torturer Alberto Gonzales as chief law enforcement officer of the
"2/15/05: Obama voted to confirm Michael Chertoff, a proponent of water-board torture...[and a] man behind the round-up of thousands of people of Middle-Eastern descent following 9/11. By Roll call 10."
"4/21/05: Obama voted to make John 'Death Squad' Negroponte the National Intelligence Director. In
"4/21/05: Obama voted for HR 1268, war appropriations in the amount of approximately $81 billion. Much of this funding went to Blackwater
"7/01/05: Obama voted for H.R. 2419, termed 'The Nuclear Bill' by environmental and peace groups. It provided billions for nuclear weapons activities, including nuclear bunker buster bombs. It contains full funding for
"9/26/05 & 9/28/05: Obama failed and refused to place a hold on the nomination of John Roberts, a supporter of permanent detention of Americans without trial, and of torture and military tribunals for
"10/07/05: Obama voted for HR2863, which appropriated $50 billion in new money for war. Roll call 2 [W]."
"11/15/05: Obama voted for continued war, again. Roll call 326 was the vote on the Defense Authorization Act (S1042) which kept the war and war profiteering alive, restricted the right of habeas corpus and encouraged terrorism. Pursuant to his pattern, Obama voted for this. [W]."
"12/21/05: Obama confirmed his support for war by voting for the Conference Report on the Defense Appropriations Act (HR 2863), Roll call 366, which provided more funding to Halliburton and Blackwater. [W]"
"5/2/06: Obama voted for money for more war by voting for cloture on HR 4939, the emergency funding to Halliburton, Blackwater and other war profiteers. Roll call 103 [W]."
"5/4/06: Obama, again, voted to adopt HR4939: emergency funding to war profiteers. Roll call 112 [W]."
"6/13/06: Obama voted to commend the armed services for a bombing that killed innocent people and children and reportedly resulted in the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi... Michael Berg, whose son was reportedly killed by al-Zarqawi, condemned the attack and expressed sorrow over the innocent people and children killed in the bombing that Obama commended. Roll call 168 [W]."
"6/15/06: Obama voted for the conference report on HR4939, a bill that gave warmongers more money to continue the killing and massacre of innocent people in
"6/15/06: Obama, again, opposed withdrawal of the troops, by voting to table a motion to table a proposed amendment would have required the withdrawal of US. Armed Forces from
"6/22/06: Obama voted against withdrawing the troops by opposing the Kerry Amendment (
"6/22/06: Obama voted for cloture (the last effective chance to stop) on the National Defense Authorization Act (S 2766), which provided massive amounts of funding to defense contractors to continue the killing in
"6/22/06: Obama again voted for continued war by voting to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (S 2766) for continued war funding. Roll Call 186 [W].
9/7/06: Obama voted to give more money to profiteers for more war (H..R. 5631). Roll Call 239 [W]"
"9/29/06: Obama voted vote for the conference report on more funding for war, HR 5631. Roll Call 261 [W]."
"11/16/06: Obama voted for nuclear proliferation in voting to pass HR 5682, a bill to exempt the United States-India Nuclear Proliferation Act from requirements of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Roll Call 270 [W]."
"12/06/06: Obama voted to confirm pro-war Robert M. Gates to be Secretary of Defense. Gates is a supporter of Bush's policies of pre-emptive war and conquest of foreign countries. Roll Call 272 [W]"
"Obama's voting record in 2007 establishes that he continues to be pro-war. On March 28, 2007 and March 29th, 2007, he voted for cloture and passage of a bill designed to give Bush over $120 billion to continue the occupation for years to come (with a suspendable time table) and inclusive of funding that could be used to launch a war with Iran. Roll calls 117 and 126 [W]...Obama's record shows a minimum of 20 major pro-war votes..."
Wow. I might have worded things a little differently than CYNT at times, but that's a damning bill of indictment.
Obama's intra-Democratic political record also defies those who insistent on wrapping him in an antiwar flag. In 2006 Obama lent his celebrity and political finance assistance to neoconservative war Senator Joe Lieberman's ("D"-
In a November 2005 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Obama rejected Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) call for a rapid redeployment and any notion of a timetable for withdrawal. Obama advocated "a pragmatic solution to the real war we're facing in
Earlier that same year, Obama shamefully distanced himself from his fellow Senator Dick Durbin's (D-IL) forthright criticism of U.S. torture practices at Guantanamo (Street 2005; Cockburn 2006).
And he still refuses to foreswear the use of first-strike nuclear weapons against
Obama made a big deal in
The bill subjects the
The "withdrawal" envisioned by Congress only removes combat troops. In the names of "diplomatic protection," "counter-terrorism," and the "training and advising of Iraqi Security Forces" (translation: OIL protection), it leaves U.S bases and forces in
The troops to be moved out of
Obama can talk all he wants about how O.I.F. is diverting funds and focus from pressing domestic needs. He and other Democratic Party leaders are at least equally concerned with diversion and distraction from the larger and related projects of U.S regional and global dominance - projects they may embrace more intensely than the Republicans right now (Smith 2007).
As David Gerson noted in a recent commentary on Obama's latest major foreign policy address (to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last Monday), Obama's plan" for a "phased" and "responsible" withdrawal is "a reaffirmation of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and of the use of Iraq as a 'host' for U.S. military bases." It could "leave tens of thousands of
OBAMA'S CORPORATE CASH AND POLICY NEXUS
Foreign policy is not the only area in which Obama contradicts the noble principles, elders and values he invokes. Take campaign finance. The junior Senator from
Obama's reliance on such deep-pockets supporters helps explain why he voted for a business-driven federal "tort reform" bill that rolled back working peoples' ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations (Sirota 2006; Silverstein 2006). It is certainly part of why he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent (Sirota 2006).
It is undoubtedly related to his vote against a bill that would have killed an amendment to the 2005 energy bill that Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste called "one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation." Under the amendment, which passed with Obama's help,
Undue corporate surely lurks behind Obama's constant plugging of federally subsidized ethanol ("E-85") as an environmentally friendly "alternative fuel." The supposed "green" fuel E-85 has become "the classic pork barrel cause of every Midwestern politician" (Silverstein 2006). Current and aspiring policymakers are enticed by the promise of campaign support from the legendary Illinois-based political finance player and ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland (Lewis 1996. pp. 10, 116, 118, 121-127).
Whether E85 really contributes to positive environmental change and reduced
"E85 is so called because it is 85 percent ethanol, a product whose profits accrue to a small group of corporate corn growers led by Illinois-headquartered Archer Daniels Midland. Not surprisingly, agribusiness is a primary advocate of E85, as are such automobile manufacturers as Ford, which donated Pike's car. The automakers love E85 because it allows them to look environmentally correct ('Live Green, Go Yellow,' goes GM's advertising pitch for the fuel) while producing vehicles, mostly highly profitable and fuel-guzzling SUV and pickup models, that can run on regular gasoline as well as on E85. Since producing most domestic ethanol requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and regular gasoline provides about 30 percent more mileage per gallon than E85, it's arguably preferable from a conservation standpoint to drive a standard gasoline car rather than a flex-fuel vehicle..."
"It's beyond dispute," Silverstein notes, that ethanol "survives only because members of Congress from farm states, whether liberal or conservative, have for decades managed to win billions of dollars in federal subsidies to underwrite its production.
"It is not," Silverstein significantly adds, "family farmers who primarily benefit from the program but rather the agribusiness giants such as Illinois-based Aventine Renewable Energy and Archer Daniels Midland (for which ethanol accounts for just 5 percent of its sales but an estimated 23 percent of its profits). Ethanol production, as Tad Patzek of UC Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering wrote in a report this year, is based on 'the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the
"Since arriving on Capitol Hill," Silverstein observes, "Obama has been as assiduous as any member of Congress in promoting ethanol."
In an interview with the
Those are ADM talking points.
Against Single Payer and "Government Mandates"
Reliance on corporate cash and power is also likely related to Obama's opposition to the introduction of single-payer national health insurance on the curious grounds that such a welcome social-democratic change would lead to employment difficulties for workers in the private insurance industry (Sirota 2006) and that "voluntary" solutions are "more consonant" with "the American character" than "government mandates" (Klein 2006).
The last comment is fascinating. As Noam Chomsky noted last year:
"A large majority of the [
And does Obama support the American scourge of racially disparate mass incarceration on the grounds that it provides work for tens of thousands of prison guards? Should the
Obama, it is worth noting, received $708,000 from medical and insurance interests between 2001 and 2006 (Center for Responsive Politics 2007b). His wife Michelle, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, is a Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a position that paid her $273, 618 in 2006 (Sweet 2007a).
LOBBY BAN LOOPHOLES
One day after Obama denounced Big Money control of
Thus, to give one example, Obama received $33,000 in the first quarter of 2007 from the Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird, which maintains a large lobbying division in
Also deleted from Obama's "lobbyist ban" are state lobbyists. Obama took $2000 from two
Obama has also received $170,000 so far this year from financial giants Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, who together spent $4.6 million on federal lobbying in 2006 (Morain 2007).
BIG (DECEPTIVE) TALK ABOUT "SMALL DONATIONS"
Morain also reports that Obama received more than two-thirds (68 percent) of his first quarter 2007 fundraising total "from donations of $1000 or more." Obama has "played up populist themes of [campaign finance] reform," trumpeting his "large number of small donations" and claiming (in the Senator's words) to be "launch[ing]a fundraising drive that isn't about dollars" (Morain 2007). But his astonishing first-quarter campaign finance haul of $25.7 million included $17.5 million from "big donors" ($1000 and up) - a sum higher than the much more genuinely populist John Edwards' (Curry 2007) total take ($14 million) from all donors (Campaign Finance Institute 2007). According to Chicago Sun Times columnist Lynn Sweet (Sweet 2007b):
"Obama talks about transforming politics and touts the donations of 'ordinary' people to his campaign, but a network of more than 100 elite Democratic 'bundlers' is raising millions of dollars for his White House bid. The Obama campaign prefers the emphasis to be on the army of small donors who are giving -- and raising -- money for Obama. In truth, though, there are two parallel narratives -- and the other is that Obama is also heavily reliant on wealthy and well-connected Democrats. 'Bundlers' are people who solicit their networks for donations and, at the elite giving levels, often get some assistance from campaign fund-raising professionals. Each of the 138 Obama bundlers promised to raise at least $50,000, and many are from
The hypocrisy is many-sided. Last week Sweet reported that Obama had received large donations from at least eight executives at Island Def Jam, a hip-hop recording firm that markets rap artists Obama has accused of "degrading their sisters" with sexist slurs (Sweet 2007c).
For what it's worth, his wife received $51,200 in 2006 for attending a few board meetings of TreeHouse Foods, a giant firm where she was made a director after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate (Sweet 2007a). The granting of high-pay and do-little board posts to the spouses of politicians is a longstanding tool of the "old," corporate-dominated politics that Senator Obama claims to reject. TreeHouse Foods has not responded to my queries regarding Michelle Obama's qualifications for her position on the company's board and the timing of her elevation to that position.
REINFORCING RACISM DENIAL
And then there's Obama's racial equivocation. Obama's effort, quite pronounced in his
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 "post-Civil Rights America," deeply woven into the fabric of the nation's social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of "past" racism. Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black "racial victimization" is a "thing of the past" was remotely accurate (Feagin 2000; Brown et al, 2003; Street 2007h).
White fears that Obama will reawaken the unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights are further soothed by his claim that most black Americans have been "pulled into the economic mainstream" (Obama 2006, pp. 248-49). That's a curious judgment since 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 (Street 2007b).
Martin Luther King Jr., whose name Obama invoked at least three times in
Obama's conservative comments on race are nicely calibrated for the superficially anti-racist ethos of the post-Civil Rights era. He helps whites feel good about their alleged racial enlightenment while making it clear that voting for the technically black Obama does not mean embracing substantive action against structurally and institutionally entrenched racial oppression. He masterfully appeals to White America's tendency to congratulate itself for rejecting crude and primitive bigotry ("I am not racist because I watch Oprah and am thinking about voting for Obama") the Barockstar") while continuing to blame impoverished blacks for their own plight and turning a blind eye to the massive damage societal racism continues to inflict on black-Americans (Street 2007h).
"BROTHER'S AND SISTER'S KEEPERS?"
The willingness of some whites to embrace Obama is reinforced by his willingness to embraces the vicious neoliberal attack on the nation's disproportionately black public family cash assistance recipients and former recipients. If the $26 million Senator is so big on how Americans should be "our brothers' and sisters' keepers," why does he claim in The Audacity of Hope that "conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare"? The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, the "populist" Obama claims, "sapped" inner-city blacks of their "initiative" and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including "independence," "income," "order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples' lives." He argues in Audacity that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is "the single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty" (Obama 2006, p. 256).
But there's no social-scientific evidence for the "conservative" claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated "intergenerational poverty." Numerous studies show that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and "welfare dependency" (Handler 1995; Jencks 1992, pp. 204-235; Stier and Tienda 2001, pp. 166, 177, 206). Research demonstrates that black teenage pregnancy reflects the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation's inner-city and suburban ring ghettos (Gordon 1995, pp. 123-125). It also shows that welfare "reform" (elimination) predictably (Street 1998) has deepened misery for millions of truly disadvantaged former public assistance recipients (Street 2000). It has done this even while the federal government has continued to grant billions in public subsidy to corporate war masters like those associated with leading Obama fundraiser Bill Kennard's notorious military-industrial Carlyle Group (Pilger 2002, pp.9, 109) and the heavy Obama funder Henry Crown and Company. The Crown firm owns a large stake in the heavily Pentagon-reliant aerospace firm General Dynamics (Chicago Indymedia 2007).
The "single biggest thing that we could do 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 - something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and even by President Richard Nixon.
"THE MANIPULATION OF POPULISM BY ELITISM"
Obama knows all this quite well. He's letting "power" trump "principle" in his campaign for a simple and obvious reason. He wants to rise to the top of the
In his 1999 book on Bill and Hillary Clinton, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 1999), the then still Left Christopher Hitchens wrote something interesting about the "the essence of American politics. This essence, when distilled," said Hitchens, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful," Hitchens elaborated, "which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as 'in touch' with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently elitist."
With the exception of Kucinich and perhaps to some extent (the jury is still out on just how far) Edwards (see David Sirota's flattering comments in Curry 2007), that's a lot of what all these primary speeches and town hall meetings in
The Barockstar is playing the great game at the heart of the corporate-crafted narrow-spectrum, quadrennial
Veteran radical historian and journalist
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