The Cynicism of Hope
King Day *Reflections on Barack Obama"
If you like cynicism in politics, you’ve got to love Barack Obama. There’s nothing naïve or fanciful about the way he says one thing to one audience and another thing to a different voter or funding group. It’s all about cold calculation under the perverse, narrow-spectrum, and “winner-take-all” rules of the
PRAISING REAGAN FOR SAVING US FROM “THE EXCESSES OF THE 1960S AND 1970S”
Speaking recently to the privileged editors of the
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of
As liberal blogger Mat Stoller notes, Obama “agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable. Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement. The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives,” Stoller rightly adds, “to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses.'”
“Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship,” Stoller rightly observes, “but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power” (1A).
Obama knows that very well but he’s not about to say it to “conservatives” whose endorsement he’s seeking in
PRAISING KING FOR CHALLENGING INJUSTICE AND INEQUALITY
Speaking last Sunday to a predominantly black audience in the
Preaching at Ebenezer one day before the national Martin Luther King holiday, Obama had his eyes on the upcoming “black primary” in
As Obama and his handlers know, black political sentiments stand well to the left of the majority white opinion Obama is trying to win over in his bid for the White House. Those sentiments are also well to the left of the predominantly white corporate and imperial power-brokers Obama knows to hold the keys to the ultimate establishment job – the
And so in his Ebenezer oration last Sunday, there was no praise for Ronald Reagan, who remains understandably unpopular in the black community. There was no beating up on the “excessive” 1960s, when King and the movement he represented ended legal segregation and won black voting rights in the deep South.
Obama invoked King’s memory to advocate focusing on “common challenges we face – war and poverty, injustice and inequality.” Obama praised Dr. King for “leading by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war,” Obama said, “knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause deep discomfort.”
“The changes that are needed,” Obama added, “are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear.”
King would have agreed.
“OUR [GLORIOUS] FREE MARKET SYSTEM”
But Obama’s policy agenda has been repeatedly and accurately described as militantly “incrementalist” – the very epitome of “tinkering at the edges.”
And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Obama was telling his black listeners in
King: “Something is Wrong With Our Economic System”
It is true that King “challenged our economic structures.” To be more explicit about it in ways Obama would never dare, the democratic socialist King challenged the moral legitimacy capitalism and called for “the radical reconstruction of society itself” (2A).
King also contrasted the endemic poverty and inequality evident in capitalist
Obama: “Our Greatest Asset” - Capitalism
But in his remarkably power-friendly campaign book The Audacity of Hope (New York: 2006), Obama praised the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation – the United States – for the glorious workings of its savagely regressive capitalist system. “It takes a trip overseas,” Obama said, “to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world.
How about that?
Never mind the terrible outcomes of
Obama’s Audacity left it to what he considers the lunatic left fringe to note the American System’s “efficient” allocation of half the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the
It Depends on Where You Go
As for “a trip overseas” showing how good life is in the
Of course, one does not have to cross “seas” to appreciate the distinctions indicated here. A trip across the
Tell it to the People in Englewood
It would be interesting to hear how Obama’s paean to “our” glorious “system of social organization” (so-called “free market” capitalism) would go over in a storefront church or community center in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of
“DANGER IN EQUALITY”
Talking to blacks in
It’s no wonder that Obama has been praised as a “Hamiltonian” by the likes of the centrist Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks (4A).
“NO ONE ASKED?”
Speaking of rich white people, in the late summer of 2007, Obama made a revealing statement at the end of a speech that purported to lecture Wall Street’s leaders on their supposed “Common Stake in
These were strange beliefs to (claim to) hold in light of the actual historical pattern of business behavior that naturally results from the purpose and structure of the system of private profit that Dr. King denounced as contrary to human needs. An endless army of nonprofit charities and social service-providers, citizens, environmental and community activists, trade union negotiators, and policymakers has spent decade after decade asking and (often enough) begging the “American” corporate and financial over-class to contribute to the domestic social good. The positive results are generally marginal and fleeting as the “business community” works with structurally super-empowered effectiveness to distribute wealth and power ever more upward and to serve the needs of private investors above any considerations of social and environmental health at home or abroad. Holding no special allegiance to the American people in an age of corporate globalization, the nation’s economic elite is more than willing to abandon the domestic
“Please sir, more” (Oliver Twist).
Dr. King had a very different perspective. Consistent with the teachings of Marx – of whom King was something of an admirer during his years at the Crozier Theological Seminary in the early 1950s [6A] – and contrary to sentimental bourgeois moralists like Charles Dickens (6B), King argued that "the roots of [economic injustice] are in the [capitalist] system rather in men or faulty operations" (6C).
“THE AMERICAN MOMENT MUST BE SEIZED ANEW”
So much for “challenging our economic structures.” As I have shown on earlier occasions, thing don’t get much better with Obama on race (7) or even on his supposed great ace in the political hole, the Iraq “war”(8). On these and other matters, he is a truly pale reflection of Dr. King and no more progressive than any of his Democratic presidential rivals. John Edwards has run to his left on both domestic policy at least(9) and even on race. Obama’s record on the Iraq invasion in the U.S. Senate has actually been no better than Hillary’s (Bill Clinton is right about that) and he admitted (to the New York Times in late July of 2004, one day before his famous Democratic Convention Keynote Address) that he might have joined Edwards and Senator Clinton in voting to authorize Bush’s criminal occupation if he’d been in the Congress and enjoyed their “intelligence” access in the fall of 2002!
Anyone who doubts that Obama is a brazen Man of Empire should examine the numerous shamelessly globalist and U.S.-world-supremacist statements contained in The Audacity of Hope or in Obama’s various foreign policy speeches and writings to date. Reflecting his openly “American exceptionalist” belief (stated to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs last April 23rd) that “America is the last, best hope on earth”(10), Obama offered up this lovely testament to bipartisan imperial, militarist, and unilateral arrogance in the pages of the leading establishment foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs last summer:
“The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew… A strong military is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace...we must become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes on a global scale...I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests...We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense, in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability – to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities” (11).
Obama doesn’t talk like that to black churches in
Even in his Ebenezer speech, Obama couldn’t bring himself to mention Iraqi victims of the “war that should never have been authorized and never been waged” and which he ran on having “opposed from the beginning.” As usual, and consistent with his preposterous notion that the occupation of
OPPOSING AN IMPERIAL MISTAKE VERSUS OPPOSING AN IMPERIALIST CRIME
This and much else in Obama’s record stands in sharp contrast to the legacy of Dr. King. How could he credibly argue against violence inside the U.S., King asked, while remaining silent about the mass murder being perpetrated against Southeast Asia by the U.S. government – identified by King (on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination or execution) as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world?” How could he credibly call for an end to poverty in the U.S. while not opposing the enormous squandering of government and social resources on American hyper-militarism – a waste that that was strangling the “War on Poverty” in its cradle? . How could he call for “freedom” at home when the
There are different reasons to oppose a war. Dr. King came out against the
“BEYOND OUR [RACE] DIVISIONS”: TO THE RIGHT OF EDWARDS
A word about race in the aftermath of the latest Democratic presidential debate. Even at Ebenezer the Sunday before the King holiday, Obama displayed his well-known and politically calculated reluctance to acknowledge racism’s powerful role in American life. The most he could manage to say on this issue was that “for most of the country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays – on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.”
The key words here were “race” and “sometimes.” The problem faced by black Americans is more accurately described as the living and powerful legacy and practice of racism and it is experienced by them on a daily, regular, and ubiquitous basis, not just occasionally.
During the Democratic presidential debate that took place in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina last Monday night (on King’s birthday), it was left to Edwards alone to speak with real respect for King’s crusade against racialized economic inequality. Only Edwards acknowledged the depth of racial disparity and the continuing role of cumulative and ongoing historical racism in generating that disparity.
“If you are an African-American in this country today,” Edwards observed, “you are likely to have a net worth of about 10 percent of what white families have. This is not accident. I mean, we can go put our heads against the wall and pretend that the past never happened, pretend that we didn’t live through decades of slavery, followed by decades of segregation, followed by decades of discrimination, which is still going on today (APPLAUSE)…that history and that legacy have consequences.”
“If you’re black,” Edwards said, “you’re much more likely to be poor, you’re much less likely to have health care coverage. That community is hurt worse by poverty than any community in American. And it’s our responsibility…to take on this moral challenge, to try as best we can to walk in the shadow of Dr. King” (14).
By contrast, Obama admonished the media for having “focused a lot on race as we moved down to
It was all very consistent with Obama’s argument in The Audacity of Hope that "what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts." Black hopes that Obama would reawaken the tragically unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights were further dashed by his claim that most black Americans had been "pulled into the economic mainstream" and his argument (during a speech marking the anniversary of the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights march last spring) that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists had brought black America "90 percent of the way" to racial equality. It's up to Obama and his fellow POST-Civil Rights leaders, he said, to get past "that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side."
Equally calming to the white majority was Obama’s argument in Audacity that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in
Here’s a useful summary of some key candidate differences on race:
Obama (black): “blacks are 9/10ths of the way to racial equality and have moved into the American mainstream. Racism is mostly a thing of the past and we can close the small gap left by moving forward beyond racial divisions. Even if race still matters sometimes – look, it’s a factor in our society (I’ll admit that much) – the cold fact is that whites don’t want to hear about ‘racial victimization’ and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. They just don’t care and I have to honor that. I want to be president and must rely on white votes to attain that. That means I have to downplay race, please right wingers like George Will and William Bennett by talking about how we’ve so wonderfully moved beyond it. I can get enough black votes simply be being black and by getting in a few superficial fights with Hillary (about what she said about Dr. King and stuff like that). And look, what could be better for moving beyond race than me getting into the White House.”
Edwards (white): “There is an astonishing 10 to 1 white-black wealth gap in the
(The candidates comparisons would get much worse for Obama if were to include [as I did in my last ZNet article] the contrasts with the reparations advocates and presidential hopefuls Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney).
Dr. King would have appreciated Edwards’ comments. He would cringe at (a) Obama’s continuing willingness to exploit and encourage white racism-denial by downplaying the continuing relevance of historical racial oppression and (b) Obama’s cynical determination that he can rely so heavily on the simple fact of his technical blackness to win black votes even while he praises the legacy of transparently racist politicians like Ronald Reagan.
Beneath peaceful and populist-sounding claims to the contrary, Obama is largely on the dark side of power when it comes to each of what King called "the triple evils that are interrelated:" racism, economic exploitation/inequality (capitalism), and militarism. It's not for nothing that Obama was tellingly portrayed last May as "deeply conservative" in a supposedly flattering New Yorker write-up titled "The Conciliator" (15). It’s an accurate description, but you probably wouldn’t know it from a speech he gives to black voters he’s courting in a
*Most of this essay was written on King day. The section on race was added the day after, once the author had reviewed transcripts of the most recent Democratic presidential debate.
** Postscript: today (I am adding this note on Sunday, January 26th) liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that, “unlike Mrs. Clinton, [Obama] would unambiguously represent change in a race with any Republican.” While Hillary Clinton is a obviously an especially conservative and “insider” type of corporate Democrat, Rich’s judgment on Obama is misleading. The “change” embodied by an Obama candidacy will be highly “ambiguous” – containing numerous conservative, corporate, imperial, nationalistic, and broadly power-conciliatory tendencies – in a race against any Republican...and against any Green Party candidate.
Veteran Left historian
1. If that’s what we realty want to call people dedicated to messianic hyper-militarism, to eliminating every decent U.S. social program of the 20th century, and to radically distributing wealth and power yet further upward in what is already the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far.
1A Matt Stoller, ""Obama's Admiration of Reagan" Open Left, January 16, 2008, read at http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=3263.
2 Barack Obama, “the Great Need of the Hour,”
2A. Martin Luther King Jr, “A Testament of Hope” (1968), reproduced in Martin Luther King Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), edited by James N. Washington, quotation from p. 315..
2B. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 568.
3 For useful empirical comparisons, see Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, The State of Working America 2002-2003 (Ithaca, NY: Economic Policy Institute and Cornell University Press, 2003), chapter seven, titled “International Comparisons,” pp.395-432
4A. David Brooks, “Run, Barack, Run,” New York Times (October 19, 2006), read at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C02E6DB1F30F93AA25753C1A9609C8B63
5 Obama, “Our Common Stake in
6 For some brilliant and well-informed reflections, see Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan elite Lost Our Future and What it Will Take to Get it Back (New York: John Wiley, 2006).
6A Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 43.
6B George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” , pp. 413-460 in Orwell, An Age Like This: 1920-1940 (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1968), edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
6C King, Trumpet of Conscience , quoted in King, A Testament, 642.
7 “Barack Obama’s White Appeal: and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Black Agenda Report (June 20, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=34; “Clinton-Obama and the ‘Over’ Struggle for Black Equality,” ZNet )January 20, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16248.
8 “What Would Obama Have Done? Voted for the War and Lied About It – Just Like Hillary,” ZNet Magazine (October 13, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=14030;“Establishment Politics in ‘Rebel’s Clothing’: Corporate Power, Populist Pandering, and the Ironies of Identity in the Democratic Presidential Race,” ZNet Magazine (November 18, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=90&ItemID=14316;
“Running Dog Obama,” SleptOn Magazine (July 30, 2007), read at http://www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=582.
9 On Edwards-Obama differences, see
10 Barack Obama, Remarks to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, April 23, 2007, available online at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/dynamic_page.php?id=64
11 Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007. As Glen Ford noted late last year, What we have in Barack Obama is an alternative War Party, planning an alternative War. He has told us so, and we should believe him. He is no peace candidate, and goes out of his way to prove it.” Glen Ford, “Barack Obama the War Monger,” Black Agenda Report (August 7, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=305&Itemid=34
12 Stephen Zunes, “Barack Obama on the
13 For (I hope) useful King-Obama comparisons, see
and “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power: A Critical Review of Barack Obama, the Audacity of Hope,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936
14 Transcript of Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Debate,
15. Lisa MacFarquar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" The New Yorker, May 7, 2007).