The "Violin Model"
Four Questions for The New York Times
This is the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right.
- David J. Rothkopf, Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade during the Bill Clinton administration and former Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, speaking to The New York Times about Barack Obama's cabinet appointments.
I have four interrelated questions for the editors of The New York Times.
First, when will you finally get it or admit that Barack Obama is a committed, ideologically conservative man of the political center (which you identify with non-ideological "pragmatism") and always has been?
Second, how exactly do you define the words "vehement" and "opposition?"
Third, are you concerned that any of your more candid reporting might get into the hands of people who aren't committed to the corporate-imperial "capitalist democracy" (an oxymoron) you are (secretly) sworn (under the cover of journalistic "objectivity") to uphold?
Fourth, do you really consider any political actor left of Rahm Emmanuel, Timothy Geithner, and Hillary Clinton to be "an ideologue?"
THE "VIOLIN MODEL": "HOLD POWER WITH THE LEFT HAND AND PLAY THE MUSIC WITH YOUR RIGHT"
I ask these questions after reading a revealing report from The Times' leading political analyst David Sanger on the paper's front page last Saturday. In an article titled "Obama Tilts to Center, Inviting a Clash of Ideas," Sanger wrote the following:
"President-elect Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with the enthusiastic support of the left wing of his party, fueled by his vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq and by one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate."
"Now, his reported selections for two of the major positions in his cabinet - Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy J. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury - suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues. "
…"He is widely reported to be considering asking Mr. Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, to stay on for a year; and he is thinking about Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander and Marine Corps commandant, for national security adviser, and placing Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary whom Mr. Obama considered putting back in his old post, inside the White House as a senior economic adviser."
"'This is the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right,' David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton official who wrote a history of the National Security Council, said on Friday, as news of Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Geithner's appointments leaked. 'It's teaching us something about Obama: while he wants to bring new ideas to the game, he is working from the center space of American foreign policy'" (New York Times, November 22, 2008).
A LONGSTANDING "EAGERNESS TO ACCOMMODATE EXISTING INSTITUTIONS"
My first question arises from the fact that Obama's "tilt to the center" is less than surprising to anyone who has seriously investigated Obama's career prior to through the 2008 election. The Times has been talking about Obama' supposed shift from "the left" to "the center" for some time now (see Powell 2008, for example). For what it's worth (not much in our narrow-spectrum political culture, to be brutally honest), I've recently published a book showing (among other things) that Obama has been a man of the (corporate neoliberal) center from the beginning of his political career (Street 2008). My carefully researched portrait of the President Elect is richly consistent with the following judgment from New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza last July: "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them" (Lizza 2008).
Lizza's elementary observation fits well with the conclusions of Larissa MacFarquhar. As MacFarquhar noted in a carefully researched piece in The New Yorker last year, "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative...It's not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely," MacFarquhar added. It's also, she wrote, that "He values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good" (MacFarquhar 2007). Obama was never left in the first place (see Reed 1996 for critical Left reflections at the very beginning of Obama's political career).
THIS IS "VEHEMENT OPPOSITION"?
Consistent with Lizza and MacFarquhar's portraits, the "deeply conservative" Obama's "liberal voting record" has included repeated funding of George W. Bush's Iraq War, support for limiting the civil damages that consumers can win in court from misbehaving corporations, approval of the mendacious war criminal Condi Rice as Secretary of State, and an especially sinister vote (this summer) on behalf of enhanced domestic wiretapping with retroactive immunity for big telecommunications corporations who helped the Bush administration illegally spy on American citizens (see Street 2008 for details and sources relating to this and the next seven paragraphs).
Along the way, "liberal" U.S. Senator Obama criticized his fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin for making the "mistake" of publicly noting that the U.S. had conducted Nazi-like interrogation techniques in its imperial prisons. Obama worked to support pro-war over antiwar Democrats in the 2006 congressional primaries. He distanced himself from U.S. Congressman Jack Murtha's (D-PA) early and courageous call for withdrawal from Iraq in 2005. He lectured progressives on their need to be more respectful towards George W. Bush's hard-right Supreme Court appointees, on the need to not be seen as working against Bush on Iraq (after the Democrats' 2006 congressional victories), and on how the U.S. shouldn't "play chicken with the troops" (a preposterous conservative smear) by calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. He voted against a troop withdrawal proposal by Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold in June 2006, arguing that a firm date for withdrawal would "hamstring" diplomats and military commanders in the field.
In the fall of 2006, Obama told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that "The American people have been extraordinarily resolved [in support of the Iraq occupation]...They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah." This was a remarkable thing to say in light of the two massive, quasi-genocidal assaults the American Empire launched (indiscriminately slaughtering civilians in large numbers) on that Iraqi city in April and November of 2004.
Obama's heralded "antiwar speech" of October 2002 (given when he was still a state senator and shoved into the doors of Iowa City voters on the eve of the Iowa Caucus last January) opposed the planned invasion of Iraq on pragmatic, not principled grounds. It criticized the imminent invasion as a strategic mistake (a "dumb war"), neglecting to mention its criminal and immoral nature, its imperial (and oil-related) motivations, and the large number of Iraqis it would kill and maim.
Consistent with those key omissions, Obama has never criticized the morality or legality of Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.). He has always refused to mention Iraqi casualties (including more than 1 million civilian dead) and denies the broader Holocaust (see Rosen 2007)the U.S, has imposed on Iraq. He insists that the United States owes the world no apologies for any of its foreign policies under Bush and claims that the U.S. invaded the Iraq with "the best of intentions" (democracy- and freedom-promotion). He even told Wisconsin autoworkers that that the U.S. must "stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together."
Obama's 2002 "antiwar speech" came down from his Web site in 2003 because he was tapped and approved by the Chicago machine to run for the U.S. Senate that year. He was nowhere to be seen around downtown Chicago when two nights of massive demonstrations took place there against Bush's invasion in March of 2003. And during the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he made his instantly famous (and deeply conservative - see Street 2004) Keynote Address that made him an overnight celebrity (a "BaRockstar"), Obama told New York Times reporters that he might have voted (like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards) to authorize Bush to invade Iraq if he had been in the U.s. Senate and had access to the same "intelligence" as other U.S. Senators in the fall of 2002.
Obama's spokespersons have been consistently mushy and deceptive about his Iraq withdrawal plans, making it clear to serious left investigators that Obama will continue the occupation indefinitely. He told FOX News thug Bill O'Reilly this summer that "the Surge" had "succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations" and he has refused to sign on to legislation seeking to ban private "security" contractors like Blackwater from Iraq and Afghanistan
A remarkable record, indeed, for someone who has excited "the left wing of his party" with "vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq."
DOES OBAMA'S PROGRESSIVE BASE LIKE BEING PLAYED LIKE A FIDDLE?
My third question arises from the fact that David Rothkopf's "violin" comment strikes me as an accurate insiders' statement of precisely how many other leftists and I have long understood the Obama phenomenon - as Bill Clinton- and Tony Blair-like manipulation of popular populist and peace sentiments in service to a top-down corporate and military agenda. Given his longstanding commitment to that program, Obama is certain to betray much of his left-sounding campaign rhetoric upon (and even before) the attainment of power. The fiddle being played is Obama's often over-infatuated left-leaning base, some of which at least might be irked to learn that the real policy action under Obama's "change" administration will be coming from the right side of the already fairly conservative, post-New Deal Democratic Party, led by such dedicated corporate-imperial centrists (so-called "pragmatists") as Rahm Emmanuel (closely linked to the militantly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council), Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton (a major War Hawk, like Emmanuel and Biden), and the leading neoliberal (former chief World Bank)economist Lawrence Summers (an important agent of Clinton-era financial deregulation who once argued that Africa was under-polluted since its impoverished population doesn't live that long anyway).
I will be sure to use Rothkopf's quote over coming months as I join other true (left) progressives in working to move Obama's left-leaning supporters and ex-supporters off presidential hero-worship and on to the path of dedicated grassroots citizens action beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted electoral extravaganzas.
Most of the Times' predominantly privileged and elite readership can be trusted with Rothkopf's frank observation. But many U.S. citizens are going be riled by the smug arrogance of Rothkopf's violin analogy, an excellent corollary of what (a still left) Christopher Hitchens once called (in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton phenomenon) "the essence of American politics. This essence, when distilled," Hitchens explained, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most 'in touch' with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently 'elitist'" Hitchens 2000, pp. 17-18).
Relying heavily on politicians' repeated promise to restore "hope" to a populace disillusioned by corporate control, corruption, and inequality - a standard claim of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates - this dark heart of U.S. political culture is arguably as old the Republic itself, always torn by the rift between democratic promise and authoritarian realities of concentrated wealth and power.
History aside, I can hear my neighbor Ted already: "Holding power with our votes and contributions but then handing over the people's government's actual policy to Goldman Sachs and the Pentagon, eh? So that's what he calls 'change' is it? And we're supposed to be Obama's fiddle. Nice." Ted voted for Obama "defensively" (he said), reluctantly and without illusion, as did many I know in what Sanger calls "the left wing of [the Democratic] Party."
"THEY'RE CENTRIST, THEY'RE NOT IDEOLOGICAL"
My fourth question reflects the fact that Sanger has nothing to say about what exactly he means when he says "ideologue." This is all the rage in "mainstream" political commentary since the election: we must (talking and writing heads in elite opinion-making institutions ritually declare) have people from "the center," NOT "ideologues" and "extremists," at the helm in this "critical hour" (see Brooks 2008, Brooks 2008a, Glauber 2008, and PBS 2008 for interesting examples and Street 2008b for a critique.
And who, pray tell, are the "ideologues"? Sanger and editors don't really have to spell it out. The terrible category doesn't include Hillary Clinton (Obama's likely Secretary of State). Never mind that she is a dedicated imperial war hawk who was a strong supporter of her husband's mass-murderous "economic sanctions" on Iraq and of George W. Bush's deadly and criminal invasion of that country. She eagerly advanced Dick Cheney and Bush's pre-invasion war propaganda campaign, helping peddle White House's nonsense about Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). She undermined serious efforts at universal national health care (on the single-payer model) during the 1990s. During the last presidential campaign she resisted Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards' call for lifting the regressive cap on the Social Security income tax. She refused to apologize for her 2002 vote to authorize Bush to attack Iraq. She talked about "totally obliterating" Iran if its government attacked Israel and she essentially authorized Bush to attack Iran by agreeing to join other congressional hawks in labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization." She boasts of having strongly "urged [Bill Clinton] to bomb" Yugoslavia.
But for Sanger and the Times, neither Hillary nor the other members of Obama's militantly centrist team (including the corporate-militarist Israel zealot Rahm Emmanuel) could ever be considered "ideologues." When it comes to Democrats, that negative term (conjuring up images of scheming Stalinist and Nazi propagandists)is reserved for those who stand to the left "extreme" of the in-fact heavily ideological corporate-imperial center. It is currently being used with insistent frequency by the dominant political and media class to preemptively marginalize anyone who might dare to argue that U.S. politicians and policymakers should act in accord with longstanding majority U.S. opinion - well to the left of both dominant political parties and the business class (see Adams and Derber 2008, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004, Chomsky 2006, and Street 2008a) - by working for economic justice and rolling back American Empire. It is being brandished by the so-called "liberal media's" business- and military-friendly thought police to help keep the Obama phenomenon - a source of some anxiety to the U.S. establishment (see Herman and Peterson 2008) even if its hero is a safely vetted (see Silverstein 2006 and Street 2008, pp. xiii-xvii) conservative - within the constricted state-capitalist boundaries of permissible policy contestation.
In The New York Times' authoritarian world view, the inherently "crazy" left (along with the equally "extreme" hard right) is spoiled by the evil stain of "ideology," but the equally ideological state-capitalist center is not. The latter tendency is just "pragmatic." As Harvard (Kennedy School) academician Robert Glauber recently said with great approval about Obama's economic team on the "Public" Broadcasting System's "News Hour": "they're centrist, they're not ideological" (Glauber 2008).
As Noam Chomsky likes to say, Orwell would be impressed.
Consistent with its longstanding role at the center of the United States' sharply restricted political culture, the "liberal" (some right crackpots even call it "left wing") New York Times is working to keep the winds of change safely confined within the standard narrow parameters of acceptable corporate-imperial debate.
Paul Street is the author of many books, articles, speeches, and chapters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
See Katherine Adams and Charles Derber 2008. The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
David Brooks 2008. "Change I Can Believe In," New York Times, November 7, 2008.
David Brooks 2008a. "The Insiders Crusade," New York Times, November 21, 2008.
Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004. "Global Views" (October 2004)
Noam Chomsky 2006. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006)
Robert Glauber 2008. "They're Centrist, Not Ideological" (Comments on Obama's Economic Team), Public Broadcasting System, "News Hour" (November 24, 2008), read at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec08/obamateam_11-24.html.
Edward S. Herman and David Peterson 2008. "Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System," Monthly Review (September 2008), read at http://monthlyreview.org/080901herman-peterson.php
Christopher Hitchens 2000. No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000).
Ryan Lizza 2008. "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker (July 21, 2008).
Larissa MacFarquhar 2007. "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).
Michael Powell 2008. "For Obama, A Pragmatist's Shift to the Center," New York Times, June 27, 2008.
PBS (Public Broadcasting System "News Hour")2008. "David Brooks and Markus on Obama's Cabinet Picks, Economy Woes" (November 21, 2008), read transcript at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec08/bmeconomy_11-21.html.
Adolph Reed, Jr. 1996. "The Curse of Community," Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).
Nir Rosen 2007. "The Death of Iraq,"Current History (December 2007
Ken Silverstein 2006. "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's (November 2006)
Paul Street 2004. "Keynote Reflections," (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=5951.
Paul Street 2008. Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008)
Paul Street 2008a. "Americans' Progressive Opinion vs. 'The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.
Paul Street 2008b. "David Brooks' Pragmatic Illusions and the New Administration," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (November 25, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3692