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Synthesis/Regeneration 54   (Winter 2011)

Remembering Obama

Reflections on Race, Class, Empire,
and the First Black President

by Paul Street

Sometimes you run across an eloquent statement that rings true and false at one and the same time. Look, for example, at the following comment made by the courageous left journalist Allan Nairn in response to the left broadcaster Amy Goodman’s request that he provide a brief overview of the Obama administration’s first year last January:

Well, I think Obama should be remembered as a great man because of the blow he struck against white racism, the cultural blow. And he accomplished that on Election Day. That was huge. This is one of the most destructive forces in world history, and by simply — by virtue of becoming president, Obama did it major damage.

But once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill. He could have flipped the switch and turned it off. The President has that power, but he chose not to do so. [1]

**His collapse in supposedly pushing for a just settlement in Palestine has been complete.

There is something very valuable and powerful in this remark, made on Goodman’s television show “Democracy Now!” I am referring to the richly ironic way in which Nairn simultaneously acknowledges (A) the historic nature of the fact that a black family now resides in the White House, in the top office of the historically arch-racist U.S., and (B) the first black president’s chilling commitment to that nation’s continuing murderous imperial militarism.

This is an important duality to grasp, and Nairn puts it very well. Anyone who doubts that Obama has “kept [the machine] set on kill” should consult the impressive record of murder and mayhem that the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has already built across South Asia and in the Middle East. [2]

Exceeding Bush

Still, I think there are seven key problems with Nairn’s declaration [3], which I find insufficiently critical on numerous interrelated levels.

First, “kept the machine set on kill” is probably an understatement. As the left US foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman has noted, Obama has very possibly “exceed[ed George W.] Bush’s [global] bullying and power-projection.” As Herman explains:

Obama’s …Iraq “withdrawal” is a phony, just as his expansion of the Afghan-Pakistan war is real. His collapse in supposedly pushing for a just set-tlement in Palestine has been complete.

...The US collaboration in the overthrow of the elected, populist government of Honduras was a throwback to the era of US sponsorship of National Security States in Latin America. Bush could hardly have surpassed Obama’s atrocious performance in Haiti, where the U.S. response to their devastating earthquake was almost completely military — a lagged occupation, with minimal food-water-medical-shelter aid, and even obstruction to aid as airports were preempted for the US military occupation forces and the landing of Hillary Clinton.

…Across the globe, US military bases are expanding, not contracting. The encirclement of Rus-sia and steady stream of war games in the Baltic, Caspian, Mediterranean, and Western Pacific areas continue, the closer engagement with Georgia and efforts to bring it into NATO moves ahead, as do plans for placing missiles along Russia’s borders and beyond. [4]

Obama enlisted as an eager, energetic and eloquent agent and exponent of US military imperialism…

It’s not a pretty story. Obama ran on ending the Bush “war on terror” police state and has persisted in conducting and defending against legal challenges many if not most of the same repressive and anti-civil libertarian policies he criticized as a candidate. During the campaign, he told his “progressive” supporters he was (basically) antiwar — even though his very underlying promise (to the foreign policy establishment) of continued militarism was evident to trained observers — and then came in to pass a record-setting Pentagon budget and to expand US militarism in South Asia and around the world.

Before he became president

Second, we should not accept the “once he became president” line in Nairn’s comment. Obama enlisted as an eager, energetic and eloquent agent and exponent of U.S. military imperialism within and beyond Iraq during his career as a US Senator (2005–2009) and a presidential candidate (2006–2008). His “anti-war” campaign imagery was deeply fraudulent and he acted powerfully on behalf of the “machine set to kill” in his Senate votes and as an influential politician before his election to the imperial presidency. [5]

After the election and prior to his inauguration, moreover, Palestinians and their supporters watched in disgust as the normally wordy President-elect stood nauseatingly mute while Israel and Washington massacred thousands of civilians in the open-air Israeli prison called the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. As Noam Chomsky noted:

To these crimes Obama’s response has been silence — unlike, say, the terrorist attack in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the “hateful ideology” that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hid behind the mantra that “there is one president at a time,” and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July: “If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.” But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when US jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparably worse suffering to Palestini-an children. [6]

Could Obama really have “flipped the switch”?

Third, it is wishful fancy to think that Obama could have shut down the American global “killing machine.” The two reigning US political parties, the nation’s dominant mass corporate media (a virtual fourth, reality-distorting branch of American government), and the nation’s educational system (K-Ph.D) are all deeply en-snared in and in thrall to the Military Industrial Complex. Along with the Pentagon and the leading “defense” contractors and their public relations systems, these leading institutional forces would powerfully resist significant cuts in the “defense” (empire) budget and in military op-erations abroad.

The state-capitalist policy machine still set on cha-ching

Fourth, Nairn could and probably should have made the same ironic point on Obama’s domestic record. Obama has kept the “corporate-managed democracy’s” [7] state-capitalist policy machine set on “cha-ching” for the rich, powerful, and parasitic Few. The first black president has of course acted in firm accord with what Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a deadly behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial US regime.” [8] From labor law non-reform to financial non-regulation to the climate issue and so-called “health reform,” Obama has repeatedly espoused and acted in accord with what the novelist and political essayist Kevin Baker has termed “a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.” [9]

The Obama administration has been a monument to what might be called “the audacity of deception” — to the manipulation of democracy by corporate state capitalism. Obama ran on cleaning up Washington and has come to the nation’s capital to cut one deal after another with big corporations, with concentrated wealth. His bailouts of financial parasites at elite Wall Street firms (whose veterans and representatives have been ubiquitously present in his administration) have gone beyond anything George W. Bush tried.

Obama ran on cleaning up Washington and has come to the nation’s capital to cut one deal after another with big corporations…

He campaigned on the reduction of carbon emissions and then did the bidding of the energy companies by crassly sabotaging the Copenhagen climate talks.[10] He ran against offshore oil drilling but called for and initiated steps towards (speaking in front of a fighter jet) offshore oil drilling along the Eastern US coast and in northern Alaska.

The health “reform” he and his fellow corporate Democrats just passed is a corporatist joke [11], a giveaway to the insurance and drug companies with a few bones thrown to his so-called “progressive base.” As has been known by people who care for some time, Obama cut corrupt backroom deals with the drug and for-profit hospital industries. Under the terms of the corrupt bargains, recently described by New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick as “quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides,” Obama agreed not to honor his election pledges to pursue a public insurance option, to let Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices, and to allow Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada.

“The class one serves”

Fifth, Nairn’s comment creates too simple a dichotomy between Obama’s racial identity and Obama’s service to concentrated power. The relationship between Obama’s race and that service is more complex and sinister. As the brilliant left author, filmmaker, and columnist John Pilger noted on July 4, 2009 in San Francisco:

The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often over-looked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary. [12]

Pilger anticipated this important insight with a powerful and all-too accurate prediction at the end of May 2008: “What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a “new,” young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party — with the bonus of being a member of the black elite — he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.” [13]

Nearly two years later and more than fourteen months into the not-so antiwar Obama presidency, the “peace movement” inside Superpower’s “homeland” is a feeble joke. Some of its leading organizations (most notably the laughable co-opted group MoveOn.org) have subordinated themselves almost beyond belief to the first black president [14] and through him to the US foreign policy establishment. There is little if any meaningful opposition to Obama’s corporatist record and agenda. The often pathetic so-called radical Left feels compelled to accept the supposedly “progressive” administration (“for all its faults”) and to defend it against vicious and preposterous attacks from the significantly racist, “socialism”-charging Right.

Obama agreed not to honor his election pledges to pursue a public insurance option…

As liberal Obama supporters have battled the dodgy Glen-Beckian right over (often indirectly) presidential skin color during the last 14 months, the predominantly white business elite that Obama (like all presidents) serves has seen its wealth and power concentrate yet further upward. The American empire has been re-branded and redeployed in South Asia and around the world. Meanwhile, few dare to recall or consider that Obama was attractive to the establishment (which vetted him quite carefully in late 2002 and early 2003) in part because elites sensed that the in-fact “deeply conservative” and corporate-imperial Obama’s color and ethno-cultural nomenclature made him seem (to angry, Bush-alienated masses both at home and abroad) much more socially democratic, more antiwar, and more generally progressive than he really was. [15]

A post-civil rights president “as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp”

Sixth, it is questionable just how much “damage” Barack Obama has really done (Nairn says “huge” and “major”) to US racism. We should not underestimate the remarkable symbolic racial and related generational relevance of a black American president. Still, the “black but not like Jesse” candidate Obama, it should be recalled, did everything he could to walk and stay on the safe white side of the “post-racial” (really post-Civil Rights) tightrope by fiercely distancing his campaign from the notion that racism is still a powerful and relevant barrier to black advancement and racial equality in American life. Repeatedly praising the right-wing backlash president Ronald Reagan [16] (a fierce enemy of black Civil Rights), he smartly channeled dominant neoliberal and subtly white-supremacist “personal responsibility” narratives about how poor blacks have created their own misery through bad behavior and inadequate culture. [17]

Obama’s famous and instantly lauded “race speech” in Philadelphia — where he saved his candidacy by distancing himself from his former “angry black” preacher Jeremiah Wright — was quite conservative. As Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher noted, Obama “attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted — and documented — in the current reality of the USA.” [18]

Despite such efforts to appease white sentiment and notwithstanding the sorry record of the Republicans under Bush and Cheney amidst the onset of an epic financial meltdown and Great Recession, the hideously bad Republican presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin still won a good majority of the white vote (particular in the South) on Election Day — hardly a sign of racism’s defeat.

“If racists can ostensibly lose an election…”

Since his election, Obama has done nothing to address specific black and other “minority” needs, even as the recession has hit non-white communities with disproportionate force. [19]

The administration offered no defense of the largely black, minority-based urban activist organization ACORN (recently disbanded under right and liberal pressure) when right-wing media and leading Republicans launched a neo-McCarthyite smear campaign against that group in the spring of 2009. The White House required and received the resignation of the highly qualified black-America “green jobs czar” Van Jones, preposterously smeared as a “communist” and “black nationalist” reparations advocate by the racist, far-right FOX News television host Glenn Beck. As Mumia Abu-Jamal noted, “Jones resigned, to protect a President who wouldn’t protect him. …If racists can ostensibly lose an election, and still dictate policy, then, have they really lost?” [20]

“President says he shouldn’t put focus on blacks’ troubles”

The President kept the focus off blacks’ troubles in the highly color-segregated and racially unequal metropolis of Chicago [21] when he tried (without success) to sell his “home city” to the International Olympic Committee as a place “with the warmth of a small town” where “we celebrate what we have in common” — interesting reflections after a black teenager named Derrion Albert was killed in a videotaped beating in a deeply impoverished ghetto neighborhood on the city’s South Side. [22] As social justice and civil rights activists and community organizers across the city had been pointing out for some time, the Chicago 2016 Olympics that the Obamas were working for (along with Oprah Winfrey, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and some of the city’s leading real estate developers) would have benefited the city’s downtown business elite at the expense of city taxpayers and a good portion of black Chicago. [23]

“They all said no”

Here is an interesting message I received from a teacher of black students in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) in February of 2009:

Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of CPS’s actually nice high-school fa-cilities) what they thought of Obama. Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy.

But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no.

So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president — and it’s not something they only know “deep down.” They know it pretty close to the surface.

These students were expressing their solid sense of the difference between (A) symbolic black representation and (B) substantive engagement with the interrelated and underlying forces of economic inequality and institutional racism in daily American life beneath and beyond the quadrennial, corporate-crafted, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s excellent term) that pass for the only politics that matter in the US.

…he smartly channeled narratives about how poor blacks have
created their own misery through bad behavior and inadequate culture.

“The final piece of evidence” that racism is over

The white-run political culture’s regular rituals of self-congratulation over the defeat of overt and de-jure racism have long reinforced the dominant post-Civil Rights white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America and the ubiquitous white notion that racism is something only from the relatively irrelevant and distant “past.” But nothing can trump the ascendancy of a black man to the nation’s highest office when it comes to selling that belief. The black Urban Studies professor Marc Lamont Hill said it well in an important CounterPunch critique (titled “Not My Brand of Hope”) in early February of 2008:

After Obama’s recent success with white voters, particularly his win in Iowa, many have announced America’s transition into a post-racial moment…an Obama presidency is already being treated as a racial talisman that would instantly heal the scars of a nation wounded by racism.

For whites, an Obama victory would serve as the final piece of evidence that America has reached full racial equality. Such a belief allows them to sidestep mounds of evidence that shows that, despite Obama’s claims that “we are 90 % of the way to equality,” black people remain consistently assaulted by the forces of white supremacy. For many black people, Obama’s success would provide symbolic value by showing that the black man (not woman!) can make it to the top. Although black faces in high places may provide psychological comfort, they are often incorporated into a Cosbyesque gospel of personal responsibility (“Obama did it, so can you!”) that allows dangerous public policies to go unchallenged. [24]

Obama in his Chicago and Springfield years was widely seen there
as something of an abject narcissist and opportunist.

“A great man?”

Seventh, I cannot support Nairn’s statement that “Obama should be remembered as a great man.” That’s certainly not how the survivors of the President’s deadly, immoral and illegal attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen feel about the not-so new US president. As one young Pashtun man told Al Jazeera on the day the Nobel Peace Prize was handed to the head of the re-branded American Empire: “Obama has only brought war to our country. Peace prize? He’s a killer.” The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home. The 12 were killed, witnesses reported, by US Special Forces during a late night raid. [25]

“Content of character” vs. color of skin

In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. said that he dreamed of a day when Americans would judge each other on the basis of “the content of their character,” not “the color of their skin.” We would do well to remember King’s admonition when we examine the historical meaning and role of “killer” Obama.

For what it’s worth, I worked for civil rights and racial justice in black Chicago as best I could atop the research department of the corporate- and Mayor Daley-captive Chicago Urban League from 2000 to 2005. In that capacity I (who once during the late 1990s had to listen to professor Obama give a tedious state-level lecture for the vicious neoliberal policy called “welfare reform” [26]) was in a position to closely observe (and had some incidental contact with) Obama in his Chicago and Springfield years. He did not strike many in black Chicago as a particularly noble or reliably progressive character. He was widely seen there as something of an abject narcissist and opportunist — a bourgeois, corner-cutting resume-builder with his real eyes on the prize of national office, very possibly the presidency.

Prior to his overnight national celebrity status (solidified in the summer of 2004 at the Democratic National Convention), he met considerable disapproval in the city’s black community, where he was considered too “bourgeois,” too “close to [the] downtown [corporate elite],” “too Hyde Park” (home of the reactionary University of Chicago, where Obama taught Constitutional Law part-time) and “too close to [the city’s arch-authoritarian corporate mayor Richard (‘Kim Il’)] Daley.”

“A smooth Harvard lawyer with vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics”

Few if any of Obama’s original “progressive” cheerleaders at white, upper-middle-class “left-liberal” venues like The Nation and Huffington Post seemed to have read or taken seriously the brilliant black and left academician Adolph Reed Jr.’s telling description of the future president just as Obama’s political career began on the South Side of Chicago. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, shortly after the latter won his first election to the Illinois legislature:

In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a fore-taste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Har-vard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in US black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway. [27]

Obama has been more a beneficiary than agent of that progress…

Obama’s presidency (like his US Senate career) has been richly consistent with black Chicago and Dr. Reed’s first impressions. The deception and betrayal that he and his presidency have consistently exhibited in defense of dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines certainly suggests something other than “greatness” on the part of Barack Obama. The fact that his technical blackness did not doom his candidacy is surely emblematic of significant cul-tural progress in the US, but Obama has been more a beneficiary than agent of that progress, and he does not seem particularly interested in pushing the envelope of racial advancement beyond the simple fact of his election.

Paul Street’s new book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street is the author of Empire and Ine-quality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO : Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York : Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era ( New York : Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics ( Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).

Notes are available at http://www.zcommunications.org/remembering-obama-by-paul-street

[10 dec 11]

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