|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
Chris Hedges, for one, does not believe the president a turncoat. :But always Hedges expected Obama to be what he has shown himself to be:
I am not disappointed in Obama. I don't feel betrayed. I don't wonder when he is going to be Obama. I did not vote for the man. I vote socialist, which in my case meant Ralph Nader, but could have meant Cynthia McKinney. How can an organization with the oxymoronic title Progressives for Obama even exist? Liberal groups like these make political satire obsolete. Obama was and is a brand. He is a product of the Chicago political machine. He has been skillfully packaged as the new face of the corporate state. I don't dislike Obama — I would much rather listen to him than his smug and venal predecessor — though I expected nothing but a continuation of the corporate rape of the country. And that is what he has delivered.
Hedges instead puts his pen to work on worthier targets:
I save my anger for our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia of which, sadly, I guess I am a member. Liberals are the defeated, self-absorbed Mouse Man in Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground." They embrace cynicism, a cloak for their cowardice and impotence. They, like Dostoevsky's depraved character, have come to believe that the "conscious inertia" of the underground surpasses all other forms of existence. They too use inaction and empty moral posturing, not to affect change but to engage in an orgy of self-adulation and self-pity. They too refuse to act or engage with anyone not cowering in the underground. This choice does not satisfy the Mouse Man, as it does not satisfy our liberal class, but neither has the strength to change. The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.
Anyone who says he or she cares about the working class in this country should have walked out on the Democratic Party in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA. And it has only been downhill since. If welfare reform, the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act, which gutted the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act — designed to prevent the kind of banking crisis we are now undergoing — and the craven decision by the Democratic Congress to continue to fund and expand our imperial wars were not enough to make you revolt, how about the refusal to restore habeas corpus, end torture in our offshore penal colonies, abolish George W. Bush's secrecy laws or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of American citizens? The imperial projects and the corporate state have not altered under Obama. The state kills as ruthlessly and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury as rapaciously to enrich the corporate elite. It, too, bows before the conservative Israel lobby, refuses to enact serious environmental or health care reform, regulate Wall Street, end our relationship with private mercenary contractors or stop handing obscene sums of money, some $1 trillion a year, to the military and arms industry. At what point do we stop being a doormat? At what point do we fight back? We may lose if we step outside the mainstream, but at least we will salvage our self-esteem and integrity.
"If not now, when," a sage once asked.
Christopher Soghoian writes:
Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers' (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.
I find this report neither surprising nor alarming. What I do find surprising and alarming is that surveillance of this sort does not surprise or alarm me. It is, according to my experience of the world, a normal feature of our shared everyday life. Will Americans ever feel abandoned when they learn that Big Brother no longer watches over them?
Michael Lind makes a commonsensical case for a massive federal effort to repair America's compromised and increasingly dangerous infrastructure, shore up its financially-strapped state and local governments, stimulate the crisis-laden economy and, last but not least, put people to work. He also warns his readers that this kind of effort is likely to produce another bout of Beltway foolishness — e.g. a good bit of rightwing identity politics (i.e. race- and class-baiting), programs designed to maximize the PR-value available to Congressmen and women and a knee-jerk rush to offer tax credits to capital. Lind instead argues that this federal effort should be massive and recurring investment in the country's institutions. How, according to Lind, would America pay for a program of this magnitude? A Value Added Tax!
Lind's proposal makes sense, of course. It surely is an appropriate response to one of the crises of the moment. But is it a feasible proposal? Can Washington act rationally?
King Barack the Careful ordered additional troops to Afghanistan, according to the New York Times:
President Obama has issued his order to send more troops to Afghanistan, communicating his decision to military leaders late Sunday afternoon during a meeting in the Oval Office, and will spend Monday speaking with foreign leaders to share with them the broad outlines of his new strategy, the White House said.
"The commander-in-chief has issued the orders," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters at the White House at the outset of what will be a two-day effort to sell the new strategy to the American people, Congress and American allies.
Afghanistan was the "right war," according to candidate Obama. Yet, for whom was it right? Candidate Obama in 2008 and, eventually, in 2009, for he must prove his worth as a president by sending Americans off to die needlessly while also fulfilling one of his campaign promises. For the Pentagon as long as the commander-in-chief adequately funds the effort. For the American empire which needs to play and win the new great game in order to remain an empire long after it lost its modern economic system. For the corrupt president Karzai who needs the United States to remain in power. Or, right for the Americans who will pay for the war with their lives and their futures.
This is another ghastly mistake, although it is consistent with the unreal realism that brought the United States to this point.
The AP discovers an example of America's democratic class struggle:
When it comes to paying for health overhaul, Americans see just one way to go: Tax the rich.
That finding from a new Associated Press poll will be welcome news for House Democrats, who proposed doing just that in their sweeping remake of the U.S. medical system, which passed earlier this month and would extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
The poll found participants sour on other ways of paying for the health overhaul that is being considered in Congress, including taxing insurers on high-value coverage packages derided by President Barack Obama and Democrats as "Cadillac plans."
That approach is being weighed in the Senate. It is one of the few proposals in any congressional legislation that analysts say would help reduce the nation's health expenditures, but it has come under fire from organized labor and has little support in the House.
What makes this case interesting is the "make the rich pay" sentiment present among Americans today. Decades of GOP-led welfare state retrenchment, deindustrialization, anti-labor reaction, race-baiting, etc. have dulled the sense that wealth is a social product, not a consequence of an individual's good work.
On Palin's charisma
According to Max Blumenthal's latest article, Sarah Palin cannot "…be easily criticized." She sits beyond the reach of rational criticism because she has acquired, it would seem, Ronald Reagan's Teflon mantle. At least her fans have no trouble at all in seeing her aura:
Palin is so well positioned as the darling of the movement that any criticism of her would be experienced by believers as a personal attack on them. In this way, their identification with her through the politics of personal crisis is complete.
For the 2010 mid-term elections, Palin's endorsement is already a coveted commodity.... As she sets out on her book tour, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only propel her forward. Her influence on a party largely devoid of leadership is expanding. If she doesn't prove to be the Party's future queen, she may have positioned herself to be its future king-maker — and potentially its destroyer.
Sarah — Zion's Prophet in the United States — would merely provide another freak show to a culture that thrives upon them but for the political failures of the Obama administration. What, after all, has Obama delivered to those who voted for him a year ago? Viable health care? A reaffirmation of America's safety net? Structural reform of a corrupt economy? Reindustrialization? A push towards a green economy? A push towards a full employment at a living wage economy? The conclusion of America's occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan? Demilitarization? An affirmation of the rule of law? Good government?
Has he delivered anything of tangible value?
A well-founded "No" only points to an Obama-backlash as it gestates within America's civil society as it decays, a reaction which can only benefit the professional fear-mongers, fundamentalists and opportunists on the right. Thus considered, Obama's failures reflect America's failures. They are the products of a history the enduring problems of which require radical reform if the country would resolve these problems. But Obama is not a radical reformer. He is, rather, a system politician who leads a system that will fail if only reproduces itself.
Having considered the historical repudiation of state socialism (1989) and market fundamentalism (2008), historian Eric Hobsbawm suggests that mere institutional reform will prove inadequate to the unavoidable task of setting humanity on a better path than the one it has known since the advent of the modern age. The issue no longer conforms to a markets or politics choice, as it had since the mid-19th century. Rather, as Hobsbawm argues:
The crucial difference between economic systems lies…in their social and moral priorities. In this respect I see two crucial problems.
The first is that the end of communism has meant the sudden end of the values, habits and social practices by which generations had lived — not only those of the communist regimes, but also those of the pre-communist past that had been preserved under these regimes. We must recognise the depth of shock and human calamity brought about by this abrupt and unexpected social earthquake.
This sense of social disruption and disorientation remains, at least for all except those born after 1989, even when economic hardship no longer dominates post-communist populations. It must inevitably take several decades before post-communist societies find a stable way of living in the new era and some of the consequences of social disruption, institutionalised corruption and crime may take even longer to eradicate.
The second is that both Western neoliberalism and the post-communist policies it inspired deliberately subordinated welfare and social justice to the tyranny of the GDP: maximum and deliberately inegalitarian economic growth. In doing so they undermined, and in former communist countries destroyed, the systems of social security, welfare, the values and aims of public service.
This is no basis either for the European "capitalism with a human face" of the post-1945 decades or for satisfactory mixed post-communist systems. The purpose of an economy is not profit but the wellbeing of all people, just as the legitimation of the state is its people not its power.
Economic growth is not an end but a means to good, human and just societies. It does not matter what we call regimes that pursue this aim. It does matter how, and with what priorities, we combine the public and private elements in our mixed economies. That is the key political question of the 21st century.
It's kinda over, seems to be over, could be over, but...don't hold your breath. As Mike Whitney explains:
Yesterday's report from the Commerce Dept. confirmed that the economy expanded in the third quarter by 3.5 percent, better than most economists estimates. GDP had contracted in the four previous quarters in the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression. Massive government stimulus, cash for clunkers, and inventory restocking accounted for most of the surge in economic activity. Consumer spending grew at 2.36 percent while consumer credit continued to contract at a near-record pace of 4.5 percent. Unemployment swelled to 9.8 percent, "with nearly nearly [sic] 26 million workers — 17 percent of the workforce — unemployed or underemployed," according to economist Mark Zandi. The economy remains extremely weak and is expected to lapse back into recession if the Obama administration fails to provide a second-round of stimulus.
In other words, the structural problems that produced the crisis remain. That is one reason the economy remains weak and recession-prone. The growth that brought the recession to an end merely expresses the effects produced by the Obama stimulus. This outcome was predicted, as Dean Baker points out. Nevertheless the Obama stimulus failed to implement the kind of structural reforms the economy needs if it is to strengthen as the reforms work their magic. Nor was it meant to effect reform of this kind.
What we are witnessing, then, is a macroeconomic effect produced by Obama's effort to restore to 'health' the system as it existed before the crash.
One benefit of the Obama stimulus: A slight decrease in the rate of unemployment.
Given the political benefits a presidential candidate could expect to gain from an economy that grows during an election season, it is only natural that a sitting president eligible for reelection would want to push hard for another stimulus program in order to dampen the effects of the crisis. Well, not in this case, for "…President Barack Obama hasn't requested more stimulus and recent polls indicate that a majority of people are against more deficit spending." Obama, it seems, faces political constraints:
The administration has done a poor job of explaining the advantages of reducing the output-gap or — for that matter — the overall objectives of Obama's economic recovery plan. Many people heap the bank bailouts (TARP) with the fiscal stimulus. This is a mistake that's easy to make. But the point needs to be clarified so more people don't needlessly suffer. It's up to Obama to articulate the differences in policy so the country can muddle through the tough days ahead. The problem is, Obama is afraid to use his skills as a communicator, because he thinks his message will offend financial industry constituents who wield tremendous power at the White House and on Capital Hill. The bankers and brokerage mandarins are more than happy with the present arrangement, which means that the conveyor-belt connecting the US Treasury to Wall Street will continue to operate at full-throttle diverting ungodly sums of money to broken banks and financial institutions rather than for unemployment benefits, work programs, and state aid.
Placating Wall Street appears to be an Obama priority. Crisis management, not crisis resolution through reform, informs his strategy. The financial elite, not the rabble, make up his constituency. To meet this strategic goal Obama can depend on the fears of the common American who, unsurprisingly, would rather the government put a stop on this deficit spending. Yet their fears and Wall Street's greed should not:
…stop Obama from doing the right thing and making the case for another round of stimulus. His job is to strengthen demand and put the country back to work. The rest is just politics.
Obama, I would add, should also make the case for structural reform. Neither massive unemployment nor widespread poverty are politically acceptable results for an economy as well-placed as the American.
Mikhail Gorbachev's take on the need for reform in the United States:
Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: "The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?" I said, "Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me." But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.
The purge of the moderates continues
TPM reports that:
In a huge development in the NY-23 special election, Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava has announced that she is suspending her campaign, citing an inability to win in light of recent polls and a lack of money — leaving this race as a vote between Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, and a strong message that the Republican Party can no longer nominate moderate candidates, or else face a right-wing revolt.
Rachael Maddow and Glenn Greenwald expose here the corruption of Joe Lieberman (Asshole-CT) and Evan Bayh (D-IN):
When buzzards hide among the doves
It is a case that has to be made, and Michael Neumann makes it:
Antisemites have flocked to criticism of Israel precisely because criticism of Israel is so amply justified. Criticism of Israel isn't a great disguise because the critics are sleazebags. Quite the contrary: it's a great disguise because criticizing Israel is not only correct, it's the right thing to do. The more-than-overwhelming majority of those who criticize Israel are genuine humanitarians, genuine enemies of oppression and ethnic nationalism, genuine fighters for justice. The more obvious this has become, the more antisemites get on board.
The Teabaggers are having conniptions. In their minds the Countdown to Judgment Day has begun. Obama and the Democratic Party threaten the republic. They have usurped the power that rightfully belongs to, well, to the far rightwing of the Republican Party. The Teabaggers want their America back. They intend to get it back. Yet as Frank Schaeffer observes:
When the Tea Party folks say they want to "take back our country" who do they want to take it back from? It turns out it's going to be taken back from the democratic process itself. The effort here is to reverse the last election result.
In this scenario any time there is not a white, wealthy, far right Republican in the White House and any time Congress isn't controlled by the far (white) right of the Republican Party, then the country has been "stolen" from "us" "Real Americans."
Since the mechanisms of democracy, when in the hands of the American people, cannot be trusted to do what's right and Godly, the Teabaggers "…must now turn to 'other means'" to set things right. This, by the way, is one lesson the right can take from the 2000 presidential election. The means available to them are limited when they cannot be legal and democratic in character.
I find it odd, though, to read public declarations that express a willingness to engage in armed rebellion against a democratically authorized government. When did Congress or the Supreme Court abolish the Smith Act? Why does this law fail to apply to the Teabaggers? Who or what authorized an "armed insurrection exemption" for the far right? Must the country endure another Oklahoma City Bombing before public opinion turns decisively against the right?
The occasion: The health care reform debate. The victim: The citizens of the United States. The victimizer: Joe Lieberman, Asshole-CT. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The push by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for a public health-insurance option is creating fresh obstacles for health-care legislation in the Senate, despite new poll data suggesting a plurality of Americans support the idea.
Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman said Tuesday that he would vote to block passage of the Senate health-care bill in its current form, dealing an initial blow to Mr. Reid's effort to gather 60 votes. Mr. Lieberman usually sides with Democrats, but he said that unless the bill changes substantially, he would vote with Senate Republicans to keep it from moving to a final vote.
Lieberman worries that health care reform costs money, a concern which did not trouble him in the least when, for instance, he backed the Wall Street Bailout and the expansive military funding of the Bush era. While considering Lieberman's record, Robert Scheer was moved to ask: "Is there a more hypocritical figure in American politics than Joe Lieberman?" The question was rhetorical. Scheer surely believes Lieberman is a front-runner in that race to oblivion, for, as he notes as he nears the end of his article, "…it is not possible to feel anything but loathing for those like Lieberman who vote for every big government program, no matter how wasteful, in support of big business, but draw the line at a program designed to cut medical costs for the ordinary citizens they have been sworn to serve."
The Guardian warns that:
Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister during the Gaza war, would probably face arrest on war crimes charges if he visited Britain, according to a UK lawyer who is working to expand the application of "universal jurisdiction" for offences involving serious human rights abuses committed anywhere in the world.
Neither Olmert nor Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister during the Cast Lead offensive, and a member of Israel's war cabinet, would enjoy immunity from prosecution for alleged breaches of the Geneva conventions, predicted Daniel Machover, who is involved in intensifying legal work after the controversial Goldstone report on the three-week conflict. Neither are ministers any longer.
Prosecutions of Israeli political and military figures remain likely despite the failure to obtain an arrest warrant for Ehud Barak, the defence minister, when he visited the UK earlier this month, he said. In the Barak case a magistrate accepted advice from the Foreign Office that the minister enjoyed state immunity and rejected an application made on behalf of several residents of the Gaza Strip.
"This needs to be tested at the right time and in the right place," Machover said. "One day one of these people will make a mistake and go to the wrong country and face a criminal process — and then it'll be a matter for the courts of that country to give them a fair trial: that's what the Palestinian victims want."
One can only hope that Olmert, George Bush, Dick Cheney and others of their ilk will one day face the finite justice to be found in this world.
The pertinent deed happened in late September when Rep Alan Grayson (D-FL) called ex-Enron lobbyist and current Federal Reserve senior adviser Linda Robertson a "K Street whore." One can listen to the relevant interview here. But Grayson shows himself to be confused as to whom he wronged when he used the bad word, "whore," for he apologized to the wrong person, as may be seen in his statement:
"I offer my sincere apology to Linda Robertson, an adviser to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. I did not intend to use a term that is often, and correctly, seen as disrespectful of women.
"This characterization of Ms. Robertson, made during a radio interview last month in the context of the debate over whether the Federal Reserve should be independently audited, was inappropriate, and I apologize."
Grayson's apology should have gone to all women and to all sex-workers who deal with too much crap as it is. They were surely defamed by a comparison to an Enron lobbyist and Federal Reserve advisor, a taxonomic unit that is ambiguously related to the human species. They deserve the apology.
This is one to savor as the world plunges into the abyss
One may find this sentiment expressed in the Guardian:
One of the City's leading figures has suggested that inequality created by bankers' huge salaries is a price worth paying for greater prosperity.
In remarks that will fuel the row around excessive pay, Lord Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International and a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said banks should not be ashamed of rewarding their staff.
Speaking to an audience at St Paul's Cathedral in London about morality in the marketplace last night, Griffiths said the British public should "tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all".
Serge Halimi of Le Monde Diplomatique surveys journalism's current condition before stating the obvious:
The internet has not destroyed journalism. It has been stumbling for some time under the weight of restructurings, marketing-driven content, contempt for working class readership, and under the influence of billionaires and advertisers. It wasn't the internet that propagated the allies' untruths during the first Gulf war (1991) or Nato's during the Kosovo conflict or the Pentagon's during the Iraq war. Nor can we blame the internet for the media's inability to publicise the collapse of savings banks in the US in 1989 and the collapse of emerging nations eight years later, or to warn of the housing bubble for which we are all still paying the price. So if the press really needs to be saved, public money would be better spent on those who purvey information reliably and independently rather than those who just hawk malicious gossip. Those who want to make money from investments or from being pens for hire can find resources elsewhere.
The crisis in contemporary journalism is, then, self-inflicted.
Their shameless gloating over the Chicago Olympic bid decision aroused Krugman's ire. Krugman concludes that:
…at this point, the guiding principle of one of our nation's two great political parties is spite pure and simple. If Republicans think something might be good for the president, they're against it — whether or not it's good for America.
Spite and obstructionism comes naturally to the Reaganite GOP:
Anyone surprised by the venomous, over-the-top opposition to Mr. Obama must have forgotten the Clinton years. Remember when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton was a party to murder? When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those Medicare cuts? And let's not even talk about the impeachment saga.
The only difference now is that the G.O.P. is in a weaker position, having lost control not just of Congress but, to a large extent, of the terms of debate. The public no longer buys conservative ideology the way it used to; the old attacks on Big Government and paeans to the magic of the marketplace have lost their resonance. Yet conservatives retain their belief that they, and only they, should govern.
The result has been a cynical, ends-justify-the-means approach. Hastening the day when the rightful governing party returns to power is all that matters, so the G.O.P. will seize any club at hand with which to beat the current administration.
It's an ugly picture. But it's the truth. And it's a truth anyone trying to find solutions to America's real problems has to understand.
The effective goal of the Republican Party: To exterminate the Democratic Party. That way doth dictatorship lie….
This is a republication of a post that was first published on 9.24.2009. The text had been corrupted, though.
* * * * * * *
As my trip to "dahntahn" Pittsburgh yesterday (9.23) made plain, the G-20 Summit has already worked a kind of bad magic on the everyday political and social life of the city of Pittsburgh.
I say this because it was not at all hard to find evidence supporting my belief that a kind of frenzy drives the local political culture more than a reasoned appreciation for the political, social and cultural predicaments of the moment. Fear — and thus hatred — pervades the city. This is unsurprising since a paranoid ranting has dominated talk radio for weeks along with the local news more recently. The streets were not empty, of course. They were only "not themselves," different in a way that pointed to the G-20 Summit and the political situation surrounding it.
The immediate cause:
"The Anarchists are coming, the Anarchists are coming…."
The anarchists are fearful because they are willing to contend in a direct and forceful way with the militarized and well-armed security forces in the city. Their tactic: Civil disobedience.
In other words, the federal government and its local adjuncts are seeking to suppress much of the politics that will originate from below when that politics fails to affirm in a decisive and direct way the despotic powers of the state and, to be sure, the anti-democratic features specific to the American form of governance. The suppression combines the law (rule by law) with force and violence (rule by law realized by a militarized police). The upshot: Something akin to a local state of siege had appeared as the Summit neared. Pittsburgh epitomizes police state American. Thus:
"The streets of Pittsburgh are secure and will remain so during the Summit. The dignitaries visiting the city for the event will not be molested in any way by the black flag folk especially or by any other movement that chooses to protest the event, the participants and their doings. Nor, for that matter, will they endure a confrontation with the indigent living under the city's many bridges or the famished scrounging for food, for they have been cleansed. Humanity will be disciplined so that unaccountable power might thrive."
As it turned out, the forces of 'order' and fear achieved their goal: Pittsburgh looked as though it were preparing to weather a Category Four political hurricane. Businesses were securing their windows. The police patrolled the streets on foot, singly and in large groups, on motorcycles, bikes and riding in other vehicles. Some of the sidewalks near the Convention Center were enclosed in long but narrow steel cages, creating pedestrian bottlenecks intended, one would guess, to pacify the crowds moving toward the Convention Center and its precious occupants. In short, Pittsburgh looked to be a social and political wasteland in the making, and has remained so today as I write this article.
This debacle — and it was a debacle — received a mixed reception from the locals. I often overhead some of them — "Yinzers" — complaining about the protesters who allegedly were "ruining the Summit for the City," were in need of "a full-time job," a bath, more variety in their diet, better manners, good clothes, etc. It seems the protesters needed, if one were to believe their critics, a whole new identity and way of life, an identity and life that conforms to the expectations the critics have for themselves, their kind and for all 'real' Americans. The protesters ought to become "one of us," so to speak. Apparently, Pittsburgh's anti-protester protesters believed the normalization of the event necessarily meant the complete pacification and integration of the city and, by extension, the people who will host and participate in it. Pacification in this case means the elimination of an opposition politics.
What the protest critics neglected to mention was the purpose animating these protests: To secure a higher quality of life in the present and the future for those who need it the most. Nor did they consider the issues the G-20 countries would discuss while convening in Pittsburgh or, for that matter, the situation that they and everyone else confronts today. They treated these as irrelevant. They were beside the point, it seems, because their presence could only undermine the spectacle of the event and the security of the city.
In short, the critics of the protesters had erased the political essence of the event which would have scared the Hell out of them had they taken seriously this essence along with the issues history has made relevant today.
But, they could instead obsess about the spectacle at hand: A spectacle composed of despotic and unaccountable power doing as it pleases, of armed forces crossing the streets of their hometown, of political liberties breached and undermined, of a garrison state as it appears to those subject to it.
Nearly all is quiet today in Pittsburgh. Only the groaning over the most recent heartbreaking Steelers' loss breaks the silence.
The G-20 Summit concluded on Friday, so too the street clashes between the police and some of the G-20 protesters. The sirens now sound less frequently, and mirror the rhythms of violence and illness specific to the city, not the workings of the security-surveillance apparatus as it disciplines the burghers. The locals can be thankful Allegheny County's Long Range Acoustical Device can no longer be heard at all.
What remains of the G-20 for the Steel City?
For one thing, Western Pennsylvania's talk radio goons are working hard to keep the recent spectacle alive and present within the collective memory of the region. Their effort in this matter was to be expected. This is what they do, after all. They rouse the rabble by focusing on something disturbing or by creating a creating a disturbance when reality proves stingy in that regard. It is their job! They get a paycheck for it. Thus, it would be silly to expect them to say anything good about the anarchists who behaved so 'badly' last week, that is, who proved themselves willing to contend with the city's well-armed, well-fortified and militarized police forces while relying on the "weapons of the weak" available to them. In this they physically defied America's garrison state in the making. They refused to recognize the authority it claims for itself and implicitly appealed to the rights granted to them and to every American citizen by the Bill of Rights.
For another thing, the talk radio goons also want to defend the political repression that characterized the state's use of its policing powers in Pittsburgh. Why would these 'liberty loving' folk support the political use of the police? They seemingly did so because they despised the anarchists and everything for which the anarchists stand.
I believe this because the deeds, words and intentions of the anarchists made one thing clear to the goons: The anarchists belong to that social category — "the other" — which sits well beyond the fringe that separates the American from the non-American, the the friend from the enemy, the "one-of-us" from "one-of-them." The anarchists are "strangers" living among the 'real' Americans — living vicariously and illicitly among the 'producers. This, in any case, is the political space where the talk show goons and their followers want to place the anarchists and near to the place where, one suspects, the anarchists would place themselves.
While something like political peace has returned to the Steel City, looks can be deceiving.
Peacefulness does not imply civility! I say this because one crucial element of a modern civil society — the rule of law — had a bad time of it during the Summit. Events during the past week revealed once again that, in the United States today, the rule of law has given way, in part, to the rule by law. It has ceded ground to this kind of authoritarianism because the contest between the strong and the weak has become especially lopsided, to paraphrase Stephen Holmes (2003, 23). It is so lopsided that it is not even close to being a fair contest. Not everyone is subject to the law equally nor does every citizen participate equally in the creation and use of public power. This imbalance tends to make the law a technique of elite governance, not an expression of a democratically ordered, legally rational form of self-government. It transforms the law of a democracy into a repressive tool.
Thus, America's recent return to the imperial presidency, which it allegedly tamed when the Congress humiliated Richard Nixon and which surely looked dead after the Clinton impeachment. "Alas, the obituaries were premature," as Arthur Schlesinger observed in the latest edition (2004, ix) of his critical book on the problem.
How could the imperial presidency die when this is the America of, among other things, The Patriot Act, The Protect America Act, The John W. Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2006, The FISA Amendments Act of 2008, but also the America of preventative war, enhanced interrogation techniques or torture, extraordinary renditions, of an extensive prison system along with those laws that have made a prison system of this magnitude inevitable (e.g. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994). These legal mechanisms reveal that the United States has traded a generalizable concept of liberty for class-specific and therefore partial forms of security.
Barack Obama is only the latest executive charged with enforcing the prerogatives and operations of the neoliberal system. He has not often or effectively acted to reverse this trend towards governing the country through fear-mongering and its security-surveillance apparatus. Nor, most notably, has he worked to bring to justice America's torturers and those who authorized these illegal practices. The symbolic effect of Obama's act of omission is easy to discern. Despite the bombastic law and order sermons given by so many of America's political candidates since the 1960s, the Obama administration has already proved itself soft on crime when the criminals at issue sport white collars or khaki uniforms. The Obama administration thus prefers stability over rational legality. For some, crime pays.
Obama's discretion in this should surprise no one who has thought much about the matter. A law and order regime in the United States was always meant only for the "many" that lack self-discipline and the power needed to defend themselves; those few who sit atop the heap are mostly and thus effectively exempt from the limits set by the law when it is a matter of their meeting their system-consistent role obligations. Their effective restraints are few. They are deemed too big to fail and too powerful to bring to justice by those who also are too big and too powerful. Any threat to them and their power amounts to a system threat, and will thus not be tolerated by those charged with defending the system.
From the defense of the Bush administration's position on state secrets, habeas corpus, the Obama administration has already compiled a sorry record with respect to its handling of matters of right and justice. Should we be surprised, then, by the near state of siege or martial law that prevailed in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit? No. As a matter of fact, the situation on the ground in Pittsburgh during the Summit was not one of which Obama was at all ashamed. He seemed pleased by the fact that the G-20 protesters in Pittsburgh were not overly disruptive when compared to their predecessors. He did not comment on the police harassment of the Climate Convergence Project, the Seeds of Peace Collective and the use of the legal system to deny those who would protest the G-20 their rights to protest. He nevertheless treated Pittsburgh as though the city and its economy reflected the kind of world the G-20 wanted to promote.
Pittsburgh, in Obama's hands, was a Phoenix that rose from the post-industrial wasteland and achieved a regional renewal around the new economy. It counts as a neoliberal success story — a model city, as it were.
Ironically the Pittsburgh of the G-20 Summit was a neoliberal success story insofar as the American state could deploy its despotic powers to suppress a counter-public and its politics and this use of the state's powers is consistent with neoliberal dogma and practice.
The recent militarization of everyday life in Pittsburgh became apparent to me early on since I am a resident of the Western Pennsylvanian region and travel often enough to downtown Pittsburgh. By Wednesday (9.23), the security forces in the city had placed the David L. Lawrence Center within a 'secure' environment. They gave the Summit this kind of environment even though the protesters posed no significant physical threat to the conference participants or, for that matter, to the people of Pittsburgh. (Presumably, the security forces were also defending the Center and the Summit against a terrorist attack meant to eliminate the G-20 leaders, although it is unclear how effective this security would have been if it had to contend with a motivated and well-equipped terrorist group.) In other words, the state of siege seemingly was meant not to provide only for the physical security of the Summit participants but also to present a spectacle that represented to the world the power at their command and their comparative unaccountability to the pöbel. The messages this spectacle conveyed to the protesters in Pittsburgh, to the observers of the Summit and its environment as well as to those individuals who might choose to protest any future official event:
- Do not protest
- Do not speak you mind in public
- Do not act politically
- Do not act autonomously
- Do not threaten the system in any way
The American legal system actually colluded in the construction of this spectacle by authorizing the militarized police forces to act as they did. The repression observed in Pittsburgh was legal, more or less. The protesters had a legally secure opportunity to protest. Yet, the repression would be characterized best as an instance of rule by law. Had the rule of law prevailed during the Summit and with respect to the protesters, then the protesters would not have had to fight for every bit of public space they had wanted, whether legally or illegally. The protests, rather, would have been a part of the Summit, and would have been included in the Summit even if the Summit organizers had kept the protesters from entering the Convention Center. Their recognition and inclusion would have made present a faction of a global civil society that the Summit did not and even refused to include. Thus, the early appearance of a political wasteland in the city.
There is, I believe, no reason to expect a return to the rule of law in Pittsburgh or in any other part of the country. Rule by force, through fear and for the sake of elite security remain an implicit feature of the American political system. Political passivity is the goal, especially when that passivity is imposed on the left. But, a pacified society need not be a civil society. It can be a society intimidated by the use of force, rendered dumb by incomprehension and hopelessness and prone to believe that the powerful stand as the real master of its fate.
Eric Stoner adopts this project in his recent article for AlterNet, and he rightly does so. Consider these statements by this supposed radical socialist: When recently asked if a younger Barack Obama would have taken to the streets of Pittsburgh as a protester of the G-20 Summit, he replied: "Probably not." His answer was a characteristic response to a question of this sort, one that a system politician would make in most instances. What was truly astonishing was Obama's defense for his position:
"I was always a big believer in — when I was doing organizing before I went to law school — that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference."
Stoner has no trouble demolishing Obama's silliness:
It would not have taken an incredible investigative feat [for Obama] to discover that the protesters descending upon Pittsburgh were doing so for very "concrete" reasons that touch their daily lives in very real ways.
They came to advocate for greater assistance for everyday people during these tough economic times, for more serious government action on global warming ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have already taken such a staggering human and financial toll.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb, most people — whether they are diehard activists or not — don't normally travel great distances to face ominous riot police firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and deafening sound cannons, unless they have been deeply, personally affected the issues being protested.
And given the global financial meltdown that has hit working people so hard, can anyone really say that those who critique the entire capitalist system don't have a point?
Stoner could have added the presence in Friday's march of single-payer health advocates and Tibetan exiles who addressed China's imperialistic control of Tibet. Moreover, one can be both pro-capitalist (prefer an economy coordinated by a market system) and pro-single-payer (because of its efficient and fair allocation of goods when compared to its competitors). Likewise, environmentalists need not be anarchists or socialists because of their environmental concerns. It would be a sad ending indeed for humanity if it had to successfully make the transition to socialism before it could tackle climate change and other environmental catastrophes!
Obama's dismissal of mass nonviolent action was disingenuous for other reasons as well. Behind his desk in his Senate office, Obama prominently displayed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
In an interview last year, he explained that the portraits were there "to remind me that real results will not just come from Washington, they will come from the people." And only weeks before the G-20, during his "controversial" address to school children, the president brought up Gandhi, calling him "a real hero of mine."
Could anyone possibly argue with a straight face that King, who was killed while planning the Poor People's Campaign, would not be on the streets with those calling for economic justice? Would Gandhi not oppose the diversion of $700 billion this year from meeting people's basic needs to fund the Pentagon and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Of course, King would have been in Pittsburgh in spirit if not also in the flesh. Gandhi will celebrate his 150th birthday tomorrow (10.2); the world, for its part, will celebrate Gandhi by marking his birthday as the International Day of Non-Violence. Obama, on the other hand, will spend the day as the Commander in Chief of the greatest military apparatus the world has ever known.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times recently pointed out that:
A clash is coming [over the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy]. President Obama may be reconsidering his idea of substantially increasing the number of American troops, but no one at the higher echelons of government is suggesting that anything other than a long, hard, tragic and expensive campaign lies ahead — with no promise of ultimate victory, or even a serious definition of what would constitute victory.
According to Herbert, Americans will have another pointless war to endure, one which the elite who authorized and will prosecute the war cannot rationally justify. And, it will likely produce annoying blowback events just as it predecessors had.
The public has not been prepared for a renewed big-time, long-haul effort in Afghanistan. And if American casualties increase substantially, support for the war will diminish that much more. There is very little tolerance in the U.S. for the reality of war, which is why the images in the media are so sanitized. The public's concept of warfare, for the most part, is the product of Hollywood movies about the heroics of the so-called Greatest Generation, and video games.
This disconnect between what the public is expecting, or willing to accept, regarding the war in Afghanistan and what the White House and the Pentagon are in fact planning is vast. Americans want their politicians to concentrate on the economy here at home. After the long, sad experience in Iraq, and the worst economic shock since the Depression, they are not up for extended combat and endless nation-building in Afghanistan.
In other words, Herbert believes that American public in general wants its sitting government to produce outcomes which enhance its quality of life. How unrealistic they are! So many Americans despised the second Bush regime because of its inept war-mongering; they could not trust the McCain-Palin ticket to avoid additional disasters. The polls seemed to point to these conclusions. Why is it, then, that America's political elite cannot learn from its experiences? Why do Obama and the Pentagon believe they must compound the mistakes of their predecessors?
Trust and serve if you wish to succeed. This is the advice Robert Scheer has given Barack Obama at this crucial juncture:
The Obama revolution, and there was the hope of one, might still succeed. But only if Barack Obama follows the model of the incredibly successful Reagan revolution and heeds the political base that made his presidency possible.
The problem with Scheer's advice? If Obama were to heed it, that is, if the president were to choose to follow the lead of his "base," he could manage this only by contesting and defeating the powerful interests which backed his candidacy during the campaign. How likely is it that Obama would take on let alone defeat the FIRE sector or, for that matter, the security-surveillance sector? It is not very likely at all. That strategy might end with a real revolution — a coup d'état that produces a dictatorship. Obama would avoid destabilization at all costs. The path Scheer advocates is the one a great leader would chose. Obama, on the other hand, merely wishes to be a successful president during a time of crisis.
A stop on the road to dictatorship in America
While addressing the G-20 Summit along with the protests meant to challenge the Summit and what it represents, Chris Hedges recently characterized the repression implemented by the federal government and the local governments in the Pittsburgh region as follows:
The draconian security measures put in place to silence dissent in Pittsburgh are disproportionate to any actual security concern. They are a response not to a real threat, but to the fear gripping the established centers of power.
A quibble: I would say that the threat is real and that the elite rightly believe their position to be insecure. But the actual threat posed by the G-20 demonstrators gathering now in Pittsburgh will not be in any way related to whatever violent acts they might commit during their demonstrations. The actual threat which motivates this kind of fear among the elite is political in nature. It takes the form of a politics meant to represent the interests, identities and lives of those largely excluded or ignored by America's compromised political institutions. This political exclusion supports and reflects the economic dispossession that is now operative in an economy teetering on the brink.
Additionally, the repression is future-directed, as Hedges recognizes:
The power elite grasps, even if we do not, the massive fraud and theft being undertaken to save a criminal class on Wall Street and international speculators of the kinds who were executed in other periods of human history. They know the awful cost this plundering of state treasuries will impose on workers, who will become a permanent underclass. And they also know that once this is clear to the rest of us, rebellion will no longer be a foreign concept.
How, indeed, will the dispossessed respond to their knowing that their lives were sacrificed so that the finance capital might thrive in the difficult future now coming into being? To whom will they attribute their suffering? Will they have the cultural and social resources they will need if they are to survive the global system coming into being? How will they survive the slums they will inhabit when they know so little of solidarity and political communication?
The American political system, tenuously democratic and corrupted as it has been by the militarism and market fundamentalism of the last decades, can produce only one response to this threat, which is, to be sure, a threat generated by its growing illegitimacy and the inadequacy of contemporary capitalism:
The delegates to the G-20, the gathering of the world's wealthiest nations, will consequently be protected by a National Guard combat battalion, recently returned from Iraq. The battalion will shut down the area around the city center, man checkpoints and patrol the streets in combat gear. Pittsburgh has augmented the city's police force of 1,000 with an additional 3,000 officers. Helicopters have begun to buzz gatherings in city parks, buses driven to Pittsburgh to provide food to protesters have been impounded, activists have been detained, and permits to camp in the city parks have been denied. Web sites belonging to resistance groups have been hacked and trashed, and many groups suspect that they have been infiltrated and that their phones and e-mail accounts are being monitored.
In other words, "Force is all the elite have left," as Hedges succinctly states. The elite have no other response to these protests because they lack a reform politics that points to a possible world that exists beyond the crises of the present and which resolves these crises in a manner that can be judged legitimate. Force — the 'reasoning' and 'communicative' technique used by the stupid to address problems they do not understand and cannot resolve.
…it's because they are hypocrites!
John Cole considers here this shameless dishonesty and does so with respect to the big fuss the right often makes about ACORN and, for that matter, Barack Obama. I quote his article in full because it is brutal, direct and true:
Investigating known links to the past administration and torture — beyond the pale.
Investigating known wrongdoing within the Justice department regarding firings — partisan politics.
Investigating Monica Goodling and that entire sorry crew — unseemly.
Creating a special prosecutor to ogle Bill Clinton's penis and another one to fish for some possible wrongdoing somewhere in a connection to Obama that doesn't exist — YOUR PATRIOTIC GOD DAMNED DUTY. WOLVERINES!
The United States, as we know, never actually gave itself a proper welfare state because the whole welfare state effort could be painted black, so to speak, by its opponents, found an unreceptive audience among America's racists and, to be sure, would prove to be disruptive to deeply entrenched economic interests across the country. Like this imaginary welfare state that could not come to be, the right has made ACORN a target precisely because its very existence does the poor and thus relatively powerless fraction of the country a bit of good! Yet, ACORN does not accomplish as much for the poor and weak as Washington's lobbyists do for big capital and finance as well as for the Pentagon and its suppliers. ACORN is just a scapegoat, a convenient, weak and thus advantageous target for the right, as Glenn Greenwald suggests here:
So with this massive pillaging of America's economic security and the control of American government by its richest and most powerful factions growing by the day, to whom is America's intense economic anxiety being directed? To a non-profit group that devotes itself to providing minute benefits to people who live under America's poverty line, and which is so powerless in Washington that virtually the entire U.S. Senate just voted to cut off its funding at the first sign of real controversy — could anyone imagine that happening to a key player in the banking or defense industry?
Apparently, the problem for middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans is not that their taxpayer dollars are going to prop up billionaires, oligarchs and their corrupt industries. It's that America's impoverished — a group that is growing rapidly — is getting too much, has too much power and too little accountability.
It is clear — at least it is clear to the Republican Party and its materially threatened base — that unions, the poor, Black folk, unwed mothers, the retired who depend upon Medicare and Social Security are the dangerous 'special interests' who would bring down this magnificent country. That so many among this Party's base will soon find themselves among the impoverished, that they will need the help of entities like ACORN, that they would be better off if the United States had a proper welfare state…
* * * * *
Denial is common occurrence among human beings. So also is paranoia. Whether directly or indirectly considered, both make an appearance in America's news reports every single day. For instance, 'authentic' Americans, believe reality is for sissies. Uncle Sam is no sissy, of course. He makes reality. So, why not "Drill baby drill…."
Still, it is also common to consider denial and paranoia irrational responses to the world. They earn this accurate characterization because the world mostly proves to be significantly stronger than the phantasies that would completely or partially replace it and because denial and paranoia reflect psychological positions and cultural objects that are a part of the world but which do not make the world as such. The human imagination is surely creative and often powerful; but it is far from being omnipotent. It can easily imagine beings of all sorts; it just cannot create being as it pleases. Consequently, there will always be a need of and a place for those committed to living in the world as they find it, who willingly reject the naïve metaphysics of the deeply frightened and the power-hungry. Similarly, the reality-challenged will often have the opportunity to learn that they were and are mistaken, that the Earth is neither flat, the center of the universe nor damnable matter, that it can never be made wholly subject to humanity's will and intentions. Whether the reality-challenged want to and can learn from their experience is another matter.
In other words, reasonable people reality test their imaginary constructions, and strive to tolerate the results produced by their testing. They take up this often frustrating chore because they wish to be free of illusions and in order to make a success of their projects, which any consistent refusal to recognize the world as a whole or in part would threaten with failure. Although the disconfirmation of dearly held truths can be considered an advance if not a practical advantage, it is, as most human beings know, one often painfully gained. Worse still is the possibility that the pain produced by the process of self-enlightenment might sometimes overwhelm the advantages gained in the end. Human beings tend to be pain-adverse. And they need not value truth for the sake of truth. They certainly may prefer comfort or security to truth. Thus the presence of so many who prefer their illusions to a disconfirming reality. They favor holding fast to their wishes even when they can never be satisfied; they prefer them to the experience of disappointment that often accompanies their partial satisfaction. They want to feel complete, whole, full. Yet, they rarely or even never find themselves satiated. For those who cannot tolerate dissatisfaction of any kind or degree, living in an imaginary world can compensate for the ambiguities and dissatisfactions to be found in the actual world. The imagination can 'prove' the lie contain within the wish by providing a devious kind of satisfaction. Naturally, such a life is often untenable and, paradoxically, painful. Madness is a probable consequence for those individuals who give themselves over to this form of life. An individual must draw from his or her strengths in order to tolerate the limits within the human condition that produce unavoidable dissatisfaction. All in all, therefore, it is unsurprising that the willingness to reality test one's wishes, phantasies, thoughts, etc. is thought to be sufficiently valuable that having it can be considered an essential feature of the "good life." By good life I do not mean a life lived beyond the imagination but, rather, one that draws from both the imagination and the world that surrounds that imagination. Furthermore, the complement to this point is also true: A lack of this willingness to test can be considered a privation for the one afflicted by it, and thus a feature of a "life lived poorly."
This kind of talk should sound familiar to most Americans who are known for the pride they derive from their pragmatic approach to life. Fact-mindedness and goal-directedness, dependence upon common sense and "a willingness to do what it takes to get things done" — these are essential components of the American creed and of pragmatism broadly considered. Verification of this point can be found not only in the writings of America's pragmatic philosophers (C.S. Pierce, W. James and J. Dewey) but also in the honor American culture bestows on its often famous inventor-industrialists (T. Edison, G. Westinghouse, A.G. Bell, etc.). Yet, the pragmatic ethos might receive its greatest and broadest endorsement from that iconic figure in American history, the freeholder farmer, who struggles with nature, society and self in order to live autonomously and productively. If America can be considered a civilization, it should be dubbed the "pragmatic civilization." Thus considered, the term "pragmatism" is merely a high-priced word that refers to what most Americans deem to be "good old common sense."
Given the place and strength of this ethos in American culture, along with the material successes the country has enjoyed throughout its history, it is surely ironic that Americans are now getting a concentrated dose of phantasy-challenging experience by an obstinate world. The irony here issues from the world's refusal to confirm the beliefs Americans commonly have about their country, especially their belief that the United States is unique or an exception to the norm, that it is indispensible, a dependable seer of the future, a just wielder of the sword, the winner of every war it fights and the true leader of humankind, or even that it is the best at those things at which it would want to be the best. Clearly, the pragmatic civilization has its myths. Some of the important ones date back to the first European settlers. As founded by those Puritans who would not have anything directly to do with the religious oppression they encountered in England, the first migrants to America held fast to the messianic conviction that the new world would be "the city upon the hill." They meant their trek to achieve a utopia and thereby to establish a public presence for righteousness. Having burdened themselves with an expectation of this kind, Protestant-Americans could judge their nation a success only if they could believe their way of life embodied God's will on Earth. As practicing Calvinists of one kind or another, Americans were disposed to equate worldly success with Godliness. Their achievements were signs as also were their failures. Their leaders had to be "natural aristocrats" whose wealth, honor and power served as rewards for and symbols of their virtue or, for the theistically inclined, their election. Armed with these beliefs, the settlers and their descendents tended to consider success self-legitimating. To be successful in America nearly entailed the rightful possession of those goods that expressed the presence of this success. America, to be sure, has made a great success of itself, a fact-supported normative judgment that helps to confirm the nation's grandiose identity. More ominously, social Darwinism, the Prosperity Gospel and American exceptionalism lurk within this kind of thinking, American imperialism and the Washington Consensus too. The City of God would often prove brutal in practice.
Currently, however, Americans may learn, if they wish, that their country:
- is a global empire which is now moving towards collapse;
- has a security-surveillance apparatus that is costly and oppressive, nearly useless but also a provocation to the rest of the world;
- drives its economic system with debt accumulation, mass consumption and weapons production, but also with a near-full employment economy ("the great American jobs machine"), each of which look unlikely to continue as they have in America's near-term future;
- is no longer the leader in the development and implementation of productive technology and consumer goods;
- will eventually or even soon lose its leadership position as the global lender of last resort and the provider of the world's hard currency;
- is shacked to home-grown political institutions that seem as receptive to rational reform as Brezhnev's Soviet Union proved to be in the 1980s.
Briefly put, Americans now have the opportunity to learn that their country is dispensable but dangerous, myopic, sterile and a foot-dragger!
They also may soon learn that it is no longer prosperous.
Obviously these points, if true, do not validate America's messianic conceit. Nor do they affirm the secular version of this self-conception, namely, that the United States is the capitalist democracy, the model which its competitors should emulate if they want to make a success of themselves. As a matter of fact, they render both vain and thus preposterous. The American dream is dying.
Although these criticisms are not commonplaces among Americans, they also are not propositions contained within an esoteric form of knowledge. Nor are they available only to an elect, an avant-garde or a privileged class. An exacting ritual does not guard their purity. The acolyte need not learn a special language before enlightenment sets in. Finally, they cannot be debunked by a dubious critique of their class origin or by pointing to the actual or imagined resentment of the critic who airs them in public. If a typical American wishes to learn of these things, he or she needs only to be literate and to pay attention to the world in general. The opportunities to acquire this knowledge are there to be had.
To be sure, attention-paying and reality-testing suppose a prior willingness and capacity to learn from one's experience and from others. It also requires a commitment to participate in reasonable discussion and to use evidence to settle matters that can be settled. Learning requires receptivity to the world, an open-minded attitude towards experience, reflection and change. It also means putting every relevant certainty into abeyance. Consequently, attention-paying and reality-testing entail a willingness to take a risk. With respect to the issues discussed here, this risk-taking gesture quickly leads to the asking of what most Americans would consider unsettling questions. These include: "Can America learn what it needs to learn?" and "If it learns these unavoidable truths, how will this knowledge sit with the average American once the members of this proud nation realize that America is neither innocent, grand nor more powerful than its competitors?" "How," in other words, "will Uncle Sam cope with being fallible, damnable and impermanent, with, that is, being merely human?" "Can he and his brood live without these myths?" "Can he successfully manage his second childhood?"
These are the local problems and questions the United States now confronts. If it and the world only had to confront them…. But it, like the world at large, also faces global problems and crises. The latter, unfortunately, are truly frightening. Managing and resolving them will prove difficult. They include:
- a growing global population, the existence of which will intensify;
- ecological crises like global warming;
- resource depletion crises (generated by a lack of adequate top soil, water, minerals, etc.) and thus the wars that will be fought over these increasingly scarce resources;
- massive food and water shortages.
Scarcity of the greatest sort looks to return to trouble every fraction of the world. War and famine, mass migration and death — these possibilities haunt the near-term future. I believe this because they compose a plausible future the causes and features of which do appear in the world today. We are watching, then, a global emergency while it gestates, the origin of which is due in great part to human practices and their limits. While it remains an open question whether or not this emergency will eventually define humanity's collective fate, its pre-history makes up a significant feature of the contemporary situation humanity must address if it wishes to thrive or even survive as a species. It and its components make evident the need for a political project meant to prevent the disaster.
It is not as though no one ever dares to mention these local and global issues. They have their place in public life, and are discussed by those individuals, movements and organizations most concerned with their consequences. Yet, discussion by the comparatively few individuals concerned with such issues does not seem to be enough to solve problems of this kind and magnitude. Small talk is insufficient because of the immense complexity and scope their solutions would have. Global problems demand what amount to global solutions. Therefore, the greater crisis they pose derives from something which lies beyond the existential threats they express, considerable as these may be. This something which lies beyond: These global crises have failed to provide the kind of motives Americans and humanity as a whole need if they want to address and resolve the threats as such. Stasis should prove to be self-defeating over the long-term.
Although concerned movements and an international public do exist, they mostly lack influence. They suffer this lack because the powerful remain unreceptive to and thus unmoved by the calamity in the making. Denial and paranoia make an appearance here.
Their appearance is unsurprising. Who among the powerful wants to grapple with disastrous possibilities like these? Who would confront the nihilism inherent within them? Or, the sense of powerlessness they evoke? Which member of the elite would choose to radically alter the world they govern in order to save it from the practices, institutions and knowledge from which they draw their power? Very few, it seems. The powerful tend to be masters of survival within the world they know. And it is because there are so few of these men and women that committing the world to creating sensible, peaceful and sustainable forms of life is not a high priority for those who make what amounts to a global agenda.
A prudent person would thus not expect the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh to produce a feasible program meant to avoid these disasters in the making by pursuing highly advantageous goods like sensible, peaceful and sustainable forms of life. Rather, the Summit, if it accomplishes anything, can be expected to work to stabilize the world system already in place, that is, to maintain by adjusting the system now heading towards a disaster. Their refusal to take responsibility for the world they lead, should it come to that, would be significant inasmuch as some of these threats carry speciescide as an effective possibility. The quality of the threat only intensifies the motive it places on the threatened once the threat becomes known as such. Power, of course, implies responsibility, for no one is obligated beyond what he or she can do, according to an ancient legal maxim, and the powerful can do — or prevent — much. Their powers stand as one limit condition that constricts humanity as a whole. Their actions are thus decisive in the short-term.
Over the long-term, on the other hand, the social origin of the solution is unimportant. This is because reform — decisive, systemic and therefore radical reform — ought to define humanity's project if the situation conforms to the gist of the description I offered above. To be radical, reform of this sort must be both feasible (the reformers first identify a problem and then a path meant to resolve the problem identified), adequate (the reforms can solve the problem they were meant to fix) and consistent with a generous concept of human well-being. Additionally, radical reform must intentionally address a global threat that is local in origin and consequence. It must be an inclusive project; it must have beneficial system effects. Yet, it must not end with a totalizing catastrophe founded on an abstract and impossible utopian idea.
It is interesting and somewhat surprising that some observers of the American political scene concluded the United States took a step towards contributing in to a reform project of this sort when it elected Barak Obama as its president last fall.
They may have concluded they could expect reform of this kind from the new president because he had earned his mandate by promising change and offering hope for the future. His political enemies also augmented the euphoria by warning the country about Obama's radical inclinations during the election season. It seems candidate Obama's promises did not sound empty to everyone who heard them. It helped a lot that he appeared able to meet these high expectations. He had credibility in their eyes. Obama is, after all, intelligent and articulate. More importantly, he seemed forthright and decent, at ease with the people he met and the policies he discussed. He was neither a wonk nor a baby-kisser. Although different in many ways from the stereotypical American, Obama had the common touch, for he made his own success as a child of relative poverty, of a mixed marriage and of divorce. Success surely was not given to him, nor the presidency. Candidate Obama became president by running a strong and ultimately successful campaign, one forced by the history of his country to overcome the racist and nativist biases deeply rooted in its culture. Obama is just another Frank Capra story. And, most importantly, he certainly did not strike anyone as being Bush or even Bush-like, which is to say that, he appeared a humane and competent replacement for The Decider puppet and his master.
His mere presence in the campaign thus encapsulated a diffuse hope that had been dormant among common folk. It suggested that progress was possible, that the would-be president could lead the country to better days if he were elected to the office. Obama, his supporters believed, truly could get "it" done, whether "it" referred to health care reform, ending Bush's senseless wars, putting a stop to torture, resolving the financial crisis, etc. He was a "regular fellow" who also radiated gravitas — a mixed-race Jimmy Stewart. Candidate Obama thus exuded the kind of charisma for which lesser politicians would trade their souls. Voting for him was an easy choice that many Americans gladly made. They wanted change — progress, actually.
Obama has held the presidency for less than a year. It is unfortunate that, so far, he and his administration have changed very little about the state and society they govern. Progress has been deferred yet again. In fact, the Obama regime has mostly held the course on policies that were proven failures (Bush's wars) and moral outrages (Bush's torture, detainment and secrecy policies) before he took office. He has stood by Wall Street and finance capital in general even while the bipartisan bailout program he supported encumbered Americans for generations. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the new administration quickly turned "transparency," an electoral buzzword meant to highlight the differences between Obama and Bush, into a cliché, mostly because of the obscurity it created when handling national security and financial matters. Word and deed, image and reality parted company not long after the election.
Obama's tenure has already imposed adverse consequences on the new president: The Obama administration has pursued policies and acted in such a way that it has undermined the basis on which candidate Obama built his case to hold the office of the president. His positive charisma erodes a bit every day. We can learn this just from the fact that Obama's approval rating is falling at a historically fast rate. The new president is thus acquiring the taint of illegitimacy.
In this regard Obama can be compared to some degree to George W. Bush, who, as we may recall, reached his popular peak as president immediately after 9.11 but who collapsed thereafter, should have been impeached and ought to be awaiting trial for the crimes he committed while responding to that catastrophe. It is no exaggeration to judge the second Bush presidency the epitome of an illegitimate American president. The Bush administration had earned this judgment for so many reasons and on so many levels that his recent escape to Texas along with the freedom he enjoys there damns the mainstream media and the Congresses who colluded in his deeds. Bush's very freedom screams the question: "How has he gotten away with so much?" While Obama is no Bush and his defenders may wish to explain his approval ratings by using the crises of the day as a shield for the new president, I believe the Obama administration has, just like its predecessor, advanced the corruption of America's political culture. This corruption is implied by the political and social paralysis it sponsors. This 'achievement' is no small potatoes given the all-encompassing criminality of the Bush regime that preceded it. Yet, the new president could not avoid this result when his administration opted to affirm so much of the status quo ante and accomplished this by following the triangulation playbook written by Bill Clinton and Dick Morris in the 1990s. Obama staked his personal credibility on this strategy. This is astonishing because Candidate Obama ran against the Bush record and against the man whose shadow now follows him as if it were his own. President Obama merely governs as if he were another one of Dubya's crisis managers. And, like his role model, Bill Clinton, Obama looks to be squandering the opportunities for reform history gave him. He wasted them because he was careless in the goals that his administration pursued. The goals, of course, were those taken from his predecessors, goals he would have jettisoned if he were prudent and a reformer.
What are some of the more immediate and dangerous consequences that can be attributed to Obama's political failures? Hopelessness is one, cynicism another, passivity a third. Each depends upon Obama's failure to conform to the realistic expectations the electorate had for his administration. Each sends distress signals: Reform has been defeated; the 'good guy' is a fake; we've been fooled again. And each reflects the floundering of a president who has wasted an opportune historical moment that may be collapsing as the days pass.
One can easily identify the Obama administration's most notable and, perhaps, most politically destructive failure so far. It can be found in the president's inability to lead the country in a determined effort to secure an obvious and feasible public good like single-payer health care. The episode is instructive. It forces the observer to look closely at the president and who he represents. It provides the lens through which to examine a flawed reformer.
The administration's performance during the health care debate has been that poor that it has even failed to push the inferior ideas now current in Congress past his political enemies on the right and far right. Obama has instead mostly ceded ground to his blatantly irrational critics on his right flank, much to the material and political detriment of those who voted for him in good faith last November. In this Obama committed one of the cardinal sins of politics: He allowed his political enemies (and what sensible person doubts that they are a disloyal opposition) and the opportunists in Congress (who mostly follow their paymaster's directions) to set the terms of the debate on a key issue. It is they who are defining the Obama presidency. By giving his opponents this kind of power, a gift that depended upon the triangulation gambit, Obama committed a second cardinal sin: He betrayed his supporters by publicly affirming the position of his enemies. Here, then, one can locate the sources of Obama's credibility problem, of his growing legitimation deficit. It can be summarized as: "President Obama has failed to assure America that he will deliver "change they can believe in."
Obama's election happened not too far in the past that it is in any way difficult to recall that it took the votes of the disenchanted to inflict a humiliating defeat on the McCain-Palin ticket and on the Republican Party as a whole. The Republican defeat was rightly construed as an event 'meant' to steer the country in another direction. Indeed, Obama's victory even suggested a repudiation of the Reagan Revolution along with the policies and myths that are essential features of that Revolution. Yet president Obama chose to preserve much of the thinking and practices of the despised Bush administration, the government he ran against, the program which attempted to complete the Reagan Revolution and secure the imperial presidency. It is because Obama made this choice that he placed himself somewhere to the right of the center position in the United States! (Naturally, his move to the right has failed to silence his red-baiting critics!) Why would he do this? Why would he betray his supporters?
One answer: His conservatism in office is attributable to the services he has already provided to the FIRE sector of the economy, which had spent so much to help him gain the presidency, and to the security-surveillance apparatus that sits within and besides the federal government, which no ambitious American politician would dare cross. These commitments are both significant and commonly found among American politicians. They point to the fact that Barack Obama is a system politician. By system politician I wish to refer to the president's commitment to America as he knows it but not to his real or supposed loyalty to the American constitution, the rule of law, democratic governance, economic justice, national and global system rationalization, etc. All things considered, Obama is committed to saving an evolved, mature, ossified but brittle system now in decline. It can be said, I believe, that Obama is at home in Bush's America, which is also the America given to us by Clinton, Reagan and Nixon. This is the America he wants to govern — to save. And, to give credit where credit is due, Obama might be the kind of political operator one would want to have as a president if the times were stable and plush. But, they are neither. It is because times are unstable and insecure that what counts the most is Obama's inability — or unwillingness — to rationally address the problems and crises enumerated above. The global crises especially are too pressing and dangerous to ignore. I say this because global warming is a public bad if anything is! It demands attention — immediate attention. It also demands a solution. It produces these demands because the mechanisms and processes generating the global warming event mostly reflect the workings of Mother Nature and cosmic time. They are not directly fixable. There will not be a magic bullet. They may even conclude with species suicide. Yet, it is shocking that credible efforts meant to address this crisis have yet to appear. It is as though the world wishes to passively await fate to make its presence known and then deliver its final judgment.
For Americans, this lack reflects poorly upon the president, the political entity that represents the sovereignty of the American people, the unity of this nation-state and a longer historical timeline which reaches beyond the founding to the English Revolution, the Magna Carta and the Roman Republic. When considered with respect to this grand horizon, what degree of confidence can one place in a president who cannot achieve a victory for a popular, sensible and much-needed program like single-payer health care? Not much, I would say, especially when one considers the healthcare reform debacle with respect to the significantly greater obstacles Obama would face if he were to take up the path of radical reform and global leadership.
In other words, I would say that Barack Obama's failure to master the healthcare issue emits a potent warning signal which should be heard by everyone who believes this president must deliver a lot more than mere health care reform. It strongly suggests that they should trust only in those powers they can generate on their own. For the reform-minded in the United States and elsewhere, Barack Obama should become the politician they will lead, not the president who leads them and, because he is the president of the United States, the world.
The upshot: America now stands before an impasse of its own making. Americans can neither restore the country to something akin to what it once was (the wealthy, secure superpower), turn it into the country it wishes to be (the authentic and blessed "city upon the hill") nor quickly make it into the country it would choose to be if it practiced a rational politics (a just democratic polity). The local struggle to achieve the third option (a just democratic polity) is the task given to those Americans critical of their country and its pathologies. It is a task of political enlightenment and system rationalization. A rational politics can only be a responsible politics, a politics open to the present and the future, which refuses to shirk lifting the burdens it needs to carry or learning the truths it must have within its grasp. As such and given the situation today, a just democratic polity in the United States would also be a society that would take up the burden of overcoming the problems and crises that now threaten the world. Such is the reality of the present that the United States cannot avoid this task. No one can. Denial and scapegoating are not options. Obama's America, insofar as we already know it, appears unwilling to take this path. It has refused to shoulder this burden, which is to say, it has chosen illusion and paralysis. The Obama way brings only hopelessness.