Book Review: Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank)
In the year of Obama’s election I had a conversation with Amiri Baraka, political activist, dramatist, essayist, chronicler of blues and Jazz and performance poet extraordinaire. I asked him what he thought of the, by then, likely prospect of a black American president. The problem with black people in the USA, he told me, is that they think voting for a rich black person will solve their problems. It was an apposite and pithy observation on the class struggle in the light of Obama’s presidency. A similar point is made in this collection of fifty six essays and articles. It comes in a piece by Ron Jacobs who asks which is more representative of the experience of Black people in the USA, Barack Obama or Oscar Grant, a young black man shot dead in cold blood by a policeman in California.
Nevertheless it is worth reflecting, as I did here on the circumstances into which the new man arrived. It was the end of the Baby Bush era which had reinscribed in our neoliberal post-history quasi-peace the old values of imperial war, mercenaries, political and military torture, witch-hunting and the police state. And in 2008 the world was tired beyond description of the reign of the stupid and violent. Obama promised, at the very minimum, an end to that. He represented some vague hope of peace – a fact confirmed when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, usually given to people with vague claims to having promoted peace as well as some who mainly promoted war (Kissinger, for example).
But the conclusion of this book is that Obama is an illusion – and not in the way Clint Eastwood intended. As a man of peace he prosecuted the Afghanistan war with enthusiasm, engaged in extra-judicial executionof men women and children in Pakistan, failed to close Guantanamo, continued the usual meddling in South America and the Middle East, permitted the torture of Bradley Manning, supported Israel in its brutal occupation of Palestine – the list goes on. If at some point, he allows or participates in an attack on Iran he will come close to equalling the achievements of the Baby Bush. Nevertheless, in considering who should manage the last days of the decline of an empire, we are paralysed by the thought: If not Barack Obama then Mitt Romney.
This is the tragedy of modern constitutional politics, especially, though not only, in the USA. Over and over again we end up voting for the lesser of two evils dressed up as the better of two goods. It makes you hanker after one party systems if only because the hypocrisy is taken out of the equation. Western democracies lurch uncontrollably between the right and the extreme right and the only stability is provided by the super-rich who are always in power. The extreme right produces ruthless, inarticulate, psychotic megalomaniacs and the right produces articulate versions of the same thing. The only question to be decided at the election is do you prefer the guy who talks or the other guy. Al Gore could talk, for example, and in fact he hasn’t stopped talking since he lost. George Bush, on the other hand, was like one of those old fashioned teddy bears that you turned upside down and after a short delay a faint whining or rumbling sound emerged from some internal device that involved compressed air, a piston and gravity. Nevertheless he was a peculiarly psychotic teddy bear who killed a lot of the people who voted for him as well a million or so people who had never heard of him. It is a tragedy of modern history that the pretzel failed.
But alas, the president who talks kills too. Everybody has wars, everybody kills foreigners who hate America, everybody kills sick people who can’t afford insurance (possibly fewer if you’re a Democrat) and everybody executes criminals, even criminals who are demonstrably insane or who are children when they commit the crime. When Obama told the assembled faithful at the Democratic Party convention that ‘he had kept his promise to kill Osama bin Laden, the crowd chanted, USA, USA, USA.’ He also promised to ‘sustain the strongest military the world has ever known’. It cannot escape anyone’s notice that the USA and its presidents has the same obsession with revenge, murder and displays of power that its enemies have. The discourse of revenge, usually associated with Islam, works just as well in Christianist demagoguery.
So what do you do when it comes to election time in the USA? You can vote for Romney or Obama, both of whom will do much the same things with adjustments for how much the rich get to take home or whether foreign powers are to be told they can’t organise the Olympics. Or you can vote for someone who will never win. There are always other candidates. You could vote for Gary Johnson, for example. If he gets in you’ll get a smaller government than Romney’s, less healthcare and social protection, more free market shit than Romney, more exercise (he’s an Iron Man Triathlon veteran) and fewer invasions and extra-judicial killings. Oh, and legal marijuana (he gets my vote). Or you could plump for Stephen Rollins who reportedly has ‘a vision and a goal to restore our American Identity and return the country to its glorious roots’. Does he mean Puritanism? Or are the roots shallower? Or Stewart Alexander who first entered politics after ‘years spent listening to the cry of the masses, and the perennial problems of the proletariat’. Or Danny Woodring who is described as ‘father of five and grandfather of eight’. And maybe this year Ralph Nader will run again. Nader was supported by socialists in 2004, not because he was a socialist but because he was the lesser of several evils – he was ‘anti-war, anti-corporate, pro-health care, pro-worker’. He got 465,000 votes (Total votes cast 124 million.).
And let’s face it, in Ireland at least, we get the same stuff without the identity and the marijuana. Ditto for the United Kingdom where the available flavours are Right Tory/Right Labour. No sense of superiority here. We’re America lite.
Of course it would be hubris to claim that these sweeping generalisations are anything more than an outsider’s view of what is clearly a very complex society. I have many American friends who do not subscribe to the simplicities of the parties though I think all of them voted for Obama first time round and are likely to do so again. Whatever they may feel about him, they feel very bad about Mitt Romney and even worse about John McCain and George W Bush. Talking to them I become aware of my own ignorance, a fact reinforced by the ‘prelude’ to this book. What is the DREAM act? Who is John Boehner and why is he described in the ‘prelude’ as a ‘teary-ey’d barkeep’s son’? And what’s wrong with a ‘barkeep’ (Maybe it’s one of those ‘dreary service sector positions’ referred to elsewhere)? and why is Dennis Kucinich an ‘impish gadfly’? And who the hell is he? And why the mixed metaphor? Isn’t gadfly enough? And who is the ‘diva of vengeance’ Samantha Powers, and why? Unfortunately this insider-knowingness is not very useful to an outsider like me. It’s one of two complaints. The second is that it is really a collection of articles, some extremely brief and polemical, rather than a collection of essays. Inevitably depth is lost in the detail.
That aside, the book is a valuable contribution to the de-mythification of Obama. It is published by the admirable AK Press, an anarchist workers’ collective originally founded in Scotland but now with a branch in the USA. Among its author list are Chomsky, Arundati Rhoy and Howard Zinn, to name but a few.
So what does the book tell us about Barack Obama?
Firstly, Obama as a black man. As Amiri Baraka wryly noted, being black doesn’t trump being middle or upper class. Obama has led ‘the life of a star child, coddled and pampered, encouraged and adulated, from Indonesia to Harvard.’ As I noted in my own ‘open letter’ to him, his mother ‘was an anthropologist and [his] stepfather worked as a consultant to an oil company during the years of the Suharto regime in Indonesia.’ His election, therefore, is only surprising because of the colour of his skin. Kevin Alexander Gray’s essay contrasts Obama with Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. For Jackson, for example, the phrase ‘common ground’ referred to his attempt to build a coalition of dissenting voices, ‘workers, women, men, blacks, progressive whites, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, anti-apartheid activists’… etc By contrast, he suggests, Obama’s biography depicts the common ground as Republicans and Democrats meeting ‘at night for dinner, hashing out a compromise over steaks and cigars’. This is an almost comically telling image – masculine, macho, elitist, carnivorous, compromising and conspiratorial. No compromise no cigar. And if the book has a single dominant theme it is that Barak Obama is all of those things and weak as well. Although it must be said that there are those who, like the present author, believe that the President is efficient enough at serving his masters, a good barkeep, let us say, for the hard-drinking boys who really run the club. I doubt that he takes any satisfaction that unemployment among black Americans remains, despite his presidency, twice as high as that for whites, but nevertheless there it remains as Amiri Baraka expected back in 2008.
Then there’s Obama the law-giver. Much was made during the election campaign of Obama as a law intellectual. Marjorie Cohn examines his first appointment to the US Supreme Court – Elena Kagan. Obama believed that she would follow in the footsteps of the liberal Thurgood Marshall, whose law clerk she had been while at the Court. But instead she appears to support the accumulation of executive power begun under Reagan and characteristic of the reign of the odious imp Bush Minor. She doesn’t believe that the US Constitution supports affirmative rights, merely that it prescribes the limitations of the executive. This is a classic Republican position, which tends to view the executive, and Washington in general, as inimical to the rights of states and individual liberty. Then, there’s the drone question. We now know that Obama personally sanctions drone strikes. Most strikes kill a number of civilians even when they kill their intended target. Whether or not there are civilian deaths, this still constitutes a form of extra-judicial killing – assassination in fact – and carried out in a friendly country, an ally, Pakistan, despite its government’s protests. Gary Leupp examines the kind of cost-benefit analysis that the Obama administration engages in, weighing up the benefit of killing its enemies against the likelihood of an increasingly militant opposition destabilising Pakistan. Then there’s Guantanamo Bay, or Camp Gitmo. Still open, still containing prisoners of war who are to be tried in military courts, despite his promises to try them in the civilian system.
There are articles on his health care (a ‘fiasco’) and immigration (‘neither humane nor thoughtful’) reforms, his economics (‘brutal austerity policies that are gradually reviving financial/corporate profitability at the expense of the poor and working people’), climate (a ‘tepid response and… subservience to corporate interests’)… and so on in forensic detail.
But over and over again, reading this book, I found myself asking the question: Why Obama?
A similar look at the presidency of Bill Clinton, for example, would have discovered as many or more failures, hypocrisies, lies, broken promises, as much arrogant imperialism and cosying up to the corporations. Not to mention any of the Republicans.
But the intensity of the hope that Obama generated can be calibrated against the intensity of the despair generated by the hard facts that govern the lives of ordinary people in the richest nation in the world: the ‘makeshift field hospitals’ for people without medical insurance – one area where Obama can claim partial success, though as I write the Wise County field hospital, for one, still takes place: the forty six million citizens below the official poverty line; the highest rate of incarceration in the world with 2.3 million people in prison; the fact that 54% of those prisoners are black men despite the fact that blacks only constitute 13.1% of the population. Obama did not just represent an end to the presidency of a man whom one suspects never read a book, let alone write one, but like the Kennedys he suggested that there was a possibility of an end to these brutal inequalities. As I write the newspapers are full of his ‘sombre’ acceptance speech. It is difficult to shake the belief that ‘sombre’ is the new ‘cool’. If this book stands for anything it stands for the view that the next four years will be the same as the last. I am reminded of a story my father told about Daniel O’Connell. A man breaking stones for the road stopped O’Connell’s horse and asked ‘the liberator’ if Ireland would be free after O’Connell was elected. O’Connell replied, ‘Ireland will be free but you’ll still be breaking stones’.
If not Barack Obama then Mitt Romney…
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