Barack Obama, Reverend Wright and Black liberation theology
By Malik Miah
The groundswell of broad support for Barack Obama (both among Blacks and whites) is a phenomenon that deserves a serious analysis and understanding. It cannot be downplayed by passing it through the lens of pure-and-simple lesser-evilism.
Some radicals dismiss the mass phenomenon, because Obama is a candidate of a ruling-class party. That simplistic rejection of Obama's campaign and its mass support is sectarian: The issue isn't whether to vote for a Democrat, but rather our response to a development that is having a wide-scale impact. How many times, in state after state, have we ever seen citizens of all races line up for hours to hear an African-American man talk about “hope'', on a platform that is fundamentally no different than his opponents?
While I do sympathise with those activists choosing the Green Party campaign of Cynthia McKinney or the “independent” Ralph Nader for their more progressive political program, I believe progressives and socialists should focus our attentions on critically engaging Obama supporters, identifying with their desire for a “new type of politics and direction for the country” — while explaining that Obama is no answer to stop the aggressive wars of US. imperialism.
In that spirit of critical engagement, an objective evaluation of Obama's support, and why it's grown, is instructive.
Mass appeal beyond electoralism
The mass sentiment for the Obama campaign represents more than pure electoralism. It indicates a possible shift in political consciousness, which can either lead to broad-scale disillusionment or begin to awaken the new young generation to engage in more radical politics when the first African-American president acts like all his predecessors in defending the imperial state.
The Obama phenomenon is a result of fears and frustrations, and of hopes that the country can be better. Most Blacks, of course, are excited by an unprecedented possibility of a “Black president''. Others, including many white workers, are fed up with standing still or going backward as the country enters a recession. Obama taps these multiple anxieties. His mass rallies show the desire for change.
The “messiah effect” is why Obama could take on the issue of “race and racism” in the way he did on March 18 in Philadelphia. It's appropriate to look at that speech and fallout — some 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — to see the complexities of racial progress.
As a Democrat and mainstream politician, Obama's speech was far superior to what anyone on the left or the country likely expected. Some have criticised it for not analysing the institutional racism deeply embedded in capitalism — another case of looking much too narrowly at what Obama means for tens of millions of people.
Overall, this was an outstanding speech. Obama refused to throw his former Chicago minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, under the moving bus for Wright's sermon outlining the history of violence by the rulers of the United States.
(It should be noted that Obama later told the ABC daytime talk show, The View: “Had the reverend not retired, and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and was inappropriate and mischaracterised what I believe is the greatness of this country — for all its flaws — then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying there at the church.'')
The speech's significance, however, is not what he said or didn't say about Reverend Wright. It is the fact that Obama dared to elaborate on the topic to a national audience even if it hurt his chances to win the presidential nomination or to be elected in November. It confirmed to his followers and detractors alike that he is a different kind of mainstream politician.
Obama outlined the origins of American racism from the dawn of English colonialism and independence to the present — the slave trade, chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the racism still prevalent in society, especially among many whites who speak and act certain ways in private, not necessarily consciously but because of cultural upbringing.
Obama told the story of his white Kansas grandmother, who feared Black men even though she loved him. These honest views are felt by all ethnic groups. Everyone has similar family contradictions.
Obama did not discuss institutional discrimination and disadvantages that “people of colour” still face for simply being Black, Latino, Native American or Asian — something a white person has never experienced. That discrimination is why some employment and other opportunities are not offered, or the benefit of the doubt not given, by a mostly white male-dominated power structure.
Yet he went further than I expected, which is the only way to view his comments on Reverend Jeremiah Wright and racial politics. It's why what he said about Wright rang true to the audience:
“Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation [of Reverend Wright's ‘divisive' comments] are not enough.... But the truth is that isn't all that I know of the man.
“The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.... who served his country as a US marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community (by) housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS…
“Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
``I can no more disown him than I can disown the Black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother...''.
Wright is no hatemonger
Reverend Jeremiah Wright is no “hatemonger” as slandered by the right and many Clinton supporters. He did not give a “hate” speech. His sermons are, in fact, in the best tradition of Black liberation theology.
Read what Reverend Wright (now retired) said in his now infamous December 2007 speech:
“We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, Arikara, the Comanche, the Arapaho, and the Navajo. Terrorism.
“We took Africans away from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism.
“We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies and non-military personnel'', he preached.
“We bombed the Black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard working fathers.
“We bombed Qaddafi's home, and killed his child. ‘Blessed are they who bash your children's head against the rock.' [This is a reference to the seldom-quoted final two verses of Psalm 137, which was Reverend Wright's text for this sermon on the dangers of revenge lust — MM.]
“We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hard working people, mothers and fathers who left home to go to work that day not knowing that they'd never get back home.
“We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.
“Kids playing in the playground. Mothers picking up children after school. Civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day.
“We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff that we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America's chickens are [here the congregation joins in completing the sentence —MM] coming home to roost.
“Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador [a US diplomat previously quoted in Wright's sermon —MM] said that y'all, not a Black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don't have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that''.
True or false?
In 1967 and 1968, shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City about the Vietnam War. This is what he said:
“The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs''.
King called for the immediate end to this “madness''. In his 1968 speech at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, he returned to the theme:
“It is said on the Statue of Liberty that America is a home of exiles. It doesn't take us long to realise that America has been the home of its white exiles from Europe. But it has not evinced the same kind of maternal care and concern for its Black exiles from Africa. It is no wonder that in one of his sorrow songs, the Negro could sing out, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child''. What great estrangement, what great sense of rejection caused a people to emerge with such a metaphor as they looked over their lives''.
“There are those, and they are often sincere people, who say to Negroes and their allies in the white community, that we should slow up and just be nice and patient and continue to pray, and in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out because only time can solve the problem''.
“I think there is an answer to that myth. And it is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I'm absolutely convinced that the forces of ill-will in our nation, the extreme rightists in our nation, have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.
“Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated Individuals. And without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realise that the time is always right to do right''.
Wright and King delivered the same message of truth.
Black liberation theology
This political mixture of the Black Christian church and militancy has deep origins in the African-American community. It is called “Black liberation theology''. It is rooted in Black nationalism and the traditions of Black radicalism. It goes back to the resistance to slavery. The modern version arose during the civil rights movement. It basically combines the philosophy of the Black Christian church and Black nationalism.
Supporters of the ideology of Black liberation theology believe that the system can be reformed and Blacks can bring themselves up by the bootstraps and become full equals in US society. The advocates see a future where the poor can become middle class and CEOs of major corporations; and, of course, elected US senator or even president of the country — some day.
One of the main intellectual articulators of the theory is the Reverend James Hal Cone of Arkansas. As part of his theological analysis, Cone argues for God's own identification with “Blackness''. He explains in A Black Theology of Liberation:
“The Black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles Black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism... The Blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering... Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity'' (pp. 63-64).
Based on the preeminence of “Black experience'', Cone defines theology as “a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ''.
Cone's theology asks (and seeks to answer) the question, “What does the Christian gospel have to say to powerless Black men whose existence is threatened daily by the insidious tentacles of white power?” His answer emphasises that there is a very close relationship between Black theology and what has been termed “Black Power''.
Black power is a phrase that represents both Black freedom and Black self-determination “wherein Black people no longer view themselves as without human dignity but as men, human beings with the ability to carve out their own destiny''. Cone says Black theology is the religious counterpart of Black power. “Black Theology is the theological arm of Black Power, and Black Power is the political arm of Black Theology''. And “while Black Power focuses on the political, social, and economic condition of Black people, Black Theology puts Black identity in a theological context''.
Black nationalists (self-identified or not; few are today) — whether of the Booker T. Washington philosophy of seeking to reform the system, or the more militant Black power ideology of Marcus Garvey and the 1960s followers of Malcolm X — all argued that Blacks must pull themselves up and stand on their own two feet.
Wright's United Church of Christ congregation includes middle-class Blacks like Obama but in the majority are poor and working class. Reverend Wright speaks to the reality of Black history and the subtle and actual racism that his typical church goer has experienced.
His sermons are mainstream, and not anti-American — or against capitalism. He is a “patriot'', as Obama described; but he is the Black American version, who serves as a medic for the marines, fights the wars and comes home to face racial discrimination!
To Reverend Wright there is no contradiction in condemning real racism and urging Blacks to take more personal responsibility for the problems of their community. This is not “radical” or “hate” speech. His criticisms are based on hard facts, not make-believe or white liberal conservative views of patriotism. It's that understanding that enables him to make the comparison between the US empire today and that of the Roman era.
In Wright's speech before the National Press Club, he identifed himself with Black liberation theology and pointed out that the attack on Obama and him by the corporate media and others is in reality an attack on the Black community.
Barack Obama, the former Chicago community organiser, learned his roots as a Black man at his wife's church. He learned his internationalist outlook from his white mother, who worked among the poor in Indonesia. But he is not an advocate of Black liberation theology even though he listened to Wright for 20 years. That's why he can say he never heard Wright speak the words he did last December. He did, and probably nodded in agreement — but as a mainstream presidential candidate with a chance of winning the presidency, of course, he must disassociate from Wright.
Those who expect otherwise are not realistic. The way he did so, by rejecting but not throwing Wright under the bus, was a nod to his youthful base and recognition of his historical roots in the Black community.
Obama is obviously aware of what is called the “Bradley effect”, where a certain percentage of whites will never vote for an African American as president. (The Bradley factor refers to Tom Bradley, the African-American former mayor of Los Angeles, who had a double digit lead in the 1982 California governor's election days before the vote. He then narrowly lost due to racial dynamics — whites telling pollsters one thing, and voting the opposite.)
Barack Obama is also a strong proponent of modern-day Black capitalism. He told Business Week (April 14 issue) that, “My opponents to the right like to paint me as this wild-eyed liberal. But I believe in the market. I believe in entrepreneurship''.
(Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is one of most prominent advocates of the market system and Black capitalism. The concept of Black capitalism has evolved over the decades. It used to mean advocating an independent “Black economy” —- tied to the nationalist goal of “Black control of the Black community” — tapping the US$800 billion spent by African Americans within the US economy. Today it means striving and believing it is possible to become a capitalist like Bill Gates.)
Ironically, there has been more success in gaining a foothold in big business than in the political arena where Obama is the only Black in the US Senate. Several African Americans have become heads of major corporations. Forty years ago there were none. African American Stanley O'Neil, for example, was CEO of Merrill Lynch, one of the largest investment firms on Wall Street. His grandfather had been a slave.
Since the decline of the civil rights and Black power movements in the 1970s, the conservative pro-big business wing dominates the discussion on improving the lives of African Americans. Traditional Black nationalism, including those who reject “Black capitalism'', has few advocates today.
If Obama happens to get the Democratic nomination and wins the presidency it can sharpen the debates even more. That's good for society. The real test is yet to come when the Republican right launches its inevitable race-baiting. To this point, the integration of elite African Americans in business, media, the military and politics has made that less effective.
The most interesting aspect about the Obama campaign for me, and what should be for those on the left of the political spectrum, is the mass consciousness unfolding in front of our eyes in support of a “colour blind” or non-racial society. It is evident in all 50 states where “race does not matter” the way it did in the past.
Obama's speech on race, and more importantly his campaign, has initiated a broad discussion about US history including its violence, racist past and why young people need to engage in politics. It could not happen if that change in attitudes weren't taking place.
The left in particular should resist a sectarian response towards this unique mass phenomenon for Obama. The critical choice isn't about voting for Obama, or even a third party alternative. Progressive political consciousness at the end of the day is not primarily an intellectual transformation. For most, it occurs by joining struggles to end wars and occupations like Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting racism and ending economic inequalities.
I for one think it is important to critically embrace those backing Obama's campaign. It is not a betrayal of socialist principles to do so.
Carl Bloice is Mark's guest Thursday, May 15, 2008
After decades of the major media’s refusal to link the word “working” with “class,” the print pages and airwaves are now alive with talk about the conditions, aspirations and views of working people. Journalists, who only a few weeks ago would have scoffed at the mere mention of there being a “working class.” are now throwing the term around with abandon. The problem is that it being employed to only cover part of that class; African American, Latino, Asian and Native American working people are somehow being left out of the demographic equation.
Up until quite recently there was only the “middle class.” The term always defied precise definition. In contemporary U.S. mass media parlance it has come to be defined by income. That is, people - no matter what they do nine-to-five - who make too little money to be rich and too much to be poor.
On the other hand, traditionally and more logically the working class is defined as being made up of people employed by someone else – usually the rich, but sometimes the government – making refrigerators, waiting tables or data processing. In it are people of all races and creeds. However, as this year’s presidential campaign got rolling, “middle class” began to give way to “blue collar” as the nom-de-choice for describing working people. But that didn’t last long. Soon the group whose votes the candidates were targeting became not just the working class, but the “white working class.”
There is method to this madness.
The experts may argue over just how bad the economic situation is but there is no question we are in the middle of a downturn, and a lot of people are feeling insecure about the future, or are already feeling the pain of unemployment and a rising cost of living. Never mind that – as usual – African American and other non-white ethnic groups are experiencing the negative effects disproportionately. We are being told that economic issues are the concern of white people. Black people do not vote according to their economic interests but on racial identity and, conversely, white people vote their interests and not their racial identity – or so this nonsense goes.
If you want to see how stupid (and devious) all this is, consider the words of former Bush Administration political strategist Karl Rove: “The primary has created a deep fissure in Democratic ranks: blue collar, less affluent, less educated voters versus the white wine crowd of academics and upscale professionals (along with blacks and young people),” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. African American voters here become a throwaway category, not part of the working class. This despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly working class and make up nearly a third of the Democratic Party.
“MSNBC's Chris Matthews, for example, differentiated between ‘regular people’ and black people,” wrote columnist David Sirota wrote last week. “Pundits refer separately to the ‘working class’ and to African Americans - as if they are mutually exclusive.”
"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told USA Today last week, going on to quote an Associated Press article that showed how Sen. Barack Obama's support among "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." That was not a poor choice of words. It was part of the effort to make the racial equation the only important one in the primary campaign - and Clinton the Democrats’ logical choice for the nomination.
Then there’s Clinton booster Paul Begala warning that the Democratic Party can't win with just "eggheads and African-Americans." And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman - putting it a tiny bit more delicately - describing Obama’s “deep but narrow base” as “composed of African Americans and highly educated whites.” (Lord knows how you define “highly educated” here or what happened to college educated African Americans of whom there are millions.) Then there’s rightwing luminary Pat Buchanan chiming in that, “What Hillary and Begala are saying is politically incorrect, but it is also patently true” and then going on to rap about “Hillary Democrats” who “are white, working- and middle-class, Catholic, small-town, rural, unionized, middle-age and seniors, and surviving on less than $50,000 a year.”
Actually, MSNBC pundit Buchanan (who by the way recently penned a piece in Human Events called “The Way the World Ends,” in which, citing world fertility rates, he concluded that “God has another end in store for us” and rued that “The Caucasian race is going the way of the Mohicans” by the year 2060) got most of that wrong. He, Rove and some other commentators want us to think that young voters are classless. They overlook the fact that in Indiana, Obama was the favorite among all voters between the ages of 17 and 45 and 47 percent of those between 45 and 60. Yea, some of them are in school, but most, like their parents, work somewhere. In North Carolina he got the most votes in the 17 through 60 year-old category.
In North Carolina, Obama got a larger percentage of votes from members of families earning less that $50,000 a year than those earning more than that amount.
The reaction to Hillary’s statement in the blogosphere was hot. “OK, I think I’ve got it,” Tom” wrote in the New York Times space. “White = hard working, African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, others = not hard working. Thanks for clearing that up, Hillary. The non-use of ‘and’ between ‘hard working Americans’ and ‘white Americans’ is telling.”
“When Clinton says ‘working, hard-working Americans’ she tries very hard not to use the term ‘working class,’” wrote Adam. She “almost slipped but caught herself. What it says is, we still have a class system in America, and we need to change that. Obama is the solution and Obama will win the general election handily.”
On May 8, M.S. Bellows, Jr. writing on the The Huffington Post described a May 7 telephone press conference the previous day, called by Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson, wherein the Clinton campaign “firmly reiterated its intention to keep seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination, spinning both her striking loss in North Carolina and her slender win in Indiana as positive developments - while also appearing to admit that she is not going to win a majority of elected delegates even if Michigan and Florida's delegations are counted - and parsing primary results in starkly racial terms that are likely to exacerbate the tensions of the contest and her increasingly significant troubles reaching out to minority voters.”
“At points, the Clinton representatives' demographic parsing bordered on surreal,” observed Bellows. “Wolfson seemed to imply that gasoline prices are primarily a white issue, suggesting that Clinton's proposal for a gas tax ‘holiday’ had helped her with white voters and promising that she would continue urging that proposal on the stump. In response to a pair of questions about whether African Americans would support Clinton in the general election, Wolfson repeatedly referred to Obama's ‘passionate supporters,’ seeming to conflate the two.”
All this will feed the speculation that’s already out there that there are some in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party who care far less about who wins in November than who captures the party nomination and for whom it’s anybody but Obama. If they keep dissing black voters they could get their way.
There are black, white and brown members of the working class but there is no white working class. The term has been trotted out in an effort to portray African Americans as something apart from the class to which most of them belong. Yes, African Americans know that racism is always a factor in the politics of our country. The last few weeks have made that abundantly clear despite Obama’s attempt to have it otherwise. But I have some news for Rove, Begala and the others. Black working people also know a lot about what their interests are and what side of the bread their butter is on. The price of gasoline is an issue for them as is the home mortgage crisis, the awful state of the educational system, the country deteriorating physical infrastructure, unemployment, healthcare and that ghastly war in Iraq. The effort to set them apart from other working people is as inaccurate as it is nefarious.
What is needed now is for leaders in the unions, churches and working class communities to come forward and say clearly that this splitting campaign is repulsive, immoral and defeating. To say that without unity among the social forces some people are trying to slice and dice to serve their own ambitions, we will never have a progressive majority.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.
In Miami recently, Barack Obama called for new Latin American policies in his first major policy declaration towards the region. The speech was classic Obama: substantive, centrist, subtle and pragmatic, above all drawing a sharp difference between Obama's support for "direct diplomacy" versus John McCain's status quo policies towards Cuba and the region. As a measure of how far the anti-Castro Cubans have shifted towards the center, Obama's speech was praised by his hosts, the Cuban American National Foundation.
As a measure of Obama's own evolution to the center from the left, however, Obama committed himself to maintaining the economic embargo of Cuba which he questioned when he ran for the US Senate in 2004. Nevertheless, the speech will be well-received in progressive circles as a breakthrough from past policies aimed at isolation and undermining of the Cuban government.
Obama also cited Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and "good neighbor" policies several times, a course proposed by the Progressives for Obama network*:
What all of us strive for is freedom as FDR described it. Political freedom. Religious freedom. But also freedom from want, and freedom from fear. At our best, the United States has been a force for these four freedoms in the Americas. But if we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that at times we've failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner....
We cannot ignore suffering to our south, nor stand for the globalization of the empty stomach. Responsibility rests with governments in the region, but we must do our part. I will substantially increase our aid to the Americas, and embrace the Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty by 2015....
We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom. It's time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries.
Yet while there has been great economic progress, there is still back-breaking inequality. Despite a growing middle class, 100 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty. This feeds everything from drugs to migration to support for leaders that appeal to the poor without delivering on their promises....
That is why the United States must stand for growth in the Americas from the bottom up.
This rhetoric is sure to be welcomed as well, after many years of failed US efforts to impose corporate trade policies on Central and Latin America through NAFTA, CAFTA and the derailed FTAA. However, in the absence of government spending and regulatory measuresfrom Latin America, the US and wealthier nations--the Obama proposals imply a continuation of private sector economic development and modest proposals of micro-loans, education and job-training and small business development.
But while these are positive, if cautious, policy steps, the dangerous flaw in Obama's speech was his apparent commitment to supporting the US counterinsurgency war In Columbia, secretive drug wars across the continent, and a veiled threat against Venezuela:
We will fully support Colombia's fight against the FARC. We'll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right-wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation and--if need be--strong sanctions. It must not stand.
It should be obvious to Obama that these are likely to become failed policies on a par with the long US embargo of Cuba. But consistent with his pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan and possibly attack jihadists in Pakistan (in violation of that country's declared opposition), Obama proposes to continue US intervention in Colombia's civil war even to the point of supporting cross-border raids into Venezuela or Ecuador, a policy that will inflame tensions across the region.
Towards Venezuela, Obama is burdened with the contradictions of the liberal national security hawks, admitting that Hugo Chávez was elected democratically but asserting that Chávez doesn't "govern democratically." Obama ignores Venezuela's own successful "bottom up" efforts to alleviate poverty with public investments from its national oil company. He further ignores Venezuela's own voter's recent ballot box rejection of a sweeping Chávez initiative. Like many liberal hawks, Obama differs with the Bush Administration's attacks on Chávez because they are ineffective: "Yet the Bush Administration's blustery condemnations and clumsy attempts to undermine Chávez have only strengthened his hand." Not a word about US complicity in the attempted coup against Chávez, nor the remarkable Venezuelan mass movement that resisted that coup.
In the extreme discomfort of American centrists, including the media, at accepting the democratically chosen government of Venezuela with all its various shortcomings, one can see a lingering imperial assumption beneath the rhetoric to the contrary. It can be said, of course, that Chávez, with his own blustering rhetoric, doesn't make liberal centrist acceptance easier. But there is an understandable history here, not only the old history of conquest and the Monroe Doctrine but the immediate history of the 2002 attempted overthrow of Chávez with American complicity. If Barack Obama can ask us to better understand the black anger of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, surely he himself should be able to understand the volcanic rage that echos across Latin America in voices like those of Hugo Chávez and before him, Fidel Castro,.
According to sources in Caracas and Havana, Hugo Chávez himself may privately dismiss all this Venezuela-bashing as mere election-year posturing. "If it helps Obama get elected, okay, we'll talk later," in the paraphrase of one close observer. But Obama could sink himself in a US counterinsurgency quagmire in Columbia, which could spiral into greater tensions with Venezuela and Ecuador. There is a better alternative that Obama and his advisers ignore, the distinct possibility that the anti-government guerrilla movement in Columbia (FARC) may be gradually convinced to evolve into a political force, as the IRA did in Northern Ireland. The FARC emerged in a time of dictatorships across the continent, but in recent years many (former) revolutionary and guerrilla leaders have come to power democratically, from Nicaragua to Uruguay to Bolivia. The conditions for transforming the armed conflict in Colombia into a political one, while difficult, have never been more favorable, but not if an Obama Administration continues backing the Uribe government, riddled with its own death squads and drug traffickers, with American money, arms and Special Forces. (The recent extradiction of several Columbia drug traffickers to the United States was an effort to secure a trade deal, not to change the essential character of our client regime in Bogota.)
To make matters worse, Obama endorses the drug war paradigm that street gangs are the new enemy:
As President, I'll make it clear that we're coming after the guns, we're coming after the money laundering, and we're coming after the vehicles that enable this crime. And we'll crack down on the demand for drugs in our own communities, and restore funding for drug task forces and the COPS program. We must win the fights on our own streets if we're going to secure the region.
This formulation is upside down. Street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street are symptomatic of the overall crisis of poverty, discrimination and repression in which the United States has collaborated in Central and Latin America. These particular street gangs were created in places like Los Angeles among hundreds of thousands of child refugees of the US-sponsored Central American wars. They formed gangs for security and identity, they become involved in the drug trade because there were no legitimate job opportunities for undocumented exiles, and they became violent because they were born and raised in the trauma of war. Of course, it is legitimate both in terms of policy and politics for Obama to defend a law enforcement approach as part of the mix, but a war on gangs, like a war on drugs, is hopeless, counter-productive and immoral without a war on the greed that is devouring hundreds of millions of young people in Latin America. The funding to "win the fights on our own streets" would eclipse any budgets for jobs or education for inner-city youth. The irony should not forgotten either that the United States has been involved in corruption, dictatorships and the drug trade, from the casinos of Havana in the 1950s to the drug sales on the streets of LA that funded weapons for the contras in the 1980s.
Finally, Obama's vision of the region as a more equal partnership will be tested by the ambitious energy development plan dropped into his speech, The rhetoric appears balanced, but in the context of existing power relationships the outcome could deepen Latin America's role, once again, as a resource colony of the United States.
We'll allow industrial emitters to offset a portion of this cost by investing in low carbon energy projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. And we'll increase research and development across the Americas in clean coal technology, in the next generation of sustainable biofuels not taken from food crops, and in wind and solar energy. We'll enlist the World Bank, the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Development Bank to support these invesments, and ensure that these projects enhance natural resources like land, wildlife, and rain forests. We'll finally enforce environmental standards in our trade deals.
The best that can be said of this speech is that it's a brave beginning, a break from Bush, and that the progressive changes sweeping Latin America hopefully may educate and move Obama towards a far greater partnership project than he now envisions. By contrast, FDR was bolder in his "good neighbor" policy. He rejected US military intervention, and supported Mexico's nationalization of its oil resources against the lobbying pressure of the US oil multinationals. Obama's position seems more reminiscent of the early John Kennedy, who trapped himself at the Bay of Pigs glamorized the Special Forces, and offered a moderate/centrist Alliance for Progress as America's answer to the Cuban model in Latin America. Instead of reform, the mano duro policies of dictatorships and death squads swept the region with US support and training for repressive army and police forces. Now that Latin America, on its own, has swept those dictatorships away and is following its own democratic path, it is presumptuous of Obama to propose himself as the savior of Latin America from Hugo Chávez, guerrillas and drug lords, all of them symptomatic responses to US policies over many decades.
* NOTE. In its founding call, Progressives for Obama demanded a new Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America, as follows:
"Nor can we impose NAFTA-style trade agreements on so many nations that seek only to control their own national resources and economic destinies. We cannot globalize corporate and financial power over democratic values and institutions. Since the Clinton Administration pushed through NAFTA against the Democratic majority in Congress, one Latin American nation after another has elected progressive governments that reject US trade deals and hegemony. We are isolated in Latin America by our Cold War and drug war crusades, by the $500 million counter-insurgency in Columbia, support for the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, and the ineffectual blockade of Cuba. We need to return to the Good Neighbor policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, which rejected Yankee military intervention and accepted Mexico's right to nationalize its oil in the face of industry opposition. The pursuit of NAFTA-style trade policies inflames our immigration crisis as well, by uprooting countless campesinos who inevitably seek low-wage jobs north of the border in order to survive. We need balanced and democratically-approved trade agreements that focus on the needs of workers, consumers and the environment. The Banana Republic is a retail chain, not an American colony protected by the Monroe Doctrine."
About Tom HaydenTom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd), The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in Iraq (2007) and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008).
May, 31 2008
From Kennedy To Obama; Liberalism's Last Fling
In this season of 1968 nostalgia, one anniversary illuminates today. It is the rise and fall of Robert Kennedy, who would have been elected president of the United States had he not been assassinated in June 1968. Having travelled with Kennedy up to the moment of his shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 5 June, I heard The Speech many times. He would "return government to the people" and bestow "dignity and justice" on the oppressed. "As Bernard Shaw once said," he would say, "'Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask: Why not?'" That was the signal to run back to the bus. It was fun until a hail of bullets passed over our shoulders.
Kennedy's campaign is a model for Barack Obama. Like Obama, he was a senator with no achievements to his name. Like Obama, he raised the expectations of young people and minorities. Like Obama, he promised to end an unpopular war, not because he opposed the war's conquest of other people's land and resources, but because it was "unwinnable".
Should Obama beat John McCain to the White House in November, it will be liberalism's last fling. In the United States and Britain, liberalism as a war-making, divisive ideology is once again being used to destroy liberalism as a reality. A great many people understand this, as the hatred of Blair and new Labour attest, but many are disoriented and eager for "leadership" and basic social democracy. In the US, where unrelenting propaganda about American democratic uniqueness disguises a corporate system based on extremes of wealth and privilege, liberalism as expressed through the Democratic Party has played a crucial, compliant role.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy sought to rescue the party and his own ambitions from the threat of real change that came from an alliance of the civil rights campaign and the anti-war movement then commanding the streets of the main cities, and which Martin Luther King had drawn together until he was assassinated in April that year. Kennedy had supported the war in Vietnam and continued to support it in private, but this was skillfully suppressed as he competed against the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose surprise win in the New Hampshire primary on an anti-war ticket had forced President Lyndon Johnson to abandon the idea of another term. Using the memory of his martyred brother, Kennedy assiduously exploited the electoral power of delusion among people hungry for politics that represented them, not the rich.
"These people love you," I said to him as we left Calexico, California, where the immigrant population lived in abject poverty and people came like a great wave and swept him out of his car, his hands fastened to their lips.
"Yes, yes, sure they love me," he replied. "I love them!" I asked him how exactly he would lift them out of poverty: just what was his political philosophy?
"Philosophy? Well, it's based on a faith in this country and I believe that many Americans have lost this faith and I want to give it back to them, because we are the last and the best hope of the world, as Thomas Jefferson said."
"That's what you say in your speech. Surely the question is: How?"
"How? . . . by charting a new direction for America."
The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well "chart a new direction for America" in specious, media-honed language, but in reality he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy.
Amusingly, both have denounced their "preachers" for speaking out. Whereas McCain's man of God praised Hitler, in the fashion of lunatic white holy-rollers, Obama's man, Jeremiah Wright, spoke an embarrassing truth. He said that the attacks of 11 September 2001 had taken place as a consequence of the violence of US power across the world. The media demanded that Obama disown Wright and swear an oath of loyalty to the Bush lie that "terrorists attacked America because they hate our freedoms". So he did. The conflict in the Middle East, said Obama, was rooted not "primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel", but in "the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam". Journalists applauded. Islamophobia is a liberal speciality.
The American media love both Obama and McCain. Reminiscent of mating calls by Guardian writers to Blair more than a decade ago, Jann Wenner, founder of the liberal Rolling Stone, wrote: "There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline . . . Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon 'the better angels of our nature'." At the liberal New Republic, Charles Lane confessed: "I know it shouldn't be happening, but it is. I'm falling for John McCain." His colleague Michael Lewis had gone further. His feelings for McCain, he wrote, were like "the war that must occur inside a 14-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls".
The objects of these uncontrollable passions are as one in their support for America's true deity, its corporate oligarchs. Despite claiming that his campaign wealth comes from small individual donors, Obama is backed by the biggest Wall Street firms: Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, J P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, as well as the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. "Seven of the Obama campaign's top 14 donors," wrote the investigator Pam Martens, "consisted of officers and employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling fraudulently made mortgages." A report by United for a Fair Economy, a non-profit group, estimates the total loss to poor Americans of colour who took out sub-prime loans as being between $164bn and $213bn: the greatest loss of wealth ever recorded for people of colour in the United States. "Washington lobbyists haven't funded my campaign," said Obama in January, "they won't run my White House and they will not drown out the voices of working Americans when I am president." According to files held by the Centre for Responsive Politics, the top five contributors to the Obama campaign are registered corporate lobbyists.
America's war on Iran has already begun. In December, Bush secretly authorised support for two guerrilla armies inside Iran, one of which, the military arm of Mujahedin-e Khalq, is described by the state department as terrorist. The US is also engaged in attacks or subversion against Somalia, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bolivia and Venezuela. A new military command, Africom, is being set up to fight proxy wars for control of Africa's oil and other riches. With US missiles soon to be stationed provocatively on Russia's borders, the Cold War is back. None of these piracies and dangers has raised a whisper in the presidential campaign, not least from its great liberal hope.
Moreover, none of the candidates represents so-called mainstream America. In poll after poll, voters make clear that they want the normal decencies of jobs, proper housing and health care. They want their troops out of Iraq and the Israelis to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbours. This is a remarkable testimony, given the daily brainwashing of ordinary Americans in almost everything they watch and read.
On this side of the Atlantic, a deeply cynical electorate watches British liberalism's equivalent last fling. Most of the "philosophy" of new Labour was borrowed wholesale from the US. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were interchangeable. Both were hostile to traditionalists in their parties who might question the corporate-speak of their class-based economic policies and their relish for colonial conquests. Now the British find themselves spectators to the rise of new Tory, distinguishable from Blair's new Labour only in the personality of its leader, a former corporate public relations man who presents himself as Tonier than thou. We all deserve better.