A friend down the coast here in California called Wednesday to say that her mother, 95, had fallen, cracked her ribs, got a cough and told her daughters, “That’s it. I’m checking out.” She’s given up eating. I remembered all the arguments I’d had down the years with the old lady — a perennial optimist about Democrats when it came to assessing the likelihood that Carter or Clinton or Obama would ever actually serve up the progressive banquets they’d pledged on the campaign trail.
“Tell your mother that at least she won’t have to put up with me saying ‘I told you so, about Obama’.” Her daughter gave a deep, sad sigh. She too has been a loyal liberal Democrat all her life and now, she said, Obama’s breaking her heart. So many high hopes, and there’s a man accepting the Peace Prize with one hand, while signing deployment orders with the other, sending 30,000 more young soldiers to Afghanistan.
Imagine having one’s foot on the lip of the great abyss, dimly hearing the radio in the kitchen playing snatches of the appalling drivel served up by Obama in Oslo. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.”
Obama was in peak form as self-righteous blowhard, proclaiming that “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”
As his words hang in the air, captives of the Empire are being kidnapped and rendered to Bagram and other dungeons and tortured, all the while with no legal standing as “enemy combatants.” Stand naked in a cold cell, waiting for the next beating from your interrogators and listen to Obama being piped through the PA at max volume, right after ‘Born in the USA’ (sorry, Birthers): “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place… So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”
McCain loves the speech. Sarah Palin loves the speech. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s Oslo address was a Republican speech. When it comes to invoking “just wars” Republican presidents can go through the motions, but they haven’t got their hearts in it. Who needs to talk about justice as you drop high explosive and scrawl Death to Ragheads on the side of the bombs? When you want a just war, whistle up a Democrat who can talk with a straight face about installing democracy in the Balkans. After eight years of Bushian crudities the Empire needed an upgrade in its salespitch, which is why we have Obama. Back at the time of the medieval crusades, the Western kings used to take Holy Communion from their Archbishops before heading east to battle Islam and scour the land for booty. I thought the ceremony in that austere hall in Oslo was a straight lineal descent — as Obama accepted his wafer, in the form of the prize — in this modern age a substantial check — and then pledged his holy war.
There have been yelps, but I detect a certain caution on the left, a certain reluctance to toss Obama on the dung heap where he belongs. Often it’s simple self-preservation. A great many nominally left organizations are dependent on liberal non-profit foundations whose executives are swift to cancel grants to those swerving from commitment to the Democratic cause and to the White House. Rather than confess to these coarse inhibitions, the progressives murmur about the lot of Afghan women, the monstrous Taliban, and sit on their hands. And they too see nothing wrong with Obama’s endless pledges to kill Bin Laden — a commitment that aroused ecstasy in Congress last week when General McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Tuesday that the world can not defeat al Qaeda until Osama bin Laden is captured or killed.
As Pierre Sprey remarked in the hearing’s wake, “It's clear to me that, although Gen. McChrystal's credentials in the assassination business are impeccable, his assassination-based grand strategy is a shameless crib from that great strategic innovator, the USAF's Col. Worden (e.g., “decapitation of the enemy's leadership” — by air power, of course). Quibbles over authorship aside, victory through assassination is a brilliant grand strategy for America: it's cheap, particularly at a time when we're a bit strapped; it's politically irresistible to a nation raised on Terminator 2 and Tupac; and, for the defense intellectuals, it offers wonderfully clear cut measures of success. And, empirically speaking, it's got a great track record. Look how well a single well-conceived execution worked out for Pontius Pilate, the High Priests of the Second Temple, and the Roman Empire.”
Here’s a president who can’t even toss the progressives the one peanut a year they need to keep them happy. Obama’s refusal on the eve of Thanksgiving a year ago to sign the US on to the landmine ban was the breaking point for many.
The American Medical Association, mentioned by Clancy Sigal on CounterPunch.org earlier this week had a study reckoning that an estimated 24,000 people, mainly civilians, are killed or ripped apart by landmines and “unexploded ordinance” (cluster bombs) each year across the world. Mostly the victims are the rural poor, many of them children. As a senator, Barack Obama voted for the ban; as President, he’s against it. Looking at the AMA Report’s numbers it’s a safe bet to say that somewhere in the world, even as Obama invoked Martin Luther King and the peacelovers, some kids the same age as his own two daughters were killed or crippled by a landmine.
Obama could have tossed the peanut through the bars, and ratified the ban. The liberals would have cheered and then Obama could have told Rahm Emanuel to pass the word along to Congress that he’d much prefer the legislators not ratify his decision.
But Obama’s too chicken to risk a gesture like that. What people are suddenly realizing is that with Obama there is an absolute disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. Is it cynicism? My own feeling is that Obama has spent so much of his life putting on the various acts necessary to get ahead in the world of powerful, rich white people that deception and self-deception have become innate and instinctive, several steps beyond crude manipulation. You could always tell when Bill Clinton was hamming it up. His face would redden slightly with the effort of contrived emotion.
Obama’s moralizing kitsch is a far smoother brand of cant. As Laura Flanders remarked on CounterPunch last week, he can say, as he did in his Afghan War speech at West Point, “Our union was founded in resistance to oppression,” then smile at his wife, descendant of oppressed slaves.
He has a picture of Muhammad Ali above his desk. On November 19 he wrote a tribute to Ali in USA Today praising “The Greatest” for “his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way.”
Did Obama feel any disconnect between this tribute to the most famous draft resister in US history and the fact that at the very moment he was approving his speech writer’s work on the piece for USA Today he was pondering drafts of a speech announcing he was widening the war in Afghanistan?
Dave Zirin, a fine sports writer, put it well in a piece he wrote called “Message to Obama — You Can’t Have Muhammad Ali”:
“Would that Muhammad Ali still had his voice. Would that Parkinson's disease and dementia had not robbed us of his razor-sharp tongue. Maybe Muhammad Ali has been robbed of speech, but I think we can safely guess what the Champ would say in the face of Obama's war. We can safely guess, because he said it perfectly four decades ago:
‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over’.”
Every day now I meet sad and angry people in this progressive part of northern California, furious at themselves at having believed in Obama, at a time in those early primaries and fundraisers last year when he needed them to believe. They kept on believing through most of this year, even as Obama threw one pledge after another out the window. After the landmine sell-out and the 30,000 deployment they’ve got nothing to hold on to, though many of them will stay with Obama till the end, particularly the blacks, holding on to the straightforward assumption, as Kevin Alexander Gray put it on CounterPunch last Wednesday that “He‘s doing the best he can under the circumstances — those ‘circumstances’ being white people.”
Maybe the 95-year old will slip away, also feeling that Obama is doing the best he can “under the circumstances” of the American Empire, leaving younger, less blithe spirits with the thought that the sourest truth about Obama is that he’s *not* doing the best he can “under the circumstances,” that in fact he’s really a sleazeball.
Any president has the power to do something decent once in a while, even if it’s declaring a marine sanctuary, which was Jimmy Carter’s last act as president. Bill Clinton finally offended Hollywood liberals by refusing to pardon Leonard Peltier, something he could have done at of the stroke of the same pen he used to sign the pardon for Marc Rich, the billionaire crook fugitive from justice. Hollywood is still with Obama. If he was shot tomorrow, someone — maybe even Oliver Stone — would rush to make a movie saying Obama was killed by the Pentagon because of his pledge to pull the troops out of Afghanistan two years from now.
Hopes die hard, but Obama has done a superlative job of assassinating them with all due dispatch.
Footnote: some would argue that Obama actually does have a peanut for the progressives and is preparing to toss it. The White House is reviewing its policy of barring presidents from sending letters of condolence to the families of members of the military who have committed suicide. The White House says that Obama cares about service members who kill themselves. If this goes through, given his deployments, he’ll be a busy man. Somehow this reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s joke about Pope John XXIII, who had visited some scene of disaster and shed tears when he witnessed the destruction. “And the Pope cried,” Lenny would tell his audience in tones of wonder. “He cried!” Pause. “Why, any other Pope would have laughed himself sick.”
Stop the Press. This just in: my friend down the coast writes to say her mother last night announced the Spirit had re-entered her body and that on reflection she realized it was bad timing to leave before Christmas, that it would really put a damper on the family celebration, and that she had chosen to stay around.
My father Claud died on December 15, 1981. His mind stayed keen till the end, shortly before which he opened one eye and murmured to me apropos developments in Poland I’d been telling him about: “I’m glad they’ve managed to split Solidarity.” ¥¥
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)