This weekend brings us the August 28 anniversary of the March on Washington back in 1963. It was when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. At least 250,000 people, 75-80% black, rallied in the Mall. Each year the anniversary rolls around, you’ll hear plenty of high-flown strophes from prominent progressives, black and white, evoking Dr. King’s dream of racial justice and equality.
Barack Obama’s speechwriters are, no doubt, polishing just such a commentary by their boss. In terms of political energy, the event is as inert as Labor Day, itself just around the corner at the start of September. But this year brings welcome relief from such pietism. The premier anniversary celebration of the March has been hijacked by the right-wing commentator, Glenn Beck. The prime speaker will be Sarah Palin, the Tea Party’s pinup girl and as unlikely as any woman in Alaska ever to have had a pinup of MLK on her dorm wall. To have the March on Washington honored by Beck and Palin is as shocking to liberal America as installing Jefferson Davis, president of the Southern slave states in the Civil War, next to Lincoln in the Memorial — an insertion which will no doubt be approved by Congress, and endorsed by Obama in the interests of bipartisanship, just as soon as the 14th Amendment is repealed.
Beck admits that when he scheduled a rally in Washington on August 28 to boost his new book, The Plan, and strut his stuff to the Tea Party masses, he had no idea it was the anniversary of the March. But he swiftly turned ignorance into opportunity. He’s now saying that’s he is working “to finish the job” that was at the heart of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s vision. Beck claims the ideas of Dr. King have been corrupted and that he will resurrect the true King. As part of this mission, Beck is trying to separate Dr. King from social justice and limit King to advocacy of individual Christian salvation.
According to Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, writing on our CounterPunch.org website last week, “Beck has even reached out to distant relatives of Dr. King, like Dr. King’s niece. After questioning her several times he gets her to say that King was not about social justice or government redistribution of the wealth.”
From the left comes the angry response that King was, indeed, committed to the need to redistribute wealth in order to advance a juster nation and was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, in the course of a visit to black city workers on strike.
If Beck’s hijacking provokes some honesty among the left in general about King and about black leadership today, then Beck will have performed a useful service. Too late now to organize the obvious, a huge counter demonstration to call Beck to accounts and run him and Palin off. The left is too weak for that, having now given up gluten which has given us leavened bread for 5,000 years.
The March of 1963 was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It wasn’t King’s idea, but that of A. Philip Randolph who had planned a similar march in 1941. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was only one of five main sponsoring groups. Some of these saw the march’s purpose not as high-flown talk about dreams but as harsh reproof of President John Kennedy. They accused him of dragging his feet on giving legislative heft to the civil rights movement that had moved into high gear three years earlier. Julian Bond’s speech denouncing Kennedy’s weakness was famously censored by the March’s organizers.
King’s political career was heading into crisis. Three years later, in 1967, he was booed by blacks at a rally in Chicago. He recalled later what he thought that night: “I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom ‘all, here and now.’ I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they had felt we were unable to deliver on our promises. … They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare.”
It was one thing to force a chain restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, to allow blacks to sit at a previously Whites Only counter; it was quite another to attack the racism embedded in the American system so savagely excoriated by the greatest American black revolutionary of the 1960s, Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965.
Beck, to a certain extent, has it right. In 1963 King was on the same tack as another man professing confidence in the American system to engender justice out of an innate, individually virtuous moral tropism to do the right thing — Barack Obama in 2008. King was wrong then, just like Obama is two generations later. It’s a matter of class war, not individual character traits.
King moved to the left in the mid-60s. He had to. In Riverside Church in New York, a year before his death he gave a far more powerful speech than 1963’s “I have a dream” address. He called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. …[T]rue compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar… it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
This was a far cry from what White Power wanted from King, which was the soft rhetorical pillow on which all Dreamers could lay their heads: MLK’s 1963 dream that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
On August 28, 2010, 47 years after the March for Jobs and Freedom, America has plunged into the vortex of long-term mass unemployment. No jobs, particularly for young blacks. So much for jobs.
What about freedom? Thirty years ago, fewer than 350,000 people were held in prisons and jails in the United States. Today, the number of prisoners in the United States exceeds 2,000,000. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics concludes that the chance of a black male born in 2001 of going to jail is 32%, or 1 in three. Black boys are five times as likely as white boys to go to jail. Former prisoners are permanently relocated on society’s margins, these days some five million of them, denied the right to vote in most states.
Professor Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow argues convincingly that we have a purposeful system of mass incarceration, with blacks as the prime victims. Today, in this fearful crisis there is no effective black leadership, starting with President Obama who has marvelously fulfilled his function as political sedater of black aspirations, starting with the promotion of his own success story. “Yes, we can.”
Oh, no they can’t. It’s not in the Master Plan. Black politicians are well aware that most of their black constituents will stay with Obama till the end, whatever he does. So most of them remain quiet — and yield the stage to an opportunist like Beck, flanked by Ms. Palin. Malcom X, who called the 1963 March on Washington “a picnic” and “a circus,” would have had a good laugh about that.
The Left & Iraq: Snatching Defeat
from the Jaws of Victory
“The US isn't withdrawing from Iraq at all — it's rebranding the occupation… What is abundantly clear is that the US, whose embassy in Baghdad is now the size of Vatican City, has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time soon.”
So declared Seumas Milne of The (UK) Guardian on August 4. Milne is not alone among writers on the left arguing that even though most Americans think it’s all over, they say that Uncle Sam still effectively occupies Iraq, still rules the roost there. They gesture at 50,000 US troops in 94 military bases, “advising” and training the Iraqi army, “providing security” and carrying out “counter-terrorism” missions.
Outside US government forces there is what Jeremy Scahill calls the “coming surge” of contractors in Iraq, swelling up from the present 100,000. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000. Of these contractors 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly “third country nationals,” typically from the developing world.
“The advantage of an outsourced occupation,” Milne writes, “is clearly that someone other than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq.“
“Can Iraq now be regarded as a tolerably secure outpost of the American system in the Middle East ?,” Tariq Ali asked in the New Left Review earlier this year. He answered himself judiciously, “They have reason to exult, and reason to doubt.” But the thrust of his analysis depicts Iraq as still the pawn of the American Empire, with a “predominantly Shia army — some 250,000 strong— …trained and armed to the teeth to deal with any resurgence of the resistance,” all this with “the blessing of the saintly Sistani’s smile.”
The bottom line, as drawn by Milne and Ali is oil. Milne gestures to the “dozen 20-year contracts to run Iraq's biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to foreign companies.”
Is it really true that though the US troop presence has dropped by 120,000 in less than a year, Iraq is as much under Uncle Sam’s imperial jackboot as it was in, say, 2004, even though now no US troops patrol the streets? If Iraq’s political affairs are under US control, how come the US Embassy — deployed in its Vatican City-size compound, (mostly as vacant as a foreclosed subdivision in Riverside, California and planned in the same phase of megalomania) cannot knock Iraqi heads together and bid them form a government? Those 50,000 troops broiling in their costly bases are scarcely a decisive factor in Iraq’s internal affairs; nor are the private contractors.
Is a Shia-dominated government really to America’s taste and nothing more than its pawn? It was Sistani who forced the elections of 2005, calling Bush on his pledge of free elections, thus downsizing the excessive representation of the Sunni — who boycotted the election anyway. And if all this was a devious ploy to break “the Iraqi resistance” how come the United States constantly invokes the menace of Iran and decries its influence in Iraq?
The “Iraqi resistance” invoked in worshipful tones by Tariq Ali, as opposed to his ironic “saintly” reserved for Sistani, means, in his perspective, the Sunni. But if the Sunni ever had a strategy beyond a strictly sectarian agenda, it was scarcely advanced by blowing up Shi’a pilgrims and their shrines and setting off bombs in marketplaces. If Moqtada al Sadr has been side-lined by the US and its supposed creature, Sistani, why has he been described as the “kingmaker” since his success in the parliamentary election this past March?
As for the contractors, those sinister Third World mercenaries should not be oversold, unless the Shiites are supposed to quail before ill-paid Peruvians, Ugandan cops and the like, who will now be supposedly handing down orders to the Iraqi government. This takes a very imperial, and contemptuous attitude towards the capabilities of the Iraqi people.
If this really was a “war for oil,” it scarcely went well for the United States.
Run your eye down the list of contracts the Iraqi government awarded in June and December 2009. Prominent is Russia’s Lukoil, which, in partnership with Norway’s Statoil, won the rights to West Qurna Phase Two, a 12.9 billion-barrel supergiant oilfield. Other successful bidders for fixed-term contracts included Russia’s Gazprom and Malaysia’s Petronas. Only two US-based oil companies came away with contracts: ExxonMobil partnered with Royal Dutch Shell on a contract for West Qurna Phase One (8.7 billion barrels in reserves); and Occidental shares a contract in the Zubair field (4 billion barrels), in company with Italy’s ENI and South Korea’s Kogas. The huge Rumaila field (17 billion barrels) yielded a contract for BP and the China National Petroleum Company, and Royal Dutch Shell split the 12.6 billion-barrel Majnoon field with Petronas, 60-40.
Throughout the two auctions there were frequent bleats from the oil companies at the harsh terms imposed by the auctioneers representing Iraq, as this vignette from Reuters about the bidding on the northern Najmah field suggests: “Sonangol also won the nearby 900-million-barrel Najmah oilfield in Nineveh. … Again, the Angolan firm had to cut its price and accept a fee of $6 per barrel, less than the $8.50 it had sought. ‘We are expecting a little bit higher. Can you go a little bit higher?’ Sonangol’s exploration manager Paulino Jeronimo asked Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to spontaneous applause from other oil executives. Shahristani said, ‘No’.”
So either the all powerful US government was unable to fix the auctions to its liking, or the all powerful US-based oil companies mostly decided the profit margins weren’t sufficiently tempting. Either way, “the war for oil” doesn’t look in very good shape.
Milne advances the odd idea that with the (entirely imaginary) US “control” of Iraqi oil “the global oil price could be slashed and the grip of recalcitrant Opec states broken.” In fact, the last thing the majors want is to cut world oil prices.” Ask BP.
Milne and Ali are being naive and credulous in taking at face value US officials declaring that they are not wholly withdrawing and they will still be in business in Iraq for the foreseeable future. The reason for saying this is that they don't want to see their influence go wholly to zilch. They therefore have to maintain — and are dutifully echoed on the left — that their power in Iraq is only a little affected by reduction of troop numbers from 150,000 to less than a quarter of that number.
The US line on this is in one sense sensible: In Iran many Iranians saw the hidden hand of Britain behind developments long after the Brits' real power had faded almost to nothing. In the case of the US in Iraq it is easy to sell this when the right and left agree that the US is too powerful to have suffered a defeat.
The American right tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that “the surge” — a pr ploy by General David Petraeus to mask US withdrawal — was a military success, rather than the Sunni abandoning “national resistance” and throwing in their lot with the Americans. The left — or the substantial slice of it hewing to the Milne/Ali line — snatches defeat from the jaws of a victory over America’s plans for Iraq by proclaiming that America has successfully established what Milne calls “a new form of outsourced semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region.”
Iraq is in ruins — always the default consequence of American imperial endeavors. The left should report this, but also hammer home the message that in terms of its proclaimed objectives the US onslaught on Iraq was a strategic and military disaster. That’s the lesson to bring home.
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.)