Great Liberal Hope? Pilger and Hamilton on Obama

Any of you Obama supporters care to deconstruct Pilger’s argument on the matter of Senator Obama? I remain open-minded, and ever-eager to be “born again.”

Doug Zachary / The Rag Blog / June 3, 2008

[David Hamilton and Scott Trimble of The Rag Blog respond at the end of the following article]

From Kennedy To Obama: Liberalism’s Last Fling
By John Pilger

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.

As their contest for the White House draws closer, watch how, regardless of the inevitable personal smears, Obama and McCain draw nearer to each other. They already concur on America’s divine right to control all before it. “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good,” said Obama. “We must lead by building a 21st-century military . . . to advance the security of all people [emphasis added].” McCain agrees. Obama says in pursuing “terrorists” he would attack Pakistan. McCain wouldn’t quarrel. Both candidates have paid ritual obeisance to the regime in Tel Aviv, unquestioning support for which defines all presidential ambition. In opposing a UN Security Council resolution implying criticism of Israel’s starvation of the people of Gaza, Obama was ahead of both McCain and Hillary Clinton. In January, pressured by the Israel lobby, he massaged a statement that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people” to now read: “Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel [emphasis added].” Such is his concern for the victims of the longest, illegal military occupation of modern times. Like all the candidates, Obama has furthered Israeli/Bush fictions about Iran, whose regime, he says absurdly, “is a threat to all of us”.

On the war in Iraq, Obama the dove and McCain the hawk are almost united. McCain now says he wants US troops to leave in five years (instead of “100 years”, his earlier option). Obama has now “reserved the right” to change his pledge to get troops out next year. “I will listen to our commanders on the ground,” he now says, echoing Bush. His adviser on Iraq, Colin Kahl, says the US should maintain up to 80,000 troops in Iraq until 2010. Like McCain, Obama has voted repeatedly in the Senate to support Bush’s demands for funding of the occupation of Iraq; and he has called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. His senior advisers embrace McCain’s proposal for an aggressive “league of democracies”, led by the United States, to circumvent the United Nations.

Like McCain, he would extend the crippling embargo on Cuba.

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.

What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s. By offering a “new”, young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US anti-war and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.

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.

Source. / ZNet / Tribe / May 31, 2008

“An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US anti-war and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.” — John Pilger

Why? I see no reason why supporting Obama for president will translate into lock-step support for his every move. If he doesn’t pull the troops out of Iraq in 2009, I’ll certainly be in the streets again. However, we will very likely be in the position of supporting some of his policies and criticizing others. That would be a truly new situation for us, but we are quite able to discriminate and be opposed to him when appropriate.

The analogy between Obama and Bobby Kennedy is very weak. Obama did not oppose the Iraq War several years after it started because it was “unwinnable” as did Bobby Kennedy relative to Vietnam. Obama also does not enter the race with a history of supporting American aggression (Cuba, Vietnam) as did Kennedy.

Tim Weiner writes in “Lagacy of Ashes” (p.180), “Robert F. Kennedy, 35 years old, famously ruthless, fascinated with secrecy, took command of the most sensitive covert (CIA operations. . . The (Kennedy brothers) unleashed covert action with an unprecedented intensity. Ike had undertaken 170 major CIA covert operations in eight years. The Kennedys launched 163 major covert operations in less than three.” That doesn’t sound much like Obama. Obama is also not from a ruling class family, nor did he have an older brother who was president. He also didn’t beat a candidate clearly to his left to secure the nomination.

Of course, Obama will move to the center in the general election contest. That this will happen is like a law of physics in our two party system. Would Pilger have Obama win the White House by denouncing American crimes at every campaign appearance? He could adopt the slogan, “Purity or Bust!”

Pilger’s logic leads to the conclusion that the Left is better off with a Bush — or a McCain. I argued in October 2004 that Bush would be the candidate who would do the most damage to American imperialism and that was correct. But factors in that equation were the political cowardliness, corporate ties and ruling class background of John Kerry. As for Obama, I remain infected with the hope that he is more one of us than he is able to reveal. I have it on excellent authority that he really does know Bill Ayers and did listen to black liberation theology for 20 years.

A “rapacious America” might be conducive to the growth of the domestic antiwar and social justice movements, but not much good for anyone else in the world outside of corporate CEO’s. I would also point out that the historical high points of the American Left were during the 1930’s and 1960’s when we had relatively reformist presidents.

As of today, we are down to two choices – Obama and McCain. Nader, McKinney, and Barr are possibilities, but only given the demonstrable inadequacy and duplicity of Obama. Those who oppose him must make the argument that the US is incapable of any substantial reform. But his just being the nominee, a non-white man with a Muslim name from a middle class background, is a very most powerful argument against that position.

This is the best chance I’ve ever seen to elect a progressive as the US president. I never thought I’d live to see it. It wouldn’t be happening except for the reaction against George Bush. We can demand political perfection, lose and embrace self-righteousness or we can seize upon the best opportunity we’ll likely ever see to achieve meaningful change at the presidential level.

David Hamilton / The Rag Blog And another view:

While I have no intention of arguing with every detail of your reply, I must refute the claim that “He also didn’t beat a candidate clearly to his left to secure the nomination.” While Hillary Clinton is certainly not clearly to his left, this was not always a two-horse race, and at least four of the candidates who were mainstream enough to get into the early nomination debates were clearly to the left of Obama, one of whom (Edwards) was considered a viable contender during the early part of the race.

Having said that, you are certainly correct that to some degree, however miniscule, Obama does seem better than Clinton or McCain, and as a relative unknown, does allow us some room to hope that he is a true progressive cloaking himself in neoliberalism to prevent the pro-corporate elite from removing him from the race prematurely. Yet, we must also wonder if he is such, how will he uncloak himself without suffering the fate of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Paul Wellstone, JFK, Jr., Mel Carnahan, etc.?

And if he is indeed the neoliberal militarist he presently purports himself to be, do you really think that Americans in significant numbers will publicly and vehemently oppose him? Realize that he is likely to be a Democratic president with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. In 93-94, that scenario brought us NAFTA. In 77-80, it brought us no progressive gains domestically (although Carter did broker a peace deal between Israel and Egypt), and led to a conservative backlash that gave us 12 years of Republicans in the White House. In 61-68, we almost started WW3 over Cuba, then got ourselves tangled up in Viet Nam.

Certainly, escaping the Orwellian Bush administration is important, but it will take a lot more than hope to make real progress.

Scott Trimble / The Rag Blog

David responds:

Grasp the historical moment. Tonight [May 3] is big. A major party in a predominantly white nation has just nominated a man of half African descent for the presidency. This in the nation that has the worst history of oppression of African Americans. Furthermore, this African American man is favored to win. And he will probably run with a woman as his VP, another historic first. This eloquent man will deliver his acceptance speech in Denver on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is historically huge and it will be the principal venue of action at least until November for most activists, like it or not.

That this historic event is taking place with a candidate with all the positive qualities of Barack Obama is more than we should have ever expected given the system’s past performances. And that he arrives on the scene when the Republicans are at their weakest, with a weak candidate already named, is a perfect storm.

Regardless of the issues listed as the big ones in the general election campaign – the economy, the war, health care – the central issue of this campaign will be race. Is American racism so enfeebled in its old age that it can be defeated? Can Americans learn to vote their self-interests instead of their prejudices and fears?

Hopefully, even Texas will be in play in this election. Frank Rich in last Sunday’s NY Times referred to a poll that showed Noriega only 4% behind Cornyn for the US Senate seat from Texas. Obama and Noriega campaigning together across Texas could be a powerful impetus for both of them. If our luck holds, we’ll be able to stay home and be part of the action, even if Texas being in play would indicate a Democratic landslide.

Pilger is right in that we are already experiencing a paradigm change. Very likely, the next president will be the first in our lifetimes against whom our opposition is not an almost automatic reflex.

David Hamilton / The Rag Blog

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to Great Liberal Hope? Pilger and Hamilton on Obama

  1. Breaking headlines are that it will be an Obama/Clinton ticket as the Democrats prepare for a love fest the like of which will not have been seen since 1967; people get ready, there’s a train a’comin’; you don’t wanna get run over, you just get on board!

    Can’t wait to see some of the comments others may post on this development!!!

  2. Harold says:

    If we look back at Obama’s political statements and early voting record, we see something different than what we see now. We saw a mainstream politician who was willing, for example, to go out on the ledge and levy harsh criticism against Israel it’s lobby, and push for fair and just treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. We saw a community organizer who knew how to rally people around ideas.

    In order to be a viable candidate for the Presidency, Obama has had to come back to the center, but there is a progressive in there waiting to get into office and put forth a progressive set of policies. That said, though, he won’t take the Eliot Spitzer route and alienate his rivals to his own as well as the people’s detriment. He’ll have to work with Republicans and Democrats in order to bring about some of these changes that I think he really does believe in, and that will mean he’ll have to compromise.

    That is, after all, the name of our great political game.

  3. Hi.
    Briefly two practical points, and the beginning of a philosophical issue.

    #1 Domestically: Obama does seem to have actually worked as a community organizer. Maybe, indeed most likely, he, facing and needing solutions to big problems, and needing help, may have the smarts to use that experience and find ways to make such efforts easier. My guess is that for progressives (to use some term) the problem will be less one of “pushing” Obama than of developing sensible citizens’ initiatives for practical steps.
    Outlook, for those with long term interest in “participatory democracy” and active citizens; interesting times.
    #2 Internationally: Obama did actually live abroad as a kid, in Indonesia shortly after the US secretly (secretly from whom?) installed a corrupt dictator. He may, and most progressive Americans living there do, know about that. Obama got 70% of the Democratic Primary there. For more, also by some Americans living, as opposed to bombing, abroad, see
    Outlook: — looking for instance south of the boarder, what are the prospects for citizens in the us with contacts “back home” to affect “foreign policy” in ways that solve rather than escalate problems?

    A philosophical issue: to deconstruct the Pilger piece would require considering what “liberalism” “is” (or “was”) — and the structure of his argument — at a time in which I too think vast paradigm changes are in process (To use a Hamiltonian phrase). I suggest that one indicator of large social change is a growing unclarity of the meaning of words that perviously may have seemed well defined in an earlier reality.
    Having said that, at some point I think it will be increasingly interesting to consider the ontological question of what “capitalism” “is”, and what the actual problems are one may want to solve, to get beyond.
    For those who have the time GET AND READ James Gustave Speth “The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Capitalism, the Environment, and the Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability”. He was a class mate and after the UN now Dean of Environmental Sciences at Yale. He is not interested in going back to the “old left”, but of getting beyond what we now have. If you are interested in what is happening in the economy, what different kinds of economic “growth” means now a days, and want to (hi Marion) pursue happiness, get that book. Or await breathlessly (don’t hold your breath) my book review in this blog.

    David MacB

  4. Hi Mariann, somehow in breaking my writing block I typed the first name of a librarian, rather than of your Wizzardness. Pleeeese forgive me.
    Davred Markbride

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