Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion
Jeffrey St. Clair & Joshua Frank, editors (AK Press 2012, Trade Paperback) 319 pages, indexed $16.95 cover price
as originally seen in The Herald de Paris
(Before beginning the writing of this review, I know that by the end it is one that will make no one happy almost, except the publisher and authors of this book. Republicans, Democrats, left, right and the mushy center may all feel rightfully offended. That of course is why Hopeless is vital reading and that is why I choose to write this review as viscerally as I know I will. Onwards. H.O.)
It was the late spring about to turn into the summer of 2008 the last time I was in London, that city so very mannerly in its ancient traditions where for a gala dinner one does not rent a tux for there it is hanging in the closet next to crisply-ironed french-cuffed shirts for which there are choices of cufflinks in a well-arranged bureau drawer beside folded, not rolled, calf length thin black socks. Thus properly attired, the attendees could now commence drinking and swearing in gentlemanly fashion.
The topic of the night among the guests who had come from across the UK, the Irish Republic, France, Germany and a good number of African nations was George W. Bush. The American President had arrived in town two days before to the delight of no one, particularly travelers for he had tied up all the airspace above London, obviously including Heathrow Airport, for hours so that he could make a grand helicopter descent to the grounds of Windsor Castle. Like the pussycat of the children's rhyme, he'd been to London to visit the Queen. It would have been a 15 minute limousine ride tying up only a few avoidable roads, but that wasn't quite grand enough for the Imperial Presidency.
Indeed, I learned that Bush had become a rather good punchline for any misfortune great or small. Among some minor accidents during the dinner portion of the night, a member of the wait staff neglected to bring a salad to a guest, a Cambridge-educated Englishman of Pakistani heritage who had the most marvelously florid purple spotted bow tie and matching cummerbund. 'Blame Bush,' he harrumphed to much toasting and guffaw. Later, the salt cellar ran out and in one voice, two men turned to one another and tweedle-dummed 'Blame Bush.' More toasting.
Before the toasting led to the usual sex jokes – as it happened to be an all-male table, that was an inevitability – as the token North American of the group I was urgently asked my opinion of the upcoming American Presidential election. John McCain had already clinched the Republican nomination over Mitt Romney (which guaranteed a prediction I also made that night that Romney would be the 2012 nominee), but Barack Obama had not yet sealed victory over Hillary Clinton. In the interest of honest reviewing, by the way, I should tell you that I was cheering for Hillary from my observation post of Canada.
Anyway, I told the group, “Don't worry about a thing. Barack Obama will win the nomination, will trounce McCain in the general election and everything will be all right.”
Well now. Romney in 2012; Obama to win in '08; and everything will be all right. I guess I'll have to go along with Meat loaf that two out of three ain't bad. Things are not all right. Things are the antithesis of all right. And that is why Hopeless is a vital, necessary book to read.
Let us be clear about something. Although this collection of sharply written, devastating short essays – none longer than 16 pages and most only 4 – is about Barack Obama, Hopeless is not really 'about' Barack Obama any more than Beckett's Waiting for Godot is about Godot. Actually, now that I've written it, that parallel is even more telling than I first thought.
I believe it was the great former war correspondent of the New York Times, Chris Hedges who first coined the term Brand Obama. To summarize Hedges' thoughts, Obama is but the latest false saviour who presents himself as that which he has no intention of becoming; the elusive saviour/knight come to rescue the shining white city on the hill. The marketing and splendid rhetoric promises much, while the delivery is next to nothing. Godot never arrives to rescue the two sad clowns.
There are examples of this on very nearly every page of Hopeless. Riffing open the book at random, here is one from a February 2011 essay by Economics professor Ismael Hossein-zadeh, called Inside Obamanomics:
Prior to his recent u-turn on the regulation-deregulation issue, President Obama shared this near unanimous view of the destructive role if the excessive deregulation of the past several decades and, indeed, strongly supported the need to bolster regulation: “It's time to get serious about regulatory oversight,” Mr. Obama argued as the Democratic nominee for President; and again, “...this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control,” as he stated in his inaugural speech.
Splendid stuff! Surely we could look forward to a freshened version of the Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial and investment banking to be re-instated after being rather stupidly repealed during the Clinton Administration? The lessons of 1929 having been re-learnt in 2008's collapse, the solutions of 1933 would fast approach. Well, not quite. A few lines later, we read:
Accordingly (Obama) issued an executive order on 18 January 2011 that requires a comprehensive review of all existing government regulations. On the same day, the president wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that the executive order was necessary in order to “remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”
Not quite the same exciting rhetoric, now is it? The effect, by the way, was that the Wall Street Journal reported two days later that the Labor Department dropped a proposal on noise in the workplace that would have forced manufacturers to install noise-reducing equipment and the Food and Drug Administration retreated from plans to tighten rules on medical-advice approvals. Well isn't that great?! Allow workers to go deaf then sell them faulty hearing aids. However will they be able to hear all those grand speeches?
There are hundreds of examples. The appointments of former Goldman-Sachs and Citibank executives to most senior positions should have been a clue that Obama, in economist Michael Hudson's words (Obama's Sellout on Taxes), “has only done what politicians do: He has delivered up his constituency to his campaign backers – the same Wall Street donors who back the Republicans. What's the point of having a constituency, after all, if you can't sell it?”
Oh there's more, there is more. Incidentally, while reading each essay I kept the mind-set of trying to find a rationale for a defence of the administration's actions. It didn't go well. What of the case of Omar Khadr, the fifteen year-old Canadian captured outside Kabul in 2002. Khadr's trial was the first under the Obama administration. Chase Madar, a New York lawyer, notes in Torturing the Rule of Law at Obama's Gitmo, that “no nation had tried a child soldier for war crimes since World War II.” When Khadr threw his grenade, as he confessed, he tossed “the grenade from his hospital bed at Bagram prison while heavily sedated, his chest wounds barely closed.”
So what happened with Khadr? Well, he and his lawyers – once he was finally able to retain counsel – plea-bargained a sentence of eight years not including time served. The military tribunal essentially said, to hell with plea bargains, you get forty years in solitary confinement. For a child. Who acted in a war. Who was re-defined as a 'belligerent' rather than a soldier.
What of Obama's successes? The pattern essentially follows his pattern on the environment, wherein (the source here is editor Jeffrey St. Clair's Obama and the Man in the Hat) while the Department of Agriculture filled with ex-industry lobbyists authorizes, “the most ghastly of clearcuts in the most ecologically sensitive sites, such as the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana to the fast-dwindling ponderosa pine forests of Oregon's Blue Mountains”, the environmental movement largely stays quiet and acquiescent. Why?
The pattern of political conditioning has been honed to perfection. Every few weeks the Obama administration drops the Beltway Greens a few meaningless crumbs – such as the reinstitution of the Clinton Roadless Area rule – which they gobble up one after another until, like Hansel and Gretel with groupthink, they find themselves hopelessly lost in a vast maze of Obama-sanctioned clearcuts. After that, they won't even get a crumb.
That, by the way, is a fine example of the lacerating and well-chosen prose found throughout Hopeless. I'll admit to a general sadness I have felt for years that the voices of Real journalists, the ones who write with passion grounded in thorough research; I thought that the children of Lincoln Steffens had all died. No, there are dozens of them in these pages, writing about every important aspect of American life with damning perspective.
So you say, it's all aboard the Romney train, then is it? Oh don't be an ass. As Gore Vidal noted years ago, there is no Republican Party or Democratic Party, there is just the Banks' Party. Or as Chris Hedges answered when I asked him recently if it made the slightest difference whether Obama or Romney won the next election, “No. Not at all.” Both serve the same corporate interests; both have the same campaign contributors. It was recently noted that the U.S. ranks 138th worldwide in voter participation. The only surprising piece of information in that statistic is that I didn't know there were 138 democracies in the world (according to Wikipedia, there are actually 167).
Hang in there America. And fight back. Be seeing you.