Saturday, September 12, 2009

When Life Gives You a Lemon, Throw It Away and Buy Some Chocolate

One unforeseen benefit of the Obama presidency is that it may help to discredit the cry of "More and Better Democrats!" Elections are important, but they don't set policy: all they do is determine which candidate will occupy a given office. Currently the Obama faithful are deriding those who believed that electing Obama and giving Congress to the Democrats would make change possible. That the Democrats and the Obama campaign might have any responsibility for this misprision is not considered: the speeches, the campaign rhetoric -- everyone knows that's just talk, right? Of course, those who pointed this out before Obama was elected were attacked as cynics or agents of John McCain if not George W. Bush. Now our evil insinuations are mere political common sense in the mouths of Party apologists. I think a somewhat harder line will be appropriate in dealing with such people in 2010 and 2012.

I freely admit the pressures that President Obama must contend with. I realize that even the President of the most powerful nation on earth, yadda yadda yadda, is not omnipotent. But I still say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it. I can't see any reason to suppose that Obama is struggling to enact a progressive agenda but is held back by the Republicans and the reactionary forces in his own party. He made it clear throughout his campaign that he had no intention of doing any such thing, and no interest in doing it; the administration, largely made up of crypto-Republican hacks, he assembled after his election confirmed that he meant what he said and he said what he meant. (A Donkle is faithful, one hundred percent.)

The great anarchist, psychologist, sociologist, poet, and pederast Paul Goodman wrote over forty years ago, near the beginning of Lyndon Johnson's administration, which also enjoyed a strong mandate:
But in the system we have been describing, the Executive also is not a governing person nor group of persons, any more than the baronial corporations are persons except as a fiction. During the activist Kennedy regime, frustration was continually expressed because, somehow, the Cabinet and the President himself were powerless. Just so the heads of giant corporations and of apparently autonomous universities claim that they are powerless to alter policies that they say they disapprove of. It is inherent in centralization that powerlessness spreads from the bottom to the top [People or Personnel (Vintage Books, 1965), page 47].
The more it changes, the more it is the same. If you felt the same jolt of recognition on reading that passage that I did, you might want to read some more of Goodman's work. I think we can conclude that people who protest the helplessness of the executive are arguing in bad faith at the outset. People who claim to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient god make the very same excuses for him, which suggests to me that we're dealing with a reflexive defense mechanism, not a defense based on reality or logic.

One of my pro-Obama friends wrote me in e-mail that "One of the reasons I like Obama is that he gives his opponents more respect than they deserve." "Respect" and "deserve" are tricky words, but even if he's right, one of the reasons I dislike Obama is that he gives his supporters less respect than they deserve. Obama may go on the road to schmooze with the great unwashed in carefully controlled spectacles, but he shows his real allegiances by the people he associates with out of reach of microphones.
It looked like it was business as usual for President Barack Obama on the first day of his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, as he spent five hours golfing with Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank and chairman and CEO of UBS Group Americas. Wolf, an early financial backer of Obama’s presidential campaign, raised $250,000 for him back in 2006, and in February was appointed by the president to the White House’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Economic recovery for whom?
Five hours playing golf. Does Obama spend five hours in the company of working people, maybe playing basketball or even bowling, listening to their concerns? Of course not. Does he spend five hours in the company of any of his grass-roots supporters -- the millions of people whose tireless organizing and monetary donations put him into office? Of course not. Does he spend five hours in the company of people who represent non-Democratic Leadership Committee concerns? Of course not. That would be taking sides with Special Interests.

Anyway, I think my friend is mistaking a reluctance to engage (nominal) opponents for "respect." As Alexander Cockburn wrote at Counterpunch this weekend:
The day after his speech Obama had Bluedog Democrats to the White House and they emerged, reemphasizing their obduracy. A White House without the ability to effectively twist arms, bribe the recalcitrant, threaten to break knees, is an institution shorn of a huge slice of its effective power. LBJ didn’t grab the headlines with stirring speeches on Medicare, or Food Stamps. He grabbed obstinate legislators by the lapels and smeared them with the honey of a promised dam, a judgeship, a broadcasting franchise; or he whacked them with a threat to pull a military base, cancel a highway project, nix the necessary patronage.

Despite the flexing of rhetorical muscles, Obama’s still a nice-guy president who still prates on about bipartisanship, even as the Republicans on Wednesday night sat on their hands, gave the president the finger and chortled as one of their number, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out “You lie”, when Obama said correctly that his plan wouldn’t offer services to illegal immigrants. By so saying, of course, Obama was acknowledging that he had just lied when he declared at the start of his speech that adequate medical care is a basic human right. Are undocumented workers, who sustain America’s agriculture and much of its building industry, not humans, or humans without rights like the captives Obama still wishes to classify as beyond the protections of the Geneva Protocols?

Publicly interrupting the President to berate him as a liar is not done in the U.S. Congress, and Wilson swiftly apologized. But it was an emblem of something that most definitely has surfaced this summer: white race hatred for Obama. Wilson’s uncouth outburst was a nasty reminder of how unrestrained this is swiftly becoming. Eight years of contented Bush-bashing made many – including probably Obama and his entourage -- forget just how violent would be the prejudices and hatred provoked by the election of a black president.
The Obama apologists who claim that their man must play politics the way the game is played are forgetting that politics means the kind of tactics LBJ used. That is not the same as sinking to the Republicans' level, or to the level of Democratic left-bashers. It is possible to disagree firmly, even forcefully with another person without denying him or her "respect," unless you define the problem out of existence by considering any disagreement to be disrespectful. I don't think it is.

Right now the hard-core Republican right continues to get headlines for its dishonest campaign; the soft-core Democratic center presumably continues sending money to the Democratic National Committee while Obama coddles the Blue Dogs. Obama is not my leader, but he's not even providing leadership to his own base. I've argued before (and I'm not alone) that Obama has shown himself not to be even minimally competent in dealing with opposition: he's all too willing to back down and give his worst enemies what they want. Liberals and leftists alike jeered at the Bush administration's apologists when they whined that no one could have predicted that Saddam didn't have WMDs, that the levees would break, that the economy would crash. But Obama is acting as though nobody could have predicted that he'd have to face Republican hatred, as though we hadn't seen exactly the same tactics used against Bill Clinton. I agree with this analysis:
In Obama, we get all the corporate toadying of the last Democratic president, along with an even greater unwillingness than Clinton – and who would’ve thought that was possible – to name names, call out enemies, and throw a freakin’ punch every other year or so. (We’re also getting a continuation of the civil rights and civil liberties policies of Dick Cheney, as an extra added bonus, but that’s another story.) What makes it even more astonishing this time around, however, is that we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. There is apparently absolutely no bottom – as the events of recent weeks have reconfirmed – to the pit of vicious lies, brutal tactics, and democracy-demolishing antics of which regressives will avail themselves in their practice of contemporary American politics. In addition to not being prepared for that, Barack Obama is still seemingly unable to raise his voice a decibel or two against the very people who are helping him to destroy his own presidency. Indeed, he is negotiating ‘bipartisan’ (read: total capitulation) deals with them, even as they relentlessly trash him before a national audience.

Is this president so deluded that he believes there are limitations on what the right will do not only to the republic, for which Obama seems to have only passing regard, but also to his presidency, for which we might imagine he would have at least some concern?
See also Vicente Navarro's article here.

Avedon at the Sideshow objected, while kindly linking to my earlier post, to my take on her
idea that single-payer advocates should create a "story" at the Town Hall meetings by arguing against "the plan" from a single-payer advocate's perspective: "Well, of course, that wouldn't be news either. A tiny turnout of pro-Republican protesters is always news, while protesters from the left will be ignored, minimized, and caricatured." And yet, I still don't think that means it's not worth doing. I just also think mass protests against media institutions that promote lies and suppress truth would provide a nice wake-up call.
As I replied in comments, I also think such protests would be worth doing. After all, mass protests are doing the Right a lot of good already. American officeholders will make change happen, not because of elections, but because they come under heavy pressure from their citizens between elections. Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't ban racial discrimination in the American government and defense industries during World War II because of an election: he did it because the union organizer A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington if he didn't.

I still think that any criticism of Obama, including protests, from the left will be ignored, minimized, and caricatured -- not only by the corporate media but by Obama and his loyalists. That's not a reason to give up, it's a reason to expect counterattacks and to plan ahead to deal with them. It looks to me as though the Obama administration is now willing to pay lip service to the idea of "single-payer," though not to consider single-payer proposals seriously, and why? Because activists began going to Obama's town meetings and demanding to know why single-payer was off the table. More pressure could lead to more progress. If Obama will cave in so easily to pressure, why shouldn't the left pressure him too? Prospective troublemakers might look at the history of AIDS activism in the US, which was both militant and media-savvy, and won many of its demands before it burned out and some of its surviving leaders were co-opted by the government. I presume that Americans who care about real health care reform are far more numerous than Americans directly affected by AIDS in the 1980s.

But, but, but -- don't be surprised when you encounter opposition, even dishonest and scurrilous attack from the Democrats. Take it as encouragement. The more they try to pretend that you're stupid, irresponsible, of no importance, the more you'll know you're making them squirm.