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Rising to the Occasion
The Water Line
by DENNIS LOO

Part 3 of a three-part series.

Obama has ridden a great wave of hope and expectation into office fueled by a desire by millions to see a radical departure from what Bush and Cheney have been, done and represent. What Bush and Cheney did and personify has been so extreme that most people can see with their own eyes, despite the mass media’s misrepresentations and distortions, that their reign was a disaster. The joy accompanying Obama’s victory has, therefore, perhaps no U.S. electoral precedent. But one finds when one examines more closely what he has said and what he has done, a very different tale than what most people have seen and understood up till now.

Before becoming president, Obama as a Senator co-operated with the Bush regime’s policies. In some instances he voted against Republican/White House sponsored bills, but in no instance did he filibuster them – which would have been meaningful opposition. Speeches by public officials are cheap. Actions are precious. When the Military Commissions Act of 2006 – a bill that legalized torture and indefinite detention, something more brazen than the Nazis ever attempted – Obama should have, but refused to filibuster it. Even the New York Times said,  “If you’re going to filibuster anything, filibuster this.”

Before the telecom amnesty bill came up to a vote Obama promised to support a filibuster. He instead ended up voting for the bill. While he made much of his opposition to the Iraq war, at no time in the Senate did Obama fail to vote in favor of appropriations to continue the illegal, unjust and immoral war that has resulted in the deaths of more than 1.3 million Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans (eighteen a day by suicide plus official war theatre casualties). The Democrats, even when they held the majority, refused to do what was readily within their power to do and what the large majority of Americans wanted, the end to the war, by simply holding up appropriations bills in committee, a practice that the GOP was never shy about doing when they had the power. Instead, Pelosi and Reid shed crocodile tears over the continued war, torture and NSA domestic spying, blaming the GOP for them and saying that they would have loved to stop them but didn’t have enough votes. They didn’t need the votes. They had the chairmanships and refused to use that power to bottle up these bills and thus kill them in committee.

Some might object: if Obama had filibustered these bills then he would have destroyed his chances of becoming president; his own party would have treated him as an outlaw. Probably so. It would have made him immensely popular among the people, but he would have been pilloried by the press and by his party leaders and the more than $250,000 per day that he needed to run for office would have shrunken by orders of magnitude because Wall Street and the other big money sources would have dried up immediately. What does this tell you about the system we live in when a candidate for president must refuse to do the right, legal and moral thing in order to have a chance to remain a “viable” candidate for president and in order to remain president?   

The Democrats and Republicans play the good cop, bad cop game. The Democrats didn’t really want to stop most Congressional bills and while some Democratic leaders personally voted against those bills, they still allowed them to pass, knowing that their individual vote was meaningless except as political cover to their constituents. When they do want to stop a bill they know exactly what to do – Pelosi prevented McKinney’s and Kucinich’s impeachment articles of Bush and Cheney from being voted out of committee for a floor vote.

Known Unknowns

In a November 2008 Department of Defense Strategic Studies Institute document authored by Nathan Frier entitled “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development,” Frier points out:

“The likeliest and most dangerous future shocks will be unconventional. They will not emerge from thunderbolt advances in an opponent’s military capabilities. Rather, they will manifest themselves in ways far outside established defense convention. Most will be nonmilitary in origin and character, and not, by definition, defense-specific events conducive to the conventional employment of the DoD enterprise.

“They will rise from an analytical no man’s land separating well-considered, stock and trade defense contingencies and pure defense speculation. Their origin is most likely to be in irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid threats of ‘purpose’ (emerging from hostile design) or threats of ‘context’ (emerging in the absence of hostile purpose or design). Of the two, the latter is both the least understood and the most dangerous.”

9/11 was a strategic shock. Frier warns of future such “hostile design” shocks. But what is even more dangerous, as he puts it, is the prospect of “threats of ‘context’” that arise from the very workings of the existing systems. In other words, disasters await without anyone even trying to bring them about.

Threats of context arise, according to Frier, out of “the unguided forces of globalization, toxic populism, identity politics, underdevelopment, human/natural disaster, and disease. In the end, shocks emerging from contextual threats might challenge core U.S. interests more fundamentally than any number of prospective purposeful shocks.” He goes on to say that these forces “are in- or undervulnerable to traditional instruments of U.S. power applied in predictable combinations.” (Pp. 24-25.)

What does it tell us about the nature of the contemporary and near term future world that disasters that arise out of the very context of our collective lives are a) certain, b) unlikely to be properly foreseen, c) extremely unlikely to be adequately prepared for, and d) more dangerous than any planned hostile actions?

It tells us at least two things.

First, the system we live in – global capitalism – is inherently unstable and dangerous whether you look at it from a local, national or international perspective. The spheres of the local, national and international are so intertwined that they cannot sensibly be separated as though events in one sphere do not impact the others.

Second, stability and security are more things of the past than of the present and, especially, the future. Massive dislocations and dramatic, startling changes to the status quo are not the stuff of science fiction but that which the DOD itself now finds it must take seriously. Granted, Frier’s document is not a policy document but a think tank document. But his evaluation of the situation compels serious reflection.

Several factors stand in the way of properly grasping the reality that we face. These factors include – not necessarily in order of importance:

Bureaucratic practice and thinking, which by definition involves the routinization of ways of doing and seeing things based on what has previously happened and not what hasn’t yet happened, thus, narrowing down and aggressively anti-imaginative approaches trump their opposite. Bureaucracies, we should note, run things in the modern world. They are, in core respects, the modern world;

Neoliberal policies – politics in service to globalization – dominate (both the GOP and the Democrats are Friedmanites) and therefore aggressive globalization which continues creating and deepening the bases for disasters and hamstringing human responses to disasters are not going to be modified or stemmed;

Preparing for the future and hedging against unanticipated disasters are diametrically opposed to neoliberal policies of allocating resources most sparingly and cheaply for profit-making – e.g., allowing more hospital bedspace for a disaster is considered inefficient and unprofitable, devoting resources to developing flu vaccines is less profitable than drugs that require daily doses and are therefore neglected leaving us extraordinarily vulnerable to a flu epidemic.

To paraphrase (and modify) FDR, what we have to fear is the system itself proceeding along as it is. The economic crisis and the implacable wars are the most obvious conditions we confront today. But the matters which are being ruled off the table by public officials are the most perilous of all: a) re-establishing the rule of law through prosecution of its violators and b) the very logic and operations of globalization and its exacerbating of the existing economic and political inequalities and manifest threats to the planet.

Rise to the Occasion

Obama will make it more and more explicit as time goes on how steadfast his class solidarity is with the rest of the ruling class. This precludes him doing what is necessary, legal, just and moral.

The Obama administration’s sleight of hand trick – pretending to undo the Bush regime’s atrocities while letting the criminals go free – must not be allowed by the people to go down for the consequences are dire.

If you are one of those who can see both the terrible things that have been done over the last eight years and foresee the perils that lie ahead, then you must act upon this knowledge and step forward as a herald of the people and on behalf of the planet and its people. Every individual who steps up this way does so on behalf of and representative of millions. Every single one of you is precious. When the existing leaders have betrayed the people, those among the people who can see this must step up and take the reins of responsibility to expose and delegitimate the existing leaders and system, pointing the way forward for the people. For a discussion of the dynamics of this necessary and promising path see: “Our Kitty Genovese Moment.”

Some people who try to effect social change base their actions and appeals on what is already in motion: what is possible, they think, is what is already happening. Their error arises from two sources: 1) narrowness of outlook and 2) a failure to see what is latent in any given situation and the basis, through political struggle, for making what is latent manifest. You don’t defeat an adversary by adopting that adversary’s rules and outlook. Let them play by their rules: electoral contests and their strangling politics of “what is possible” = that which they are willing to allow and which keeps the fundamental character of power relations intact. We should play by our own rules. The untapped power of the people acting as an independent political force on the scene is enormous.

The moral high ground is ours. We dare not abandon that high ground in the name of expedience, moral fatigue, national chauvinism, or misinterpreted public apathy.

Rise to the occasion. It’s time. It’s not about all those other people who aren’t doing what must be done. It’s about you who are reading this. What will you do?

Get down with World Can’t Wait. The world truly cannot wait.

DENNIS LOO is an associate professor of Sociology at Cal-Poly Pomona. He is the co-author of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He can be reached at http://dennisloo.blogspot.com.