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Words and Deeds

Rod Blagojevich and the Audacity of Hope

by ANDREW LEVINE

It is hard to believe but just a few years ago one could still say the words “audacity of hope” without irony.  That has become impossible now that the author of those words has become the world’s foremost destroyer of hope.  But even in a context where irony is unavoidable, calling the boat that will carry some forty Americans to Gaza as part of the international flotilla that will attempt, at great risk, to break the Israeli blockade is a truly inspired choice.

The name underscores the enormous, and ever widening, gap between Barack Obama’s words and his deeds.  Obama speaks of a just peace, but he capitulates unremittingly to an Israeli regime hell-bent on making life so miserable for Palestinians in Gaza, and in the occupied West Bank, that they will either leave or acquiesce to a domination so far-reaching that the Zionist dream of an ethnically pure ? or pure enough — Jewish state in all of Mandate Palestine can finally be realized.

The Audacity of Hope is set to sail within days of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s conviction on 17 counts of attempted extortion, soliciting bribes, and related charges.  These contemporaneous events cast light on the complex interaction of words and deeds in our political culture.

Blagojevich is surely guilty as charged, but what he is really guilty of is speaking with candor excessive enough to run afoul of federal statutes while federal investigators were listening in.  Had he been more oblique, or more careful, he would be a free man and a governor still.   After all, it is business as usual to buy and sell favors ? in Springfield and every other state capital, and of course in Washington D.C.   So long as corruption doesn’t rise to a level so gross that it becomes evident even to the willfully obtuse, it is acceptable; indeed, normal.

Notwithstanding the way the statutes Blagojevich violated are written, corruption works both ways.  Politicians do sometimes solicit bribes, and extortion is hardly unknown in their ranks.  But the main corruption flows in the other direction: from organized interest groups and others seeking favors.  Not all the favors sought are pecuniary; they are also, often, ideological.  When the Israel lobby lobbies the Obama administration to go after The Audacity of Hope, it is not for monetary gain.  It is because they want Israel to be free to do as it pleases in occupied Palestine.

The Supreme Court long ago ruled corruption constitutional, provided only that it is not transparent.  To its everlasting shame, it did so in the name of First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression.  Thus, at least since Buckley v Valeo (1976), political transactions that don’t smack of a quid pro quo too obvious to deny have counted as protected “speech.”   This has been the law of the land long before the present Court took aim on what remains of democratic deliberation and equality of political influence in last year’s Citizens United case.

The rich are therefore legally entitled to buy all the  “access” they want.  The poor are too, of course.  As Anatole France famously said, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Of course, in the real world, for ordinary people to have any political influence at all, they must be able to combine their “free speech” pittances.  But, especially of late, bought-and- ?paid-for politicians have not been particularly friendly to efforts to retain hard won rights to organize and to exercise power collectively, much less to expand those rights to the point where something approximating real democracy would come into being.  With a few exceptions ? like the Wisconsin state senators who left the state to slow down Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union juggernaut, Democrats pretend to be for organized labor while Republicans champion its demise.  But, like so much else in our duopolistic party system, the difference is mainly rhetorical.   And so, political influence has become a privilege of the rich and nefarious, provided only that, unlike Illinois’ hapless governor, the corrupters and the corrupt remain discreet.

No doubt it will become clear in time if subtle and oblique extortion played a role in causing the Obama administration to put pressure on Greece to prevent The Audacity of Hope from sailing.  I suspect not, and not just because our political class ? “encouraged” by the Israel lobby and Christian evangelicals — has internalized the thinking of the Israeli Right.

I think the explanation, the major part anyway, is just that our President isn’t eager yet again to have his face rubbed in the ground by the likes of that “bipartisan” idol Bibi Netanyahu.  Israel depends on American diplomatic, military and economic support.   But no American President since Eisenhower has dared force Israel to do anything it didn’t want to do.  Even egregious provocations have resulted only in mild and inconsequential rebukes.  Still, even by this standard, Obama’s pusillanimity ? and Hillary Clinton’s ? has been extraordinary.

This is yet another example of the plain fact that Obama’s governance is and always has been worse, far worse, than need be.  The constraints under which he operates are many and his political capital is scarcer than it was before he began squandering it.  But there is still much he could do ? especially for The Audacity of Hope.

Would even AIPAC dare fault him for trying, to the best of his ability, to protect the safety of American citizens on the high seas?  Perhaps, but only their most servile flunkies would be impressed.  Since The Audacity of Hope, which is unarmed and carrying nothing that could be construed as war materiel, has no intention of entering Israeli waters, and since it will be welcomed in Gaza itself, there is no point at which, under international law, the Israeli navy could rightfully (legally) interfere with its passage.  In these circumstances, Obama’s duty to protect its passengers, citizens all, is clear and unequivocal.

Technically, this might not be so if Israel declared itself an occupying power in Gaza.  But that would go against the grain of the myth it has been promoting since its 2005 “withdrawal,” and it would be awkward ? even with abject media in tow ? to change the line now just for the sake of legalizing the interdiction of a rag-tag flotilla filled with international solidarity workers.  With the U.S. in its pocket, what does Israel care about international law anyway!

So Israel has no right to act against The Audacity of Hope and Obama has an absolute duty to protect its passengers.   At this point, it is a duty easily discharged.  All Obama need do is announce publically what should go without saying: that he expects other nations to protect the safety of Americans citizens; and that, if they don’t, there will be a price to pay.

Were US citizens attacked, say, by the Venezuelan navy outside Venezuela’s territorial waters, it would be construed ? indeed, welcomed — as an act of war.  Why is Israel different?  Why indeed!  The short answer is that it is embarrassing for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to acknowledge that they don’t have it in them to resist the bullying of an unreconstructed pip-squeak.

And so they cower, and do what then comes naturally: they bully those even less willing or able to resist.  That would now be the “socialist” government of Greece, as it faces massive pressure from, on the one hand, German and French banks (aided and abetted by the U.S. Treasury and the International Monetary Fund) and, on the other hand, from the people it purports to represent, workers and others who refuse to endure hardships in order to bail those bankers out. 

The Greek government now is easy prey.  And so Obama and Clinton are trying, by any and all means, to bribe and extort it so that it will prevent The Audacity of Hope from sailing.  It is a desperate and pathetic move designed only to save face.

It is unfortunate that, unlike Blagojevich’s self-seeking escapades, their efforts to evade the shame due them do not violate federal statutes; and that, unlike Blagojevich again, Obama and Clinton are too big to be taken down, at least in a justice system as degraded as ours has become.  Still, from any evaluative position worth taking, other than a strictly legal one, can one really count Blagojevich more blameworthy?

And so — Bon Voyage, Audacity of Hope!  May you reach your destination in safety.    And even if American and Israeli pressure does, in the end, thwart your efforts, know that what you have already done is more estimable by far than the spineless machinations of America’s cowardly leaders who wallow perpetually in a corruption beyond the imagination of the merely mercenary Rod Blagojevich.

Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.