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POTUS, self-appointed voice of global democracy, is a sham; worse, delusional if he swallows his rhetoric, cruelly opportunistic if, as I believe, he doesn’t. The analogy that comes to mind here, fortunately a hypothetical, would be J. Edgar Hoover, at a service for Dr. King. Blood on his hands, Obama the inversion of Mandela at every turn, yet ringing the changes of freedom, democracy, peace, while the Behemoth of global interventionism, like a massive steamroller, plows forward, the Middle East and China flashpoints in a comprehensive hegemonic framework. The world’s ranking militarist, in point of “assets,” expenditures, arsenals, geostrategic planning, preens before the world audience, speaking power to truth, rather than the reverse, even stooping to the deception of a handshake with Raul Castro knowing full well the contrived symbolism of standing in Mandela’s shadow has no bearing whatever on the half-century embargo of Cuba, the sanctions representing a vain attempt at destroying an alternative form of social life which has brought only unnecessary suffering to a proud people.
Showmanship is cheap; if I were Raul I would have spit in his eye, and told him to move on. No, courtesy and protocol have no place where oppressors are involved.
I will quote only sparingly from Obama’s address—what’s the use, when honeyed words fly on serpent’s wings? The striking point is how much he is in denial, his words applied to Mandela (meant really to justify his own actions) become razor-like indictments of his record. There is his use of the word “ubuntu,” identified with Mandela, eliciting applause, which signifies that “we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.” That by itself, the vulgarization of ubuntu–through the use of demonization of all who contest American rulership, worse still, whose sharing and caring by US forces translates as drone missiles on funerals and other “collateral damage”—sets the stage for self-congratulation as a caring leader solicitous of the welfare of all Americans.
The speech is as much about himself (not surprising, given his absolute control of his image, witness a Times op-ed, Dec. 12, by an AP photojournalist describing White House image-management) as a tribute to Mandela. Commenting on the latter’s passing as “a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life,” Obama adds: “But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station, or our circumstances, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.” We know the answer.
Egotist extraordinaire, except when the exercise of self-flagellation suits his purpose, the false modesty passing for “cool,” Obama almost unwittingly portrays a world of ongoing struggles for societal betterment which, in fact, reveals the very problems plaguing America on his watch: “The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease [and drone strikes (mine)]. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs [Obama’s use of the Espionage Act directed against whistleblowers, more than all previous presidents combined (mine)]….” One wonders, does he ask himself, “as a man and as a President,” about these conditions? In passing, education expenditures are a small fraction of that for defense. As for unemployment, estimates for young people range from 20%-40%, and that fails to account for those who have dropped out of the labor force through discouragement.
It only gets better, i.e., vainglorious: “And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s [Mandela’s patrilineal name] legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” Tell that to Snowden and Manning, and tell all of us about the widest class differentiation in American history—i.e., class differences in income, wealth, and power—and the burdens especially falling on the black community. Then the flicker of self-flagellation, or false modesty, which makes everything alright: “And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism, when our voices must be heard.” A final quotation suffices: “The questions we face today—how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war—these things do not have easy answers….We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.”
As the battleships plow the seas, the long-range bombers remain finely tuned, the joint maneuvers with “friends and allies” continue on schedule, the status-of-forces agreements protect our “noble warriors” from punishment for crimes in the lands we have invaded, etc. etc.
Rather, let’s turn to the record, the solid wall on which the words are tacked up. Foremost, militarism, embodied in a global network of bases, a vast outpouring of appropriations, constant modernization of weaponry to ensure greater lethality, arms-financing to “friends and allies” which in turn furthers US geostrategic aims at the same time putting down dissidents in recipients’ countries, and for good measure, espionage on a heretofore undreamt of scale, eavesdropping practically universalized, plus the selective use of cyber warfare—and not a military aficionado, I’m sure I left out plenty. Also, where does one put counterterrorism beyond its most salacious (here, not sexual but depraved, sadistic) form, purposeful assassination as itself a weapon of terror, as manifested in widespread civilian casualties, including children’s deaths? Militarism, in fact, infuses the whole structure of policy and thought, coinciding with the hierarchical shaping of the business system and capitalist values—gradations of worth, some people more equal than others, and “enemies” the legitimate target of disdain and worse.
Then there is America itself, the record of permissive capitalism run amuck, poisoning the wells of human identity (this condition of course predates Obama, but his absolute disconnect from mass deprivation, while waving aloft a liberal banner, muddies political consciousness, giving way to Voltarean belief in the best of all possible worlds) through extolling business leadership, consumerism, the glories of war, as representing democracy. Here he gives us Fortress America, better yet, the National Security State, where foreign eavesdropping has its counterpart in, again, broadest ever, massive surveillance.
A Police State in-the-making, still wrapped in a liberal flag. Here too, we see (if I may use the term “logical” or even “brilliant”) consistency: the savaging of the social safety net as the prerequisite to a compliant as well as complicit populace willing to accept corporatism at home and the aggressive pursuit of hegemony abroad. At this moment of writing, there are vast demonstrations in Bangkok and Kiev, each numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Where, what about, New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, where equally if not greater grounds for dissatisfaction exist—instead, abject silence?
Yet we see pretend democratic leadership, Obama in the shadow of Mandela. A case might be made that “liberal” leadership is ultimately more dangerous than undisguised repression, for in that case the people have at least the chance of shaking off their stupor, perceiving reality for what it is, unvarnished lies to cushion reactionary social-economic policies, and begin to fight back. For now, self-imprisonment in the myths of patriotic dedication—to flag, country, JPMorgan Chase, Boeing, carrier battle groups, the whole configuration of American might and influence, in which government and business are fused inseparably—becomes indispensable background allowing Obama to prance about the world stage as a progressive figure, to which we remain blind as the rest of the world slowly catches on. My New York Times Comment on Nicholas Kristof’s excellent article, “How to Truly Honor Mandela,” which criticizes Obama for not “speaking up adequately on behalf of political prisoners,” Dec. 12, follows (same date):
“Mr. President, you can’t blame John Boehner for that.” Exactly right. The “that” is not only the force feeding of Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel. It is also an authoritarian, nontransparent regime–yes, regime, rather than government in the true democratic sense–which uses the excuse of Republican intransigence (accepted as a rationale by most Democrats, including liberals and progressives) to hide an infamous record of intervention, targeted assassination, JSOC-CIA paramilitary operations, and, in still larger terms, the containment of China leading to ultimate confrontation through the Obama Pacific-first strategy supplemented by the Trans-Pacific partnership. And that “that’ doesn’t begin to tap the domestic abuses centered on a dismal record of deregulation, with SEC, FDA, just about all agencies and departments (e.g., Interior) bending to the ground in worship of banking, business, and myriad vested interests.
Viewing Obama at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela makes one want to puke, so fraudulent were his words. The Prince of War, not Peace, on Terror Tuesdays perusing the “hit list” personally authorizing whom to kill next, presiding over a foreign-policy apparatus steeped in visions of global hegemony, and, domestically, offering little to counteract unemployment, foreclosure, malnutrition. By rights, there should be demonstrations throughout America protesting the cynicism and manipulation of the whole governing edifice–instead, aimless discontent.
Norman Pollack is the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard) and The Just Polity (Illinois), The Humane Economy, The Just Polity, ed. The Populist Mind, and co-ed. with Frank Freidel, Builders of American Institutions. Guggenheim Fellow. Prof. Emeritus, History, Michigan State. He is currently writing The Fascistization of America: Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism. E-mail: email@example.com.