Our Downward Path to Wisdom

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us–if at all–not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

– T S Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (1925)

I remember about a quarter century ago, I read about some LA nut job who sat down in an anchored lawn chair with weather balloons attached to it, and when the anchor cable snapped Larry was set free and rose, and kept rising, wheeee! and kept rising, until he found himself in a LAX air traffic lane, where he feared he’d fall or get sucked into a jet engine, a homicidal maniac, and began shooting out balloons with a pellet gun, and as he descended he began worrying about being arrested, and had another Miller Lite. Hoax? I wondered and hoped. Nope, another Darwin Award winner from America. Larry said, on landing, 45 minutes later, in answer to Why? “A man can’t just sit around.”

What local hero hasn’t sat around on a lawn chair after church, Sunday morning coming down, already tanked on Miller and filled with the hot air of American Exceptionalism, looking out at the world, with like-minded friends, through stained glass shades? Unless you’re Black, of course. Then you know all about being an American exception. A dream deferred. A raisin in the sun. And that’s when those fat albino cats from Wall Street, lazin’ round in lawn chairs, exposin’ their jingly jungles for all to see, got their Jim Crow mortgage idea, called Subprime Sublime, all packaged up for swaps and shorts, Black elation their ka-ching balloons rising, rising in the Wall Street sky. Alan Shore confronts the horror show here. Oh-oh, busted balloons time.

This is as good an entry as any into Paul Street’s new Obama-bashing, Trump-trashing polemic, Hollow Resistance. It’s probably not exactly what Street would prefer to be doing at this late stage of capitalism and democracy. “If someone had told me six months ago that I would soon be writing my third book with Barack Obama’s name in the title,” writes Street, “I would have laughed.” Well, it’s looking like we’ll all be needing laughing gas soon to deal with the pain ahead. We’ve been there before — in 2008, when the titans of finance came crashing down in their own ‘put’ steps. And, in Hollow Resistance, Street connects the causal dots between Clinton, Bush, Obama and the inevitable rise of “the indecent beast Trump.” Is Democracy safe? What’s your answer? Sometimes getting answers is like pulling teeth.

Street indicts Obama here in his own version of the Muller Report. There “Barry” was throughout 2008 campaigning as the Hope and Change candidate, his confident, buoyant steps, lifting all votes, and
filling our sails with luff and inspiration. When he said, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” some of us lefties looked at each wondering what that meant, and passed around the helium bong, funning and stuffing like it was 1969, love and pipe bombs in the air. By the time we got to Denver, we were sure that not only would be getting our first Black president, but a whole new hip way of regarding the master-slave dialectic. Like Hegel once said, and said again, we need each other. Hug?

Street reminds us that Obama wrapped himself in iconography: Ali, MLK, Mandela. He writes,

Obama relished the imagery of a fierce fighter: the charismatic Ali’s decimation of Liston, who was emblematic of the ghettoized Black population that had long made Obama uncomfortable.

Turns out that Obama’s signature strut was more the rope-a-dope Ali of later years than the Clay who made Liston pay in 1965; Street makes a convincing argument that Obama was no street-fighting man. Ever.

As far as Obama’s drawing inspiration from MLK goes, Street laughs at the idea: MLK, he reminds us, was a “democratic socialist”; his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech was the culmination of a march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It came three months after an August march in Birmingham against segregation that saw more than 1000 Blacks brutally arrested, including one woman taken down by five cracker cops, one of whom had her neck pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.

Obama, Street argues, is a Corporatist (not even a liberal), and did next to nothing to promote jobs for Blacks, and bears a legacy that saw him intensely prosecute whistleblowers and reporters (including Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen), and extend the Surveillance State. MLK was a Nobel-winning man of peace, Obama used his undeserved Nobel Peace Prize speech to promote casus belli.

And though Obama was wont to do Nelson Mandela’s little stage shuffle, and said he was Woke by Madiba — driven to politics by Mandela’s courageous leadership in ending South Africa’s fascist Apart-Hate system — he didn’t go to visit South Africa as president until 2013, five years in. He made a show of visiting Robben Island and the cell in which Mandela called home for 18 of his 27 years, in prison. But, the 94 year old Mandela was hospitalized and too ill for visitors. Obama promised to close Gitmo; it’s still open. In his strategy o fight Terrorism, Obama switched from such problematic detention to droning to death suspected illegal enemy combatants where they lived, which, ironically, reminds one of the film, District 9. Although, as a bonus irony, Obama is responsible for the immigrant children’s “cages” on the Mexican border — ask Snopes.

Even later, Obama might have drawn a parallel between his own life and, say, South African Trevor Noah and the childhood he describes in his memoir Born a Crime — a reference to being the love product of a Black man and a white woman. Their union was illegal. And one could argue that the birther conspiracy that emerged later was driven by the same kind of Apart-Hate (Jim Crow) anti-miscegenation white angst that Trump championed and rose to power from. Street writes, “Obama’s failure to punch back in a meaningful, forceful, and timely fashion has been all-the-more disturbing given Obama’s deep complicity in Trump’s ascendancy.”

At first, Street’s speed bag work on Obama’s legacy seems excessive. Politics in America has been moving farther to the Right for at least 60 years, and there’s rarely been a time when we weren’t either engaged in full scale war or covertly intervening in the governments of other nations. Technically, we’re still at war on the Korean peninsula. A warrior nation is a conservative nation. And over that period of time more and more citizens will have served the military, bringing its regimental thinking to political decisions. Defense and national security take precedence, much of the national budget is drained that way, what’s left is further siphoned by corporate welfare; we the people get to sop up the soup sauces remaining. The question is: Who will stop this MIC madness before we descend into climate change hell?

The real Question Street seems to be asking is: How did we end up with Trump? Like many millions of us, we just can’t get past the reality of his presidency. Street curses. “The deadly clown.” “The demented oligarch.” “The self-described Chosen One.” “The indecent beast Trump.” “The beastly Donald.” We could hold a contest. But what’s truly “sad” is that such name-calling is what Trump excels at, and engaging in it, as we feel we must, lowers our collective IQs. You can almost see how Hitler did it with his malleable Good Germans. How did Trump come to be? For Street, the answer is Obama, Obama, Obama, “the cringeworthy Obama.”

There was newly elected Obama one minute, bright and bouncy, lifting us all up with that gleaming smile (he even looks a bit like Mandela, we noted), and then — pop! — something snapped, and we found ourselves free-fallin’, criminals on Wall Street busted our colorful laughing gas balloons, and, even before he was inaugurated, Obama had an emergency: banks had made a grave mistake handing out balloon filled loans to Black Americans, so that they could feel they were movin’ on up, at a thousand feet a minute, to the Eastside, finally getting a piece of that pie in the sky. More racism. They were gamed; they might as well have joined a pyramid scheme. Anger from Obama? What would Ali, MLK or Mandela do? Unh-uh.

Street describes Obama as a wolf-of-Wall-Street in sheep’s clothing (and probably synthetic at that). It’s astonishing:

The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown…The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread, expecting that the new president would be angry at their monumental negligence and criminality, ready to initiate massive financial reform… Rather than stand up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor—Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.

Imagine borrowing millions to play poker in Vegas, losing it all, bringing instant terror to the hearts of lenders, and having a rich uncle intercede and replenish the chips (and then some). Then it turns out: They knew you’d rescue them.

That was awesome and shocking enough, but then you read what he actually told them, and all pretense that he was stuck between the proverbial proverbials disappears. Street jaw-drops this:

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama told the financial oligarchs. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” [Emphasis added.]

O, bummer. And then Larry Summers, student of Robert Rubon’s banking deregulation policies, came along to help him set up the TARP bailout.

Margaret Kimberley over at Black Agenda Review shrugs angrily in her piece, “Why Barack Obama is the More Effective Evil,” essaying that we should have all seen it coming: She did. Kimberley cites Obama’s feints and footwork, and how he looked up against the ropes, going back to his Senate days, when he was being groomed, as if by bankers with self-inflating balloon loans. Hit me:

That was always Wall Street’s expectation of Obama, and his promise to them. That’s why they gave him far more money in 2008 than they gave John McCain….

They invested in Obama to protect them from harm, as a hedge against the risk of systemic disaster caused by their own predations. And, it was a good bet, a good deal. It paid out in the tens of trillions of dollars.

Naturally, as commander-and-chief, Obama also extended his largesse to the military budget and presided over the Surveillance State and the militarization of the Internet.

Obama’s signature legislative initiative was the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), which was meant to allay the fears of millions of Americans without adequate health coverage. But it’s done anything but that. Street shakes his head,

Obama claimed, too, that “We finally declared that in America, health care is not a privilege for a few, but a right for everybody,” ignoring the fact that Obamacare left several million Americans without insurance or affordable care, and kept the nation saddled with an absurdly expensive, poorly performing, and savagely unequal health care system largely because of the program’s commitment to private health insurance, drug companies, and the broad for-profit medical industrial complex.

In short, he’s just another liar and Con Artiste (now with Charm™).

If we still had doubts, Obama’s NAFTA and TPP work, without any real public input, maybe because there were few explanations of their workings and commitments, left no doubt. But maybe the biggest head-scratcher was Obama’s attempts to toss away entitlements in place since FDR. Street seethes:

“Wall Street Barry” further demonstrated his “dollar value” by offering the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for, as part of his “Grand Bargain” extended during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at this point that hundreds of thousands of mostly young Americans demonstrated that they had had enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power.”

Occupy Wall Street followed. And while we’re at it, why is it nobody has yet nicked the balls of Wall Street’s charging bull? Seems like a no-brainer. Imagine if Abbie had tossed those bad boys down in the broker mosh pit that time instead of money.

Why Trump now? Because Obama then, the biggest sell-out since Benedict Arnold took his talents to the Redcoats, after wondering aloud from Jamaica, when he heard poor Crispus Attucks had taken one for the team in Boston town, “Good God, are the Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers, that they don’t take immediate vengeance on such miscreants.” Are you listening, Lefties? Even Benedict Arnold is perplexed by our millennial words. George “Crispus Attucks” Floyd down and all we can do is Atticus-up with antifa mockingbird poems and the fire next time. Damn. We should be throwing the Tea Party into the Harbor.

Street brings in all kinds of people to critically appraise and analyse the deeper meaning of all the Obama years and beyond, such as philosopher Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, and Black scholar William A. Darity, Jr.’s essay “How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans.” But for my money, the best sum-up of the damage Obama has wrought and the consequent inevitability of Trump’s ascension is Conor Friedersdorf’s 2014 Atlantic piece, “The Decline and Fall of ‘Hope and Change’.” In it, Friedersdorf laments,

[Obama’s] bygone promises to run “the most transparent administration in history” are a subject of mockery, given how often he has invoked the state-secrets privilege and permitted national-security officials in his administration to actively mislead the public.

Obama’s administration was ”transparent” the way Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty was “journalistic.”

And speaking of journalism, while Street doesn’t press it, Obama’s unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to pursue whistleblowers and his seeming vendetta against Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen (now at The Intercept) and other journalists is directly responsible for the peril that Julian Assange is in now. Obama overclassified everything, making countless, otherwise innocuous documents, “leaked” to the Press criminal, and set the stage for the cold shoulder Democrats give to Wikileaks today — this exposing the Democrats for what they are. Indeed, the Democrat Party should be officially renamed the Corporate Party. There is no longer a party that has an ear to the People’s needs and desires. There’s the military party and the corporate party (MIC).

Obama, despite the Wall Street meltdown, was gifted with Democrat majorities in both chambers of Congress. He could’ve got stuff done for the People. Instead, he cashed in. Street reckons that

the Obamas’ net worth has risen by a factor of more than thirty from when they entered the White House in 2009 (1.3 million dollars) to 2018 (at least 40 million dollars). This places them close to the top tenth of the upper One Percent.

He recently signed a $40m book deal to tell his ‘memoiristic’ story. By the time it comes out in 2021, who will give a shit?

Street spends quite a bit of time exposing the monster in the White House now, as if to make sure the reader fully understands the previous criminality of the Obama administration. We could start with the drone warfare, including the unprecendented murder of 16 year old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki who was taken out in Yemen at a roadside barbecue by a Predator drone — he didn’t see it coming, executed like a Jonas brother ogling one of Obama’s daughters. (Breaking Wind: As if to outdo Obama in evil, 8 year old American Nawar al-Awlaki was murdered in a U.S. commando attack in Yemen in 2017 that was ordered by President Donald Trump.) You could almost believe there’s some kind of symbiotic relationship between Obama and Trump, though played out in Trump’s inimitable cartoon fascist fashion.

So, Street brings us through what we already know about Trump’s first three years plus in office– his tear-down of MSM journalism regarding national politics to the point where it’s become a jumble of jingoes, japes, and white noise tabloid pettiness. “Fake News”? The Fucker-in-chief is not half wrong a lot of the time. (See Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. to get the low down.) We the people have no idea what’s really going on. The Press will rightly call Trump out on his ‘false’ claims of mail-in ballot fraud, but totally ignore the very real, documented instances of millions of Black votes tossed without counting that investigative journalist Greg Palast has detailed in his How Trump Stole 2020.

The Press doesn’t raise the issue of the Trump administration’s lifting of an Obama moratorium on gain-of-function viral research because of the fear it could start a pandemic. The Covid-19 virus was already spreading during the 2019-2020 Trump impeachment and follow-on Super Bowl in early February (that brought tens of thousands of people from around the country to Miami, perhaps, helping to spread Covid-19 — according to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, after the game.)

When George Floyd got murdered by police in Minneapolis, riots ensued. As Trump has continued to call the virus a hoax, seemingly even after he contracts it and continues to hold live rallies without a mask (Herman Cain, a Black former GOP presidential contender, contracted Covid-19 at a Trump rally — and died.) The nation is in lockdown, but not in lockdown. And the monster in charge may be worse than the virus. Street quotes Noam Chomsky, who calls Trump “the most dangerous criminal in human history.”

Given what old Chomsky has seen over his lifetime, that’s saying something.

Where, implores Street, has Obama been in all this? (You’d think he’d at least have harangued Trump about his taxes to return the favor of the birther assault.) Enjoying a well-earned laissez-faire lifestyle, says Street. He concludes,

The “apocalypse” that Barack Obama told his staffers (as well as David Remnick) wasn’t coming with the ascendancy of Donald Trump has certainly come to America in 2020, if it didn’t already arrive at the beginning of Trump’s reign. Trump is a fascist death machine.

Oh, the horror, the horror of the apocalypse now.

And as far as Street is concerned, Joe Biden is an Obama travesty to — a Lesser Evil that Street reminds us doesn’t even know what room he’s in half the time. And it just can’t be a good omen that Larry Summers is on the Biden campaign team. There’s another Wall Street bubble ahead, but, damn, Trump has already bailed them out with the Covid emergency funds — trillions. Americans went along with it because Congress chucked in a measly $1200 bucks for citizens. First they bust our balloons; now they want to bust our bubbles. Nuff said.

Well, it’s like ol’ Lawn Chair Larry said all those years ago, before he up and committed suicide, “A man can’t just sit around,” feeling all uplifted by Democracy and Freedom. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and be the anchor to your own dream, before it lifts away forever into the deep blues, with you waving goodbye. Or as dear Abbie, the Yippies, once said: “Democracy is not something you believe in; it’s something you do.”

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.