The New Ozymandias: Twilight Reflections on the Obama Presidential Center

Plan for Obama museum obelisk. Source: Obama Foundation.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poet and prophet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the blue-blooded Red who died 199 years ago, got it right about the proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC). Unless stopped by a last-ditch lawsuit, this exercise in out-of-control gigantism and egomania will turn Chicago’s historic and supposedly protected Jackson Park and the city’s southern lakefront – and maybe the cultural landscape as a whole – into a “colossal Wreck.” Time is running out; preliminary construction – or more precisely, destruction – is already in motion as of this writing.

As I’ve noted in a past CounterPunch article, the project itself is pointless, a hollow non-library without authentic administration files or artifacts, due to the Obama Foundation’s refusal to abide by federal limitations on the size and activities of a real presidential library. Hence, the monstrous centerpiece of the planned complex – a 235-foot tall tower that, in published plans, vaguely resembles a giant upraised cell phone – is in truth a Great Tower of Nothing, a monument to hubris, chutzpah and Chicago-style clout. This content- and function-free building, which rivals the Pyramid of Khufu in its brutal, enigmatic grandiosity, is set to be built on 20 acres torn from a 19th-century park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture. The vast monolith (plus side buildings and a 400-car parking garage) will be plunked down in the midst of a major flyway and crossing point for migrating birds. Its shopping-mall-sized concrete footprint will occupy land where once stood athletic fields, as well as hundreds of bird-sheltering, carbon-sequestering – and in some cases, awe-inspiring – old trees.

If all goes as planned – and here’s hoping it does not – a green and open space will be converted into a crowded and smog-laden tourist trap whose outstanding attraction, considering the absence of genuine presidential stuff, is bound to be its gift shop, selling facsimiles of facsimiles to slack-jawed consumers. Taxpayer money, and lots of it, will be used to tear up and replace Olmsted’s curving, graceful network of parkways, apparently in order to shoehorn in a PGA-caliber golf course on the site, which is located in a neighborhood where golf is not the pastime of choice for most residents. Or at least most residents now, before the OPC – which a witty friend of mine has dubbed “the Obamination” – is built, and the ugly and all-too-familiar process of neighborhood disruption and displacement begins in earnest.

So many things will have to be bulldozed to make the OPC possible: trees, streets, community participation (although a modest Community Benefits Agreement was finally passed by the City Council last year over the Obama Foundation’s stubborn opposition), National Archives and Records Administration rules, federal landmarks law and, most ominously, Chicago’s once-steadfast commitment to keeping its lakeshore “forever free and clear.” The Obama Foundation’s affirmative duty to consider “all feasible and prudent alternatives” to the historically and environmentally precious Jackson Park site has been brushed aside with Ozymandian arrogance. Critics of this ruinous plan, which makes future lakefront “development” all but inevitable, have been dismissed as nuisances, killjoys, Chicken Littles … and worse.

In a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed, Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett – the ex-president’s senior advisor and a high-powered Democratic Party insider – put on her best “sneer of cold command,” or at least of condescension. She slags opponents of the OPC –who in reality represent a panoply of neighborhoods, political tendencies and demographics – as knee-jerk reactionaries “trying to block progress,” the way Mitch McConnell and his right-wing cabal fought the progressive legislation to which, as chief executive, the staunchly centrist Obama lent his wobbly and lukewarm support. Those on the other side aren’t merely cranks: they are bigots and elitists, flouting the communal will of a great city and nation, as crystallized in “the representatives elected by Chicagoans to run the city, the federal agencies who approved the project, and the vast majority of South Side and Chicago residents who see the Obama Presidential Center as a symbol of what we collectively accomplished when we elected the first Black president.”

This is reverse dog-whistling, implicitly labeling as racist anyone who disagrees with any action contemplated by Barack Obama, whether it’s healthcare reform or, in this case, the vanity-driven vandalization of Chicago’s lakefront, the city’s ultimate asset. And it’s also just plain petty and silly: Goliath whining that David’s use of a slingshot to defend himself is mean and unfair. From Day One, the skids have been greased for the OPC, with public debate about the Jackson Park land grab systematically squelched, and the City Council, corporate media and federal regulatory agencies pressured to go along with this Teflon-coated fait accompli. As Pulitzer Prize-winning local muckraker Jamie Kalven wrote in response to Jarrett’s high-handed Tribune piece, what Jarrett characterizes as public support for the OPC “is actually for many a combination of respectful deference to the Obamas and uneasy resignation to what they perceive is a done deal that they have no means to influence.” (Kalven is also a plaintiff to the Hail Mary lawsuit from the Protect Our Parks group, the tiny but tenacious organization that, together with retired attorney/environmentalist Charlotte Adelman, has spearheaded resistance to has spearheaded resistance to the OPC.)

On a deeper level, though, the proposed Obama monument is in fact the perfect emblem of what was achieved by the Obama presidency, which always tended toward show over substance. The OPC is a symbol symbolizing symbolism, a postmodern extravaganza built on a gee-whiz scale that only serves to amplify its irrelevance. The tower’s gleaming emptiness echoes Obama’s own soaring, cliché-ridden rhetoric, rich in uplifting abstraction and lacking in edge and specificity. It is meet and fitting that a president who situated himself above and beyond the sharp-elbowed reality of politics, who delicately finessed bottom-line questions of class and power, is memorializing himself with a purely decorative pseudo-library that scrupulously avoids contact with unvarnished actuality and passively discourages substantive and potentially critical research.

Lacking any scholarly justification, the center can best be seen as a bloated feel-good exercise aimed at bolstering the shaky confidence and self-esteem of latter-day American liberalism, which long ago lost its political and ethical bearings. Having severed its connection to the concrete, human-size concerns of labor and the working class, the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party retreats into the hyped-up, mythologized world of celebrity culture, recasting its cautious, calculating, conviction-free avatar as a dashing superhero out of the Marvel Universe: the Incredible Post-racial Man! As Obama’s modest virtues are inflated to titanic proportions, so his legacy comes to be ensconced not in a useful, standard-issue presidential library, but rather a sprawling, gaudy Obamaland, a garish blemish on the shoreline that owes more to carnival barker P.T. Barnum than to city planner Daniel Burnham.

If built as planned, the OPC will signify Barack Obama’s final exit from the realm of politics and history into pure, Hollywood-style spectacle. It befits a man who, in Naomi Klein’s words, is “the first U.S. president who is also a superbrand … an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts.” Back in 2010, Klein presciently wondered “what will happen when the throngs of Obama faithful [realize] that they gave their hearts not to a movement that shared their deepest values but to a devoutly corporatist political party”? Now, in the post-Trump era, seven months after the attempted fascist takeover of the Capitol, it’s worth considering Klein’s answer to her own query: “[The] response will be waves of bitter cynicism, particularly among the young people for whom the Obama campaign was their first taste of politics.”

The building of the Jackson Park center, if it does proceed, will produce its own cynical backlash, as Chicagoans – and in particular Black Chicagoans – come to see the extent to which they’ve been hoodwinked. Embodying not so much change we can believe in as a status quo that the One Percent can profitably invest in, the OPC’s looming Tower of Nothing will serve as a talisman of regentrification, encouraging real estate churn and rising rents. Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation’s executive cadre talks up the worthy cause of diversity and inclusion – but in distinctly bourgeois tones.

We hear this contradiction loud and clear in Valerie Jarrett’s Tribune statement, which attempts to distract from the structural problems that the OPC will only worsen with a specious appeal to identity politics. We learn from her that the hulking, awkward, bird-killing Tower of Nothing is to be designed by a woman! That the contractors assembling this engine of ethnic cleansing – which will “strengthen [the] vitality of Jackson Park” – shall be “half diverse”! And that the whole question of 21st-century urban renewal and speculation and rising property taxes is not a problem at all: it’s a matter of “access to generational wealth creation”! Who could be opposed to that? Only perhaps the tenants who predominate in the area, who tend to worry more about paying growing utility bills than accumulating dynastic surplus, and who for the most part experience mounting property values not as money in the bank, but rather as an increase in daily hardship and a decrease in the kind of diversity that matters to struggling urbanites, i.e., the socioeconomic kind. The predictable result of all this righteous representation will be an accelerating rate of decrease of Chicago’s Black population, which during the past decade dropped by almost 10 percent, and over the past 40 years has gone from almost 1.2 million to under 800,000 – a decline of more than one third over the course of a single generation.

For the largely low- to moderate-income African-American population of Woodlawn and South Shore, the OPC is a poisoned chalice, an ego-tripping gesture by a preening superstar that expresses only contempt for the hard-pressed, really existing community he hopes someday to peer down upon from his gilded sky-high perch. In honoring the selfish and destructive whim of a local hero, the neighborhood – which has had little input and exercised no real leverage – dishonors itself. Eventually the realization will hit and hit hard that the OPC is a monument not to Black pride, but to yuppie entitlement. (Happily, there are signs – such as the exceedingly close Fifth Ward aldermanic election in 2019, which turned on the incumbent’s too-warm support for the OPC – that local residents are waking up to the 23-story-high con job taking shape in their midst.)

Other writers – including progressive attorney and publisher Leonard Goodman in a recent CounterPunch – have capably argued the legal case against the proposed sacrifice of Jackson Park and the South Side lakefront to the glittering nullity that is the OPC. My point is less lawyerly and more philosophical, historical and aesthetic. To state it plainly, there is a fundamental indecency to the project’s scope and concept, to its toxic mixture of bullying aggressiveness and brute indifference. If the OPC is executed as planned, it is likely to inspire not so much reverence and respect for a pioneering political figure as a surly resentment against the power and privilege of the billionaire class. For it is the parasitic plutocracy – which under Obama did just fine, thank you – that is bankrolling this example of conspicuous waste and naked corruption, this private effort of dubious benefit built upon prime public land leased at the advantageous crony capitalism rate of 99 years for $10.

It wasn’t the little people meekly offering their widow’s mite that produced $171 million in contributions last year, as the pandemic shut down much of the economy. Even the OPC-backing Chicago Sun-Times admits that the Obama Foundation is “increasingly dependent on big gifts from corporations and other foundations.” It was back in 2014, when Barack Obama was still very much in office, that he began to engage in philanthropic fundraising, a technically legal form of bribery or perhaps extortion perfected by the Clintons. Since then, the Obama Foundation has collected a jaw-dropping total of $720 million.

As the wealth piles up, so do projected costs; the foundation now reports it will need $1.6 billion to accomplish its hazy, personality cult of a mission. Where will this money go? Much of it of course to tearing up and paving over the western edge of Jackson Park, and a good deal to salaries, as the foundation’s CEO and executive director, possessors of the sweetest of sinecures, are together paid in excess of $1.1 million per annum. The rest will go to undisclosed and no doubt undistinguished programming and also to grants, as the Obama Foundation, funded by other foundations, channels dribs and drabs of cash to local churchy causes – such as the New Life Centers for Chicagoland and the Lawndale Christian Legal Center – in a transparent bid to purchase allies among the Black pastorate.

It all adds up to as distasteful a landmark as we are likely to see, a colossal concrete slab that desecrates Olmsted’s civilizing vision of a brash young western metropolis, still rough around the edges, embracing and embellishing its natural setting between lake and prairie. Olmsted believed that for Chicago – then aptly nicknamed “Porkopolis” – to become a livable city, it needed a verdant and inviting front yard open to all. If all goes as planned, that civic commons will be partly enclosed by a campus whose bigger-is-better design philosophy is as jingoistic as Mount Rushmore, and exudes the same sour aroma of American exceptionalism, imperial overreach and general decline. This is the architecture of rampant oligarchy, multi-millionaires and megalomania. It will serve, in a final bit of irony, as the crowning monument of the Age of Trump. With its Vegas-style crassness, the OPC will be a Trump Tower for liberals.

What an unpropitious moment this is for expensive gestures of vapid triumphalism! As the Obama Foundation attempts to swat away the litigation blocking the path of its non-library – which is almost exactly as tall as the more pleasing but equally imperious Taj Mahal – the Midwestern sky is tainted by the haze of distant West Coast forest fires, and killing summer temperatures have become normal as the global climate crisis reaches the point of no return. COVID-19 rages on despite the availability of vaccines that tens of millions of Americans – for reasons that cannot be clearly articulated – choose not to get, and which are denounced by clearly crazy, “Q”-heeding Republican legislators as the “Fauci Ouchie.” Gun violence rages on in Chicago and elsewhere but cannot be addressed because of deeply held, quasi-religious beliefs that our nation’s private arsenal of 400 million guns makes us safe, and that the daily carnage on the streets (including over 200 mass shootings in Chicago over the past five years, producing over a thousand victims and a grand total of two convictions) is the price of freedom. Over all looms the shadow of Trump and Fox and their dark yahoo legions. On none of these questions – or any other, really – is Barack Obama, the image-conscious rich manwhose only cause now is himself, willing to court controversy by making a statement.

In the context of our times, Barack Obama’s grotesquely opulent Tower of Nothing seems more and more a mausoleum for reason and sanity, an appropriately prodigal and tasteless marker of human failure in the face of a collapsing world. Before one single brick has been laid atop another, the proposed OPC, with its bone-deep narcissism and morbidity, already comes off as an Ozymandian ruin, a failed, embarrassing attempt at unearned immortality. If constructed, it will serve as a shrine not to a figure already fading from historical memory, but rather to a corrupted culture that has little use for truth and authenticity, and to a society that makes media attention rather than real achievement, and charisma rather than character, the final measure of worth.

A testament to slick opportunism and fanatical self-promotion, the Obama Presidential Center and its Great Tower of Nothing reveal a mental and spiritual emptiness and decadence as “boundless and bare” as Shelley’s allegorically stark desert scene. Look on and despair, indeed.

Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, critic and satirist. He can be reached at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.  

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