Revolution #139, August 10, 2008
On The Nation’s Open Letter to Obama:
Wishful Thinking and Deadly Self-Deception
The August 18 issue of The Nation magazine published “Change We Can Believe In. An Open Letter to Barack Obama,” online at thenation.com.
The letter begins by congratulating Obama and extolling how, through his candidacy, “Hundreds of thousands of young people have entered the political process for the first time, African-American voters have rallied behind [Obama], and many of those alienated from politics-as-usual have been re-engaged.”
But they express concern that, “Since your historic victory in the primary, there have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance—including, most notably, your vote for the FISA legislation…”
While making clear that they “recognize that compromise is necessary in any democracy,” and “understand that the pressures brought to bear on those seeking the highest office are intense,” they advise Obama, “Retreating from the stands that have been the signature of your campaign will weaken the movement whose vigorous backing you need in order to win and then deliver the change you have promised.”
“People always were and always will be the foolish victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes.”
After listing some of Obama’s positions that they like and some that they don’t, they pledge: “If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don’t. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected President.”
The signatories to this letter are an impressive list of writers and intellectuals, a number of whom are respected tremendously as voices of conscience. But, this letter, and its whole logic and method, is very bad. Whatever their intent, those who put their names on it are wielding their influence to get people to join them in a deadly exercise in self-delusion.
On one level, the best response to this letter are the words of Obama himself. Answering accusations that he had “moved to the right” since securing the Democratic nomination, he said, “The people who say this haven’t apparently been listening to me.”
But since those who signed The Nation’s letter are serious people making a serious argument, and since this letter reinforces themes that are constantly hammered at people, it is important to say more.
The Poison of Wishful Thinking
One of the most insidious dangers of this letter is how it “softens” Obama’s politics, distorts the meaning of his campaign, and proceeds from what the writers wish were true rather than what actually is.
Take, for instance, the letter’s claim that Obama has “sketched out a vision of a better future, in which the United States sheds its warlike stance around the globe.”
In reality, what he has “sketched out” is a vision of massive escalation—to the tune of 10,000 more troops!—of the war in Afghanistan, a willingness to unilaterally use military force in Pakistan, and a refusal to rule out using nuclear weapons against Iran! Besides voting repeatedly to continue funding the war in Iraq, Obama has made clear that his criticisms of that war are out of a desire to strengthen the influence and domination of the U.S. in the world. Really, all this is much more than a “sketch”; Obama has put forward a very concrete program of imperialist domination for all to see and hear. . . and it doesn’t entail “shedding a warlike stance” any time soon.
Or take this letter’s description of Obama’s positions as “cautious and centrist.”
What exactly is “cautious and centrist” about voting for Bush’s FISA law sanctioning massive domestic wire-tapping and retroactively protecting those who violated the rights of millions to privacy? What is “cautious and centrist” about giving a bloodthirsty speech to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that essentially writes Israel a blank check and threatens Iran with war? What is “cautious and centrist” about blaming Black fathers, in his infamous Father’s Day speech, for the way this system has written off a whole generation of youth, unable and unwilling to provide jobs or decent education or any kind of future at all, and instead funneling 1 in 9 Black men into jail?! What is “cautious and centrist” about getting to the right of George Bush’s Supreme Court and arguing for even wider use of the death penalty? What is “cautious and centrist” about promising to expand Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative?!
If all this is “cautious and centrist,” I’d really hate to see “cynical and fascist”!
More to the point, sanitizing Obama’s positions in this way is dangerously similar to how the Pentagon refers to civilians murdered in unjust wars as “collateral damage”; it has the effect of numbing people to reality and making it easier for them to acquiesce to war crimes. What is particularly painful is that many of the letter signers have a commendable history of speaking plainly and insisting people confront the full horrors of the crimes of the government, but the logic of trying to make Obama into something he is not has led them away from this principle they have stood for.
The Need to Speak Honestly
It is essential to speak honestly and accurately about all this. Only by confronting reality as it actually is, can we determine how it can be transformed in ways that are both possible and desirable. Conversely, if we insist on deceiving ourselves—and worse yet, deceiving others—then we will continue to find ourselves standing by in impotent frustration as this country continues on its bloody, criminal course.
The reality is the situation is extremely dire. Millions on this planet, and many future generations, are imperiled because of what the U.S. government is doing in our names: the torture, the massive spying, the refusal to acknowledge or take meaningful action to stem global warming, the Gestapo-style round-ups of immigrants, the assaults on women’s most fundamental rights, the vicious resurgence of racism, and especially the wars.
Further, the reality is that all this was sanctioned and codified, not stopped or even slowed, through people’s participation in “politics-as-usual.”
To name just one example, in 2006 millions gave money, volunteered time, and voted for the Democrats out of a desire to see an end to the whole Bush trajectory. What did this “victory” lead to? A Congress that has voted six times to approve war funding, actively participated in covering up torture and protecting war criminals, and secretly funding covert military operations already afoot within Iran’s “sovereign” borders.
Is it any wonder that so many have become profoundly alienated from this shit?
And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Potentially, it is a profoundly good thing; but this alienation is far from enough, and left to itself will turn to cynicism, despair, and passivity. What is needed is for this to go further, and for these people to come forward in political resistance that is broad, deep, and determined enough to stop this whole direction.
In the face of this urgent need, why should anyone celebrate if Obama, holding the positions that he actually holds, “re-engages” these people back into the killing confines of his “politics-as-usual”? This is like congratulating the Pied Piper for how his beautiful flute-playing attracts the town’s children, disregarding that this is leading them to the bottom of a river.
But Doesn’t He HAVE to Listen?
But what of the letter’s argument that Obama has to listen to them because he cannot afford to “weaken the movement whose vigorous backing [he] needs in order to win...”?
Once again, perhaps the best answer to this comes from the candidate himself.
Responding to angry supporters who complained about his FISA vote, he wrote, “[S]ome of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That’s ok. But I think it is worth pointing out that our agreement on the vast majority of issues that matter outweighs the differences we may have.… Make no mistake: if John McCain is elected, the fundamental direction of this country that we love will not change.”
In other words, he knows full well that as long as people’s eyes are focused on Who’s Going To Be President progressive people have “no alternative” but to vote for him.
And, while the letter writers pledge to challenge Obama, if elected, on the positions they don’t agree with, the actual effect of their letter and their logic is to promise not to challenge Obama too much now. This is a logic echoed by all too many; as one prominent anti-war activist recently told me, explaining why her group wasn’t putting more effort into protests at the Democratic National Convention, “We’re going to shut the fuck up until he gets elected.” This is certainly NOT what the anti-war movement should be doing at a time when the rulers of the country are actively preparing a new war—a war against Iran that Obama has made clear he’d support.
You see, even as they criticize Obama for his FISA vote, already by the next paragraph the letter writers are smoothing this over by acknowledging that “compromise is necessary in any democracy… the pressures brought to bear on those seeking the highest office are intense.”
Well, that logic never ends.
Today, a FISA vote is excused “in order to get elected.” Next, a delay in troop withdrawal because “the Generals insist...” Soon people swallow more religiously-driven legislation and homilies to Jesus Christ because “he can’t get anything done” unless he “brings the country together.” Then, before you know it, further “compromises” so the Democrats hold their majority in the mid-term elections. Then, like a tape on loop, those same “pressures” will have to be accommodated to get him reelected.
Most fundamentally, those pressures must be understood for what they are: the operation and logic of the system Obama is competing to be commander-in-chief of. And if he wants to be selected president he has to prove himself capable of running this country in the interests of the class of capitalist/imperialists who rule.
That is why he is championing the so-called “war on terror” which, in its essence, is a war for imperialist domination. That is why he is photo-op-ing with Generals and singing the praises of troops who are neck-deep in war crimes. That is why he is meeting with, and by all accounts trying to win the approval of, people like Franklin Graham who once compared the Iraqi people to the ancient Babylonians of the Old Testament. That is why he directs his aim not at white supremacy but at Black men and admits he’s “not entirely immune to nativist sentiments” against immigrants.
On the Real
Let’s be real. In bourgeois elections what the masses of people think has precious little to do with how the candidates choose their positions or which candidate wins. By the time the people get to pull the lever on election day, the terms have been set—which candidates and issues and stands are viable contenders has been determined—according to ruling class interests. And when they do vote, all they are doing is stamping those ruling interests—as embodied in one candidate or another—with the mantle of legitimacy and a “popular mandate.”
If the people who wrote this open letter don’t know that, they should. But what is really unconscionable is that this “Open Letter to Barack Obama” is not going to be heard and considered by Obama—he is more likely to blow his nose with it than to take such a thing seriously. But it will be heard and considered by those who are extremely alienated and angry with the government, who seized on the Obama candidacy as a source of hope, and who are now disillusioned as Obama articulates an increasingly unapologetic imperialist agenda.
These people don’t need to be funneled back into the dead-end of politics-as-usual, they need to be told the truth:
The real choice is not a choice between Obama and McCain. The real choice is between accepting the ruling class spectrum of Obama to McCain as the limits of what is possible—or—rejecting this whole framework and instead waging meaningful mass political resistance to the whole fascist direction the world is being dragged in. It is the difference between fighting for the change you ARE ALLOWED to believe in and the change that you understand is really needed.
Yes, political resistance of a scale and scope that could bring all this to a halt is more daunting and requires more sacrifice. But, if you want genuine change then nothing is more unrealistic than confining yourself to pulling the lever.
It is long past time people put their hope in something that can bring about change worth believing in: the power of the people acting in the interests of humanity. The people do have the power to effect change when they refuse to hold their tongues out of electoral calculations and get off their butts and go into the streets.
It is a very good thing—not a bad thing, as The Nation implies—that millions are deeply angry and profoundly alienated not just by the Bush regime but also increasingly by Obama. Many of them are casting about, wondering if there is another way. Many of them will join in resistance if they see it as an option.
All of their eyes—and millions more around the world—will be at the Democratic National Convention.
Instead of trying to convince them that what is going on inside should be accepted, shouldn’t we tell them the truth about what this represents? Shouldn’t we bend every effort to ensure they see thousands of protesters OUTSIDE making clear their refusal to swallow war-mongering and repression regardless of which candidate or party is pushing it?
And, to those who are ready to give up on banging your hearts and your heads up against the “best” that capitalism can offer; shouldn’t we go further still? Shouldn’t we get into the questions of our times that really demand answers, like what kind of society you are willing to live in and what kind of change is really required. Is it simply a matter of making adjustments to the blood-soaked arrangements of empire or do we urgently need fundamental and radical change?
To those who wonder if a better world—a future really worthy of human beings—is possible; I dare you to dream of revolution. And I invite you to explore—through the pages of this newspaper and the works of Bob Avakian—a viable vision of what that is, and to engage the leadership that can point the way.
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