Revolution#142, September 7, 2008
On Obama’s Nomination:
The Change You Believe In—
And The Change You’ll Get
You bitterly opposed the Bush wars, and maybe you demonstrated against them, but you got discouraged...and you’ve felt heartsick and impotent as those wars grind on...
You wept or raged over the murder of Sean Bell, or the hanging of lynching ropes, wondering when and how justice for Black people could ever come when American racism is so very deep...
You watched as Bush filled the government with followers of his fanatically ignorant crusading brand of Christianity...you looked on in horror at the stripping away of what you thought were fundamental rights...you witnessed torture being legalized, and heard first one group then another—yesterday gay people, today immigrants—being demonized, and you’ve wondered: "are we heading toward fascism?"...
You want equality for women, and you get furious every time you hear of a new move against abortion and now, yes, even birth control, as traditional values are restored with a vengeance...
Then you heard Obama talk about change. It was a little vague, but you let yourself hope. Now, after the convention, you’re a little euphoric...but at the same time, something gnaws at you, something doesn’t feel quite right.
But you say to yourself something like this: a Black man, after all these years, nominated for president. That’s got to mean change, doesn’t it? And everywhere at the convention, there was Obama’s slogan—"change you can believe in."
Maybe it’s time to pause and ask a little deeper about the content of this promised change. Maybe it’s time to listen to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in depth, and take a sober look at where he says he’ll lead you.
* * *
"Obama showed his toughness." That was the unanimous verdict from the commentators on Obama’s acceptance speech. Obama said that "as commander-in-chief I will never hesitate to defend this nation," and even more to the point aggressively went after John McCain for not having the "temperament and judgment to be the next commander-in-chief."
Now let’s be clear on John McCain. McCain’s "great accomplishment" was to fly a jet high over the rice fields of Vietnam and drop terribly destructive and horrific bombs on farmers and children, over and over again, with no twinge of conscience. No one knows how many people McCain personally killed in Vietnam, but the death toll of the totally unprovoked American invasion of that country is generally acknowledged to top two million people. Contrary to the endless professions of "respect" for John McCain by Obama and the rest of the Democrats, this guy is nothing more than a contemptible war criminal. Today McCain insists on being even more brutal and aggressive in Iraq.
This is who Obama professes deep respect for—but implies is not "tough enough."
Is that the change you want? To shift troops out of Iraq...and into Afghanistan—as Obama has called for? Afghanistan, where just last week the government charged U.S. troops with having killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, in a raid. Further along in his acceptance speech, Obama issued a call to "protect Israel and deter Iran"—and then taunted McCain for "just...talking tough in Washington" instead, we can only presume, of taking more "action." Obama’s selection of the long-time Israel backer Joe Biden for vice president was also designed, in part, to make clear his credentials on that. Is that the change the world needs—an Israel unleashed by the U.S. to be even more aggressive and bloodthirsty in the Middle East?
As part of this whole theme, Obama hammered again and again on patriotism, on the so-called "American promise," and on how the U.S. is the "last, best hope" for people the world over who want freedom, peace, and a better future. In reality, from Guatemala to Iraq to Angola and beyond, those phrases translate as "watch out, we’re about to get bombed and slaughtered." This "last best hope" exploits the labor and sucks the resources out of the entire planet. This "last best hope" has initiated and presided over military coups, proxy wars, and direct invasions in scores of countries around the globe in just the past 60 years, since World War 2, that have taken a toll well into the millions. This "last best hope" is the ONLY nation ever to use nuclear bombs, and has several times since threatened to plunge the world into nuclear warfare to protect what it deems to be its interests. This "last best hope" is not just a nation with high ideals which somehow has gone astray into an unfortunate imperialist "policy"; it is an imperialist system, driven to expand or die. And the only real "American promise" is that "all options are on the table" when it comes to raining down destruction on anyone who gets in its way.
But don’t take our word for it. Go google Pat Buchanan’s response to Obama’s speech on YouTube. Pat Buchanan, you may remember, wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He’s an open white supremacist and a viciously anti-immigrant reactionary who writes books sounding the alarm about how America is not white enough, and not Christian enough, and thus in danger of losing the social cohesion it needs to protect its empire.1 And there on MSNBC was Pat Buchanan himself, gushing about how this is the greatest convention speech he ever heard, how this was "not at all a liberal speech," and pointing in particular to this passage as the capstone:
I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America—they have served the United States of America.
Ask yourself why someone like Pat Buchanan is gushing like that. This is the rhetoric that leads people to fight and kill for imperialism. Is this the change that you believe in?
* * *
During the primary campaign, Obama gave a speech about racism in America, and referred to the country’s "shameful past." In fact, Obama soft-pedaled the actual history and current-day oppression of Black people in that speech, covering over the depth of the roots of white supremacy and posing a false and actually deadly solution to it.2 But what was most striking about Obama’s acceptance speech was how little he said about this foundational division in American society...and how vicious was the content of what he did say.
Even the video about Obama’s life that played before the speech seemed to leave out Black people. His speech itself detailed many of the problems facing ordinary people of all nationalities in America—the lack of decent health care, the terrible state of education for most children, the seriously bad problems in housing and jobs, and so on. But Obama did not see fit to mention, even once, the ways in which racial discrimination makes all these problems much worse for Black people. Nor did he mention, even once, the particular forms of oppression "reserved" for Black people, and other minority nationalities. He didn’t mention the ways in which the criminal justice system warehouses young Black men in jail...the ways in which Black, and other oppressed nationality, men—and women—are routinely harassed and often brutalized and yes killed by the police...and the ways in which these same youth are demonized in the culture.
He said, in fact, two things about this most fundamental question of America. The first was this:
Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.
Does Obama really think that turning off the television will bring back the steel mills to the inner city, the loss of which he actually mentioned earlier in his speech? Does Obama really believe that parents getting up early to make their kids do their homework will make any difference in a system that is designed to fail—when these schools have been de-funded and left to rot and turned into virtual prisons?3
It is a lie most cruel to blame the people themselves for failing to make it in a system that was designed to keep them down. But Barack Obama, as did his wife Michelle in her speech earlier in the week, did exactly this. Yes, he (and she) talked about extending helping hands. But this was very secondary to their continued hammering on the theme that in America, if you work hard, and if your family maintains traditional roles, "you can make it." The subtext—and sometimes it is made explicit, usually by others—is that "if the Obamas made it, well, so can every other Black person, if they would just work harder. And if they don’t, they have only themselves to blame."
The reality, as Bob Avakian has said, is this:
Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that "the meatgrinder works"!4
As if to drive this point home, Obama made one more reference to the oppression of Black people toward the end of his speech—this to the march on Washington for civil rights that took place 45 years to the day before his acceptance speech. While it’s now been erased from history, as Malcolm X pointed out, the 1963 march began as a grassroots protest against the howling injustices being perpetrated against Black people, but then got taken over by more respectable forces and turned into something else.5 To show how far this takeover went, every single speech at that march was edited by the White House—and John Lewis, then of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and now a prominent Congressman, was forced to change his! But Obama’s point in evoking this event was to point to Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech of that day, and to say:
The men and women who gathered [at that march] could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred.
But what the people heard instead...is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.
Obama in this case is right; that is what the people were told (again, as approved by the White House). But what people increasingly learned in the years that followed is that the one thing the "destiny" of America was "inextricably linked" to was its roots as a grotesque amalgam of genocide, slavery, and capitalism. That the so-called American dream rested on the dispossession and near-extermination of Native American Indians and the enslavement of Africans, and then the further extension of that system and those values around the continent, and then into the world through imperialist wars. That these roots ran deep into the foundation of this country, and that a few reforms were not going to touch the conditions of the masses of Black people, or the basic overall character of this society. That people would have to break out of the confines of bourgeois politics if they were going to get anywhere. That the ways in which Black people sometimes vented their anger and despair against each other, including the toll that took (and still takes) within the family, had more to do with the grinding stresses of white supremacy combined with relations and values inculcated by this system than with any individual’s failings. That radical fundamental change would be needed to actually achieve real freedom—and that in the course of fighting for that revolutionary change, and only in the course of fighting for that kind of change, people could transform their outlooks and rid themselves of the many different forms of the dog-eat-dog mentality and morality that capitalism generates and reinforces and then feeds on.
The movement that arose at that time accomplished tremendous things, even though it did not succeed in breaking through and making revolution. But that setback does not change the reality that revolutionary change is needed—and it does not change the even deeper reality as to why this change is possible and can be done.
If you’re for Obama, and reading this paper, you very likely agree with at least large parts of what we just said above about this society and the historic oppression of Black people, and their present-day situation in this system. But Obama is saying something diametrically opposed to what you understand and believe, and it was sharply concentrated in his speech. Read it again, with unclouded eyes. He is putting the blame for the ongoing oppression faced by the masses of Black people on the masses themselves. He is telling people who want to end this injustice that the only way forward is to essentially stop fighting this oppression in its own right, and to put their trust in American patriotism. And he is in effect telling those who are indifferent to this oppression, or even feel that they benefit from it and even "partake of it," that they need not bother their conscience with it.
Ask yourself again—is that the change we need? Do you want a society where a Black president is used to tell people who are righteously angry over the outrages which again and again are visited on Black people to put aside the "anger and discord," to turn off the TV, and to work harder?
Is that the change that you believe in? Because that is the change you are in danger of getting.
* * *
The commentators congratulated Barack Obama for saying very little about the so-called "social issues"—the oppression of women, concentrated in the relentless attempts to end abortion and even birth control; the oppression of gay people, including the denial of their right to marry; the demonization and repression of immigrants; and so on.
In this part of the speech, the combative "take-it-to-McCain-with-the-gloves-off" persona suddenly evaporated. He did NOT pledge to defend the right to abortion, but talked instead about reducing unwanted pregnancies. He did NOT talk about the rights of gay people to marry—which Obama opposes anyway—but of their rights to visit partners in hospitals (which McCain also supports). He did NOT talk about why immigrants are driven here to seek work, and why their rights and humanity must be upheld and defended, but only that mothers should not be separated from their children—and that "illegal" workers must not be hired.
This single paragraph in his 40-plus-minute speech directly followed his paean to patriotic sacrifice in war and was framed by the need, in Obama’s words, to restore "our sense of common purpose" in America in the face of the "challenges" and "tough choices" of the present. In other words, Obama argued that these questions—that is to say, the rights of women, gay people and immigrants—must be subordinated to the need for "national unity" at a time when aggression is going to be carried out in Afghanistan and very possibly Iran, and almost certainly other places (note well that Obama also talked of "curb[ing] Russian aggression" in his speech and in earlier debates had advanced the idea of unilaterally taking military action in Pakistan).
This followed Obama’s performance at the evangelical preacher Rick Warren’s theocratic circus a mere week before the convention. Over 5 million people watched on television as Obama joined with McCain in their first appearance on the same stage for a public vetting by the Ayatollah of Orange County. Yes, we know, Rick Warren has a jolly unassuming manner; he hides his fangs much more skillfully than Pat Robertson. But Rick Warren is also a fanatic who says that abortion is murder, that the Biblical myth of creation should be taught instead of science in the schools, and that homosexuality is an "enormous sin"—just plain "sinful" is evidently not enough for him—and that therefore gay marriage should be forbidden.6 For "the candidate of change" to pay homage to Rick Warren—to effectively grant him the moderating rights of the real first presidential debate—is to legitimize this lunacy in a particular way that Bush or McCain could never accomplish.
And this outrageous circus was in turn followed by Michelle Obama’s convention speech which focused on the importance of the traditional patriarchal family with the roles of "working dad and stay-at-home" mom, linking this to patriotism (one commentator noted that Michelle Obama mentioned the word "America" at least 12 times); and then by Hillary Clinton—in what was billed as a "feminist speech"—who also did not even mention the right to abortion.
Listen: the right to abortion effectively does not exist in many places where abortion providers have been driven out by threats and outright murder, and that right is under relentless assault in the courts, including the Supreme Court, and the legislatures. Birth control itself has come into the sights of these theocrats and partriarchs, and these people are also demanding the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools. Public money is being used to fund religious projects—and Obama himself has come forward with his own proposal to increase that funding, while modifying it in some particulars. A new "social contract" is being written and signed right under your nose in which women are again relegated to Biblically-ordained traditional roles, and Biblical morality and epistemology is at minimum given a far larger legitimacy and place in society...and you are being told to go along with all that in the search of some unnamed "common purpose."
Is that the change you believe in?
* * *
Speaking at Mile High Stadium, Obama had two audiences. On the one hand, he was speaking to the masses. As such this was important; politicians do have to politically prepare people, through these campaigns, for how they are going to be ruled. But he was also speaking to different sections of, and players in, the ruling class of this country—the capitalist-imperialists. He was in a sense auditioning for them—would he be able to effectively win people to sacrifice? To drop their disaffection from the way things are and once more take up—and believe in—the tenets of American chauvinism? Would he be able to take the young people, the Black people, those who hate what has been done particularly by the Bush regime and saw in Obama a possible way out...would he be able to take them "one more step" along the path...back into the fold?
We have often cited the article by Andrew Sullivan7 in which he counsels the ruling class to support Obama. The range of options before the U.S. rulers is narrow, Sullivan argued, and Obama would be the best possible "face" on all the things that will have to be done in the service of American empire. This has a definite international dimension—as one commentator put it, referring to the crowd of 200,000 that came out in Germany to cheer Obama, the only way that Bush could get a crowd like that in Berlin would be if they were demanding that he be tried as a war criminal. And this has a "domestic" dimension: Obama, in the view of Sullivan and many others, is the candidate who can get people to put aside the just demands and the ideals that arose with such power in the 1960s and have never really gone away, who can wipe away what people learned at such a high cost, who can prepare a new generation for political life on terms that are at bedrock thoroughly conservative.
Obama would not rule in precisely the same way as McCain. That is not our point. What IS essential is that he would serve the same fundamental interests, and obey the same fundamental imperatives, as McCain. In line with that, Obama is also making the case to these rulers that his particular mix of aggression and negotiations, combined with his ability to "appeal to" people internationally and pacify the political scene at home, would be more effective than that of McCain in serving those interests and imperatives.
* * *
And that leaves you with a decision to make. If you look honestly at why you got drawn to Obama in the first place...and look just as honestly at the real message and implications of his speech...you will see that your own principles and ideals are being betrayed. This has been done subtly and gradually, but it has reached a certain undeniable stage with Denver. If you pour your energies, talents and hopes into this campaign, you will be effectively working against the best of your own beliefs.
This may be hard to take, but it is not—and cannot be taken as—a cause for despair, or an excuse to become inactive, or worst of all an occasion for a shrug of the shoulders and a giving in to the "realism" of a system in which it is always the values of justice and emancipation that are said to be unrealistic and where you capitulate to the "realism" of monsters. There is a battle to be waged against the very outrages that drew you to Obama in the first place, but which can never be ended by Obama and, indeed, will only be replicated by him.
There is no short-cut, but there is a road forward, however tortuous. There is the real possibility of revolution, which lives in reality and can be traced and connected within the pages of this newspaper every week. There is a revolutionary movement that is real. And there is a larger community of resistance, including those in Denver who went against the tide, spoke the truth, and stood up for what is just. These are the people you’ve been waiting for. Go join them.
1. See Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002) and Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005). [back]
2. See Revolution’s three-part series, "Response to Obama’s ‘Speech on Race,’" in issues #125 (April 6, 2008, revcom.us/a/125/obama-en.html), #127 (April 20, 2008, revcom.us/a/127/Obamapt2-en.html), and #130 (May 25, 2008, revcom.us/a/130/Obama-en.html) [back]
3. "NYC Public Schools and the Criminalization of the Students—What Kind of System Does This to Its Youth?," Revolution issue #93 (June 23, 2007, revcom.us/a/093/nypd-schools-en.html), and "U.S. Supreme Court Fortifies The Savage Inequalities," Revolution (June 15, 2007, revcom.us/a/095/supreme-court-en.html) [back]
4. Bob Avakian, "The ‘City Game’—and the City, No Game," Reflections, Sketches & Provocations (Chicago, RCP Publications, 1990). [back]
5. Malcolm X, "Message to the Grassroots," November 10, 1963 (available at xroads.virginia.edu/~Public/civilrights/a0147.html) [back]
7. See Andrew Sullivan, "Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters," The Atlantic, December 2007 (theatlantic.com/doc/200712/obama) and "Andrew Sullivan on Obama: The ‘Best Face’ For Imperialism, Revolution #118 (February 3, 2008, revcom.us/a/118/obama-en.html) [back]
"If you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are."
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, USA
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