by Jason Hirthler
Delusions of the Liberal Intelligentsia
As we head into The Chosen One’s second term, it might be useful to explode a few of the chronic myths that cling to the man more tightly than his shadow. Myths that have helped liberal intelligentsia justify its enthusiastic support for this lesser of two evils. Here are the myths as articulated by a young, imaginary, and starry-eyed Obama progressive, momentarily detached from the stampeding liberal herd, just long enough to have a conversation with a leftist on the political fringe…
Myth 1. Now look, Obama wants nothing more than global peace, but Iran is a nation of madcap mullahs looking to nuke Tel Aviv. We have to do something.
Obama is definitely not a peace advocate—unless by peace you mean: peace on our terms. That means a disarmed, defanged, and docile Iran with mullahs in exile and puppet doyen in ascendancy. We take with Iran the same line that Israel takes with the Palestinians. Sure, we want peace—on our terms. Meaning the less Arabs in Jerusalem the better. Meaning a Bantustan province with notional national status. A series of tidy little prison camps strung together by gauntlets of IDF troops. So peaceful at night you can hear the safety switches at the security checks clicking off.
The administration’s posture on Iran has already violated international law—using open threats and coding a few others. (Everybody knows what “all options are on the table” means.) Our sanctions amount to economic warfare visited on little children who can’t define the word sanction. Iran has done nothing wrong. They are within their IAEA rights. There isn’t a shred of evidence they are using nuclear for anything outside the purposes of civilian power. Yet the U.S. and Israel are nuclear states, signatories and serial violators of the Non Proliferation Treaty. Israel has 200 nukes. We have more. Iran has none and they know they would be instantly vaporized if they bombed either Israel or us. They don’t have a death wish. But we are openly threatening to bomb them. We have already carried out acts of war within Iran, including cyber-warfare and assassinations. If Iran had done either inside the United States we would have invaded them instantly and reduced Tehran to rubble. Palestine is so bad there’s not enough space to get into it. And on a side note, we’re rapidly surrounding China militarily, and we’ve infuriated Russia by building a defense shield on its doorstep. There are two kinds of people that claim to crave peace. Those that want peace and those that want peace on their terms. Obama is the latter.
Myth 2. You seem to forget that Obama decided to end the Iraq war and brought all our troops home.
Actually, George Bush did. The man we know as Dubya actually pushed through and signed the SOFA agreement that called for the troop removal. He actually tied off his own war. In fact, Obama pushed hard for a revised agreement that would allow troops to stay on in Iraq, but the Iraqis rejected his efforts. So he’s taking credit for something he didn’t do; he wanted to do the opposite. But we are still leaving tens of thousands of military contractors—mercenaries paid for by our government—behind just to reassure the Iraqi people of our benign intentions. What country wouldn’t want the illustrious Blackwater roaming its streets in blacked-out SUVs, cigar-chomping sociopaths from Texas at the wheel? And don’t forget the Green Zone, that billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded Fortress-on-the-Tigris. Hard to miss from a satellite.
Myth 3. But he ended torture, rendition, and closed Guantanamo!
Regarding Guantanamo, it is still open for business. Obama supposedly didn’t close it because of Congressional resistance, the legal issues involved with bringing ‘enemy combatants’ into the states. I guess even the Department of Justice sometimes stumbles its own nebulous doublespeak. Rendition is still an active program, although it is being—ahem—more closely monitored to avoid prisoner abuses. (I almost used the not-so-laughable euphemism ‘detainee’ by accident.) But that is really beside the point since we’ve created a mirror image of Guantanamo at Bagram in Afghanistan, except that it is larger. Sixty thousand square feet of detention dementia in the heart of opium country.
Myth 4. Let’s not forget that he liberated Libya and wholeheartedly supported the Arab Spring?
He bombed Libya into the dark ages, much like Bush did in Iraq, all in the name of democracy. Since Congress wasn’t awakened from its dogmatic slumbers long enough to rubber stamp the attack, the action violated the War Powers Act of 1973. But no matter, the bombing helped remove the inimitable Colonel Gaddafi. But Libya is now more dangerous than it was under Gaddafi, and is turning into a bloodbath that would make Quentin Tarantino rush out the door with a Super 8. As for Egypt, a look back at the record will confirm that the administration supported Mubarak for years up until the very moment when the tide turned and it became clear he was going to be ousted. Then we took the position of the people and hailed a new democracy. That is not our preference, however, in the Middle East. In country after country, both Democrats and Republicans have supported and continue to support repressive regimes. As well in Latin America and Asia. There is actually a study by Edward Herman that shows a clear correlation between an increase in human rights violations and an increase in American aid.
Myth 5. Besides, Obama must know something we don’t, so we probably shouldn’t question the war on terror.
I think this argument, that the government may know something we don’t, so he gets the benefit of the doubt, has always been a Republican response to liberal criticism of illegal wars. It’s a dangerous position to take. There’s an international protocol, within the UN and NATO, for situations of unavoidable state violence. We don’t follow it. We act with impunity when we violate the sovereignty of other nations on a regular basis in Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, and Syria. We do as we please because might makes right. A good way to think about it is to ask yourself whether you would be okay with Iraq bombing Washington to take out a terrorist we were harboring? We harbor plenty, including Bush, who has been convicted in a war crimes court, and to whom Obama has granted immunity by ending torture investigations. There was a moral standard set at the Nuremberg Trials called the principle of universality, that you should apply to yourself the same principles you apply to criminals. That’s the moral foundation for all our international conventions. But we don’t follow it.
Myth 6. Obama just can’t get anything done because the Republicans won’t let him!
The argument that Obama doesn’t do more because the Republicans won’t let him is unconvincing and doesn’t fit the facts. The Democrats had four years of Congressional majorities where they controlled the budgets, including two years under Obama. Their budgets reflected the neoliberal consensus—heavy war spending, small-scale social spending or regressive social policy. He could have pushed through so many progressive measures with budgets and executive orders, and if he were truly progressive, he would have. As many diehard liberals claim, he may be progressive at heart, but that doesn’t matter much if his policies are firmly neoliberal. In fact, they always have been, as was laid bare before his 2008 election by authors like Paul Street. Also, budgets can’t be filibustered.
Myth 7. But he means well.
The evidence that I’ve seen—his actions—overwhelmingly shows that the Obama administration is on balance moving us in the wrong direction. If you want to roll in arguments about improvements in the racial mood and self-belief of the country, there may be truth in that, but those are intangible factors that can’t be measured. The actual policies are a different story altogether. Neoliberal economics and imperial foreign policies are a radically regressive force in the world—studies of nation after nation show their negative effects. See Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire for a nice recap. Not content to be one or the other, Obama has proven to be a neoliberal imperialist, as opposed to your garden-variety fascist. It’s not really a question of opinion, unless you introduce intangibles, which I’m not discounting because I do believe the fact of a black president matters, and is in itself positive, despite the kind of pandering Obama had to do to make himself acceptable to our moneyed and pale-cheeked elites.
Myth 8. Poor people support him. He must be doing something right!
He did well in the election with African-Americans and Hispanics, minorities often facing brutal economic realities. It is a shame he won their vote again, because their interests are not being served. The thirty-year trend in this country of declining wages and offshoring of jobs continues apace. His jobs bill at best addressed 1/24th of the unemployed. One twenty-fourth. His housing help was about as bad. He even rejected McCain’s request to release $300 billion in funds to help underwater homeowners. Even as he took $13 trillion in toxic mortgages onto government books as part of a bailout of about $24 trillion to banks. If that doesn’t convince you where his loyalties lie, nothing will. In any case, the jobs that have vanished—through either offshoring or the meltdown—have not come back. Many were good middle class jobs. What jobs are being created, if any? Low-income jobs. Most pay between $7 and $13 dollars an hour. Not even a living wage. The only real jobs being created are those that can’t be exported. Service industry jobs: waiters and bartenders or social service people who help care for the elderly. Cashiers at Best Buy. Servers at Ruby Tuesday. So the stimulus of $700 billion, although woefully inadequate by design, was better than nothing, but can’t be said to be the right decision when so much more was—and is—needed.
Myth 9. Still, things are getting better.
The fact is, half of all Americans—half of us—are now either low income or poor, according to the Census office. Forty million people rely on food stamps. Those numbers are increasing, not decreasing.
The government—at the behest of its finance patrons—is deliberately creating a large, low-income labor pool. Exactly what capital wants in a neoliberal system. Cheap labor. Macroeconomic policy used to aim at full employment. Neoliberal economics instead demands a focus on controlling inflation—largely to protect finance capital. Again, you can see who is being protected at whose expense. So when Obama stimulates 10,000 new manufacturing jobs, it provides positive press that helps him get re-elected, but it doesn’t begin to stem the tide of millions of better jobs that have flown out the door. And when you export production, you often find that product development and production design work follows in short order. Like Bob Dylan sardonically sings, “They say low wages are a reality/if we want to compete abroad.” A false storyline peddled to millions by The New York Times’ Tom Friedman and his ilk, that roving clan of Panglossian optimists. It’s surprisingly easy to be a globalization triumphalist when you sit atop a media empire, your telescope trained on exotic Asia, and your handlers feeding you juice and nuts while you dictate your latest bestseller. By the way, unemployment stats are skewed. They no longer count you if you’re out of work and haven’t looked for a job in four weeks. A terrific little perversion of reality that one might call ‘Friedmanesque.’
Obamacare won’t help, either. Low-income debt slaves won’t be able to afford it and, even if they could, wouldn’t want to pay for a policy that doesn’t provide adequate coverage. They will be taxed instead, which they won’t pay because they don’t have the money. So they will be government debtors, which will then have the right to garnish their wages and unemployment checks. There are sadly no serious cost constraints in the Affordable Care Act. Instead, it hands $447 billion to the insurance companies that are the actual cause of spiraling costs. When Bill Clinton said during the Democratic Convention speech that he was so lauded for, that healthcare costs were dropping, he was diddling the numbers. Healthcare costs always drop during a recession, as do other costs. So he used the lousy economy to argue that Obamacare was working. Kind of Orwellian, if you pause to think about, which you probably shouldn’t. Watch what happens if the economy recovers.
Myth 10. Well, if we could just get rid of the Tea Party fanatics and other Republican radicals, things would return to normal.
The further radicalization of Republicans is more symptom than cause. At a macro level, I think we’re seeing a war of finance capital against labor and industry. Capital—in the neoliberal model—pushes hard for deregulation, privatization, and downsizing. It’s been implemented for 30 years in the third world by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank through austerity bailouts, all with disastrous consequences (although not for American finance and multinationals). Now the model is being applied in the first world for the first time. It was only a matter of time. The Democrats and Republicans have jointly adopted its prototypical narrative—of cutting public spending and reducing government. Another false narrative. The deficits went up when the economy went down, as they always do. They’ll go down again when the economy goes up. We can and should be deficit spending our way out of this recession, but the administration sticks to the required talking points about the fiscal cliff and the horrors of debt. As if the American public needs to be reminded.
The real goal is to eliminate the social safety net. So, finance capital moves aggressively against labor with the goal of erasing the New Deal and Great Society. With those onerous programs gone and healthcare shifted onto the back of the individual courtesy of Obamacare, big business can truly earn the kind of astronomical profits it fantasizes about. To help, the Democrats can soften the harsh edge of austerity in a way Republicans can’t. That’s their doctrinal role now that they’ve been bought by finance. And they can always count of the votes of the unions and the poor because, as Clinton famously put it, “They have nowhere else to go.”