Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Obama's Violin

Obama's Violin
Populist rage and the uncertain containment of change
May 2009 By Paul Street
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As of this writing in late March, the Barack Obama administration and its allies in the Democratic-run Congress have been attempting to perform system-maintaining acts of co-optation and popular pacification that no Republican presidency or Congress could ever carry out. Lance Selfa reminds us in his recent book The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008) that corporate America would have no reason to embrace a two-party system if there were no significant differencesbetween the two competing "subdivisions" of what Ferdinand Lundberg once aptly called "the Property Party." The business elite profits from a narrow-spectrum system in which one business party is always waiting in the wings to capture and control popular anger and energy when the other business party falls out of favor.

But the two parties are not simply interchangeable. It is the Democrats' job to define and embody the constricted left-most parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century, it has been the Democratic Party's distinctive assignment to play "the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate" by posing as "the party of the people"(Selfa). The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-containing function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s and the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s. They played much the same role in relation to the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s. In every case, the movements that arose to challenge concentrated power and oppression and to reduce inequality were pacified, silenced, and ultimately shut down, their political energies sucked into the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party.

The standard historic pattern of Democratic Party co-optation and progressive surrender is currently trying to repeat itself amidst epic economic crisis and imperial disruption. Two and a half weeks after Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the president-elect's corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right."

The Obama administration's record so far is richly consistent with the violin analogy. Dominant, so-called "mainstream" media routinely portray Obama as a "bold" and even "radical" "departure from the past"—a person of what the leading communications authorities call "the left." This is offensive to people on the actual left. The supposed "peace candidate" intends to increase the United States' massive "defense" budget this and next year. Reading the fine print on Obama's Iraq plan, moreover, it is clear that he plans to sustain the illegal occupation of that country well past 2011 and very likely into the indefinite future.

To make matters dangerously worse, Obama is actively increasing the level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan and—most ominously—in nuclear Pakistan. The New York Times reports, with no hint of disapproval, that he is considering "expanding the American covert war in Pakistan," where every U.S. missile attack destabilizes the political situation a bit more. Obama and his so-called "national security" team are planning, the Times reports, to "widen the target area" of their already "extensive [CIA] missile strikes" on that country to include Baluchistan, "a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government" (March 20, 2009).

Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people about whose fate he stayed revealingly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on the people of Gaza last December and January. He made no effort to resist the U.S. Israel lobby's torpedoing of Charles Freeman's nomination as chair of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a veteran national security operative, was brusquely dismissed because he dared to suggest that the Israeli apartheid and occupation state might bear some responsibility for violence and hatred in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Obama dangerously and revealingly resists pressure to investigate and prosecute the monumental war and human rights crimes of the Bush administration. He quietly commits to the officially concealed trillion dollar annual Pentagon budget, a giant subsidy to high-tech industry that pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth—all in the name of "defense." The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported the day after Obama's election victory that Obama "has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend."


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