ANALYS: Hypocrisy and the end of empires

Culture of hypocrisy which existed during the Bush era continues to thrive in the US today [EPA]

Every so often, a convergence occurs between a few ostensibly unrelated events in the endless swirl of news stories, polemics and propaganda, spin and advertising that make up the media sphere today.

Like the noonday sun, they pierce a hole through the fog of information that normally obscures the core dynamics behind the larger political-economic system’s smooth functioning.

But unlike the sun shining through the storm clouds, this opening is not immediately obvious, and can easily be missed if one does not know where and how to look. In fact, it is more like a three-dimensional worm hole through political space, viewable if one folds specific coordinates over each other in just the right way.

In this case, the coordinates correspond to three levels of political discourse – military, media and cultural – whose harmonious interaction is crucial to the larger functioning of the system.

The brief moment of clarity reminds us of the crucial role played by one of the most subtle yet damning of human vices – hypocrisy – in sustaining the problems confronting the US, and most other global powers for that matter.

Hypocrisy laid bare
Has the US healthcare debate created an increasingly toxic political culture? [AFP]

Hypocrisy has always been an important denomination of political currency, but today it has seemingly become the coin of the realm.

One could easily ascribe it to the reascending of right-wing politics in the US and Europe, which is almost always accompanied by a politics of hypocrisy, since as a rule such politics involves the use of populist rhetoric to concentrate a country’s wealth and resources in the hands of ever fewer people.

In the US, the vitriolic Republican-corporate attacks on healthcareand other much needed reforms in the name of protecting the rights of individual citizens, reflect an increasingly toxic political culture and the power of the right to manipulate deep-seated fears and prejudice for its own ends.

However, the continuities in US foreign policy between the Obama and Bush administrations reflect a more systemic hypocrisy whose negative consequences have global implications.

The US – like great powers before it – has long declared its intention to support freedom, democracy and progress while pursuing policies that encourage, or even demand, their opposite.

Not surprisingly, it has also turned a blind eye to its allies’ or clients’ hypocrisies: Israel declaring its desire for peace while intensifying occupation, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, promising to fight corruption while rigging elections and placing family members in crucial positions.

Then you have this or that Arab leader pledging democratic reform while continuing to arrest and abuse citizens – until the disconnect between words and deeds threatens core American interests.

With enemies, such as Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) or Iran today, hypocrisy is assumed, even when evidence suggests that at crucial moments they might actually be telling the truth.

But who’s looking?

Whether friend or foe, it is the people who suffer from a geopolitics grounded in hypocrisy.

The hardships of the present economic downturn in the USonly hint at the pain caused to the peoples of the developing world, who bear the brunt of the full power of the economic and political interests lying beneath the hypocrisy of the global powers and their leaders alike.

And these consequences are often not just painful, but deadly.

Two generations ago in Southeast Asia the death toll reached into the millions, today in Iraq and Afghanistan the toll is in the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured. But the suffering rarely makes headlines, unless it can produce images that are too powerful to ignore.

The Abu Ghraib scandalproduced one such moment, although its quick dissipation (perhaps owing to an innate sense among many Americans that the hypocrisy they revealed was ultimately not merely that of the Bush administration, but the country as a whole) ensured that the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress paid no price for the activities they revealed.

The most recent opening in the haze of media and political hypocrisy began with the near simultaneous revelations of civilian deaths at the hands of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The now ubiquitous Wikileaks video footageof soldiers firing on Reuter’s photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, his colleague Saeed Chmagh, and several other civilians in Baghdad in July 2007 was equalled in graphic power by the accusations that in February 2010, US special forces personnel had not only killed two pregnant women along with a teenage girl and two local officials in Khataba, Afghanistan, but carved the bullets out of the bodies to remove evidence of their responsibility for the deaths.

The hypocrisy of the official responses has been glaringly on display.

When asked whether the Wikileaks video would hurt America’s image, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said it would not, precisely because what the video really showed was the fog of war.

“These people were operating in split-second situations …. And, you know, we’ve investigated it very thoroughly …. It should not have any lasting consequences.”

‘Dead bastards’
In military footage released by Wikileaks, Iraqi fatalities were called “dead bastards” [AFP]

Hypocrisy is often accompanied by arrogance.

Gates assumes that scenes of US soldiers blithely calling the victims “dead bastards,” laughing, looking for an excuse to finish off an unarmed victim, and blaming other victims for “bringing their kids into a battle” will “not have any lasting consequences”.

Consequences for whom, one might ask.

Perhaps Gates understands that most Iraqis and Afghans have long ago stopped believing US rhetoric about supporting democracy and protecting civilian lives.

Whether consciously or not, it seems Gates was considering public opinion in the US, not in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, if we look behind his, and the soldiers’, words we are reminded that it is extremely difficult to shoot people who do not present an immediate and clear threat unless you have first been desensitised by intense ideological preparation that dehumanises the occupied people.

As in Vietnam, this dehumanisation means that Iraqis and Afghan civilian deaths are easily accepted as mere collateral damage, since Americans have no connection to or sympathy for the peoples they have been occupying for most of the last decade.

The latest polls show that “voters are very responsive where Democrats talk boldly about our foreign policy of taking it to the terrorists”.

And so even as four more civilians were killed by US forces firing on a crowded bus a day after Gates’ remarks, Americans show no signs of changing the “secondary status” that Iraq and Afghanistan presently hold in their political discourse.

That would demand recognition of the hypocrisy that enabled their relegation to such a low status in the first place, even at the cost of upward of a trillion dollars and the loss of thousands of American soldiers.

Worse, it would demand a reevaluation of the larger premises upon which the unending ‘war on terror’ is being fought and confronting the fact that in so many areas, Obama is entrenching rather than reversing the policies of his predecessor.

Of course, Afghans are far less tolerant of the disconnect between US rhetoric and reality.

The latest deaths caused a new round of bitter protests against the US occupation while Afghan military leaders increasingly treat US promises to protect and respect civilians as meaningless and, like Karzai, even threaten to join the Taliban.

Tariq Ramadan’s return

Gates’ remarks and the more unscripted real-time comments of the soldiers he was defending exist in a media sphere that has failed miserably to educate the American public about the motivations behind and present-day realities of the Iraq and Afghan invasions and occupations.

Underlying this dynamic is a shared arrogance and hypocrisy by leading American commentators, especially those often portrayed as politically liberal or moderate, that was crucial to laying the groundwork for public acceptance of the rationale for going to war and continuing the occupations despite the numerous and manifest contradictions between them and the realities on the ground.

The process by which this dynamic proceeds was revealed last week in the coverage of the return of Swiss Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan to the US for a speaking tour, six years after he was banned from entering the country by the Bush administration.

Debating with Packer
Tariq Ramadan has been lauded by Haaretz for repudiating anti-Semitism [EPA]

Specifically, Ramadan’s first event in the US was a forum on “secular Islam and democracy” held in New York, where he debated New Yorker writer George Packer.

Packer chose not to engage Ramadan, who has spent over a decade working to forge a consensus among European Muslims on the need for non-violence and to produce identities that can be both fully Muslim and Western, on the issues related to the forum’s title.

Rather, while declaring that he was “not asking you to repudiate your grandfather [Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood],” he demanded that Ramadan account for and renounce anti-Semitic remarks made by al-Banna well over half a century ago.

At a time when the contemporary Muslim Brotherhood is engaged in an unprecedented generational shift in ideology and attitudes, Packer honed in his criticism of Ramadan for refusing to acknowledge that “his grandfather and the Muslim Brotherhood in its origins were characterised by anti-Semitic or totalitarian views”.

Although he has held prestigious appointments at Oxford as well as Notre Dame and the University of Geneva, Packer argues that Ramadan “is not a philosopher, or an original thinker”.

He provides no  criteria for this judgement, but that is likely because he assumes that most readers will accept at face value that leading thinkers from the Muslim world are rarely original or philosophic – a code word for reasonable and rational, presumably like Americans and Europeans.

For his part, Packer would seem to fit neither characterisation; the term, never mind ideology of “totalitarianism” he accused al-Banna of harbouring was not even in use when the Brotherhood was founded or first rose to prominence.

‘Rotten foundations’

Packer concludes that however well-meaning his bridge-building, Ramadan’s hope of reconciling Islamic and Western culture is built on “rotten foundations,” namely the history and ideology of the Brotherhood.

How does he know this? Clearly not by reading Ramadan’s numerous books, which are clearly opposed to most of the basic tenets of the Brotherhood during his grandfather’s day.

Instead, in good Orientalist fashion, Packer refers to second-hand accusations against Ramadan made by journalist Paul Berman, who is about to publish a book accusing Ramadan of being a propagandist for Islamist extremism.

Berman’s last foray into the subject of Islam was Terror and Liberalism, which was celebrated in the mainstream media for, among other things, arguing that Sayyid Qutb was the ideological godfather of al-Qaeda – which scholars had been discussing for years before his “discovery” – and that political Islamist movements are ultimately “irrational” and therefore cannot be reasoned with.

Most scholarly reviews by those who actually know the region and its languages were largely critical of Berman’s arguments.

US view of Muslims

Ramadan could have responded to Packer’s constant pressure for him to denounce his grandfather by demanding that Packer renounce his support for the US invasion of Iraq, or his inaccurate and journalistically irresponsible dismissal of those who opposed the war – which included Ramadan – as fringe, knee-jerk and “doctrinaire” leftists who lacked any “understanding” of the region.

Perhaps he was being polite, or was too jet-lagged to respond in kind to attacks that had nothing to do with his own thinking (indeed, Ramadan has condemned anti-Semitism so many times that he was praised for doing so by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz).

Ultimately, however, it is not Ramadan’s refusal to engage Packer at a lower level of discourse that is important; it is the assumption by Packer, no doubt borne out by long experience, that his arguments as to the rotten foundation and ultimately irrational basis of Ramadan’s thinking will be accepted in the media sphere, since they accord so well with the general view of Muslim intellectual capabilities and motives.

Tiger Woods
Woods’ fall mirrors the corruptive hypocrisy in the US today [AFP]

While Packer and Ramadan debated in New York City, Tiger Woods was preparing for his return to competitive golf at the Master’s tournament that would begin later in the week.

Of all the sins Woods has been accused of, perhaps the most ubiquitous was his hypocrisy – creating a persona based on steely calm, control, integrity, and determination while in reality his private life was based on deceit and violating the trust of his family and fans.

This is no doubt a valid criticism, but by the time the first round began on Thursday most people were far more interested in what Tiger would do on the golf course than what he had done off the links.

Of course, no one could say this openly. And so Billy Payne, the chair of the Masters tournament, dutifully criticised Woods, stating that he “disappointed all of us” with his numerous marital infidelities.

Of course, neither he nor any of the journalists present thought it worth mentioning that Augusta National remains one of the few golf clubs that refuses to admit women as players. Apparently no one considered it the least bit hypocritical for a club that does not consider women worthy of membership to criticise a member and champion who treats women as unworthy of consideration beyond their sex.

With so much money riding on Woods’ return to the spotlight, his main endorser, Nike, also decided it had to make a bold statement criticising Woods, while at the same time reaffirming both his iconic status and the possibility of redemption.

So it aired a commercial that saw Woods staring blankly into the camera while his late father, Earl, asked him from the grave about what he was thinking and what he had learnt.

That a company such as Nike, whose alleged record of systematic mistreatment of workers and use of child labour has been heavily criticised around the world, determined that the ghost of Woods’ father could help cleanse him, and the company, of their sins, is one of the more egregious examples of corporate hypocrisy in some time.

Hypocrisy’s victory

But the reality is they are probably right. Everyone is clearly anxious to get back to the way it was, and by the time Woods walked toward the 18th green on Sunday he was smiling and shaking hands with his course partner for the day, K.J. Choi, while receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

No doubt most of those in attendance and watching on television will be happy to see Woods resume his golfing prowess. After all, no public figure better symbolised the power, purpose and determination of the US in the 2000s.

His fall from grace in many ways mirrored America’s – the gleaming steel surface and sunny gaze turned out to be, if not quite rotten, then in need of major repair.

The blow-back of Woods’ behaviour is being played out in front of the world. So is that of US policy. With enough reflection and determination, one can hope that Woods will rise above the hypocrisy that apparently has defined much of his professional and personal life.

But it is much harder for countries to do this, as it demands not one, but millions of people, from political leaders and commentators to ordinary citizens, to reflect deeply and honestly on what brought them to their present situation.

Perhaps if the fog remains lifted for long enough, one may be able to grasp the beginnings of the process of moving away from political and media cultures based on hypocrisy, greed and power and toward cultures that actually support peace, freedom and dignity.

Ref; Al jazeera

Mark LeVine is currently visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His books include Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

California ‘first failed US state’? (many more to come!)

California ‘first failed US state’?
By Rob Reynolds in Los Angeles

More Californians rely on food handouts amid rising unemployment and state benefit cuts [EPA]

On Sunday mornings at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the rough-edged Tenderloin district of San Francisco, the sanctuary is always rocking to old-school gospel music.

California crisis

Video: Elderly hit hard by healthcare cuts
Video: Hard times fall on America’s Golden State
“It’s so good to come together,” Pastor Cecil Williams declares. His is a diverse congregation – white and African-American, gay and straight, young and elderly.

For four decades Pastor Williams has been an outspoken advocate for the city’s poor and marginalised. On one bright October Sunday recently, he preached a sermon on compassion and the need for social justice.

“You affirm who you are when you stand up for others in need,” Williams told his flock. “And you can say, we are going to change this old world to a new world.”

But it is a harsh new world in California these days. A state once synonymous with opportunity and prosperity, sunshine and surf, Hollywood and Disneyland have fallen on bitterly hard times.

‘Land of opportunity’

The evidence is no further away than the church basement, where free meals are prepared for homeless and hungry people such as Robert Shirley. He’s been homeless, on and off, for months, he says.

“California was the land of opportunity. You could make it out here,” Shirley says. “Hey, I’m sorry, but California is not that way any more.”

The number of meals served here has jumped 21 per cent since last year. Williams says the free kitchen’s clientele has changed drastically.

“They were people [in food lines] who were carrying briefcases, people who were dressed in suits, people who were dressed up very nicely and had been a part of the middle class”

Robert Shirley, homeless California resident
“They were people who were carrying briefcases, people who were dressed in suits, people who were dressed up very nicely and people who had been a part of the middle class,” he says.

“And we were seeing them come through the lines. And that, of course, was shocking.”

California is the world’s eighth-largest economy, but its unemployment rate is over 12 per cent – the highest in 70 years.

Millions of people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. Millions more have been thrust into poverty by the recession.

In July, the state legislature haggled for weeks over how to close a $26bn budget gap. Instead of increasing taxes for corporations or the wealthy, the budget deal that emerged to be signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor, ordered deep spending cuts, laying off tens of thousands of state workers.

Reduced funding for education, coupled with big tuition increases, sparked a student and faculty strike at California’s public universities. Programmes for ex-prison inmates and parolees have been slashed.

And the social safety net of healthcare and services for the poor, children and elderly – the least powerful and least vocal members of society – has been systematically shredded.

“The people that are going to be effected first and foremost will be the poor, those who are in great need,” Williams says sadly. “They are not considered to be human beings.”

State ‘abandoning its poorest’

In Pleasant Hill, a suburb outside San Francisco, I met a remarkable young woman named Amy Fedeli. Only 24-years old, she has deferred her dream of college and a career in nursing to support her 75-year-old grandmother, Margaret, and seven-year-old niece, Emilia.

She’s keeping faith with her loved ones in a state that is systematically abandoning its poorest and least powerful people.

Schwarzenegger is fighting a legal challenge against proposed cuts in elderly care [EPA]
Margaret, who suffers from a neurological disorder and mild dementia, is too frail to be left home alone while Amy goes to her job at a medical-records company.

So she attends a state-funded adult day-care programme where she gets physical and occupational therapy, health checkups, and a chance to interact with other people and keep her mental faculties sharp.

But as part of the effort to pare down the budget deficit, California has cut many programmes for the elderly poor.

New rules would limit seniors to three days a week in adult day care. That is a big problem for the Fedeli family. Without the daily care she gets at the senior centre, Amy says, Margaret might not survive for long.

“She would probably end up in a nursing home,” Amy says. “She would probably pass. She would probably die, God forbid.”

To care for Margaret, Amy would have to quit her job, leaving the little family without any income. Why has she accepted so much responsibility at such a young age?

“It’s family, that’s all I can say,” Amy says. “Your family, you stick with them – that’s all.”

State politics ‘deadlocked’

A legal challenge has temporarily halted some of the cuts to elderly care. But Schwarzenegger is trying to overturn the court ruling and re-institute the cuts.

Donna Calame, who runs a state programme that provides in-home care for seniors, told me the attitude of Schwarzenegger and the legislature makes her livid.

“For me, it’s really obscene,” she said in an interview.

“We are a rich state. I think it is because of the wealth in California that, to me, makes the choices that have been made this year so morally reprehensible.”

“Somewhere, somehow, the public good, as a concept of governance, has disappeared in this state”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, analyst, University of Southern California

Critics say California’s politics are so deadlocked, its government so dysfunctional, it may become the US’s first failed state.

The state legislature is hamstrung by a law requiring a two-thirds majority vote to raise taxes and pass a budget. That makes compromise practically impossible.

I asked political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California what’s wrong with California.

“What is the matter with California is, that we have become politically so polarised that we can’t agree on something that will make this state work,” Bebitch Jeffe laments.

“Somewhere, somehow, the public good, as a concept of governance, has disappeared in this state.”

The failure of California’s government has bred profound cynicism among its people.

Back at the soup kitchen, Robert Shirley has some blunt advice for the people in charge of the Golden State.

“If our politicians don’t get their heads out of their asses, this state is going to be – let’s put it this way: some of those Third World countries are going to look a lot better than California.

Ref: Al jazeera

Meet the racist, hateful WHITE america

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See the slideshow displaying the true WHITNESS OF AMERICA

Get Obama – An Instinct for the Capillary

Hey, did you notice that Barack Obama completed his first hundred days in the White House last week?

Maybe you didn’t realize that. And who could blame you? With the near complete absence of media coverage, I’m sure most Americans didn’t realize that the magic date came and went.

But it did, and I thought I’d do something really unique and different out there in the media, and comment on it.

It’s worth doing, anyhow, because I think about enough time has gone by to allow us to begin to see the tendencies of this new White House.

And, because it’s probably not really what it looks like to a lot of people.

I use the terms “tendencies” and “probably” carefully, and not because I’m hedging my bets, ducking and weaving, but because, among other contingencies, so much of a presidency is determined by developments outside of the White House. Therefore, a hundred days in, it would be an exercise in foolishness to attempt a full characterization of this presidency. That said, however, I do think we have begun to get a sense of its nature, and of the reactive proclivities it will apply to any external developments heading in its direction.

Before describing those, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to consider why Obama is largely misunderstood. There are three good reasons for this.

The first of these is that the new administration is truly multifarious in its endeavors, trotting around the world from Europe, to the Middle East, to Latin America, and messing about in domestic policy area after domestic policy domain here at home, ranging from environment to economy to civil liberties to healthcare.

The administration truly has its fingers in a plethora of pies. No question about that. But, of course, sticking your finger in a hundred pies is a wholly different proposition from baking them, or even one of them. And the extended metaphor, I would argue, absolutely and unfortunately applies to the Obama administration. I see a president acting across a panoply of policy domains, but acting boldly in none of them.

The second reason why one might misapprehend the Obama administration is because the foaming right, true to form, has gone so far out of its way seeking to make that happen. Of course, their hysterical fulminations about the president’s disastrous transgressions – you know, like shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, or bowing to the Saudi King – have now been denounced by even perennially foolish middle America, who recognize a good bitch-slapping when they feel one, even if it took eight years for the signal from the one they got from the nice folks now skewering Obama to travel from cheek to cortex.

But those are only the smarter ones, and the less existentially terrified. Beyond that scary horizon there still remains a no-man’s land where resides about a third of this country, and who believe that any cognitive activity above the level of the reptile brain is somehow suspicious and likely part of some kind of communist plot. Who believe that George W. Bush was a real fine but misunderstood president. And who believe that the Republican Party really does have their interests at heart. These are the folks whom Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck get paid millions to further stupefy (which I always thought was kind of a dumb waste of money, since you could easily do it for a lot less cash).

Anyhow, in just the few short weeks that Obama’s been president I’ve seen these professional hucksters literally label him “socialist”, “communist” and “fascist”. They probably realize all too well the impossibility of these labels applying to the same person simultaneously, but they also know that for people stupid enough to imbibe the elixir they’re peddling, it isn’t noticed and wouldn’t matter if it was. When did contradictions ever get in the way of politico-theist dogma, anyhow?

Thus a second reason that one might think Barack Obama is reshaping America in some incredibly profound way is that fifteen minutes of listening to right-wing radio or television will overwhelm you with that very proposition. On the right side of your radio dial, ladies and gentlemen, the guy is little short of the Anti-Christ, come to decimate Western Civilization. Never mind, of course, that Jesus George left his successor very little remaining to wreck. Why should that matter?

But the third and biggest explanation for the misapprehension of Obama is as simple as that very contrast between the president and his predecessor.

Draw a long arrow across a piece of paper. Let’s call this, as Obama himself is fond of doing, “the arc of history”. Not to be too grandiose or determinative about it, it’s fair to say that there are certain historical tendencies, pressures and imperatives which compel societies and even species to move in certain directions. This is our arc of history. Now take the last ten percent of the arrow’s length, and bend it back upon itself, pointing in the opposite direction. This is the era of the Bush administration, which sought every imaginable opportunity to reverse history. When it came to gay rights, it was a reversal of ten years. When it came to civil rights and women’s rights, it was a reversal of three or four decades. When it came to principles of good governance, it was a reversal of a century. When it came to democracy, science and separation of church and state, it was a reversal of over two centuries. And when it came to fundamental civil liberties, the Bush people turned the clock back nearly a millennium, to the era before Magna Carta.

And, thus, the third reason that Obama falsely appears to be some sort of great change agent is that he walks on stage a fraction of an inch beyond where history’s arrow pointed of its own accord, but the country he inherits was dropped off decades behind that point. The gap between the retro-America George W. Bush bequeathed his successor and the baby steps Obama has taken in the direction of historical development is indeed substantial. However, it’s important not to misinterpret its meaning. That gap has everything to do with the giant leaps Bush took backwards while history was chugging along forward, and little to do with the tiny tentative inchings of the Obama administration. On issue after issue – from civil rights to relations with Cuba to global warming – the world and even American public opinion was progressing in a positive forward direction, while Bush and Cheney led public policy screaming the other way.

To get a sense of the true explanation for the apparent leaps in forward motion Obama seems to represent, imagine if he had come into office on the heels of, not eight years of regressive insanity, but instead eight years of Milquetoast moderation of the sort that Bill Clinton perfected to such a high degree. You know. The kinda thing where you inch a little forward on social issues, jump a lot backward on economic issues, throw around some cheap-but-plausible-sounding-to-the-narcoleptic ringing phrases that have zero content, go to the mat for important stuff like the V-Chip and school uniforms, and basically stand for nothing whatsoever but your own personal joy ride in the White House. That stuff. Imagine how small would Obama’s forward motion seem if he came from a starting point that took the Bush years of regression out of the equation.

If that Clinton style sounds harrowingly familiar, it’s because it is. My sense is that Obama is a lot like a Clinton, though he can be – and is – mistaken for an FDR for the reasons given above. There is in fact a difference between Barack and Bill, I’m pretty sure, but not necessarily such a significant one. Where I think Clinton was in it exclusively for Clinton, as only a quintessential Baby Boomer could fully be, and thus given to precise calculations of exquisitely refined political safety at every turn, I think Obama is more public-spirited. But, crucially, the nothing-burger tendencies he shares with Clinton seem nevertheless fully present. I suspect they are driven by his “can’t we all just get along” personality, as opposed to Bill’s manic attention-craving disorder, but so what? They still amount to a lot of nothing, delivered way too late.

Whatever the motivation, what I think is hard to deny is that, while Obama appears to be a real go-getter, he is in fact a mere incrementalist in a time of real crisis. Despite the fact that George W. Bush’s disastrous and regressive presidency can make Obama look bold and progressive in contrast, he is in fact hurling Band-Aid after Band-Aid at national hemorrhage after gaping wound. And that’s just his best stuff. As soon as you get to what really matters to the predatory regressive right – the money, of course – Obama is almost indistinguishable from George “Enron” Bush, or Dick “This is our due” Cheney.

Discussing Obama’s three choices so far of sitting judges for appeals court nominations, law professor Tracey George might just as well have been commenting on his entire presidency in saying, “He could not have been more cautious”.

I’d have a problem with that under normal circumstances. There is always plenty of work to be done in this very imperfect world, and the last thing we need is another Clinton who wasted eight years of a presidency avoiding risk at all costs and accomplishing nothing. I’d also obviously have a problem with that under ‘normal’ post-Bush circumstances, where so much wreckage so desperately needs to be undone. But I really object to this embarrassingly centrist, ultra-cautious pussyfooting when there are so many critical conditions in crisis mode, screaming out for attention.

I cannot believe I live in a world massively threatened by environmental catastrophe, and my government is barely even talking about half-measures, let alone moving heaven and earth with fierce urgency to save the planet. And the oil guys aren’t even in the White House anymore.

I cannot believe I live in a world where the economy is imploding and the guy in charge of the country where the recession is rooted has hired agents of the very criminal crowd responsible for the problem to produce a solution, and that, shockingly, the ‘solution’ once again benefits wealthy elites while doing little for the rest of us.

I cannot believe that I live in a country with a crumbling healthcare system, and the solution being offered by the “change” candidate-now-president – to the extent we will see one at all – will forego the obvious model of universal coverage adopted by all other developed countries in the world, and will instead slap Scotch Tape on the train wreck of the existing for-profit healthcare disaster, in an attempt to hold it together a little longer.

I cannot believe that I live in a world where the Taliban is within spitting distance of capturing nuclear-armed Pakistan, and my government can’t even get serious enough about peace in the Middle East to show some real security guarantee carrots and foreign aid sticks to its client state in the region, forcing it to end an illegal and deeply antagonizing annexation masquerading as a forty year occupation.

I cannot believe I live in a country where individuals who knowingly broke the law and ruined the national reputation by torturing are exposed by the president, only for him to then turn around and deploy magical powers which supposedly allow him to exonerate them in advance.

This is Obama’s America? This is Obama’s America.

Historians and pundits have long debated whether history makes the leader, or the leader makes history. Bill Clinton obviously believed the former. As if to prove what we already knew – that he was possibly the most narcissistic human on the planet – he lamented shortly after his presidency ended that he hadn’t been ‘lucky’ enough to have a major crisis on his watch, so that he could go down in the books as one of the greats, like Lincoln or Roosevelt. Amazing. Only someone so completely absorbed with himself could be so astonishingly lacking in concern for the mass victims of such a legacy-enhancing catastrophe as Clinton craved for his own benefit.

Meanwhile, he never seemed to understand that he had the capacity to lead, to legislate, to act, and to make history, himself, and that playing it safe and selling out the American public in the welfare bill or the Defense of Marriage Act or NAFTA or WTO treaties was not the way to do that. Clinton got himself elected, then re-elected, but he never actually did anything with his presidency, because he viewed the two objectives as mutually-exclusive. Maybe he was right, albeit once he won his second term he certainly had nothing left to lose (and he sure never cared about the fate of his party). Regardless, if that’s your approach, you sure don’t get to bitch about being ripped off by history because the 300 million people of your country were relatively safe and prosperous during your watch. Great leaders take great risks for great purposes. Small presidents watch out for themselves and work tirelessly to fulfill their own personal aspirations.

For a year now I’ve wondered what Obama would turn out to be – a Bill Clinton or an FDR. I think we have a pretty good answer at this point. Indeed, ironically, Obama now seems to be out-Clintoning Clinton. He not only has the very national crisis that Wild Bill craved, he’s got about six of them. But always the response seems to be incredibly tepid and conventional and, well, conservative – as the above examples show.

Even when it’s a slam-dunk policy choice, he is still the Cautious Kid to a fault. This week he made a big announcement about how he will be shutting down the rip-offs of the American treasury (and therefore of the American taxpayers, who have to make-up the difference) by closing loopholes that allow US corporate pirates to off-shore their profits and thus protect them from taxation. Pretty safe bet, right? I mean, who besides kleptocrats and conservatives (and what’s the difference, after all?) could oppose that? And yet it turns out that, on closer inspection, Obama left out of the plan a technique known as ‘transfer pricing’, the tax-avoidance tactic that actually accounts for most of the scamming.

This is classic Barackoism: Let’s move real slow. Let’s not offend anyone. Let’s find the most half-way possible measure, and then cut it in half again, just to be sure. Maybe we can bring the Republicans along, even though we don’t need to. Is Wall Street okay with this?

Even in crisis, he’s all incremental, all the time.

It is true, of course, that a bold leader risks getting in serious trouble if he or she gets too far out ahead of the public. I don’t think that’s such a great problem here, as the public is really in the mood for – what did he call it, during the campaign? – oh yeah, “change”.

More importantly, even when that is not the case, presidents have a remedy for this conundrum. It’s called selling your policy. Sometimes you have to create the demand for the product you’re offering. Sometimes you have to educate people about problems and threats they’re not seeing, before you can get them to subscribe to your solution.

Obama has all the conditions necessary to be a bold and historic president. He came to office at a time of great and multiple crises. He promised change and the people gave him a mandate for precisely that purpose. The opposition is in complete disarray, and is rightly blamed by the public for the mess Obama has inherited. People are frightened and hurting, and looking for relief. And, for the first time in a long time, they’re overtly looking to government for that relief.

To be honest, he really doesn’t have to market bold changes on the environment or healthcare or foreign policy in order to win the support of the public, but he could surely increase that support significantly if he did. Ironically, it seems to me that this president, who has the most effective potential bully pulpit skills in a generation if not a century, has been largely AWOL from the stage. He is much more popular with the public than his policies are, and that’s because he really doesn’t advocate for his policies much.

The biggest irony, however, is that the fate of his presidency is tied to the fate of those policies. If half-measures produce half-solutiuons or non-solutions, it’s Barack Obama himself who will be punished by voters. I mean, how hard is it to imagine that by 2012 not much has changed in America besides the size of the national debt? The economy is still anemic, the military is still stuck in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestine conflict is still stagnated, there is no national healthcare system, nothing has been done about global warming, etc., etc.? Does that seem so completely implausible at the rate this administration is going? Indeed, does it even seem improbable?

And what would be the outcome of such a scenario? Most likely it would be a presidential election pitting a vicious Republican candidate against a mealy-mouthed incumbent self-saddled with a lousy performance record to defend before a dissatisfied electorate. Even if Obama only cares about winning re-election for himself, he should really consider turning his boldness quotient up to eleven (or at least three, for chrissakes), before it’s too late.

Because, I take it back, after all. The biggest irony may just be this: That Barack Obama’s instinct for the capillary could be the one thing that has the capability of reaching deep down into the toilet bowl, down through the pipes and into the sewer system, and dragging the shit-encrusted Republican Party back to the surface, miraculously offering it a magical elixir of renewed viability despite its own immensely successful attempt at party suicide.

And, come to thing of it, given where the GOP is today, an accomplishment that huge would represent a historic and monumental achievement for this or any other presidency, after all.


Ref: Counterpunch
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website,