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Obama Is Not The Issue. This Is About US

By Jonathan Tasini

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, July 25, 2011

The anger against the president that has been rocketing around many circles of liberal/progressive politics is misplaced.

The crisis we face isn’t about what the president is doing, or failing to do.

We are under siege, fighting the greatest class warfare in perhaps 100 years. And we can expect very little help from a political system that has aided, without regard to party, the looting of the country over the past 30 years.

The crisis we face is about us: the people who count themselves as activists and leaders.

Certainly, it does matter if we have good elected, political leadership—and it is legitimate to point out the lack of leadership, or just really bad leadership.

BUT, leadership in the absence of a mass, focused, coordinated movement is powerless—even if leaders, somewhere deep inside, want to do the right thing.

And we do not have such a movement.

Who Obama Always—ALWAYS—Has Been

Somewhere, not long ago, I copied down a blog comment: “Obama is not who he told us he is. He’s not the person we voted for or the person who we want in the White House.” Respectfully, most of the statement is not true but it does reflect what a lot of people feel: Obama misled us.

But, generally speaking, he didn’t. After poking at this piece, on and off, for six months, I decided to finish it mainly because Obama is likely to broker a disastrous deal with Republicans over the debt ceiling controversy--and the cries that he betrayed us will escalate.

A number of the president’s critics today were once supporters and are now described as “disappointed”. But, they preferred not to listen to him, or they engaged in a serious case of wishful thinking or cognitive dissonance during the 2008 campaign. I understood who Obama would be—I actually listened to what he said, what he wrote, how he voted and what he believed in.

During the campaign, then-candidate Obama said very clearly: I believe in the “free market” and I am a “free trader”. Sure, he said he would protect Social Security and, memorably, said that, as president, he would walk picket lines.

Reality: he surrounded himself with many of the very people who were committed to the very concept of the “free market” that led to the implosion of the financial system and, casting our view much further back, to the decades-long robbery of the wealth of our country. Robert Rubin and his Wall Street-“free market” acolytes were in the Obama inner circle for a long time and they clearly held far more sway than any one or two token “liberal” voices.

Then-candidate Obama repeated numerous times that the Iraq War was a distraction from the “right war” in Afghanistan—a bloody, foolish, immoral disaster that continues to cost our country the lives of American and Afghani men and women, and hundreds of billions of dollars. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now—and a stain that will follow him for years to come. You can accept Obama’s true core beliefs without trivializing the movement that brought him to office. Based on his actual record, I did not support Obama in the primaries until it came down to a two-person race. But, I was still amazed, and moved, by the huge crowds that filled arenas and the tens of thousands of people who put volunteer energy and many free hours into politics, some for the first time, to get Obama elected.

People understood that the country was in a crisis—after 8 years of the Bush Administration that was not a hard conclusion to reach—and they were really thirsty for a leader who could tap into what they were feeling.

Obama tapped into those feelings. You can--and should--continue to celebrate the energy, optimism and commitment that put Obama into the White House, without having to be blindly in love with the candidate who represented that movement.

And it was also clear that he had to win the election. I live in a grey world and sometimes I am forced (dammit!) to accept two opposing ideas at the same time—as do the millions of people whose day-to-day lives are deeply influenced by the decisions made by thousands of political appointees running federal departments. The alternative (President John McCain) was unimaginable.

I accept, not happily, that, on the one hand, we must overturn or spark an upheaval in the two–party political system that has been bought lock, stock and barrel by corporate power and, on the other hand, that one of those parties (in my view, Democrats), will actually make the vast majority of workers slightly better off today. So, in 2008, I got my ass out to Pennsylvania (since New York was an uncontested presidential Democratic state) to knock on doors to make sure the true lunatics did not win.

Which leads me to another grey-world point: the Administration has promoted legislation that makes a positive difference in peoples lives, from expanding the SCHIP program that covers millions of children to a commitment to expand “green” infrastructure investments to saving hundreds of thousands of jobs via the auto industry financial rescue plan (a plan that worked, by the way) and on and on.

It is not helpful, and not accurate, to be reductionist. Criticism of the president is needed and fair—and I have written my share of strong and harsh critiques. But, to engage in black-and-white rhetoric—that he is perfect or that he is entirely a sell-out—doesn’t help us understand where we are today.

If you accept that the greatest threat to our nation today is the class warfare underway, then, the president has not been willing to confront that. And probably never will.

But, that is not his responsibility.

That is our responsibility.

A responsibility we can only fulfill if we build a movement of people.

And we have failed in that quest.

Why We Have Failed?

I take as a given the vast powers arrayed in the country who have no interest in ending the robbery of our country’s wealth by the few: FOX News, the worst elements of corporate America, the current conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, political leaders in both parties who get on their hands and knees to pocket campaign contributions from the rich and powerful.

But, I think pointing to all the adversaries is a cop-out. Those who think Fox News, Corporate America and the Republican Party are too powerful didn’t live in, or at least didn’t read the history of, the early part of the 20th Century when the rapidly anti-union press thrived, Pinkertons and company goons killed union organizers without a second thought, the Robber Barons ran the country and outright political bribery was far more endemic than today.

And, yet, during those times, we had a great surge in people organizing for economic justice. And, unlike today, people were literally risking their lives.

Ask yourself this question: if you believe, as I do, that progressive values—defined as sharing the wealth of the richest nation on earth, saving the planet from physical destruction and transitioning into a country that is a super country, not a superpower, because of the hand it stretches out in peace—are shared by the majority of people, why have we failed to seize the moment when we face truly global economic and diplomatic catastrophes?

We have failed, in part, because too many liberal/progressive leaders and organizations repeat and strengthen the very failed narratives and myths framing the crisis. You can probably think of your own myths. My favorites are Three Grand Myths.

Three Grand Myths

Myth #1: The Debt and Deficit “Crisis”

There is no deficit or debt “crisis”. None.

I share the anger at the Administration for buying and promoting the phony “crisis” frame (not the least of which was the president’s decision to set-up the goofy Simpson-Bowles Commission).

But, the real problem is this: virtually every policy group, and many leaders and “progressive” media organs, on our side—all well-intentioned people—strengthened the narrative of the “crisis”. Instead of making the argument that there is no crisis and that we have to spend far more money on the real crisis—jobs—to heal the economic crisis that has built over 30 years, they enhanced the phony debate by putting out their own plans on how to “solve” the “crisis”. Rather than be clear that there is no debt or deficit crisis, many of the people, who are viewed as intellectual and movement leaders, advanced the same framing.

That has been a huge error.

Here is one of those frankly, idiotic and self-defeating statements—this from the mouth of a director of an organization that bills itself “progressive”. In a press release incomprehensibly titled, “Conrad’s 50-50 Proposal Is A Good Sign,”the “progressive” leader praises Sen. Kent Conrad—one of the leading purveyors of the phony deficit crisis—for a proposal that would cut critical government services by hundreds of billions of dollars: “The Conrad proposal is the first strong Democratic proposal that has come out of these negotiations.”

The statement is full of self-delusion—that is, that a “50-50 proposal” could cut $2 trillion from the budget but, the statement demands, the proposal has to be one in which, “No deal that takes more out of the programs for middle income and poor Americans than it takes from tax breaks, loopholes and havens for the rich and the big corporations, and no deal that undermines the economic recovery.”

The statement promotes and endorses the immoral framing of “shared sacrifice”—that people who have already paid dearly for the financial mess of the past years with millions of jobs lost and devastated retirement funds, should give even more to repair damage they had no hand in creating.

I believe that the capitulation is typical: a bunch of people want to have their invitation to the cocktail party—see below—and you can’t be part of the clique of the Smart and Powerful People if you don’t mouth the mainstream accepted chatter. Worse, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the roots of our crisis.

But, accepting this myth has had its effect. We have a foolish obsession about the debt and deficit—and we have put at risk what is left of a frayed societal network.

Myth #2: The “Good Years” of the Clinton Administration

We continually recycle the nostalgic desire to return to the days of Bill Clinton because, boy, were those great years for the economy.

Really? I suppose people yearn for those days in comparison to the ruinous Bush Administration years that followed. But, we should not.

The Clinton “good years” were built on two massive financial and technology speculative bubbles—not broad, lasting, wage-driven prosperity and power for people.

The Clinton “good years” were right smack in the middle of a 30-year decline in wages compared to productivity.

The Clinton “good years” were led by a president, and supported by a Secretary of Labor (Robert Reich), who were enthusiastic supporters of NAFTA and its clones—the trade strategy that has, at its core, the lowering of wages.

The Clinton “good years” were a high-water mark for mindless deregulation that put the entire country’s democracy and economic security at risk by increasing the power of two of the most influential industries in the country and the world—the media industry (thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act) and the financial world (thanks, among other things, to the repeal of Glass Steagall--see the gleeful pic below--in favor of the Orwellian-sounding Financial Services Modernization Act—we know how that worked out).

In the “good years”, Clinton, Reich, and the whole lot of them only used the word “union” when they needed the labor movement—usually to write a check for some political campaign. In the Clinton “good years”, we allowed workers to feel like they were stupid because the president and his Secretary of Labor (the latter using his entirely goofy “symbolic analyst” phrase) kept telling people they had to be better educated to make a decent wage—even though the actual FACTS showed that the biggest growth in jobs were coming in places where college-level education was irrelevant. Neither the president, Reich and other Serious People had the spine or the inclination to say very clearly: corporate interests were robbing America and driving down wages (As an aside, I am in awe of Reich: he is one of the country’s great self-promoting, Zelig-like observers of what is intellectually “hot”. He escapes any responsibility as he hops from one sketchy idea to another and has now re-branded himself—again—into a new posture, this time as a defender of working people, a group of people he will drop like a plague when something “hotter” comes along. Breathtaking.). The Clinton “good years” raised to an art form the selling of our political institutions and electoral system to the highest corporate bidder or hedge fund manager who was willing to write a check to fund the Clinton political machine—an art form that cascaded throughout the Democratic Party, particularly to people who sat on Banking and Finance Committees. And, last but not least, the Clinton “good years” reinforced the fundamental dynamics of the so-called “free market”, which has robbed working Americans. Until we stop the foolish praising of the Clinton “good years” we aren’t going to be able to speak coherently about how we got into the mess we are in and how to get out.

Myth #3: “We Have The Best Workers in the World”

It’s hard to find an article of faith that is more racist and, at the same time, politically acceptable than the idea that “we have the best workers in the world”. And it is a concept that is repeated, often, by political leaders across the spectrum, “liberal” thinkers and, yes, labor leaders.

You can hear these words spoken a lot, whether they are wrapped cleverly in bizarre ideas like “symbolic analysts” or mindless chest-thumping about how American workers can kick anyone’s ass—if they are just given a “level playing field”.

Consider what would happen to any candidate running for election if she or he said the following: “Our country does not have the smartest and best workers. We have very hard-working and bright people but so does every country around the world”. Those two sentences alone would, overnight, be a YouTube sensation and engender immediate calls for the candidate to drop out of the race because of his or her lack of patriotism and faith in America.

And it isn’t true. By repeating this, we never make headway in building a broad movement to take on class warfare here and around the globe.

Why do we repeat these myths, and other similar, nonsensical, factually incorrect arguments?

Political elected leaders—the good people— do so because most of them just are astonishingly not curious individuals. They don’t read. They don’t challenge what they hear in their own circles.

To get elected, they lapse into the same way of thinking about challenges we face. To be accepted in the party machine, they regurgitate memes without even thinking what they mean (I call it the “we honor the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform” widget). And those are the GOOD people.

Many just don’t live the crisis: the people who pocket most of the foundation money that keeps them going, or those who have been anointed “leaders”, enjoy a personal comfort and station in life enjoyed by very few of the people they profess to represent. At the end of the day, they return to their homes in Adams Morgan or the suburbs, or on the Upper West or East Sides of Manhattan, feeling none of the pain or threats faced by the rest of the country.

They also deeply value, as one person astutely put it to me, the invitation to the cocktail party—an invitation that became even more valued in 2008 when Barack Obama entered the White House. No one wants to threaten that invite. And, so, it is dangerous to be seen as too “radical” or talking about “class warfare” because you might not be credible—credible means being accepted into the circles of the policy wonks, being able to raise money from rich liberals and/or liberal foundations, and, perhaps most crucial, getting THE invitation: the cocktail party invitation to The White House (or the Easter egg roll or the Hanukkah party).

The drift can be very subtle and gradual.

One day, you are a leader, usually young and energetic, who sees clearly that the system is rotten. And, then, years later, without even seeing the change, self-censorship sets it: a foundation gives you a little money to produce reports or organize a conference and, then, the organization gets addicted to that money. To get it again, you have to satisfy the predilections of the foundation program officer or board chair—and those inclinations are rarely about changing the system and usually about showing how many times the organization was quoted in the traditional press.

There is also virtually no accountability inside the movement. If you are incompetent or, at best, you simply don’t make waves, you are continually rewarded with new jobs and new posts. If you are an organization that makes foundations or wealthy people comfortable, you just keep on thriving because the system is gamed.

Almost no one asks: what has this person, or organization, done lately that is new, or that challenges what has been done and repeated year after year? Success is almost an after thought.

What Now?

We should not wallow in nostalgia for the early part of the 20th Century when millions of people poured into unions (for a variety of reasons). But, a friend once pointed out to me that workers used to drive 50 or 100 miles to a union meeting. Why?

People drove that far because they had no choice. It was about survival. People were desperately poor. The people who were arrested in strikes and other actions were the leaders, as well as the rank-and-file, because they all came from the same economic reality.

I do not want to minimize how hard it is to build a movement. But, I think it is worth recognizing that, even with the crisis we face, we’ve been changed.

Poverty and economic struggle has a different face: The Waltons are always there to make another buck from poor people who can’t shop anywhere else. But, people can shop and buy food (even if the food might be unhealthy). And, even though homelessness is at unimaginable levels, this country does not have deep swaths of people earning $2 a day like many other countries. Being poor here is not the same as climbing around on a trash heap in Mumbai.

No doubt, people live in fear—even if they can shop.

And, yet…

Too many leaders do not live in the same economic reality as the rank-and-file. As long as foundations and/or rich people keep giving money, or as long as people can hold on to power for power’s sake, as long as liberals and progressives are willing to cross picket lines because they choose to make their own choices on what is individually, not collectively, good for them, then, we cannot build a movement.

This is not because they are corrupt. It is because they are way too comfortable. Just think about this: what has YOUR institution, or the institution from which you receive yet another request to sign a petition, done recently to risk itself, its funding, or the personal liberty of its leaders? If the answer is “nothing” or “very little”, then, hard questions need to be asked whether all the policy papers, conferences, speeches, rallies and other efforts are making any difference.

Aha, solutions…

One school of thought argues that we need more people engaged in elections. I love electoral politics. But, until we have an entirely publicly-financed election system and we undo the Citizens United-type Supreme Court decisions, which are basically a blank check for the economically powerful to buy Congress and a barrier to normal, regular people running for office, elections are not the solution to ending the astonishing robbery of the people.

We certainly don’t need more conferences.

We don’t need more policy papers or ideas.

We have plenty of ideas, papers and new “flavor-of-the-moment”, high-concept exhortations to save the “American Dream”—none of which is new (though, in fairness, one has to recognize how effective “Save The American Dream” pleas are in raising money because it is very, non-threatening and foundation-friendly).

We have to risk institutions, not build new ones.

We have to bring the country to a halt to stop the robbery.

We have to stop commerce.

We have to fill jails. Not with a few people but with tens of thousands of people.

We have to do all of this peacefully but in a way that challenges the controlled orchestration of protest, which never puts our institutions and personal liberty at stake.

People who want to replicate Tahrir Square--which is the new metaphor for protest--need to remind themselves each time that those people were risking their freedom, and their lives, each day. We do neither.

Last year, I went to jail as part of a protest in New York City against the Arizona anti-immigrant laws. I had been through this type of efficient and pre-arranged protest and arrest before: we sat down in the streets, the police politely led us to the paddy wagons, we spent a few hours of inconvenience in jail cells, where we chatted and laughed while the (bored) officers processed paperwork and, then, we were out—waving to the jubilant crowds outside and feeling very good about ourselves.

But I was very aware that the process was nothing like the fear that is actually felt when an actual undocumented worker is grabbed out of a home or workplace, dropped into a cell and, either jailed for long periods of time or deported—often ripped away from a family. That’s the way it really works.

And did our action change the system? No.

I don’t dismiss action that starts small and grows bigger…but I think the system has quickly adapted to the symbolic protests. I’m done signing petitions—they seem now to be mostly about list-building and further organization building, not action that is noticed.

Action will only mean something if people are risking something more than a few hours of inconvenience. Days, weeks and, perhaps, longer.

Otherwise, the system shrugs and moves on.

Obsessing about Obama is a waste of time. He isn’t the source of the crisis. He won’t fix the crisis.

That is up to us.




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