Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama, Cornel West, and progressive populists

In case you're unfamiliar with the discussion, start here, with Chris Hedges' article. Excerpt:

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks. “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says. “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream. In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire. I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama. If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake. But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

Here's a supporting viewpoint from Bruce Dixon:

(Harry) Belafonte was asked by host Amy Goodman whether he'd used his occasional access to directly share his many critical and valuable public policy insights with the White House. Belafonte replied that his only access to the president has been for a few seconds at a time, not long enough for any substantive discussion. But, he said, at one such event President Obama approached him to inquire when Belafonte and Cornel West were going 'to cut me some slack'.

”What makes you think we haven't?” Belafonte replied to the president. At this point the brief encounter was over.

Let's pause to think about that. When President Obama cusses out Cornel West and personally demands that historic stalwarts of the movement for peace and justice “cut him some slack” on black unemployment, on foreclosures and the prison state, on torture and the military budget, on unjust wars and corporate welfare, on fulfilling the just demands of those who elected him, our first black president is revealing his real self. Far from saying “make me do it,” President Obama is saying how dare you pressure me to do what you elected me to do.

And here's an opposing viewpoint -- with several others she collects -- from Joan Walsh of Salon:

Melissa Harris-Perry and Adam Serwer wrote majestic takedowns of Cornel West's vicious and deeply personal rant against President Obama published this week, so I didn't think I had to. But there's one thing missing in the torrent of reaction to West I've seen this week: A recognition that maybe this is the way identity politics had to end, not with a bang but a whine. ...

The most tragic thing, to me, about West's meltdown was the way he tried to frame it as a universalist defense of poor and working class people – who in fact haven't gotten enough help or attention from this too-close-to-Wall Street administration – but then somehow descends into personal attacks on the president as "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." If that wasn't bad enough, West claims Obama's problem is that he is afraid of "free black men" due to his white ancestry and years in the Ivy League. “He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” West claimed.

Give Brother West credit for consistency: On MSNBC's "The Ed Show" Tuesday night, he repeated his criticism that Obama is too close to "upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers."

Oh no, the Jews again. Haven't we been here before?

How did the man who wrote in "Race Matters" that it's time "to replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning" come to this? I don't disagree with some of West's critique of Obama, but Ta-Nehisi Coates is exactly right here:
Was there something more Obama should have done to get a public option? Should he not have traded the Bush tax cuts for extending unemployment benefits? Did Obama settle too quickly on a small stimulus package? Was he wrong to allow the GOP to shut down planned parenthood in DC? Is the strategy of increased drone attacks in Pakistan inhumane? Was the financial reform bill he signed ultimately too weak?

I think all of this is fair game. I think Charles Ferguson's critique in Inside Job was really solid. I think calling someone a "black mascot" or a "black puppet" because they don't agree with you is much less so.


Once you have completed reading, please weigh in. I think Dr. West was over the top with the plantation-tinged verbiage, but other than that I agree with him. Please feel free to address any of the myriad questions raised, which by my reading include: Is Obama helping, not helping, or hamstrung given extenuating circumstances? You can replace "Obama" with "Democratic Party" if you like.  Does Dr. West make unfair criticisms of the president with the racial remarks? Does he provide criticism only a black man with his pedigree and standing can provide -- by virtue making it fair?

At the Environmental Encuentro I attended a couple of months ago the talks centered around "environmental justice" (as in 'economic and social justice') and some attendees (Af-Am) said it was more about racial justice. I don't disagree entirely, but that prism is too narrow for me. Essentially: is a class war also a race war? Sometimes it is, certainly. The coal miners in Appalachia might beg to differ.

So as previously encouraged, and as representatives of the left/progressive/liberal faction in the US, we can talk about whether Obama (and the Democratic Party) is or is not helping and does or does not deserve our support in the causes in which we believe, but there's a macro issue, at least to me.  In the theme of this post about the Louisiana flooding, how much should we -- more specifically people like me, a well-fed white guy -- care before our own hearts bleed out? Should the poor just "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", even if they don't have boots, and even when the government floods their land and drowns their cattle (destroying the leather with which to make boots)?

Another play on analogy words I recently noted was: "A rising tide lifts all boats. If you have a boat. But the problem is some people have a yacht (for which the Texas Lege wants to give a tax deduction), and some people have a canoe with a hole in it and no life jackets."

Something akin to this is comparable to some volunteer work I do with Barrio Dogs of Houston.  Much like the abandoned pets filling up the kennels and being euthanized by the dozens every single week in every city across the country -- species differences in intelligence notwithstanding -- how much should we (can we) allow ourselves, for the sake of our own sanity, to worry about the plight of total strangers? It's sure easy to say "You did it to yourselves for not voting/not moving out of the sticks/not going to college/being lazy/being a drunk", etc.

Is the conversation ultimately and finally always going to end at some form of: "Too fucking bad for you; get over it"?

(I won't be publishing any conservative responses, by the way. They are having a few existential issues of their own as it relates to leadership and governing, FWIW.)

1 comment:

John Robert BEHRMAN said...

I wonder what Frederick Douglass would have said to Abraham Lincoln during early days of the Civil War when Lincoln was temporizing in attemt to (a) avoid Civil War, then (b) organize the Union side of it, then (c) prosecute it to a conclusion despite a weak, still mostly Whig, Republican and pro-South Democratic parties.

Where West hits the nail on the head, I think, is stating that "we (have) become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire."

One of the problems with this formulation, though, is the notion that there is an "American empire". That is just leftist cant.

There are acutally just ...

1-a) Anglo-American financial institutions, and ...

(1-b) Remnants of British mineral concessions and commodity-crop plantations that remain very influential after about 75 years of Great, World, and Cold War, ...

... As well as ...

(2-a) A GOP that is addicted to a military pork-barrel they feel entitled to monopolize, and ...

(2-b) A Democratic Congressional Party addicted to preserving its share or restoring its domination of that same pork-barrel.

Folks, we cannot manage an empire, even if we really had one, and we have simply forgotten most of what domestic and foreign policy was like when the Democratic Party st the standard for "patriotic" and "populist" or "progressive" or both.

That is a problem of political formation, mobilization, deliberation, and discipline that needs to be resolved from the bottom up with a view towards defeating the GOP, not negotiating deals with them.

One problem is that collusively bargaining over fees and settlement is all the present leadership of the Democratic Party at every echelon know how to do. It is their only proficiency, well, other than marginalizing their critics.