Behind the opioid crisis: Republicans and Obama cleared the way for corporate murder

By Patrick Martin
16 October 2017

Leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress and top Obama administration officials collaborated to shut down efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to stem the flow of prescription opioids that have killed 200,000 Americans over the past two decades, according to a devastating exposure published Sunday by the Washington Post and broadcast Sunday night on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.”

The joint investigation by the Post and “60 Minutes” made use of extensive whistleblower revelations by former officials of the DEA, which has the main responsibility for halting the flow of illegal narcotics, including prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone diverted into the black market.

Three major companies, all in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 and hugely profitable, dominate the distribution of these opioids: McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, with combined revenues of more than $450 billion. McKesson chairman and CEO John Hammergren has the largest pension fund of any US corporate boss, a $160 million personal nest egg.

These gigantic revenues and huge personal fortunes were accumulated by means of what can only be termed a massive social crime: the flooding of impoverished working-class neighborhoods with high volumes of opioids, narcotics that were being prescribed in vast quantities by doctors and pharmacists and illegal “pain centers” and “pill mills” that were a constant presence in the affected areas.

The consequences have been felt in a historic reversal in the long-term rise of life expectancy in the United States. For middle-aged whites, particularly those living in rural areas, life expectancy is declining and death rates soaring, in large part because of the impact of opioid abuse and addiction.

Appalachia is a center of the opioid crisis. The figures presented in the Post/”60 Minutes” report are staggering—and damning. To Mingo County, West Virginia, an impoverished former mining area on the state border with Kentucky, population 25,000, the mid-sized Ohio-based drug distributor Miami-Luken shipped 11 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone in a five-year period: enough to give two pills a week to every man, woman and child in the county.

In the county seat, Williamson, population 2,938, Miami-Luken shipped 258,000 hydrocodone pills in one month to a single pharmacy. The city of Williamson has filed suit against the company and other drug distributors, charging them with deliberately flooding the city with pain pills to supply the black market. A document filed in the suit charges, “Like sharks circling their prey, multi-billion dollar companies descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy.”

Post reporters Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein and “Sixty Minutes” reporter Bill Whitaker conducted dozens of interviews for their exposé, but the principal whistleblower is Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who headed the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control for a decade until he was forced out in 2015.

The Office of Diversion Control oversees the flow of prescription drugs produced by the major US pharmaceutical companies and shipped to hospitals and pharmacies and other prescribers by distributors, including the big three. By targeting unusually large and unexplained sales—for example, several Walgreen’s pharmacies in Florida sold more than one million opioid pills in a year, compared to a nationwide average of 74,000—the DEA unit could force companies to pay substantial fines.

These big three and smaller distributors paid more than $400 million in fines over the last decade as the result of the DEA, but this is a pittance compared to their gross revenues during that same period, well over $5 trillion. One former DEA official told the Post this sum simply represented “a cost of doing business.”

A more serious problem for the industry was the issuance of “freeze” orders, in which the DEA could use its authority to order a distributor to halt a shipment if there is “imminent danger” to the community. According to Rannazzisi, there was increasing resistance from top-level DEA officials, from 2011 on, to approving such “freeze” orders against opioid distributors. During this period, the drug distributors hired 46 DEA officials either directly or through law firms or lobbying groups representing them.

In 2014, industry lobbyists produced a bill, written by a former DEA lawyer, and introduced by Republican Representative Tom Marino, that substantially raised the threshold of proof for a DEA order to halt a shipment. Instead of “imminent danger,” such an order required proof of “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a standard so strict that, once adopted, there were no further DEA orders to halt drug distribution.

Marino’s bill was initially blocked by DEA opposition, but it was reintroduced with Democratic cosponsors and passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote, without opposition, in April 2015. In October 2015, Rannazzisi was pushed into retirement at the DEA, after previously being removed as head of the Office of Diversion Control by means of heavy pressure from congressional Republicans on the Obama Justice Department. In March 2016, the Senate passed a modified version of the Marino bill, and the House accepted the changes the following month. The DEA was now handcuffed, and the drug distributors could proceed without any concern about federal oversight.

As Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes”: “The drug industry—the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores—have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before. And these people came in with their influence and their money and got a whole statute changed because they didn’t like it.”

The protection of the giant drug distribution companies—amid a nationwide epidemic of drug overdose deaths caused by the products they were distributing—was a bipartisan affair. Congressional Democrats cosponsored the legislation, and a former top Clinton administration official, Jamie Gorelick, was a lead attorney and lobbyist for the distributors. Attorney General Loretta Lynch approved the legislation, and President Obama signed it into law, with the White House issuing a one-page press release to mark the occasion.

None of those involved, including Lynch and Obama, would comment to the Post or “60 Minutes.” According to the Post, “The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and ‘60 Minutes’ under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter,” indicating that the Trump administration is continuing the stonewalling tactics begun under Obama.

When a “60 Minutes” camera crew came to Marino’s office, his aides called Capitol Hill police to have them removed.

Trump has rewarded the darling of the drug distributors, Representative Marino, by nominating him last month to become the next White House “drug czar,” in charge of coordinating federal efforts against the opioid crisis. Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the main cosponsor of the bill, is now favored to be the Republican nominee for US Senate in Tennessee in 2018. Both representatives come from districts ravaged by the opioid crisis. According to the Post account, 106 people have died in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, the largest in Marino’s district, since he first introduced his anti-enforcement legislation.

The following exchange from the “60 Minutes” program sums up the reality of corporate domination of American life, and the catastrophic impact on working people:

BILL WHITAKER: You know the implication of what you’re saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people.

JOE RANNAZZISI: That’s not an implication, that’s a fact. That’s exactly what they did.

… These weren’t kids slinging crack on the corner. These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/16/drug-o16.html

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More than 52 million Americans live in economically distressed communities

By Sandy English
28 September 2017

A new analysis of Census data shows that the so-called economic recovery under the Obama administration was an unmitigated catastrophe for the 20 percent of the American population that live in the poorest areas of the United States and that gains of jobs and income have gone overwhelming to the top 20 percent richest areas.

The 2017 Distressed Communities Report,” published by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), analyzes the census data for 2011-2015 for people living in each of the nearly 7,500 American zip codes according to several criteria.

The EIG’s Distressed Communities Index (DCI) considers the percentage of the population without a high school diploma, the percentage of housing vacancies, the percentage of adults working, the percentage of the population in poverty, the median income ratio (the percentage of median income that a zip code has for its state), the change in employment from 2011 to 2015, and the change in the number of businesses in the same period.

The report divides the findings for zip codes into five quintiles based on these indicators, rated from worst- to best-performing: distressed, at risk, mid-tier, comfortable, and prosperous.

The results show that distressed communities—52.3 million people or 17 percent of the American population—experienced an average 6 percent drop in the number of adults working and a 6.3 percent average drop in the number of business establishments.

“Far from achieving even anemic growth from 2011 to 2015,” the report notes, “distressed communities instead experienced what amounts to a deep ongoing recession.”

Further, “fully one third of the approximately 44 million Americans receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) and other cash public assistance benefits (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) live in distressed communities.” The report notes that most distressed communities have seen zero net job growth since 2000.

Residents in these zip codes are five times more likely to die than those in prosperous zip codes. Deaths from cancer, pregnancy complications, suicide, and violence are even higher. “Mental and substance abuse disorders are 64 percent higher in distressed counties than prosperous ones, with major clusters in Appalachia and Native American communities where rates exceed four or five times the national average,” the report continues.

One other important and alarming fact which the report highlights is that over a third of the distressed zip codes contain so-called “brownfield” sites—areas which are polluted or contaminated in some way. Not only do these have impacts on real estate and business development, they present a whole array of health hazards to the very poorest Americans.

Distressed communities can be found all over the United States but are concentrated in the South: 43 percent of Mississippi’s zip codes are distressed, followed by Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana. According to the report, [the South] “is home to a staggering 52 percent of all Americans living in distressed zip codes—far above its 37.5 percent share of the country’s total population.”

After this, the Southwest and Great Lakes region have the largest share. In the Northeast, most distressed communities tend to be found in urban areas and in the South, primarily in rural areas.

The biggest cities with the largest numbers of distressed zip codes are Cleveland, Ohio, Newark, New Jersey, Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio. Mid-sized cities with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Youngstown, Ohio, Trenton, New Jersey, Camden, New Jersey, Gary, Indiana, Hartford, Connecticut and Flint, Michigan.

Urban counties with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Cook County in Illinois, with Chicago at its center, Los Angeles County in California, Harris County in Texas, with Houston at its center, and Wayne County in Michigan, encompassing Detroit. Most of these urban areas were once industrial centers and home to the industrial working class.

Zip codes that have a majority of minorities living in them are more than twice as likely to be distressed as zip codes that are majority white. “In total,” the report notes, “45 percent of the country’s majority-minority zip codes are distressed and only 7 percent of them are prosperous.” At the same time there are numerous distressed communities that are almost completely white. A quarter of the total distressed population is under 18.

The report found that the economic benefits of the recovery after the 2008 recessions have gone to the top quintile of zip codes, where the wealthier layers of the population live, including not only the very rich but also the upper middle class.

These areas, which the DCI terms prosperous, and make up roughly 85 million Americans or 27 percent of the US population, have for the most part the economic wherewithal to finance higher levels of education, have the lowest housing vacancy, highest percentage of working adults, and have had the lion’s share of job and business expansion.

“The job growth rate in the top quintile was 2.6 times higher than nationally from 2011 to 2015, and business establishments proliferated three times faster than they did at the national level,” the report notes. “Prosperous zip codes stand worlds apart from their distressed counterparts, seemingly insulated from many of the challenges with which other communities must grapple. The poverty rate is more than 20 points lower in the average prosperous community than it is in the average distressed one.”

The report makes much less of an analysis of the other three, middle quintiles, the at risk, mid-tier, and comfortable categories, but it does note some factors that address the overall trends nation-wide. “A remarkably small proportion of places fuel national increases in jobs and businesses in today’s economy. High growth in these local economic powerhouses buoys national numbers while obscuring stagnant or declining economic activity in other parts of the country.”

One of the more telling aspects of the report is that extreme poverty in the US is presided over by both capitalist parties: Democratic and Republic politicians have equal numbers of distressed communities in their constituencies. Democrats, in fact, “represent six of the 10 most distressed congressional districts.”

Another observation from the voting data, and one of the few that looks at conditions beyond the bottom and top quintiles, is worth quoting in full:

“President Trump accumulated a 3.5 million vote lead in counties that fell into the bottom three quintiles of well-being (equivalent to 9.4 percent of all votes cast in these counties). A vast array of factors determined voting patterns in the 2016 election, but it stands that the ‘continuity’ candidate performed better in the places benefiting most from the status quo, while the ‘change’ candidate performed better in the places one would expect to find more dissatisfaction.”

Broader figures and the historical view of wealth distribution in the US—that one percent of the population control 40 percent of the wealth or the decades-long decline in the percentage of the national income that goes to the working class—are not brought out in the report but the data add to a complete picture of social conditions across the United States, the character and geographical distribution of social and economic conditions in a country of more than 320 million.

The portrait provided by the EIG report is not simply one of increasing misery and poverty for the bottom 20 percent, and not only one in which only a minority of Americans are achieving anything like “prosperity,” but of growing and explosive dissent among tens of millions.

It exposes as a bare-faced lie the claim that President Obama made at the end of his second term, that “things have never been better” in America.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/28/pove-s28.html

Killing: The American Way

A napalm strike during the Vietnam War. (manhahi / CC BY 2.0)

One of the most hyped “events” of American television, “The Vietnam War,” has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam War in an entirely new way.”

In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism,” Burns’ “entirely new” Vietnam War is presented as “epic, historic work.” Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.

Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family,” which “has long supported our country’s veterans.” Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as 4 million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once-bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.

I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings.”

The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record—the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.

There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me—as it must be for many Americans—it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences.

In the series’ press release in Britain—the BBC will show it—there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying. How very post-modern.

All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century—from “The Green Berets” and “The Deer Hunter” to “Rambo”—and, in so doing, has legitimized subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops, and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy.” Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”

I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites.”

In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek ). In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones.” Mass homicide. This was not news.

To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly “South Vietnam,” the country America claimed to “save” and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.

The “meaning” of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the leveling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in “The Quiet American.”

Quoting Robert Taber’s “The War of the Flea,” Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbors resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”

Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on Sept. 19—a body established to spare humanity the “scourge of war”—he declared he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump’s language was not unusual.

His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to “totally obliterate” Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.

Returning to the U.S., I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition—on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the “mainstream” has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.

There is plenty of sound and fury at Trump the odious one, the “fascist,” but almost none at Trump the symptom and caricature of an enduring system of conquest and extremism.

Where are the ghosts of the great anti-war demonstrations that took over Washington in the 1970s? Where is the equivalent of the Freeze Movement that filled the streets of Manhattan in the 1980s, demanding that President Reagan withdraw battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe?

The sheer energy and moral persistence of these great movements largely succeeded; by 1987 Reagan had negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that effectively ended the Cold War.

Today, according to secret NATO documents obtained by the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, this vital treaty is likely to be abandoned as “nuclear targeting planning is increased.” The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned against “repeating the worst mistakes of the Cold War. … All the good treaties on disarmament and arms control from Gorbachev and Reagan are in acute peril. Europe is threatened again with becoming a military training ground for nuclear weapons. We must raise our voice against this.”

But not in America. The thousands who turned out for Senator Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” in last year’s presidential campaign are collectively mute on these dangers. That most of America’s violence across the world has been perpetrated not by Republicans, or mutants like Trump, but by liberal Democrats, remains a taboo.

Barack Obama provided the apotheosis, with seven simultaneous wars, a presidential record, including the destruction of Libya as a modern state. Obama’s overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government has had the desired effect: the massing of American-led NATO forces on Russia’s western borderland through which the Nazis invaded in 1941.

Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011 signaled the transfer of the majority of America’s naval and air forces to Asia and the Pacific for no purpose other than to confront and provoke China. The Nobel Peace Laureate’s worldwide campaign of assassinations is arguably the most extensive campaign of terrorism since 9/11.

What is known in the U.S. as “the left” has effectively allied with the darkest recesses of institutional power, notably the Pentagon and the CIA, to see off a peace deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin and to reinstate Russia as an enemy, on the basis of no evidence of its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The true scandal is the insidious assumption of power by sinister war-making vested interests for which no American voted. The rapid ascendancy of the Pentagon and the surveillance agencies under Obama represented an historic shift of power in Washington. Daniel Ellsberg rightly called it a coup. The three generals running Trump are its witness.

All of this fails to penetrate those “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics,” as Luciana Bohne noted memorably. Commodified and market-tested, “diversity” is the new liberal brand, not the class people serve regardless of their gender and skin color: not the responsibility of all to stop a barbaric war to end all wars.

“How did it fucking come to this?” says Michael Moore in his Broadway show, “Terms of My Surrender,” a vaudeville for the disaffected set against a backdrop of Trump as Big Brother.

I admired Moore’s film, “Roger & Me,” about the economic and social devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and “Sicko,” his investigation into the corruption of health care in America.

The night I saw his show, his happy-clappy audience cheered his reassurance that “we are the majority!” and calls to “impeach Trump, a liar and a fascist!” His message seemed to be that had you held your nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, life would be predictable again.

He may be right. Instead of merely abusing the world, as Trump does, the Great Obliterator might have attacked Iran and lobbed missiles at Putin, whom she likened to Hitler: a particular profanity given the 27 million Russians who died in Hitler’s invasion.

“Listen up,” said Moore, “putting aside what our governments do, Americans are really loved by the world!”

There was a silence.

John Pilger, an Australian who lives in the United Kingdom, is a prize-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. His website is johnpilger.com.

The Reichstag Fire Next Time

The coming crackdown

When each day brings more news than we are used to seeing in a week, and the kind of news that only the most catastrophic imagination can accommodate, we find ourselves talking about the Reichstag fire. Time feels both accelerated and slowed down, and so we imagine that we have been talking about the fire for years. It is the new president’s new clothes: invisible, yet always present in our perception of him.

The Reichstag fire, it goes almost without saying, will be a terrorist attack, and it will mark our sudden, obvious, and irreversible descent into autocracy. Here is what it looks like: On a sunny morning you turn on the television as you make coffee, or the speaker in your shower streams the news, or the radio comes on when you turn the ignition key in your car. The voices of the newscasters are familiar, but their pitch is altered, and they speak with a peculiar haste. Something horrible has happened—it is not yet clear what—and thousands are dead, and more are expected to die. You hear the word “terror.” You feel it.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source photographs: Adolf Hitler © Hulton Archive/Getty Images; crowd saluting Hitler © Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

You reach for your cell phone, but the circuits are busy, and will be for hours—it will take you the rest of the day to check in with your loved ones. They are safe, but changed. And so are you. So are all of us. Tragedy has cast its shadow over every space where you encounter strangers: the subway, your child’s school, your lunch spot. People are quieter, less frivolous, yet they are not subdued. They share a sense of purpose that is greater than their fear. They are experiencing something they’d only read about: War has come to their land. Everyone is a patriot now.

You used to scoff at that word, or argue that dissent was the highest form of patriotism. But now you find that the word expresses what you are. Now is not the moment for dissent. A couple of public intellectuals insist that it is, and you feel embarrassed for them. They quickly fade from the scene, and this serves to underscore an unprecedented sort of unity.

Nowhere is this unity more evident than in Washington. Bills are passed unanimously. These laws give new powers to the president and his security apparatus. The president, unpopular and widely considered incompetent before the attack, now steps up to direct the war effort. His demeanor—which some used to deride as primitive—is well suited for this new black-and-white era. His administration institutes sweeping surveillance to ferret out enemies at home, and wages one war and then another abroad.

American public life is profoundly transformed. The press becomes uncritical of the government. There is no outright censorship; correspondents are part of the effort now, as they were during the Second World War. American casualties pile up, the foreign carnage is enormous and unmeasured, but there is scant domestic resistance. Only at the margins of politics and the media do some people question the usefulness and legality of the war effort.

The government pushes the limits further, cutting off access to the judiciary for those deemed the enemy. The president is no longer unpopular, and he can impose his will on Washington and the country. The country is in a forever war, a state of exception that has taken away many American freedoms, some of which were ceded voluntarily.

That is what we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire, and it has already happened. Like sad versions of the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who set off in search of traits they already possess, we are living in fear of an event that will catapult us into a terrifying future, when the event has already occurred—and has given us our terrifying present.

The actual fire in the Reichstag—the German parliament building—burned on the evening of February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier, and already he had begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. Yet it is the fire, rather than Hitler’s toxic first steps, that is remembered as the event after which things were never the same, in Germany or in the world.

Hitler capitalized on the fire by taking an uncompromising militant stand: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” This, in turn, probably boosted his popularity, paving the way for a victory for the Nazi Party in parliamentary elections a week later.

Hitler immediately began cracking down on the political opposition. The day after the fire, the government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges, on the grounds of prevention. Activists were rounded up by his paramilitary forces, the SA and the SS, and placed in camps. Less than a month later, the parliament passed an “enabling act,” creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.

Anschluss—the annexation of Austria—was still five years away, and the start of the Second World War six and a half, but the Reichstag fire was used to create a state of exception, as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by that declaration he acquires far great­er, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.

Every galvanizing event of the past eighty years has been compared to the Reichstag fire. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The killer, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested and executed, but the assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. Show trials and mass arrests followed, swelling the gulag with people accused of being traitors, spies, and terrorist plotters. To handle the volume, the Kremlin created troikas—three-person panels that doled out a sentence without reviewing the case, much less hearing from the defense.

More recently, Vladimir Putin has relied on a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions. In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia killed hundreds. This allowed Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed “terrorists” and became a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In 2002, the three-day siege of a Moscow theater served as a demonstration of the principle of summary execution: Russian law enforcement pumped the theater full of sleeping gas, entered the building, and shot the hostage-takers as they lay unconscious. The Kremlin also used the theater siege as a pretext to ban the already cowed media from covering anti-terrorist operations. Two years later, more than three hundred people, most of them children, died following an attack at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia. Putin used this catastrophic event to cancel the elections of local governors, effectively abolishing the country’s federal structure.

The thinking that transforms tragedy into crackdown is not foreign to the United States. During the crisis that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling Federalists and the opposition Republicans accused each other of treason and a fatal lack of vigilance, of being Jacobin puppets. The courts, stacked with Federalist appointees, wasted no time shutting down opposition newspapers.

Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without civilian judicial review. He did this to be able to indefinitely hold rebels whom he judged a danger to the Union—but whom, he said, “the courts, acting on ordinary rules, would discharge.” It wasn’t until 1866 that the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

By the next major war, the First World War, speech perceived as critical of or detrimental to the American war effort was punished with prison sentences as long as ten years. Historian Geoffrey Stone has called Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 “the most repressive legislation in American history.” Thousands of people were arrested—many without a warrant—and 249 anarchist and communist activists were deported to Soviet Russia. It wasn’t until later that Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis started on a dissenting streak that ultimately restored and clarified free-speech protections.

The Second World War brought another presidential assault on the Constitution: the internment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent. Then came the ­McCarthy era, when the government took up spying on the enemy within and accusations of treason, whether or not they were supported by evidence, ruined life after life. The next generation of Americans lived through the secrecy, deceit, and paranoia of the Vietnam War years, which culminated in a president who had his opponents prosecuted and wiretapped. For Americans in the twentieth century a state of exception came close to being the rule.

Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive: In State of Exception, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that Franklin Roosevelt invoked emergency powers for the passage of the New Deal in 1933, arguing that economic catastrophe warranted “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Writing in 2005, Agamben drew a narrative line from the state of exception in Europe following the First World War to that in America following 9/11.

As long as war is raging, political consensus supports the crackdowns. Legal scholar Stephen Holmes calls this wisdom “the intuitive claim that grave emergencies require discretionary authority to act outside and against inherited rules and standard operating procedures.” There is no proof that such a response is effective—and there is even copious evidence that it leads to abuse of power and damage to society—but the temptation to both seize and cede power in the face of fear proves irresistible time after time.

Source photographs: Donald Trump © JB Lacroix/WireImage; Vladimir Putin © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Barack Obama © Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; George W. Bush © Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images; protest © Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images; drone © Erik Simonsen/Getty Images

The war that began in 2001 is unlike other wars: The enemy is not a nation or an army but a tactic, one that has existed for millennia. This war cannot be won, because a tactic cannot be eradicated. A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not. Nor have the liberties surrendered by Americans in response to 9/11 been restored. Under President Obama, the war on terror morphed into the more grammatically sensible war on terrorism. The Patriot Act became the Freedom Act. The use of torture appears to have been largely discontinued, but the camp at Guantánamo Bay continues its shameful existence—with a reduced number of inmates, though numbers are never a good measure of liberty. Millions of Americans who voted in the last election have lived with the war on terror for as long as they can remember.

In his farewell address in Chicago, Obama could claim only that he had “worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said, interrupted by cheers before continuing, “who are just as patriotic as we are.” Over the course of more than fifteen years, the essential premise—that the United States is at war, and that the Other in this war is Muslims—has remained unchanged. Trump claims that Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, while Obama says that they are just as patriotic as we are; that they are not us is one of the few things the two men agree on.

The current state of exception rests in part on the national state of emergency, which George W. Bush declared three days after the September 11 attacks, which he renewed every year of his presidency, and which Obama also renewed every September of his. The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times. In practice, the president wields unilateral power over emergencies.

The National Emergencies Act can be invoked for disasters beyond an actual war—Obama declared a national emergency in anticipation of the swine flu epidemic in 2009—but it invariably represents both an outsized reaction to a perceived threat and a journey outside what we maintain is normal national and social conduct. At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The state of exception also rests on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress three days after the attacks in 2001. It gives the president sweeping power to

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

The law, passed with a single dissenting vote, remains in force as the nation enters its fourth post-9/11 presidential term.

Today, when it is said that a terrorist attack is sure to happen, it is assumed that the attack will be carried out in the name of the Islamic State. The premise of inevitability is notable—one would think that such acts of terror occurred in the United States on a regular basis. Since September 11, 2001, however, there have been eleven attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology; they have claimed a total of ninety-five lives. “The death toll has been quite similar to other forms of political—and even non-political—violence Americans face today,” a recent report from the New America foundation summarized. The report referred only to domestic terrorism and mass shooting incidents, but many more Americans have died at the hands of the state: In the first four months of this year, the use of deadly force by police claimed three times as many lives. These killings, extrajudicial by definition, are a symptom of the state of exception, which has turned the police into a military force. As a nation we insist on being united in fear of the one-in-millions chance of a particular kind of violence. That we seem so certain of the outlines of the Reichstag fire to come reveals the fact that it has already occurred.

Among the victims of the sixteen-year-old state of exception are hundreds of individuals identified, prosecuted, and sentenced under emergency rules. Since the war on terror began, the United States has prosecuted an average of forty terrorism cases per year, about half of them on the basis of informant operations. Convictions that result from such cases—and convictions result almost without fail, usually as the result of a plea bargain—fetch higher sentences because of something known as the terrorism adjustment in federal sentencing guidelines. The adjustment went into effect following the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 but was used most widely after 9/11. This was a law passed by Congress, yet it created an exceptional category of crime that could not be addressed by normal law. One example is the prosecution of two Iraqi refugees who were tried in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for allegedly intending to help insurgent fighters battling U.S. forces back home. The men were convicted of terrorism, even though the accusation against them—that they aided fighters confronting an army—doesn’t fit standard definitions of terrorism. They were sentenced to life in prison, in the case of a man arrested at the age of twenty-three, and forty years behind bars, for the one who cooperated with the prosecution. This was the case that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway presumably had in mind when she conjured the memory of the Bowling Green Massacre—something that never happened but, according to the logic the country has applied over the past decade and a half, could have happened.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him. Mobilization was just as important an element of Hitler’s 1933 consolidation of power as his crackdown. Victory rallies, national holidays, and parades demonstrated, even forced, the unity of a nation. In Germans into Nazis, historian Peter Fritzsche makes no mention of the Reichstag fire but devotes a chapter to the May Day parade of 1933, a daylong, citywide spectacle “carefully choreographed to .?.?. demonstrate the national sense of purpose that was now said to animate the German people.”

To totalitarianism watchers, Trump’s campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his “America First” inauguration, have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

It is not clear how many Germans attended that May Day parade because the spirit moved them and how many were compelled by fear or force. Four and a half decades later, in “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czech dissident Václav Havel described an individual who “lives within a lie,” the lie of the official ideology, without consciously accepting or rejecting it. Totalitarianism robs a person of the very ability to form an opinion.

Fear has a way of catapulting citizens into the inside of a lie. Following the apartment-building bombings of 1999, Russians huddled together, forming neighborhood patrols, eyeing strangers and neighbors alike with suspicion, and then threw their support behind the recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin. In one of his first public statements, the unknown, gray little politician promised to hunt down terrorists and “rub them out in the outhouse,” rhetorically trampling the foundations of the justice system.

Americans, too, have finely honed instincts for banding together in the face of an attack. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” Some of them held hands. The strongest country on the planet was making a spectacle of fear and resolve. The following day, a train traveling between Boston and New York was stopped because passengers had been alarmed by the presence of a Sikh man; he was removed. Two days later, enabling legislation—bills on war powers and the state of emergency—were passed.

Trump does not have to declare war—this has already been done—or even proffer an assessment of the danger. But he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state of being at war—this is, possibly, the only political tool of which the president has instinctive mastery. During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. It was 125 seconds of naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud. The following day Breit­bart falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to do so. This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, but it was also reminiscent of the early weeks and months following 9/11, when Bill Maher and Susan Sontag were shamed for breaking rhetorical ranks.

In Russia, it took many years for Putin to consolidate power, and it wasn’t until 2012 that his regime assumed its current retro-totalitarian character. Over the years, the use of terrorist attacks to justify successive crackdowns has grown familiar and gradually transformed the country’s thinking. The lack of logical connections between events and their ostensible consequences, along with the general degradation of the judicial system and law enforcement, eroded all trust in the government—to the extent that every time a terrorist attack occurred, many Russians assumed that the government, no matter what it said, was behind it. When a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg Metro in April, killing fourteen people, journalists and Russia watchers instantly assumed that the Kremlin had organized the attack in order to detract attention from or to stifle emergent anti-corruption protests.

Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin’s power grab. There has never been a transparent and satisfying investigation of the blasts, but the available evidence stacks up in favor of this theory.

When we talk about the Reichstag fire, we speak not only about an event that precipitates a state of exception and launches coercive national mobilization but also of a conspiracy. Many Germans were certain that the Reichs­tag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. So much evidence supported this theory that for decades after the Second World War a Nazi conspiracy was the historians’ consensus. During the same period, it was generally accepted that the Kirov murder was a secret-police assassination. But when all the available information on the Kirov murder was excavated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no proof to back up the conspiracy theory: It is now believed that Kirov was killed by his assistant’s jealous husband. In the 1960s, reporting cast doubt on the theory that the Nazis burned down the Reichstag, but in the 1990s, a new wave of evidence suggested they may have been involved after all. Historians continue to debate the issue. (A young Dutch Communist was apprehended at the scene, tried, and sentenced to death by beheading.) It is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB for the apartment bombings, but the Russian autocrat may eventually be proved to have simply seized an opportunity, as he has done many times since. For now, though, we do not know enough, and this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of an autocracy.

Autocracies thrive on and engender fear, ignorance, and—their combined product—conspiracy theory. Writing in his diary in January 1934, the linguist Victor Klemperer assessed a genre of joke. “Conversations in heaven are popular. The best one: Hitler to Moses: But you can tell me in confidence, Herr Moses. Is it not true that you set the bush on fire yourself?” The joke shows Hitler and the satirist sharing a conspiratorial worldview: The person telling the joke believes that the führer set the Reichs­tag fire and also that Hitler sees the world through the lens of his own deception. Everyone is both a conspirator and a conspiracy theorist.

The September 11 attacks, like all unimaginable events, spawned conspiracy theories. Trutherism spread far and wide; its younger cousin, birtherism, grabbed hold of a smaller but more vocal constituency. By the time Trump was elected president, America was living through an epidemic of conspiracy thinking. Some were convinced that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring from a pizza shop in Washington; others that every recently dead Russian man was connected to Trump’s election victory. No one now seems to believe that most things are what they seem: usually, a mess.

When we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, we talk about the consequences of a catastrophic event. But in our case, these consequences—a legal state of exception, a sense of living under siege, popular mobilization, and an epidemic of conspiracy thinking—are already in place. Indeed, they are the preconditions of our current predicament. Trump used the conspiracy thinking and the siege mentality to get himself elected. Once president, he used the state of exception to begin lobbing missiles, dropping bombs—nothing less than the so-called Mother of All Bombs. Mobilization, the popular sense of being together in constant battle, ensured that Trump’s first forays into war looked good on TV. At the same time, Trump overestimated the power given to him by the siege mentality. When he attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for example, he encountered great popular and institutional resistance.

Here lies our best hope for reversing the effects of the next Reichs­tag fire: American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election. And something remains of what Hannah Arendt observed in a letter from 1946:

People here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country.

What struck Arendt was the spontaneous and active expression of solidarity on the part of ordinary Americans who “declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves.”

The comparison to contemporary protests may not be entirely straightforward. Leading arguments rested on the impossibility of religious discrimination; popular protest relied on a general sense of injustice and the rational argument that banning the entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries would do little to protect Americans from terrorism. But by pointing to the ineffectiveness of the proposed ban, some of these arguments unwittingly reinforced the idea that Americans can make themselves safer by shutting out some part of the world.

Most recent protests share a fundamental flaw: They project the assumption that things were fine until America inexplicably elected Trump. The women’s marches, the immigrants’ marches, the scientists’ marches, the protests in defense of the Affordable Care Act and freedom of speech, and the earliest of the protests, which simply expressed outraged disbelief at the results of the election, all serve the purpose of staking out the current norms and vowing to defend them. It’s hard to argue with the urge; all indications are that the current norms are far preferable to the reality of the near and distant future. Yet most of the protests live within a lie—the fiction that the threats of the Trump presidency are not only grave but also new. His war against the national press is a grotesque blowup of many years’ worth of growing regimentation of access, concentration of power, and government opacity. Trump’s war on immigrants builds on the mass deportations of the Obama years, which were themselves built on the siege mentality of the Bush years. Trump’s casual bomb-throwing is enabled by the forever war begun nearly sixteen years ago.

To confront the threat we face, it is not enough to advance the rational argument that an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning. Nor is it enough to focus on the grave injustice of tarnishing immigrants as potential criminals and Muslim refugees as potential terrorists. It is most certainly not enough to revel in the beauty, intelligence, and wit of the many people who have come out to protest Trump’s attacks on humanity and its planet. There is, in fact, no room for self-congratulation in the actions we need to take.

To be worthy of the lofty name “resistance,” the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Organizations such as the A.C.L.U. have been doing this for years. The Trump presidency has not only, paradoxically, brought the group millions of dollars, it has also, potentially, rallied millions of people to the cause. Now is the time to stop waiting for the Reichs­tag fire and start battling the consequences of the one we already had—Trump and the legal and public conditions that are enabling his presidency.

 

 

This Is Where Obama Choked.

The American people had damn near an absolute right to know this information.

It so happens that Friday is an official Ratfcking Holiday, and a very important one. It’s June 23 or, as we who celebrate it like to call it, Smoking Gun Day. It was 45 years ago to the day that H.R. Haldeman stopped by the Oval Office and, with a tape recorder whirring merrily away in a drawer, he and Richard Nixon discussed how to get the CIA to turn off the FBI’s investigation of Watergate because that investigation was moving into “some productive areas.” They talked about ripping scabs open, and “that whole Bay of Pigs thing,” and having Walters tell Gray not to go into this thing any further, period. “All I can conclude,” Patrick Buchanan reportedly said when this tape finally came to light, “is that the old man has been shitting us.”

So, in honor of the day, The Washington Post comes up with an amazing tale of the way ratfcking is done in the modern era. It begins with a top-secret communique delivered to President Barack Obama last August.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race. But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The dynamite, she go boom.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.

I seem to remember this remarkable coincidence.

The piece is too long, too well reported, and too detailed to summarize in block quotes, but what it makes sadly clear is that the culture of secrecy within the intelligence community worked invariably to empower the ratfcking, rather than to hinder it.

Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.

All well and good. Go get ’em, tiger.

However, like so many things about the Obama administration, the response to what the Russians did was measured and allegedly proportional. (“I feel like we choked,” one official told the Post.) But, you may ask, what about the election that was going on at the same time the Obama administration was retaliating for Russian interference in its process?

They were concerned that any pre-election response could provoke an escalation from Putin. Moscow’s meddling to that point was seen as deeply concerning but unlikely to materially affect the outcome of the election. Far more worrisome to the Obama team was the prospect of a cyber-assault on voting systems before and on Election Day. They also worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign. By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.

This, right here. This is where they choked. The American people had damned close to an absolute right to the information their government already had. The most fundamental act of citizenship is the right to cast an informed vote. The idea that the Obama administration withheld the fact that the Russians were ratfcking the election in order to help elect a vulgar talking yam is a terrible condemnation of the whole No Drama Obama philosophy. Would Donald Trump have raised hell if the White House released what it knew? Of course, he would have. But, as it was, the American people went to vote with only about half of the information they needed to assess his candidacy. This was a terrible decision.

Before departing for an August vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

Ah, yes. “Bipartisan support.” The brilliant snow-white unicorn pursued by that administration for nearly eight years. How did that work out? How did it ever work out?

On Aug. 15, Johnson arranged a conference call with dozens of state officials, hoping to enlist their support. He ran into a wall of resistance. The reaction “ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in congressional testimony Wednesday. Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.

Really, now. How did it ever work out?

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting. Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

So they choked a second time, scared out of what they should have done by Mitch McConnell, ace conniver. (What the hell did they expect? Patriotism?) I repeat: the American people needed to know this before they voted, spin and fauxtrage and punditry be damned. They had a right to factor the question, “Why does Putin want this guy to be president?” into their thinking in the voting booth.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes. With Obama still determined to avoid any appearance of politics, the statement would not carry his signature.

It’s at moments like this that I wish he’d never given that speech in Boston in 2004. It froze him into a public persona and a political stance that made even justifiable partisan politics look like base hypocrisy. It is entirely possible that, at what we must now believe was a critical moment (if not the critical moment) of his presidency, the better angels of a president’s nature were the voices he should have avoided at all cost.

Anyway, read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating window into presidential decision-making on the fly, as well as a look at how intelligence is gathered and managed. The 2016 presidential election was corrupted at its heart, and we do not know yet how fully it was corrupted, and that’s the most lasting scandal of all.

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a55836/obama-russian-interference/

Obama: a Hollow Man Filled With Ruling Class Ideas


A “Hollow” Man Who Was “Unwilling to Fight the Good Fight”

What on Earth motivated the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and law professor David J. Garrow to write an incredibly detailed 1078-page (1460 pages with endnotes and index included) biography of Barack Obama from conception through election to the White House? Not any great personal affinity for Obama on Garrow’s part, that’s for sure. Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama is no hagiography. On the last page of this remarkable tome, Garrow describes Obama at the end of his distinctly non-transformative and “failed presidency” as a man who had long ago had become a “vessel [that] was hollow at its core.”

Near the conclusion, Garrow notes how disappointed and betrayed many of Obama’s former friends felt by a president who “doesn’t feel indebted to people” (in the words of a former close assistant) and who spent inordinate time on the golf course and “celebrity hobnobbing” (1067). Garrow quotes one of Obama’s “long-time Hyde Park [Chicago] friend[s],” who offered a stark judgement: “Barack is a tragic figure: so much potential, such critical times, but such a failure to perform…like he is an empty shell…Maybe the flaw is hubris, deep and abiding hubris….” (1065). Garrow quotes the onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.”

The subject of Garrow’s meticulous history is a single-minded climber ready to toss others (including family members, lovers, and close friends) aside in service to an all-consuming quest for political power fueled by a belief in his own special “destiny.” (It is clear from Rising Star that Obama was set on a run for the presidency by age twenty-five.) Dozens of former Obama associates interviewed by Garrow report having been impressed, even blown away by the future president as a young man. But many others were put off by Obama’s sense of superiority and arrogance (“full of himself” by the recollection of one Harvard Law classmate [p. 337]) and by his often lecturing, professorial “know it all” presentation – and by his transparent hyper-ambition.

During his time at Harvard Law, fellow students invented “the Obamanometer” – a numerical measure of how long Obama would spend taking up class time with long-winded dialogue with the professor, often while claiming to speak on behalf of his fellow students.

Obama struck many on his way up as far too impressed with his own awesomeness. As one of his fellow black Illinois state senators commented to another veteran legislator as Obama began his eight-year career in the Illinois Senate in 1996, “Can you believe this guy’s some thirty years old [and] he’s already written a book about himself?” (p.600)

Progressives lobbyists found Obama “a disappointing legislator” during his time in the Illinois Senate.  According to Al Sharp, executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, state senator Obama was “so very pragmatic” that “he,” in Garrow’s words, “was unwilling to fight to the good fight.” By Garrow’s account. “Legal aid veteran Linda Mills recalled that [state senator] Barack ‘sponsored a number of bills I wrote,’ but ‘I stopped seeking him out as a chief sponsor early on’ because Barack was ‘disengaged’ rather than actively pushing the bills. ‘He was never involved in the legislation,’ and on many days Barack was simply ‘unavailable. Golfing, playing basketball.  He was just out to lunch so often’” (p.731)

An Ugly Offer: Money for Silence

I find a different story related in Rising Star just as disturbing. It comes from April of 2008, when then presidential candidate Obama was being compelled by the Hillary Clinton campaign to throw his onetime South Side Chicago “spiritual mentor” Reverend Jeremiah Wright under the bus because Obama’s association with the fiery Black and left-leaning pulpit master was costing him too many white votes. On April 12, 2008, Obama visited Wright, asking him not to do “any more public speaking until after the November election.” Wright refused. “Barack left empty-handed but before long Wright received an e-mail from Barack’s close friend Eric Whitaker, also a Trinity [church] member, offering Wright $150,000 ‘not to preach at all’ in the months ahead.” (p.1044). Wright refused.

How was that for progressive hope and change?

“A Work of Historical Fiction”

Young Obama tried to beat historians to the punch by writing a deceptive, self-serving account of his own first three and half decades gracing the planet with his “special qualities.” Garrow, to his credit, doesn’t fall for it. Rising Star takes the future president’s 1995 book Dreams From My FatherDreams and some of Obama’s later autobiographical reflections to task for: inventing a deep racial identity drama that never occurred during Obama’s early years in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Occidental College; incorrectly portraying Obama as a “difference-maker” on his high school basketball team; deceptively claiming that Obama had been an angry “thug” during high school; deleting the Community Party background of the Black “old poet” (“Frank,” as in longtime Communist Party activist Frank Davis) who gave Obama advice as a teenager in Honolulu; inaccurately claiming that Obama have received a “full scholarship” to Occidental; misrepresenting himself as a leader in the movement against South African apartheid at Occidental; exaggerating Obama’s involvement in anti-apartheid activism at Columbia University; covering up  evidence of Obama’s enrollment in a Columbia course taught by a Marxist academic; absurdly mispresenting the nature of Obama’s work for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) at the City University of New York; concocting a mythical and supposedly life-changing dialogue with a  “black security guard” on Obama’s first trip from New York City to begin community organizing work on the far South Side of Chicago;  falsely claiming that Obama  converted to Christianity during his early years in Chicago; largely writing Obama’s white mother out of his autobiography, which spilled far more ink on a father (Barack Obama. Sr.) who played little role in his life; painting a “decidedly uncharitable portrait” of Obama’s loving white maternal grandfather (Stanley Dunham) who did so much to raise him; suggesting that Obama’s maternal white grandmother was a racist; unduly downplaying Obama’s supreme enjoyment of his years at Harvard Law School; and coldly condensing his three top pre-marital girlfriends (more on them below) “into a single woman whose appearance in the book was fleeting indeed.” Garrow judges Dreams “a work of historical fiction,” not a serious autobiography or memoir.

The Revenge of Sheila Jager: “His Deep-Seated Need to be Loved and Admired”

Rising Star might almost deserve the sub-title “The Revenge of Sheila Jager.” Like Garrow’s giant and classic 1986 biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rising Star gets very, very personal. Garrow reports the complaints of Obama’s three former girlfriends – Alex McNair, Genevieve Cook, and Sheila Jager. Each one recalls an Obama that was ultimately inaccessible and hopelessly self-involved.  Ms. Jager, a partly white Asian-American University of Chicago anthropology graduate student when she met Obama, garners singular attention. She fell into a prolonged and ardent affair with then community organizer Obama during the late 1980s. But her long and tumultuous relationship with him was doomed by the color of her skin. Obama shared the passion but decided he could not marry her because his political ambitions in Chicago required a Black spouse.

Garrow recounts an ugly scene in the summer of 1987. A loud and long dispute developed one day at the Wisconsin summer home of a friend. From the morning onwards, a witness recalled, “they were back and forth, having sex, screaming yelling, having sex, screaming yelling.… That whole afternoon, they went back and forth between having sex and fighting,” with Jager yelling: “That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason.”

Near the end of his colossal volume, Garrow says that “no one alive brought deeper insight into the tragedy of Barack Obama than Sheila Jager.” He reproduces numerous quotations from Jager, now an Oberlin College anthropology professor.  As a young woman, she was frustrated by young Obama’s lack of “courage.” Writing to Garrow in August of 2013, Jager saw that cowardice in his excessively “pragmatic,” disengaged, and “compromising” presidency:

“the seeds of his future failings were always present in Chicago.  He made a series of calculated decisions when he began to map out his political life at the time and they involved some deep compromises.  There is a familiar echo in the language he uses now to talk about the compromises he’s always forced to make and the way he explained his future to me back then, saying in effect I ‘wish’ I could do this, but ‘pragmatism and the reality of the world has forced me to do that.’  From the bailout out to NSA to Egypt, it is always the same. The problem is that ‘pragmatism’ can very much look like what works best for the moment.  Hence, the constant criticism that there is no strategic vision behind his decisions. Perhaps this pragmatism and need to just ‘get along in the world’ (by accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it) stems from his deep-seated need to be loved and admired which has ultimately led him on the path to conformism and not down the path of greatness which I had hoped for him.” (1065)

The italics are Garrow’s.  He added emphasis to the entire passage.

Or Maybe He Really Believed All that “Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal” and “Pragmatism” Stuff

Garrow’s mammoth biography is a tour de force when it comes to personal critique, professional appraisal, and epic research and documentation. His mastery of the smallest details in Obama’s life and career and his ability to place those facts within a narrative that keeps the reader’s attention (no small feat at 1078 pages!) is remarkable.  Rising Star falls short, however, on ideological appraisal. In early 1996, the brilliant left Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. captured the stark moral and political limits of what would become the state and then national Obama phenomenon and indeed the Obama presidency.  Writing of an unnamed Obama, Reed observed that:

“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”

Garrow very incompletely quotes Reed’s reflection only to dismiss it as “an academic’s way of calling Barack an Uncle Tom.”  That is an unfortunate judgement. Reed’s assessment was richly born-out by Obama’s subsequent political career.  Like his politcio-ideological soul-brothers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (and perhaps now Emmanuel Macron), Obama’s public life has been a wretched monument to the dark power of the neoliberal corporate-financial and imperial agendas behind the progressive pretense of façade of telegenic and silver-tongued professional class politicos.

Reed’s prescient verdict more than 12 years before Obama became president brings more insight to the Obama tragedy than Jager’s reflection five years into Obama’s presidency. Obama’s nauseating taste for supposedly (and deceptively) non-ideological “get things done” “pragmatism,” “compromise,” and “playing it safe” – for “accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it” (Jager) – was not simply or merely a personality quirk or psychological flaw. It was also and far more significantly a longstanding way for “liberal” Democratic presidents and other politicos to appear “tough-minded” and stoutly determined to “getting things done” while they subordinate the fake-populist and progressive-sounding values they mouth to get elected to the harsh “deep state” facts of U.S. ruling class, imperial, and “national security” power. A “pragmatic,” supposedly non-ideological concern for policy effectiveness – “what can be accomplished in the real world” – has long given “liberal” presidents a manly way to justify governing in accord with the wishes of the nation’s ruling class and power elite.

Garrow and Jager might want to look at a forgotten political science classic, Bruce Miroff’s  Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy [1976].) After detailing the supposedly progressive Kennedy’s cool-headed, Harvard-minted, and “best and brightest” service to the nation’s reigning corporate, imperial, and racial hierarchies, Miroff explained that:

“Most modern presidents have claimed the title of ‘pragmatist’ for themselves.  Richard Nixon was just as concerned as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to announce that he was not wedded to dogma, and that his administration would follow a realistic and flexible course. It has chiefly been the liberal presidents, however, who have captured the pragmatic label…For liberal presidents – and for those who have advised them – the essential mark of pragmatism is its ‘tough-mindedness.’ Pragmatism is equated with strength and intellectual and moral strength that can accept a world stripped of illusions and can take the facts unadorned.  Committed to liberal objectives, yet free from liberal sentimentality, the pragmatic liberal sees himself as grappling with brute and unpleasant facts of political reality in order to humanize and soften those facts…The great enemy for pragmatic liberals is ideology…An illusory objectivity is one of the pillars of pragmatic ‘tough-mindedness.’ The second pillar is readiness for power.  Pragmatists are interested in what works; their prime criterion of value is success…[and] as a believer in concrete results, the pragmatist is ineluctably drawn to power.  For it is power that gets things done most easily, that makes things work most successfully.” (Pragmatic Illusions, 283-84, emphasis added).

The classic neoliberal Bill Clinton embraced the pragmatic and non-ideological “get things done” façade for state capitalist and imperialist policy. So did the pioneering neoliberal Jimmy Carter and the great corporate liberals Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kenney and Franklin Roosevelt. Was this really or mainly because they were psychologically wounded?  The deeper and more relevant reality is that they functioned atop a Superpower nation-state rule by unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, and white supremacism. They were educated, socialized, seduced and indoctrinated – to understand in their bones that those de facto dictatorships must remain intact (Roosevelt boasted of having saved the profits system) and that liberal “reform” must always bend to the will of reigning institutions and doctrines of concentrated wealth, class, race, and power. Some or all of them may well have to believe and internalize the purportedly non-ideological ideology of wealth- and power-serving pragmatism. And Obama was either a true believer or one who cynically chose to impersonate one as the ticket to power quite early on.

A Fully Minted Neoliberal Early On

The irony here is that one can consult Rising Star to determine the basic underlying accuracy of Reed’s acerbic description. My foremost revelation from Rising Star is that Obama was fully formed as a fake-progressive neoliberal-capitalist actor well before he ever received his first big money campaign contribution.  He’s headed down the same ideological path as the Clintons even before Bill Clinton walks into the Oval Office.  Obama’s years in the corporate-funded foundation world, the great ruling and professional class finishing schools Columbia University Harvard Law, and the great neoliberal University of Chicago’s elite Law School were more than sufficient to mint him as a brilliant if “vacuous to repressive neoliberal.”

During his years at Harvard Law, Garrow notes, Obama took said the following at a Turner Broadcasting African American Summit for the 1990s:

“Whenever we blame society for everything, or blame white racism for everything, then inevitably we’re giving away our own power…if we can get start getting beyond some of these old divisions [of race, place, and class] and look at the possibilities of crafting pragmatic, practical strategies that are going to focus on what’s  going to make it work and less about whether it fits into one ideological mold or another.”

These were classic neoliberal and ruling class themes.

Along with a healthy dose of market economics, this was the heavily ideological if nominally anti-ideological essence of much of Obama’s intellectual work at Harvard Law, where he and his good friend the former economist Rob Fisher were drawn to the courses of a libertarian professor and wrote oxymoronically about the progressive and democratic potential of “market forces.”  Like other ruling class and professional class educational and ideological institutions of “higher education,” Harvard Law was and remains a great schoolhouse of precisely the kind of “pragmatism” which knows that no policies and visions can work that don’t bow to the holy power of the finance-led corporate and imperial state, ruling in the name of the market among other things.

Again, and again across Garrow’s many hundreds of pages on Obama’s community organizing and legislative career one hears about the future president’s classically neoliberal efforts to address poverty and joblessness by increasing the market value of poor and jobless folks’ “human capital” and “skill sets.”  Never does one learn of any serious call on his part for the radical and democratic redistribution of wealth and power and the advance of a people’s political economy based on solidarity and the common good, not the profits of the investor class.

The main things Obama needed to add on to fulfill his “destiny” after Harvard Law were a political career in elected office, a great moment of national celebrity (his spectacular Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention in August of 2004), elite financial sponsorship (including record-setting Wall Street backing in 2007 and 2008), and proper appreciation and articulation of U.S.-imperial Council on Foreign Relations ideology.  All of this and more, including no small good fortune (including the awfulness of the George W. Bush administration and the 2007-08 Hillary Clinton campaign), followed and brought us to the great neoliberal “disappointment” that was the Obama presidency.

Curious Deletions: MacFaquhar, Marxists, and the Ruling Class Sponsors

There are some interesting deletions in Rising Star. It is odd that the meticulous Garrow never quotes a remarkable essay published by The New Yorker in the spring of 2007. In early May of that year, six months after Obama had declared his candidacy for the White House, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

Was this personal weakness and cowardice? The deeper reality is that Obama’s “deeply conservative” beliefs reflected an either calculated or heartfelt allegiance to neoliberal “free market” ideals and related pragmatic and “realistic” ruling- and elite professional-class values inculcated and absorbed at Harvard Law, in the corporate-captive foundation world, and through his many contacts in the elite business sector and the foreign policy establishment as he rose in the American System. Along with a bottomless commitment to the long American imperial project, those power-serving beliefs were written all over Obama’s conservative late 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (Obama’s second book and his second book mainly about himself – see my critical review of it on Black Agenda Report in early 2007  here), whose right-wing and imperial content Garrow ignores.  They also raised their head in the famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address (see my critical reflection on that oration at the time here) that did so much to make Obama an overnight national and even global celebrity – another document whose right-leaning ideological nature escapes Garrow’s attention.

Like Obama’s neoliberal and imperial ideology, the many left activists and writers (this reviewer included) who saw through Obama’s progressive pretense and warned others about it early on are basically missing in Rising Star.  The list of Left commentators left out is long.  It includes Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky. Alexander Cockburn, Margaret Kimberly, Jeffrey St. Clair, Roger Hodge, Pam Martens, Ajamu Baraka, Doug Henwood, Juan Santos, Marc Lamont Hill, John R. MacArthur, and a host of others (Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter, titled “We Were Warned,” of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power [Paradigm, 2014], my second carefully researched Obama book not to make it into Garrow’s endnotes or bibliography).

Also largely missing – the other side of the coin of omission, so to speak – in Garrow’s sprawling acount is the elite corporate and financial class that made record-setting contributions to Obama’s rise with an understanding that Obama was very much on their side. How write a 1000-page plus account of Obama’s rise to power without at least once mentioning that august and unparalleled ruling class figure Robert Rubin, whose nod of approval was critical to Obama’s ascendancy? As Greg Palast noted, Rubin “opened the doors to finance industry vaults for Obama. Extraordinarily for a Democrat, Obama in 2008 raised three times as much from bankers as his Republican opponent.”

Rubin would also serve as a top informal Obama adviser and placed a number of his protégés in high-ranking positions in the Obama administration. Rubin’s Obama appointees included Timothy Geithner (Obama’s first treasury secretary), Peter Orszag (Obama’s first Office of Management and Budget director), and Larry Summers (first chief economic adviser).

Just as odd as his ignoring of MacFarquhar’s May 2007 essay is Garrow’s inattention to a remarkable report from Ken Silverstein’s six months before. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in November of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006.

His “dollar value” to Wall Street would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Garrow’s fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Sukind wrote, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

On Love and Admiration

As noted above, professor Jager told Garrow that the limits of Obama’s presidency stemmed from his longstanding “need to be loved and admired.” But surely that need would have been met to no small degree had Obama (like Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936) governed in at least partial accord with the progressive-sounding rhetoric he campaigned on in 2007 and 2008. Beyond the social, democratic, security and environmental benefits that would have been experienced by millions of Americans and world citizens under an actually progressive Obama presidency, such policy would have been good politics for both Obama and the Democratic Party. It might well have pre-empted the Tea Party rebellion and kept the orange-haired beast Donald Trump – a dodgy neo-fascistic legacy of Obama and the Clintons’ ruling- and professional-class Ivy League elitism – out of the White House.  The bigger problem here was Obama’s love and admiration for the nation’s reigning wealth and power elite – or, perhaps, his reasonable calculation that the powers that be held a monopoly on the means of bestowing public love and admiration. Non-conformism to the ruling class carries no small cost in a media and politics culture owned by that class.

The Biggest Omission: Empire

The most glaring thing missing in Rising Star is any understanding of U.S, Senator and presidential candidate Obama’s imperial world view. His brazenly “American exceptionalist” and imperial mindset, straight out of the Council on Foreign Relations, was written all over Obama’s foreign policy speeches and writings (including large sections of The Audacity of Hope) in 2006, 2007, and 2008. I wrote about this at length in the fourth chapter (titled “How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.

This significant omission but it is unsurprising given Garrow’s own apparent enmeshment in the American imperial mindset.  Rising Star’s long epilogue includes John McCain-like criticisms of Obama for failing to launch military strikes on Syria and for being too allergic to “the use, or even the threat of force” in global affairs. Garrow even offers a lengthy critical quote on the need for “the next president” to be more “resolute” from the former leading imperialist defense secretary Robert Gates, who Garrow strangely describes as “the weightiest and most widely respected voice of all.”

“Problems Out There with the Situation of African-Americans in Society”

Obama first became something of a celebrity when he became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review in February of 1990.  “I wouldn’t want people to see my election,” Obama told the Associated Press, “as a symbol that there aren’t problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” (Garrow, Rising Star, p. 392). Note the carefully calibrated nature of Obama’s public commentary already at the age of 28: “problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” could just as easily refer to alleged Black personal and cultural failure (a persistent white-pleasing theme in the rising star’s political rhetoric) as it could to cultural and/or institutional and societal racism.  Note also that while Obama’s election and re-election to the U.S. presidency brought few if any tangible material and policy gains to Black America (whose already terrible economic situation deteriorated significantly during his time in office), it functioned as something like the last nail in the coffin of many whites’ stark reluctance to acknowledge that the nation’s still deeply embedded racism any longer poses real barriers to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. “Are you kidding me?” I’ve heard countless whites say, “we elected a Black president! Stop talking about racism!” Never mind the persistence of deeply embedded racial inequality and oppression at the heart of the nation’s labor and housing markets, credit and investment systems, legal and criminal justice systems, its military and police state, and its educational and media systems – and the dogged tenacity of personal and cultural race prejudice among a considerable part of the white populace.  In that and other ways, the tragedy of the Obama years has been greatest of all for those at the bottom of the nation’s steep social and economic wells.

King v. Obama

If I could ask Garrow one question beyond the personal matter of why my own heavily researched and annotated study of (and Left warning on) “rising star” Obama (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics [Paradigm-Routledge, 2008]) is so egregiously missing in his bibliography and endnotes, it is this: what does Garrow think his previous epic biography subject Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. (who politely refused progressives’ effort to enlist him as a presidential candidate and whose bust sat behind Obama in the Oval Office), would have thought of the career of Garrow’s new epic biography subject, Barack Obama?

As Garrow knows, King in his final years inveighed eloquently against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” essentially capitalism, racism, and militarism-imperialism. King came to the end of his martyred life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in “men” as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them.  He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters. He had no interest, of course, in running for the White House of all things.

Obama took a very different path, one that enlisted him in service both to narcissistic self and to each of the very triple evils (and other ones as well) that King dedicated his life to resisting.

The Obama-King contrast continues into Obama’s post-presidential years.  As Garrow showed in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King. Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, 1986), the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. King sternly refused to cash in on his fame.  Now that he out of the White House, Obama, by contrast, is cashing in. He’s raking in millions from the publishing industry and Wall Street and he’s back to his old “hobnobbing” ways with the rich and famous.

The reverend would be 88 years old if he had been blessed with longevity.  My guess is that he would be less than pleased at the life and career of the nation’s first technically Black president.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/06/02/obama-a-hollow-man-filled-with-ruling-class-ideas/

Beyond Neoliberal Identity Politics

Last year,  Daniel Denvir insightfully described Hilary Clinton’s political strategy as “peak neoliberalism, where a distorted version of identity politics is used to defend an oligarchy and a national security state, celebrating diversity in the management of exploitation and warfare” (emphasis added).

This “peak” neoliberal identity politics (NIP) is a great weapon on the hands of the privileged capitalist Few and their mass-murderous global empire. It was central to the Barack Obama phenomenon and presidency. And it is very much alive and kicking atop the corporate Democratic Party and its various media allies more than half a year after Mrs. Clinton’s humiliating defeat.

It works like this. You couldn’t stand and vote even just “lesser evil”-style for the lying neoliberal warmonger (LNW) Hillary Clinton, the vicious tool and ally of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, and white supremacy?

Well, NIP says, that just proves that you are a sexist. You’ve got a gender problem. You just can’t deal with women in positions of authority.

Same to you if you dared to note the grotesque imperialism of Hillary’s good and fellow Russia-hating friend Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State.  Albright is the revolting imperial operative who told CBS that the murder of half a million Iraqi children (girls included) by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions was “a price worth paying” for the advance of U.S. foreign policy objectives. (Albright also said that there’s “a special place in Hell” for young women who didn’t vote for the LNW last year).

Same if you don’t do cartwheels over the participation of female U.S. pilots in the bombing of Afghan villagers.

Never mind all the women and girls included among the countless U.S. and world citizens harmed and menaced by neoliberal and imperial agenda that Mrs. Clinton has advanced no less fervently and viciously than her epic woman-abusing husband.

Never mind that fact that many feminist and progressive women could not stomach the corporatism and militarism of Hillary Clinton and backed Bernie Sanders (along with men who were absurdly shamed as “Berniebros” by the Hillary campaign) in the Democratic presidential primaries? Or that you voted for a woman (Jill Stein) for president.

No, NIP says. you hated on Hillary because you don’t believe in women’s rights.

You criticized the first Black U.S. president’s captivity and service to the aforementioned unelected dictatorships and you refused to jump on board his fake-progressive hopey-changey train?  You denounced Obama’s relentless and dedicated service to the rich and powerful? You, didn’t support Obama’s drone-bombing of Muslim women and children with a not-so targeted assassination program Noam Chomsky rightly called “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”?

Well, NIP huffs, that just shows what a racist you are.  You must have a problem with Black people in positions of authority.

Never mind the many millions, nay billions of people of color who were harmed and menaced by the neoliberal and imperial agenda that Obama advanced no less fervently and viciously than the Clintons.  Never mind your warnings and observations on the many-sided disaster that the Obama phenomenon and presidency was (and still is) for the cause of Black equality. Or the fact that many Black Americans dissented from the sickening notion that putting a technically Black face in the nation’s top symbolic high place was a solution to racism’s persistent presence at the heart of American life.

Concerned about the downward pressure that African and Mexican immigrants can have on wages and union bargaining power in your local labor market?

Well, NIP sneers, that just shows what a nativist, white-nationalist FOX News-watching racist you are.

Never mind local employers’ gleeful exploitation of immigrant labor as a low-wage and working class-dividing windfall – or your own efforts to fight for immigrant rights and the inclusion of immigrants in struggles for improved working and living conditions.

Worried about how the influx of rich students from China is helping inflate college and university tuition costs, helping price working-class U.S. kids out of higher education in the U.S.? Find the conspicuous consumption and single-minded business orientation of many of these Chinese students distasteful?

NIP thinks that just shows that you are a racist nativist who secretly wants to bring back the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Never mind how much you have written, said, and/or done about and against the ruthless, neo-Dickensian exploitation of the Chinese proletariat – the source of the wealth that makes it possible for upper-echelon Chinese families to send their only children to U.S. universities.

Dare to note that the massive influx of women into the U.S. job market during and since the 1970s has helped the employer class suppress hourly wages and contributed to a crisis in working class family life?

NIP says that shows what a male chauvinist you are.  You obviously believe that “a woman’s place is in the home.” You must be a sexist who wants to roll back the clock on women’s rights

Never mind your own longstanding support of gender equality within and beyond the workplace.

Worried about recent data showing that white U.S. working class males are undergoing an historic decline in their life expectancy thanks to the collapse of the job market for working class men in the neoliberal era?

That shows NIP that you are a white sexist who only cares about white men.

Never mind your long opposition to sexism, racism, nativism, and other evils.

Find it less than surprising that many working class and rural whites react poorly to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” given the fact that they have been told that their lives don’t matter by neoliberal capitalism over the last four-plus decades?

That just shows that you are a racist who doesn’t understand the special oppression experienced by people of color.

Never mind your long record of denouncing and opposing racism and your defense of the phrase “Black lives matter.”

You don’t support the dangerous U.S.-imperial project of humiliating Russia?

That just shows that you adore great white nationalist strongmen like Vladimir Putin. You secretly want to go back to the good old days of unchallenged white male supremacy.

Never mind your consistent and steadfast criticism of Putin’s neoliberal oligarchy along with his racism and his sexism.

Can’t stand history or sociology (or other humanities or “social science”) professors who focus  on race and/or ethnicity and/or gender and/or sexual orientation and/or religion and/or nationality and/or age and/or ecology to the absurd exclusion of class in the making of history and current events?

That just shows that you are a racist and/or nativist and/or homophobe and/or religious bigot and/or ageist and/or eco-cidalist.

Never mind the centrality of class inequality and power to the development of race/racism, ethnicity/ethnic oppression, gender/sexism, homophobia, age-ism.

Never mind that the environmental crisis is rooted above all in the exterminist madness of capitalist class rule

There’s a name for all this identity-politicized madness in which so many fake-progressive bourgeois liberals are invested: ruling class divide-and-rule.

I am not one of those social democratic and conomistic, class-reductionist sorts who says that any and all identity politics must be forsaken.  No Left worthy of the label should deny or ignore the specific experience and oppression of females, Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, gays. transgendered people, Muslims, Arabs. Africans, and so on. Discounting the particularities of peoples’ lives and subjugation as they relate to racial, gender, sexual, ethnic, and national identity leads nowhere morally or politically.

What needs to be rejected is the paralyzing and reactionary kind of bourgeois identitarianism to which the dismal, dollar-drenched neoliberal Democratic Party is so deeply attached. As Conor Lynch noted on Salon last fall, “The Clinton campaign tried to make [the 2016] election all about Trump’s hatefulness (‘Love Trumps Hate’) and his ‘basket of deplorables,’ while offering no real vision of progressive and populist change…when those on the left raised legitimate concerns about Clinton’s uninspiring message or her political baggage during and after the primaries, they were ridiculously labeled sexist or racist ‘bros’ by establishment figures (even though some of Clinton’s harshest progressive critics were in fact women and people of color ).”

The left at its best has understood identity in ways opposed to both ruling class divide-and-conquer and class reductionism.  As Louis Proyect reflected last December on Counterpunch:

“While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole… Back to the 1960s…Trotskyist …leaders conceived of the coming American revolution as a kind of united front of different struggles that would come together on a basis of shared class interests. If that is a concession to ‘identity politics,’ I plead guilty A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.”

That’s exactly right. It approaches identity in a way meant to build working class solidarity in opposition to capital whereas NIP is all about dividing the working class in service to capital. Imagine.