Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The State of Obama

What a difference a year makes, but I just can't join the chorus of finding anything President Obama said last night in his third State of the Union address interesting or acceptable. Why pretend you're happy with crumbs when you can see that there's a whole cake there for the taking?

After listening to Rmoney, Swingrich, the hateful Rick Santorum and the kooky racist Ron Paul for several weeks, of course at first one is struck hearing Obama's intelligent, measured words by a sense of relief. He's trying to connect with people, and mostly in a positive way. The dogwhistle of blaming poor people or black people or immigrants or gays (yes, Rick Santorum, that would be you) for the nation's woes is gone. The intentional lies are notably absent, or at least prettier. He invokes fairness. He brings up eminently reasonable proposals. He doesn't sound like a carnival barker (hi Newt!), and his emotional range usually seems genuine instead of learned in front of a mirror while listening to Ronald Reagan tapes (hi Mittens!).

But we are so numbed by the extreme-right horror show on the Republican side of the aisle that I think it's too easy to be distracted by our wishful thinking into missing what is actually going on.

Last night President Obama beat the same war drums we're used to from Republicans. That line about "all options being on the table" regarding Iran — recently echoed, by the way, by liberal darling Elizabeth Warren — is an actual threat to pre-emptively attack a foreign sovereign state. It's based on stale warmed-over hype recipes from the Bush era about Iraq. And speaking of George W. Bush, even that warmongering mass murderer called for a democratic Palestinian state in his last State of the Union address. Last night Obama mentioned only the American commitment to Israel, the country currently engaged in massive ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in both the Occupied Territories and Israel proper. Obama is actually war mongering. He is actually engaged in covert wars and assassinations. How could it get worse than that?

Obama doesn't brag about the policies of repression and the stifling of dissent that his government is deeply pursuing. But the fact that he didn't mention them in his speech doesn't mean they're not happening. We cannot just look away and pretend that these things could be worse. They're already about as worse as they can be. He signed the NDAA that potentially guts due process. He had a teen-aged American citizen assassinated along with his more notorious American citizen father. His law enforcement agents have waged campaigns of harassment against peace and international solidarity activists. Many believe the fall's national campaign of repression against Occupy encampments was coordinated from the very top halls of so-called law enforcement. When he uses the nebulous term "immigration reform," what he really means is deporting more of our neighbors.

To those of us who wished for real national healthcare in this country, in his speech last night Obama bragged about his health insurance reform being kept in the private profit-making sphere. We can't keep telling ourselves that we had to give up the so-called public option only because of congressional horse-wrangling over votes: the truth is we didn't get it because Obama didn't want it. He's not lying to us: we're lying to ourselves.

In his speech he parroted the same ridiculous small government/tax-cutting rhetorical nonsense the Republicans play. He is absolutely pandering to Republicans. And while it could be argued that mere pandering is harmless, remember how just this last year his administration abandoned environmental protections and advances in contraception. Over and over we tell ourselves that Obama is pandering to the right when it's actually the left that is being pandered and condescended to. And oh yes, that payroll tax holiday he keeps waving about: that is the death of Social Security as we know it. We won't find that out till later, of course.

He can claim that he wants "fairness" but I'm not seeing it. The deck is still stacked in favor of what we euphemistically call "Wall Street." And let's be clear: this is not because Obama is a bad person as the Republicans would have it, but because he is a creature of the 1%. He is acting in his own interests, and in the interests of his friends and colleagues. You and I are not included in that list, no matter how many folksy e-mail appeals to wish Joe, Jill & Michelle a happy birthday that you receive from the Obama reelection campaign. It's really time to stop projecting values on Obama that he just doesn't have.

Almost two weeks ago my local Brooklyn occupy group, Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park, had a wildly successful event for Martin Luther King's birthday (I promise a full report soon). I gave a short presentation toward the end of the program. These are from my notes for my remarks:

"2012 is an election year, and somebody is going to promise you that your life will be better if you vote for them. You're free to vote for whoever you like, but my guess is that you're going to be disappointed. Because democracy, the people exercising the right to live and work together fairly and justly, is not really about elections.
History does not remember Dr. King running for office. History does not record who Dr. King voted for. What History remembers is Dr. King leading the people to go out in the street to take what belongs to them. Dr. King showed us the links between big issues like racism and injustice, enforced poverty and the outrages of war. But he also showed us the importance of coming together right here in our own communities to fight for what is right. If you're waiting for a politician to save you you're going to be waiting a very long time. This is up to us."

Again and again we are disappointed in who we vote for. Hell, I argued for supporting Obama last time around even as I suspected this disappointment would return. For three years now I've also watched self-identified progressives struggle with Obama. Over many issues in the last three years anger welled up against him from the left. I am embarrassed that at times I argued against that anger. And yet now as the likes of Rmoney and Swingrich gather like bathroom mildew, these progressives return to the circle of wagons around Obama.

We think it will be worse under the Republicans than under Obama. But is that really true? What if the worse is already true. When Obama is looking to compare himself to... Teddy Roosevelt, this is a sign that we should heed. For people who think of themselves as 21st-century progressives that is called aiming very very low. I read a bitter comment on a blog today: Obama supporters "would defend Hitler, if he had only been a Democrat: 'He only killed 6 million Jews... hell look how many he left alive!'" A little harsh perhaps, but it makes a certain point. Where does the constant need to apologetically find Obama's silver lining come from? Weakness, I think.

I'm actually not at the point of telling anyone not to vote. I guess in some ways I still hold the position that since elections will have one of two winners, it's not more harmful voting for a lesser evil than wasting a dollar on a lottery ticket, in the off chance it winds up making a slight difference. But I am more and more convinced that as long as we devote our energy to a game that is designed to disappoint us, we will get only what we're asking for. Asking for a lesser evil is still asking for evil. Why not ask for something one actually wants? Excuse me, why not take what one is actually entitled to! In 2008 this seemed like an abstraction. In 2012, with the sea change in consciousness called Occupy Wall Street, it doesn't seem like an unimaginable goal to make the elections irrelevant. Maybe, just maybe, we're no longer weak.

I'm not going to spend the months between now and November fretting about the election. I'm going to spend it trying to organize my community, trying to spread the possibilities of the Occupy movement. Obama's not going to save us. We're going to save ourselves.

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