MoveOn t-shirt celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the U.S.
WHO GOT IT RIGHT
by John Halle
A common lament among progressives involves those who got it wrong-in many cases, disastrously wrong-walking away from their collisions with reality not only with their reputations untarnished, but actually rewarded in the form of increased access to circles of political power and media influence.
Parade examples include liberal hawks Michael O’Hanlon, Thomas Friedman, Peter Beinart and others, not to mention Hillary Clinton whose enabling of the Iraq disaster is taken as a prime qualification for being placed at the foreign policy helm.
Matched with them is a similar collection of elite technocrats from the Robert Rubin circle such as Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner joined by Fed chief Bernanke now being provided the opportunity to run the economy into the ground a second time, while their enablers in the media-the most conspicuous being CNBC hypemaster Jim Kramer continue to enjoy the status of financial gurus.
All this is always good for a few chortles from the gallows from what passes for the left and maybe boosts our morale-something we need a lot of now.
Unfortunately, we can only go so far with this before realizing that the laugh is also on us.
For just as the establishment right and center got Iraq and the economy wrong, the establishment left was indulging in its own fantasy world, and it was one which is now coming to bite us on the proverbial ass, namely the fantasy of Barack Obama.
Plenty of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about “misjudgments” which caused the left to swoon over a candidate who rejected virtually the entirety of what the left (by any reasonable definition) believes. And even more anguish is caused by the grim reality that Obama is now acting on his deepest beliefs: expanding the war on terror, torpedoing banking reform, extending Bush tax cuts, while demanding fiscal austerity in the midst of what appears to be a second great depression.
How We Could Have Known
How could we have known? The answer is that we could have if we had listened.
For there were those who were speaking up but our alleged “reality based community” refused to hear them. Their voices were, quite literally, censored and those raising them were, figuratively speaking, disappeared.
As should have been obvious then and is painfully obvious now, left outlets ranging from the Nation to In These Times to the American Prospect passed over virtually all discouraging words during the campaign denying them access lest they threaten to put a damper on the party atmosphere deemed necessary for selling the Obama product.
The establishment left media was complemented by the progressive blogosphere which reached clinical levels of delusion during the campaign. In dealing with dissenting voices, passive censorship was replaced with the iron fist of repression. At what have now become known as “access blogs” such as Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, and Democratic Underground, those suggesting that the Democratic nominee was anything less than a messiah were subjected to vicious personal attacks, troll rated and in short order summarily banned from discussion boards.
Rather than revisiting the Zombie-like behavior of much of the left during this period, well documented by the Onion, it is by this point probably best forgotten.
What is important now is where we are going-whether the left has learned from its absurd dalliance with a smooth talking Chicago neo-liberal and is now capable of the requisite level of skepticism in our dealings with him as chief executive and the objectively reactionary policies of his administration.
A Tale of Two Professors
As an indication of the distance we still have to travel, it is instructive to focus on a single comparison between two Ivy League professors who made their views known on the Obama phenomenon during the 2008 campaign.
One of these is UPenn Political Science Professor Adolph Reed whose experience goes back to Obama’s much hyped days as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Far from being favorably impressed, in a Village Voice column from 1996, Reed noted the latter’s “vacuous to repressive neo-liberal politics” and presciently described these as “the wave of the future.” This future would arrive in 2008 when right wing governance and ideology were successfully marketed to progressives by establishment liberals as “transformative leadership.”
Among those selling the Obama product most successfully was another Ivy league Professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton. In increasingly high-profile appearances, Harris-Lacewell repeatedly compared the Obama campaign to iconic moments in the civil rights movement such as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Once the Obama administration assumed office, apologetics for neo-liberal rhetoric smoothly transitioned to apologetics for the implementation of neo-liberal policies. These required some logical contortions and more than a little cynicism. Thus, in a stunning Martin Luther Day King posting at the Nation, Harris-Lacewell chose to focus on instances of King’s dealmaking, personal failings and sell-outs of core constituencies. The conclusion, according to Harris-Lacewell, was that the comparison of Obama and King remained in force: “extraordinary change can be achieved even through imperfect leadership . . . wholeheartedly groping toward better and fairer solutions for our nation.”
It would seem that very few leftists remain who are willing and able to accept the Polyannish equation of the current occupier of the Oval Office with the author of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Nor would many grant the benefit of doubt that Obama’s “gropings” are anything other than simple pay-backs to his primary constituency, the Wall Street brokerage houses, megabanks, insurance companies, energy consortia, and lobbyists who financed his campaign. Given this emerging consensus, one might have expected that Harris-Lacewell’s commentaries would be seen as having a limited shelf life while Prof. Reed’s inconvenient truths would be recognized for what they are: as what we needed to hear then-and need to hear now.
But nothing of the sort has occurred. Prof. Harris Lacewell remains a guest frequently encountered not only on the liberal wing of the corporate media represented by MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman but at seemingly authentic alternative left outlets such as Laura Flanders’s GritTV. More disconcertingly, a continuing flow of Obamapologetics will likely be offered through Harris-Lacewell’s recently announced “Sister Citizen” to appear weekly in the Nation, an editorial decision which will reduce the contributions of iconic left columnist Alexander Cockburn to once a month.
In contrast to this upward trajectory, Reed remains at his post at Penn, his book on the Obama phenomenon eagerly awaited by a few followers but otherwise a largely invisible prophet undeserving of honor, at least as far as the establishment left is concerned.
An Honor Roll
These two academics are, of course, not the sole representatives of their respective positions with respect to the Obama phenomenon. Harris-Lacewell, while perhaps more enthusiastically fellative than most was different only in degree from Michael Moore, Thomas Frank, Katha Pollit, Michael Tomasky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, and numerous others from whom one would have hoped (if not expected) to have asked the right questions and prepared the left for the outcome we are now facing.
Furthermore, while Reed was the earliest to sound the alarm, there were others attempting to do so, among them Paul Street whose widely ignored Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics anticipates some of the arguments which will appear in Reed’s forthcoming book. Another was the trio of Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford and Margaret Kimberly at the Black Agenda Report, whose on the ground experience with Obama mirrored that of Reed and led to nearly identical warnings to the left. From his Washington perch, Sam Smith of the Progressive Review saw the light in the tunnel as the oncoming train which would materialize as did former NY Times correspondent, Chris Hedges whose views on this and other matters has by now relegated him to non-person status. Finally, there was Nader’s Vice Presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez whose entry into the race was announced by an impressively researched bill of particulars published in Counterpunch.
These are a few entries deserving inclusion on an all-too-short honor role. The point here is that, rather than being rewarded for being right, these figures remain on the marginal fringes of left discourse.
In other words, those who got it wrong dictate not only destructive neo-liberal administration policies from the inside, but how these are to be opposed (if at all) by a left which should have long since been on the streets as if our lives depend on it.
That they do, perhaps more than at any time in our history, should be obvious to anyone with their eyes open.
John Halle is a former alderman for the city of New Haven, Connecticut, and is on the faculty at Bard College in New York State where he teaches music theory and is active as a composer.
This piece was first published in Corrente on March 1, 2010.
To see other political writings by John Halle you can visit his website johnhalle.com.