An Intractable Conflict?

•January 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As the images of carnage from Gaza continue to roll in everyday it is hard not feel some emotion well up inside. The spectacle of grand human suffering tends to do that. Whether it is sympathy toward the Gazans, or anger at Hamas, one’s position on the conflict in Gaza is easy to articulate, but almost impossible to reconcile with opposing opinion. And unlike other seemingly intractable issues of left and right, where acrimony is constant, the tragedy of Israel and Palestine is that the conflict is punctuated by moments of potential reconciliation, such as the Oslo Accords of 1993. And then, there also are moments like the current Israeli incursion into Gaza, where reconciliation becomes an impossibility, and hundreds of lives are lost.

For those of us with no horse in the race, so to speak (I am of neither Arabic, nor Jewish descent), lines are too often drawn left and right. The usual arguments resurface, abound with debates on the definition of terrorism, proportionality, the right to exist and how far back history reaches until it becomes irrelevant. Then to complicate things further, we have to come to terms with the argument that we cannot apply Western standards to a conflict that is essentially local and impenetrable to Western standards, an argument that is very convincing when looking at Iraq, but weak considering American and international responsibility in the region. With such a morass of tired arguments, it is difficult to navigate toward an understanding, but what many of us who have no ties to the region can agree upon is the absolute necessity for negotiations. And this is where blame really can be apportioned.

Usually when discussing Palestine and Israel there is a sense that one must take into account historical context, i.e. if you don’t your history then you have no idea what you are talking about. And before the second Gulf War this would be correct, but when considering the current catastrophe we need only look back as far as March 2003, when the first of three actors precipitated the current crisis. First, the US invaded Iraq and strengthened Iran’s hand, by not only emasculating one of just two Islamic neighbors that could counter Iran’s power in the region (the other being Saudi Arabia), but by also fostering an Iraqi government sympathetic to Iran’s Shiite ruling class. The sudden injection of Iran’s influence in the Middle East allowed it to empower Hezbollah, resulting in Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006 and severely damaging Israel’s image. The third and most influential of all, occurred in 2005 when Hamas, whose charter includes the destruction of Israel, was elected to govern Gaza. The combination of these three factors has made Israeli leadership believe that it is imperative for Israel to demonstrate its might.

Ostensibly, Israel’s motive for the recent attack is to end rocket strikes into its territory, but it has become increasingly clear that the chief goal of the operation is to remove Hamas from power by force, and this is where Israel’s arrogance descends into foolishness. Many cite that Ariel Sharon’s bold move of removing both soldiers and settlers from Gaza should have been enough to halt Palestinian aggression. This, however, is not acknowledging Israel’s total control over the territory, a control that Israel has wielded with indifference ever since Hamas gained power. By blockading imports and exports in and out of Gaza, and at one point cutting off all electrical power to the region, Israel has utterly strangled the Gazan economy, causing a prolonged humanitarian crisis. During this time the UN Human Rights Council, along with NGOs such as OXFAM and Amnesty International, have repeatedly condemned Israel’s actions.

At this point Israel had two options. One, to negotiate with with a weakened adversary, or, two, remove Hamas and renew its strength, reestablishing the status quo. For Israel, it would appear that the bigger risk was to step into the unknown and negotiate with a terrorist group. While it could have yielded a more constructive future with the Palestinians the risk was that negotiating with Hamas might further the notion of a weakened Israel. And with an empowered Iran to the east and Hezbollah to the north, reestablishing the status quo was a ‘safer’ option for Israel. Incidentally, a poll taken last February by Haaretz-Dialog poll showed that the majority of Israelis supported dialogue with Hamas, so it appears that geo-politics was far more influential in the decision to strike rather popular support.

And now approximately 700 Palestinians and ten Israelis are dead. Although having normal service resumed reassures Israel’s security chiefs that it can now play a game it understands, it only serves to incite more violence, of which both populations are sick of.

Israel’s reluctance to negotiate with Hamas is further compounded by the the failure of the vast majority of the international community to recognize Hamas authority in Gaza. This reluctance reflects a general attitude that Hamas represents an extreme minority faction. This attitude fits just right in with the both neo-conservative and liberal views, namely, that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, the bad ones being the religious ones who blow themselves up. This is a view that is destructive and protracts the current stalemate. Hamas does indeed represent an extreme element of the Gazan population but Hamas governs the Gaza strip after winning fair and democratic elections, thus representing the majority of Gazans. To not acknowledge this and to be complicit in its forceful removal is to deny democracy to the very region that the US is attempting to export democracy. Before any negotiations begin the legitimacy of Hamas must first be recognized by the international community. Without that recognition Israel has little or pressure to negotiate.

Though Hamas is guilty of heinous crimes in the name of its cause, there can be no denying that Israel has committed its fair share of horror too, as we continue to witness today. The key to begin relieving the situation is for one party to step into the unknown and risk demonstrating weakness. In order to achieve this, the US, Israel’s main partner, must break rank and also step into the unknown and recognize a terrorist group as a legitimate government. I understand that this is very unlikely given the unique relationship between the US and Israel, not to mention AIPAC’s influence over Obama, but, as we have seen in the past, negotiations with terrorists are possible. We need only remember John Major approaching the IRA in the early 1999s, the reconciliation achieved in South Africa and also the talks between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat.

It is only when leaders take great leaps of faith, and put aside abstract geo-political policy, can peace really be aspired to. Unfortunately, that looks like a long way off in the Middle East right now.



Hope and Change – The Free Trade Way

•November 8, 2008 • 2 Comments

Bittersweet. That has been the word of the day here in California since November 5th. The term has been used by many who felt a new dawn in a president Obama but crushed after the safe passage of Proposition 8 (the proposition to ban gay marriage in California). It certainly has been a confusing few days for civil rights advocates. On the day that a mixed-race man won the race to the White House three states in the union outlawed same-sex marriage. Arkansas went even further by outlawing gay couples to adopt.

Making sense of this step-back and step-forward for civil rights for many was made cloudier still as the exit-polls showed that blacks and latinos voted overwhelmingly in favor of Prop.8, causing many an advocate of gay and civil rights to feel betrayed and bewildered. But identity politics is not the way to go on this one. The identity of those who voted in favor of Prop. 8 is neither here nor there. It just obscures the more pertinent quandary, namely the crazy idea that the will of the majority can overturn the right of a minority and also legal interpretation of the Constitution. It’s not like some people have access to the fourteenth amendment and some people don’t. Minority rights are protected. Or should be anyway. That’s why we have a Supreme Court. Anyway I lose my thread.

Bittersweet is also an appropriate word for me to describe my own feelings on Obama’s election, though not exclusively because of Prop. 8’s passing. My reaction so far has been characterized not by Obama’s race (this election was much more than a referendum on race)  but his apparent instant failure to stick to the two cornerstones of his campaign: ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Admittedly vague and prone to interpretation I believe that the two notions still can be identified by the distillation of the expectations carried by Obama supporters. For example I would imagine no-one would argue the contrary if I were to suggest that Obama supporters expected him to make government listen, or, in light of the current financial crisis, delineate the paths of Washington and Wall Street instead of allowing the revolving door situation that breeds conflicts of interest. There was also a definite sense that he would consider in his decision-making process those people who struggle to make ends meet. But above all, people expected competency and a sure-hand, especially in the last stages of the campaign when the opposition appeared more and more erratic and unstable. That’s what I had hoped for anyway. But judging by the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and the front-runners for Treasury Secretary it would appear that Obama has thrown expectations of hope and change to the wind, and has indicated that how he would govern the economy: Clinton-style neo-liberalism

The current front-runners for the one of the four most important seats in the cabinet are Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, both former Treasury Secretaries and Clinton administration veterans. It would be no exaggeration to say that under Clinton these two men, along with others, sowed the seeds for the economic catastrophe that we now find ourselves mired in. Less so than Bush, it was on Clinton’s watch with the fervent advocacy of Rubin and Summers that the credit markets were deregulated and the all important Glass-Steagall Act repealed. Glass-Steagall, by the way, was enacted in 1933 to prevent the causes of the Great Depression from ever happening again, namely wild speculation and the the mixing of commercial and investment banks, and its repeal in 1999 is now one of the direct causes of the greatest economic catastrophe this country has seen since the Great Depression.

Lets be clear, it wasn’t only Rubin who advocated the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Or Summers who proposed deregulating credit markets but having enjoyed important and influential positions throughout the Clinton administration and adhering to the ideology of self regulated markets the blood on their hands is more than the Wall Street CEOs combined.

There was an outcry from the general publuc as Wall Street asked for 500 trillion dollars. Many wanted Wall Street heads to roll but surely it is the dog-handlers and not the dogs who should be held accountable for the dogs’ actions. Those on Wall Street played the game according to the rules given to them and played it well. Lets remember Wall Street owes nothing to “the people” and its interest is self interest. However, the government  most certainly does owe the people and to potentially reinstate those who carry much of the blame for the current crisis is surely poor decision making, even incompetency and, at worst favoring the wisdom of the moneyed classes over those who swept Obama to power.

I anticipate that many will say that change cannot be had so soon or that Obama seeks to understand all sides of the equation and that is why he needs people with experience around him. Yet, if Rubin or Summers or one of their proteges like Timothy Geithner is named as Treasury Secretary it would be like having Goebbels convene the Nuremberg Trials.

My main fear for an Obama administration will be that there are so many of us who have felt powerless to prevent the disaster that was the last eight years, that we will be all too content to return to a normalcy that resembles the Clinton years, a normalcy we are now only beginning to pay for. But shouldn’t we demand more from our government? Shouldn’t we demand protection from not only the physical dangers of society but also the financial dangers inherent in the vagaries of those who wield enormous economic power over the rest of us? It is important to note that we sometimes forget that we are entitled to wield the power over it.

I want to make it clear that I believe that the market should not be controlled by government but rather, herded by the government so that it cannot run rampant over the property of others when spooked by panic. This is neither a left or right issue for me and nor should it be. Asking for protection, accountability and representation are just some of the prerequisites for democracy. I’m not asking for Jeffersonian idealism. In the words of Lincoln and now Obama, I would just like “a government of the people, by the people for the people.”

Isn’t that what he said?

Remember Why Obama Was Going To Win?

•September 10, 2008 • 4 Comments

Remember that scene in Home Alone, where Catherine O’ Hara, after having fought against all odds to get her super large family on the plane, rests in the knowledge that she has succeeded but then suddenly realizes that she had forgotten something – her son. The horror infuses her face and she abruptly screams her son’s name in a terrific panic.

Well after having spent a week gleefully mocking McCain’s pick for Vice President Democrats are experiencing that same face of horror and that very same panic i.e. after feeling that Obama’s ascent to the Presidency was fool-proof Democrats may just lose again.

When I first heard about the choice of Sarah Palin my immediate reaction was of visceral admiration for Republican strategists. They took a huge risk by co-opting Obama’s strategy during the primaries and essentially stole the excitement rug from under the Democrats. And although it is certainly true that Obama’s star has been on the wane for a couple of months he was always still able to claim the change factor as his mantle. On the presidential platform he was accompanied by two older white men, and so could back up that idea of change without policies that would actually lead to substantial change. Not so anymore. Palin’s nomination has reshuffled the deck relegating Obama to somewhere in the middle, while most people cannot tell the difference between Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman.

The choice of Palin really was a stroke of genius on the part of Republicans. Unlike Obama who since his meteoric rise has fudged many issues, some irrelevant (lapel flag pin) and some highly consequential (votes for FISA, The Farm Bill, and a no-show for a vote on tax credits for utilities grade alternative energy), Palin has less than two months until election day and come the end of October her star will still be rising. She has no need to water down any of her positions in that time and so, easily sustains her current image as Walmart Mom. And however unlikely it might be that she will amend her stance on abortion in the future, it will not matter to Republicans because they will have already won the election.

The enthusiasm gap is very real, and on this major front McCain/Palin are winning handily, and will win unless Obama addresses that. But what props up the enthusiasm gap is the leadership gap and Obama also loses on that front. Fairly or unfairly McCain and Palin are seen as leaders by default – patriotic war hero, and reformist governor. Obama simply doesn’t have that. While Obama’s capitulation on some core progressive issues has diminshed the magic that drove his base earlier in the year the greater impact on the election will be how these changes will play out with independent swing voters. To me it is largely irrelevant whether or not issues such as the fourth amendment or corporate welfare have much traction with the average independent. More important for that swing voter is that after seeming to fudge on important issues, Obama has shown, time after time, an exceptional lack of leadership.

Let me explain myself here. Unlike many I believe that the vast majority of the electorate neither fully subscribes to a leftist or rightist ideology. And lets be honest, not many pay that much attention and rather than adhere to any kind of doctrine, most are guided (and pardon the expression), by gut reaction with the notion of fairness as its compass e.g. corporations ripping me off – BAD, giving welfare to lazy people, also BAD. So although the issues are important I think the electorate respond far greater to strong leadership, leaders who take a stand. And as long as that stand isn’t diametrically opposed to those individual viewpoints, leadership and a common uplifting vision trump issues if, indeed, that leadership is  seen as strong enough. Obama already has the opaque vision, but there is a gaping void where leadership should be. This is what Democrats are picking their brains about just like Catherine O’Hara on that plane in Home Alone. What was it that we forgot? LEADERSHIP!!! Just like every other election.

I think it is pretty safe to blame risk averse Democratic campaign strategists for losing the last two elections by watering down Al Gore and John Kerry. They were well versed in professional campaign etiquette and apparently told not to stand out too much and run on the party platform as opposed to the individual. There is no doubt that they were both seen as weak leaders because of this. Admittedly, Republican smear tactics had much to do with the losses but they were merely exploiting the weaknesses that were already apparent. The ironic thing is, of course, is that I saw Kerry speak a few months ago and it was almost heartbreaking in a Greek tragedy kind of way. I couldn’t believe he was the same man. Honestly, he was electric. Honestly. And as for Gore, he took the idea of leadership and truly ran with that one.

It is time for the Democratic strategists to learn from these mistakes and give the green light for a candidate to take leadership on an issue. Obama’s color alone cannot represent the change he proposes anymore, and I for one will be sick as soon as I see Obama two years from now speaking out clearly and passionately and taking a stand simply because he is unfettered from campaign managers who feel it is safer to dilute an issue than it is to lead on it.

So what does Obama do now?

Lay claim to an issue, just so long as it doesn’t interfere with his vision of a ‘better Washington’. It would invigorate his lethargic base, capture media attention and start chipping away at that swing voter block.

And everyone knows which issue is begging to be led on: the economy, the mainstay of Democratic politics and exactly where Americans want leadership. Now my point isn’t that Obama hasn’t been right on the economy. For the most part I agree with his analysis and his solutions, but he has yet to claim ownership of the economy. In 2004 Bush owned national security at a time when the majority were most concerned with terrorism and the war. His disastrous leadership after 9/11 sadly, was, still, just that: leadership. He owned the issue by making much of the the electorate feel safe. This year though, people are losing their jobs and losing their homes, and to win the election Obama not only needs to present clear and comprehensive solutions to the economic crisis he needs to embody those solutions. He cannot do this by simply attacking Palin and McCain and equating them to Bush. He will get no traction there because Palin has successfully represented change for the Republicans.

If Obama is to avoid the political post-mortem in November he needs to lead, a quality Democrats have been missing for a long, long time.

Israel and Obama

•June 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

“We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions, but with a cleareyed understanding of our interests. We have no time to waste. We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We have tried limited, piecemeal talks while we outsource the sustained work to our European allies. It is time for the United States to lead.”

(Excerpts from Obama’s speech to AIPAC, June 4, 2008). Link to full transcript.

In my first entry for Oddlyamerican I argued that the symbolism of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa grew so powerful that it became a detriment to the very people he represented. Mandela’s symbolism and its corollary celebration was so great, so intoxicating and heady that it seemed he could do nothing wrong. The effect of which was to overshadow the hypocrisy of his crippling economic policies and limit any criticism of his administration. I summed up my criticism as such:

“… it is very dangerous to deify people like Nelson Mandela. Instead, Mandela (like all other leaders and elected officials), should be judged on their policies and actions and not their symbolic capacity to engender hope, especially when those policies directly conflict with their version of hope.”

It was with this argument in mind that I challenged my own strong support for Barack Obama in the sense that he too was a symbolic candidate of change, conciliation and hope. As exuberance for Obama grew I felt it was important not to get carried away with the excitement of his candidacy and check myself. So as objectively as I could and using the criteria of his legislative record, consistency and policy proposals I managed to justify my support for Obama.

But more specifically my support for Obama was grounded less in his position on particular issues or ideology (indeed, I thought his position on healthcare was embarrassingly weak at a time when support for market driven healthcare was at a low), and more in his commitment to democratic principles and the constitution that won my support. His rhetoric of unity and promise of conciliation through a government where everyone had a seat at the table was very appealing to me, especially within the context of the alienating Bush administration and the duplicitous Clinton years.

In that first post I wrote that Obama “attempts to usher in a new era of politics by flushing out the old, typically characterized as adversarial or dominated by special interests.”

How wrong I was.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination just over two weeks ago, the media was awash with the historic magnitude of his nomination. It was as if America were once again returning to the job of absolving itself for its ugliest sin. The premature self-congratulation ringing throughout America bore the resonant chords of atonement and celebration but it also drew that same heavy veil of symbolism that obscured Mandela’s devastating mistakes.

As I awoke the following morning, ready at last to take a breath before campaigning for the big one in November and enjoy the victory I saw that Obama was about to deliver a speech to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with Hillary Clinton following him. There was only one thing on my mind at that point: would Clinton concede.

What followed convinced me that I could not campaign for Barack Obama in November.

To say that Obama’s AIPAC speech was a total betrayal of his campaign platform thus far is not to overstate things. The content and wording he delivered for AIPAC was so alien to his previous speeches, so contradictory that it became instantly clear that this was an obvious pander to the most powerful lobby group in the US. Indeed, within the first few minutes he managed to equate the current violence against the Jewish state by Palestinians to the Holocaust.

Following a brief story recounting the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Obama uttered the requisite words of leadership in such situations: “never again”, and immediately used it to justify Israel’s ‘birth’ and defence. Even though it appeared a little distasteful for a non-Jewish politician to pander to his audience like this, the position is a valid one all the same and one taken by many Jews and others alike, but in a region where many suffer as a direct consequence of Israel’s birth and existence, it is both morally and intellectually reprehensible for a politician with no allegiance to any faction in the region, to choose a side and to put forth a perspective so narrow in scope.

Any serious debate on Israel and Palestine – if it is to be productive – must always acknowledge the suffering that both sides have inflicted upon each other, but it must also be recognized that the Palestinians have lost much more, by any measure, than the Israelis and continue to do so in ever plummeting depths. Instead of showing an understanding of the frustrations on both sides, as Obama previously has been apt to do, he elected to celebrate Israel’s defiance by promising more billion dollar subsidies for their defense forces complimented by rhetoric that Donald Rumsfeld would have been proud of. This was not the Obama we have come to expect.

When he delivered his tremendous speech on race on Philadelphia back in March, Obama demonstrated a quality that had been sorely missing in political leaders for a long time: a deep understanding of a highly sensitive issue and the willingness to lay out its many nuances for the public. It was almost as refreshing as a black man being taken seriously for office. But Obama went further still. Not unlike Mandela in his magnanimity, he showed sympathy to those poor whites who disdained blacks for benefiting from affirmative action, and while not forgiving them their prejudices Obama acknowledged their grievances. It was this exceptional speech that ultimately proved Obama to be the candidate that so many of us had hoped for. We were able to say to the doubters “There, you see? It’s not just hype.”

Unfortunately, his speech to AIPAC ultimately proved those doubters correct because he showed not a hint of those same qualities of empathy and understanding that we had been the cornerstone of his campaign. He instead ran roughshod over his previous allusions to a more acceptable diplomacy and delivered a speech of broad brush strokes and absolutes that was fundamentally neo-conservative by any definition.

I have spoken to a number of friends about Obama’s courting of the Israel lobby and the main defense I have heard most often has been that it was merely electioneering, that he couldn’t win the presidency without doing it. He needed to do it. They ALL have to do it. In addition there have been all the scaremongering tactics intended to portray Obama as a Muslim in disguise. And then there was the so-called endorsement from terrorist organization/Gaza Strip Government, Hamas. So he really had no choice other than to appear extra tough on Israel’s enemies.

I couldn’t disagree more.

What Obama did at AIPAC went beyond electioneering. It might have been intended that way, but I doubt it. There are few other politicians who are as acutely aware of the impact of their words than Barack Obama, and as such, aware of their consequences, especially on the international stage and especially when using such strong rhetoric. After all, this wasn’t your standard stump speech about investing in education or healthcare and the dire need for such investment. These are easy speeches; most people want to hear them and, more importantly, they are issues that don’t require a definite follow through because they are usually never given much definition in the first place. But when Obama spoke to AIPAC there was no such opacity, Obama spoke in absolutes, he spoke in threats and promises, and the consequences of these carefully chosen words was to alienate a large swathe of the Middle East before he even became President.

The political maxim that a candidate needs AIPAC to win the presidency must be retired; if we are left to defend our candidate by saying he has to compromise his core message because unless he acquiesces to the demands of a powerful lobby then he can’t win, then we lose our fundamental democratic values.

My last blog entry was a warning to progressives not to hope for too much from Obama. I know many who believe that even though he has taken many conservative positions, he doesn’t really mean it and when he gets in office he’ll deliver ‘change’. But that idea is now largely redundant because he has made absolute assurances to Israel, upon which, he cannot backtrack. He has laid out the foundations of his world view which sadly echoes of the ‘with us or against us’ tenets of Bush’s foreign policy. This he cannot change, because his policy has already begun by setting the platfrom from which he intends to lead.

The irony of all this is that after Obama promised that “We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements. There is no room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations.” just today Israel and Hamas have agreed a cease-fire. This not only demonstrates an ignorance of resolutions in other seemingly intractible conflicts but it also shows that Obama’s view of American foreign policy bears less relation to Israeli policy and more to the current US administration. Moreover, Obama’s AIPAC stance perfectly illustrates the duplicitous standards that America has historically set between its domestic and foreign policies.

Like many ‘good’ leaders before him Obama has an unshakeable allegiance to the US Constitution and that is commendable, but also like many before him those ideals do not extend beyond the shores of the fifty states. Instead, when dealing with the ‘other’ we apparently need ‘realpolitik’ or a geo-political viewpoint where strategy is everything and empathy is weakness. Seemingly, we cannot afford to hold true to the principles the nation was founded on. We have a whole other set of rules when dealing with the rest of the world.

Over the past year, across the globe, there has been a groundswell of excitement at the prospect of an Obama administration. Combining his looks, his name, his message and America’s poor reputation abroad, citizens across the world have to come to expect that Obama’smessage may extend beyond US borders, but since the AIPAC conference we have seen that the foundations of Obama’s worldview are buried deep in the themes of the Monroe Doctrine and so-called pragmatic foreign policy. It appears to be the sad continuation of an age-old policy of hegemony under the symbolism of progressive politics. What a shame.

Obama: The Liberal Trojan Horse?

•May 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

There have been many false accusations leveled at Barack Obama during this never-ending campaign season, from the malicious, such as being a Muslim or a follower of black liberation theology, whichever you choose, to the mostly benign, like being derided as an appeaser. But there is one aspersion in particular that has so far struggled to gain momentum, though when he becomes his party’s presumptive nominee it will be very potent indeed. The charge is that Obama is some kind of liberal Trojan Horse, ready to unleash a barrage of leftist measures as soon as he steps into the Oval Office.

It’s all part of his plan you see: act a little right of center occasionally, you know, just to get in, and then before you know it he’s tapping the wealthy for a single payer health-care system, inviting Ahmadinejad over to hammer out peace in the Middle East and then helping illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship while replacing oil companies with government agencies to manage renewable energy just for good measure. And all in his first term no less.

We have already seen this straw man tested out – so far unsuccessfully – in recent congressional elections, not only because the right feel it is a something of an achilles heal for Obama, and by extension Democrats asscociated with Obama, but mainly because this is the very real fear of many on the right. I’ve lost count of how many times I have read or heard right-wing pundits citing the National Journal’s report calling Obama the most liberal politician in the Senate of 2007. And if you have any means of communication whatsoever, whether it is a Blackberry or a pair of tin-cans and some string, you will no doubt be pounded to deafness with that message as we shift gears from intra-party battle of attrition to all out ideological war.

The irony, of course, is that neither candidate, is that ideologically driven. Given the current trends it looks as though they’ll both be running on a platform of patriotism and a bi-partisan record while attacking their rival for being too ideological. This would usually be par for course in any general election but here we have two candidates who are able to make very credible claims for reaching across the aisle, and also for the classic American story (albeit two very different versions). Obama, the son of an African immigrant and a Kansan woman, overcoming the odds to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and now legimate candidate for the the United States Presidency. McCain, on the other hand bestows the more archetypal version, the one of the war hero who suffered stoically for his country whilst serving in the great stain on America’s recent history, Vietnam.

Although McCain has swapped his mantle of party maverick for opportunist after his recent flip-flopping on issues such as taxes, abortion, the Iraq War, immigration and pretty much every other issue Americans care about, his image as bipartisan is still largely intact following his love affair with the media back in 2000.

The problem for Obama though is that while the right-wing of the Republican Party is only too aware of McCain’s flirtation with the so-called center, and have successfully dragged him back over to the right, the leftist element of the Democratic Party seem only too happy to embrace the Trojan Horse logic, and I would wager probably moreso than their right-wing counterparts.

Personally, I would be delighted to see the scenarios mentioned at the top of this post unfold, but it is simply not going to happen. Barack Obama is a true centrist, he believes in consensus, debate and transparency, and throughout his career he has consistently shown that these are his guiding principles. Whether it is because he is black, an opponent of the Iraq War or perhaps because he started his political career as a community organizer – typically seen as very progressive – the secret hope that Obama is the liberal warrior we’ve all been waiting for is cemented more by virtue of who he is rather than what he has done.

Activist organizations such as NARAL, MOVEON.org and a multitude of unions appear to have mistaken his inspirational rhetoric for radical policy positions and have excitedly endorsed him, serving to strengthen the image of liberal in disguise. There is, of course, an element of truth in all this. Obama is a Democrat and is naturally somewhat left of center on many issues, but that’s where it ends because unlike much of Obama’s youth contingent he is measured on all his positions and, more importantly, also willing to give ground. He wants universal health-care, though not through taxes but by making it more affordable; he believes gay and lesbian couples should share the same rights as married couples but not the title; and he is famously not anti war but “anti dumb-wars”.

He is also undoubtedly in tune with the zeitgeist of America’s youth and is able to communicate and reassure them through language and behaviour that he empathizes with them and their beliefs.

Yesterday, Obama gave the commencement speech at Wesleyan College in the place of Teddy Kennedy (who it would seem according to all the premature obituaries has already died. He just doesn’t seem to know about it yet).

During his speech Obama asked this of his audience:

At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again. That’s your task, Class of 2008.

These are not radical positions, and the second is congruent with the bedrock of the Constitution. Obama’s talent is that he is able to invoke the philosophy of the forefathers and refurbish it through the lens of the 21st century. Really, it is an indictment of our political culture that such cornerstones of democracy are now interpreted as somewhat radical. So as long as Obama continues to frame his candidacy and core values as the antithesis of the status quo and thus appear radical then the perception that he is liberal on issues will naturally follow. This fallacy of extension, which has taken off considerably, bodes dangerously for him in the Fall and certainly his first term if he becomes President.

Last week we saw a perfect illustration of the more negative side-effects of Obama’s political philosophy play out during an important Senate vote. Tellingly, he voted in favor of the disastrous ‘Farm Bill’ while John McCain voted against the bill, a bill which the President also has promised to veto because of bloated subsidies for corporations (though it is very unlikely the veto will effect anything). Anyone familiar with the Farm Bill knows that it is an archaic program that swells the profits of agribusiness while ensuring that markets overseas are swamped with cheap surplus, helping to suppress the faintest hope of emerging local markets. Needless to say such conditions lead to poverty and mass migration, as we have seen in Mexico over the past ten years.

Even though this particular bill provides more for regular Americans in the form of food stamps and nutrition than ever before, the funding is paltry compared to what the likes of Monsanto and others will receive. The reasoning behind the Democrats’ votes is two-fold: there are congressional seats in the Mid-West that are dependent on the farm lobby and the other is that this particular Bill demonstrates that the Farm Bill is evolving to where progressives would like to see it. In this case I believe McCain and Bush are absolutely right to excoriate the Bill and that Pelosi and Obama have sacrificed the opportunity for real change for an acceptable compromise. This is the danger of Obama’s guiding principle, namely that in times where a stand needs to be made he has deferred to compromise and consensus.

Above all, principles of democracy should always trump ideology, but we must also recognize that there are times where there is a choice between just and unjust, irrespective of dominant mood or tradition, as the California Supreme Court made clear recently, with its decision on gay marriage.

My concern, slight as it is, is not only that Obama will compromise in times of crisis, but also that if he wins in November because of a perception generated by hitching personal values to his rising star rather than through Obama’s agenda of unity, then we could witness the cruelest of all hang-overs for a vast swathe of the American electorate.

For his part Obama has always tried to make clear that he is the conciliator rather than the warrior. In fact he said as much at the commencement speech yesterday, warning students, “We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good.” It is important for Obama to continue to reiterate this message as much as possible but it is equally important to reassure all Americans that there is a place at the table waiting for them, if they choose to take it, as his core message of unity demands.

Jeremiah Wright – America’s Next Top Idol

•May 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

Often blamed for causing or contributing to the ills of society, main-stream media has garnered a pretty bad reputation over the years. And not without merit either. From exacerbating the eating disorder epidemic amongst young women by promoting one body type, to a distinct lack of questioning the reasons for going to war, it’s pretty safe to say that the reputation is warranted.

During the past ten years that reputation has been especially strengthened by an explosion of channels and a paradigmatic shift in programming formats.

Fuelled by a burning desire for greater viewing figures TV executives hit upon the biggest breakthrough in television since color. Recognizing that all the audience required was some juicy drama to get the adrenaline pumping a little, they beckoned in a new age of media entertainment. Television, whose duty appears to be more and more to satisfy an audience’s insatiable appetite for vicarious entertainment, gave birth to the ultimate entertainment: reality TV. Lets call it the media version of nuclear energy: cheap, powerful and given to bouts of destruction.

The media’s single greatest achievement of the past decade has been to extract the formula for the soap opera and successfully apply it to real life ‘characters’. We see it play out regularly on American Idol, Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, Flavor of Love 3, etc. (Their depiction of women is a topic for another occasion).

Throughout all those shows we are encouraged to relate, empathize and most of all judge their ‘real-life’ dramas. From excitement to humiliation, sympathy to anger, we are subject to the whole gamut of human emotions but only in their most ridiculous and exaggerated forms. We are then called upon to make judgments of their ‘character’ according to the norms of our own criteria and also that of the show.

Despite its obvious damaging themes there are those who defend reality TV based precisely on those grounds i.e because I know it’s so ridiculous I am aware of its exaggerations. But that is not where the real problem lies; its consequences obviously go much deeper. Although some only tune in to ‘switch-off ‘ or to enjoy the ironic value of racial and gender stereotyping, apparently able to remove themselves from the absurdity (I am also sure there are many, many people who cannot), this formula for the soap opera, used to present reality TV, has oozed into the news-media where those techniques of presentation are dangerously married with ideology; eliciting reactions and judgments on political issues normally reserved for the drama of the cat-fight.

And so it was this week. The presidential race, something that affects every American whether they care or not, was, after months of attempts, reduced to a reality TV show with all the excitement, anger, humiliation and manipulation that the best of American Idol could offer.

However, what we saw this week was not simply the sensationalising of a minor event at the expense of consequential issues (as we have come to expect), but something far more significant. Through those same techniques employed by the entertainment media and thanks to a number of complicit key players – including the Reverend Wright and, yes, Barack Obama – valid positions were relegated to extremism and national debate severely squeezed of opinion.

I don’t need to tell you that this bodes very poorly for the future for our national debate on issues such as terrorism, Iraq and race.

By unleashing himself in all his egotistical glory the Reverend Wright did so at the expense of his own agenda (the advancement of people of color), Obama’s agenda (national reconciliation) and national debate. I say egotistical because I believe this man to be intelligent and therefore aware of the awful damage that his appearance at the National Press Club would cause. And for that he is ultimately responsible. But where the responsibility of the media lies is in its stark failure to properly analyze Wright’s speech. They instead packaged Wright as a commodity hot off the press, promoting him as offensive and outrageous through sinister voice-overs and dramatic visual production. Switching through those cable news channels was like watching trailers for ‘Angry Black Man 2 – Pastor’s Revenge’. So even before we heard what the man had to say we had already made our judgment as we anticipated the hatred and craziness to spew forth from his lips and we were not disappointed.

When it came to analysis, there was none, just quick condemnation and then speculation over Obama’s tarnished image. So quick was the condemnation in fact that we were left with three adjectives for analysis: racist, crazy and anti-American.

Now there are some assertions made by Wright, such as the claim that the US government created AIDS, that have no grounds in reality or, more specifically, evidence to back it up. Is that an Anti-American opinion? Nope. Racist? Absolutely not. Crazy? Quite possibly. But does that mean all his views are crazy? Moreover, does it make the ones I agree with with crazy too? Am I an America hating, self-loathing white boy?

Absolutely not. But am I critical of some government policy? Undeniably yes. We live in a system of checks and balances where I firmly believe it is a civic duty to hold you representatives to account. And this where the regrettably thin line between blind patriotism and valid criticism are blurred.

In a previous blog entry I wrote of Wright’s famous ‘chickens coming home to roost’ comment about 9/11 that:

The comment was ill-timed and crudely put, but nonetheless congruent with the 9/11 commission and the CIA notion of blowback; the idea that unintended consequences occur as a result of past actions.”

The problem with using ‘chickens coming home to roost’ to describe 9/11 is that it imbues the opinion with a certain satisfaction. This is both morally wrong and offensive. But the bigger problem here is that by using the phrase and with the television networks playing it around the clock alongside his crazier remarks on AIDS it introduces and cements the notion that to suggest that American foreign policy was a factor in 9/11 is heretical, crazy and – to use the current vernacular – anti-American.

We have fallen, yet again, so easily into the trap of equating criticism of government to being unpatriotic and now even racist. Yes, lets correctly admonish Wright for a lack of sensitivity but don’t label those remarks anti-American for there are those of us who do believe that black people continue to suffer under racism and also believe that US foreign policy contributed to the conditions that fomented terrorism, but who are also staunchly pro-America. It just goes to show that the need to distinguish between government policy and the citizenry has never been greater.

But if you think you’ve got it bad as a white person with liberal tendencies spare a thought for the black person with a legitimate axe to grind. They could even get the racist label thrown at them.

I’ll admit, so far I have heard nothing racist in Wright’s speeches. Maybe I’m not reading between the lines properly, or I have yet to tune into my white sense of pride but all the criticism I’ve heard from him, justified or not, has been directed towards government policy. And if there is anyone out there who can point me to any racist statements please let me know and I’ll retract this following sentence. The reason why I believe he is regarded as a racist where others are only anti-American is that in being black and vociferously criticizing his government for racist policies, such as the ‘three strikes law’, he is seen as blaming the ‘white man’, (which by the way is a phrase I have not heard from Wright). If, indeed, this is the case, that Wright’s anger is exclusively directed at the government, then isn’t it interesting that many of us equate our government to being white and are thus offended when anyone of color criticizes it? As if they are less American or perhaps less white? It will ceratinly be a long time before a black person can bring up Tuskegee again without fear of ridicule.

There was always the ugly question of whether or not America was ready for a black president. Obama almost proved to many that he transcended race. It seems that some will only be satisfied when they don’t have to hear black people ‘complain’ about how their education is worse, how their neighborhoods are worse, how their young men are far more likely to go prison, or how their young men are more likely to die a violent death. The irony is that only when black people have true parity in this country and we are able to replace the word ‘their’ with ‘our’ in that last sentence, will they stop ‘complaining’.

One of the many tragedies of the Wright ‘controversy’ is that the choice of Barack Obama has now become a choice on race and not policy. The focus on Wright and his ‘racism’ has been such that Wright has become the defining issue of Barack Obama’s campaign. At front and center his ‘God Damn America’ speech shines forth and behind it, the multitude of crises that face the US and the world. Questions such as ‘how do we mitigate the upcoming famine of millions of people across the globe?’ and ‘what do we do when the oil runs out?’ are mere footnotes. If Obama were to lose because of Wright we would lose a lot more than Obama. We lose years of progress in black white relations and with them reasoned debate.

During the past week, while pondering on who owned the responsibility for the whole drama I was reminded of the lyrics from ‘Going Underground’ by the Jam, a song released in 1982. In the first verse one of the lines goes “the public gets what the public wants”, then in another verse the role is reversed “the public wants what the public gets”. It’s the old chicken and the egg scenario whereby it is impossible to clearly see who owns the responsibility. But what is clear now is that the symbiotic relationship between the media and its audience has pushed itself to such an extreme that it can only push further into an abyss of vaccuous atrophy. It might even be forgivable as entertainment or something to switch off to if it were not so corrosive to our public life.

Food Glorious Food

•April 21, 2008 • 1 Comment

I wonder how future historians will document it. No doubt, first they’ll carefully put the disaster into context. They might do so by briefly examining Western culture’s propensity for ignorant indulgence fostered by an economy driven by consumerism. Then there was also the dependence on a depleted oil resource from ‘hostile’ governments overseas. They could also argue that their leaders, while having the chance to intervene and co-operate with other nations to resolve the impending disaster, chose not to rock the boat of the status quo, a status quo that kept Western nations on top. And they just might conclude in their introduction that, tragically, political leaders never really failed because they never really tried.

The crisis I refer to is not the projected effects of global warming – as they can still be mitigated – or a possible nuclear stand-off with Iran – which can be totally avoided – but a very real human catastrophe unravelling as I write. Simply put the world has started running out of food.

The shortage has been brewing for about six years now. The first clear indicator was the massive spike in prices over the past three years as seen in the diagram below.

The second, and more alarming, development of the food shortage has been the rioting of the past couple of weeks in reaction to the unaffordable high prices. Throughout the poorer nations of the globe frustrations and hunger have boiled over into chaotic scenes of protests and riots. Haiti alone has seen five people die in riots and dismissed its Prime Minister because of the crisis. (There are also credible claims that the riots in Burma last year were the result of the unaffordable cost of rice).

The World Bank in Washington says 33 nations from Mexico to Yemen may face ‘social unrest’ after food and energy costs increased for six straight years.” The Asia Times reported a week ago.

But the third and most tragic indicator of a total food shortage has yet to materialize and that is mass starvation.

In the coming months we might catch some news items detailing how our cost of living is rapidly rising because of an increase in the prices of staple foods like rice, corn and wheat. In response we’ll grumble a little over an expensive burrito, maybe tighten up the purse strings a little and hope the economy – that distant and complicated power – hurries up and fixes itself. Then, watching the next report, our disgruntlement may quickly turn to sympathy as we witness those people who make up almost three billion of the planet’s population struggle in abject starvation on a scale unseen in modern times.

The quick switch in emotions may reflect a genuine concern for those ‘less-fortunate’, but the more salient reflection is that while even the poorest of the US spend only 16% of their budget on food, those in the poorer nations spend between 65% and 75% on food. These figures are shocking in their own right but, when considered carefully, they also provide more insight into the food crisis than one might think.

Given that Americans and the rest of so-called ‘first world’ spend so little on food the question begs: why is it that we able to spend so little and they so much? Well, the obvious answer would be that they are poor and we are rich. And we are encouraged, through a lack of information not to look any further than that. So while we allow ourselves to sympathize and maybe donate to a charity we tend to accept that’s really just how it is. We are lucky, they are not. Right? Well, no, actually that’s not how it is. Luck has very little to do with it as, in fact, we bear much of the responsibility for their dire situation and this crisis; from laying the foundations for the perfect storm to then helping make that storm possible.

Those foundations were laid over a number of decades and it is time that we took a long hard look at ourselves and ask: If we spend so little on food what the hell do we spend the rest on and how is it made possible? Sure, there’s the house, the car and the odd vacation but, really 80% of our budget? The answer is simple. The cost of our luxury commodities (by which I mean everything from flying to fashionable shoes), is paid little in dollars, pounds and euros; the vast majority of that cost is carried on the shoulders of the world’s poor. From the sweat-shops to the share-croppers to the oil workers, the global economic system, as pioneered and sustained by the western nations, has been a coup for our way of life and the heaviest of heavy burdens for the rest.

Many Americans might have worked extremely hard to earn what they have earned but the simple truth is that others across the world have worked as hard, if not harder, and yet do not even begin to imagine, let alone aspire to, the lifestyle that we embrace on a daily basis. It must be understood that the inequity that the majority of the world’s population suffer under is no result of caprice or the invidious notion that there is a more and a less developed world – that somehow they are not genetically pre-disposed to engineering a strong economy. It really doesn’t come more fallacious than that.

The truth is that this situation, whereby half the world’s population finds itself in poverty, is a direct consequence of our lifestyle and has been enabled by US and European led policy. Of course, there have been numerous instances of corruption and megalomaniacal dictators ruining economies, which continue to this day. We only have check-in with Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and the Saudi monarchy to realize that some fault also lies with poor governance. But more often that not we have propped up dictators of such ilk in return for a decent price on the raw materials we need to lubricate our economy. It is no secret that, in the past, the US has staged coups and installed dictators if it looked like we might have to pay higher prices and make sacrifices to our lifestyle (see Guatemala, Chile, and Iran).

More recently though, the west has has tended to veer away from more violent methods and instead successfully advanced its agenda by leading institutions and treaties such as Nafta, Cafta, the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF; enforcing trade treaties that take very little account of the disparities between rich and poor markets. The effect of which is two-fold.

First of all, it all appears legitimate. And that’s because it is. That is, according to the provisions of the treaty which legitimize unfair conditions of trade to suit richer countries. You only need to google American or European protectionism to understand the extent of the disparities and their effects. One might counter but why do they ratify such agreements if it is no good for their country? In response we might either refer back to the likes of any dictator of our choosing or see that for many of these countries they are so poor that they have no option other than to sign on.

Second, and most importantly, by swapping the gun for the pen, it removes both the drama of war and the simplicity of violent struggle from a media dealing in two minutes soundbites. It reduces the risk that the electorate may disagree with such policies by allowing us to enjoy our lifestyle without the hassle of connecting our actions to suffering or having to analyse the business pages everyday.

The cumilation of these conditions has now set the stage for the possibility of an enormous human catastrophe. With greed and short-sightedness in equal measure, we have allowed for the poorest of the planet to go hungry. Because, in addition to setting the conditions for a catastrophe of this magnitude, we have also contributed in giving it the final push over the edge.

The more immediate factors that have caused the crisis include:

i) A surging demand from China’s 1 billion person population for the world’s resources. This includes food, especially meat and dairy products causing farmland to be reduced raise animals. This increase in eating meat also has a knock-on effect for the demand in corn, since the grain feeds much of the world’s meat.

ii) Global warming and over-farming has caused a steady increase in drought.

iii) The world’s biggest agricultural supplier, the US, has reallocated much of its crop from food to energy. Seven years ago 11 per cent of America’s corn crop was was being used for ethanol; in 2007 that figure is close to acheiving the target of 33% .

The third factor is where we come in. (I suppose it also could be argued that we have defined the desirable lifestyle that China now emulates and also significantly contributed to global warming, but that is a debate for another time). Ethanol, an initiative first championed as an alternative to foreign oil by Jimmy Carter, and since supported by the environmental movement as an alternative to carbon emmitting energy, has emerged as a major contributor to this current crisis.

Although most environmentalists now recognize the futility of ethanol, since the carbon emitted from producing it is almost enough to negate the reduction, worried economists and war weary politicians see ethanol as a solution to a huge thorn in the American side: dependence on foreign oil. They believe that providing an alternative to having to sacrifice blood and taxes for our lifestyle would free us from the shackles of US enemies like Ahmadinejad of Iran and Chavez of Venezuela.

Of course, this plan, if taken in isolation, is a good one. It certainly would unfetter us from having to fight wars and negotiate with unfriendly salesmen, just like they say. But this is not a plan without unintended consequences and while the answers and consequences arrive uninvited the important question to which they correspond has been missing in action somewhere: ‘at what cost?’

The poverty and destitution that we already see in poorer countries will undoubtedly get worse as this crisis unfolds. This is fact and demonstrates just how blinkered policy-makers are. The divining rod of self-interest has yet again trumped any kind of considerations for ‘the other’. But there are many critical consequences that should cause government to think twice and reinvest in alternative energy sources like wind, solar and hydro-electricity. And not just for altruistic purposes either, for the effects of this current crisis do not stop at the doors of Africa, Asia and Latin America alone. They maybe the more immediate victims but it is unavoidable that it’ll affect us all eventually.

Time and time again we have seen that nothing incubates terrorism better than the combination of poverty and a sense of injustice – perceived or not. Well, what we have now might be the biggest incubator of all. By consistently enforcing unfair trade treaties such as Nafta, Cafta and also via the WTO, and now limiting the very food that much of the world’s poor depends upon, the West has sown resentment across the globe faster than corn in Iowa.

In addition to the ticking timebomb of terrorism we also face a mass exodus from poorer countries to the much richer North. If conservatives think that illegal immigration is a problem now just wait until people start to die of starvation en masse.

These are just some of the most obvious problems. Others could well include a prolonged global economic depression, and even war. Either way, the future is certainly looking bleak.

So what can we do about it?

In the short term the only way we can attempt to help mitigate the effects of the food shortage is first to put all options on the table. This means seriously looking at GM foods to increase future yield of staple foods and recognize an international emergency so that we can shore up some of the crop destined for bio-fuel. We should also begin diverting investment away from ethanol and into solar, wind and hydro power. There are already ambitious plans to harness solar heat in the deserts of the South-West, but the political will is severely lacking because unfortunately, pioneers in alternative energy have far less influence in Washington than Monsanto and the farming lobby. That the Farm Bill continues to provide bloated subsidies to industrial farmers coupled with the possibility that the government may not grant tax incentives for solar development is a depressing testament to this. But these short-term solutions obviously cannot be achieved without political pressure and this is where we are likely to fail.

Even though there has been reporting on the food crisis, it has so far been within the context of domestic prices on television or the otherwise in the pages of newspapers. The majority of the general public simply doesn’t know it is happening and even the ones who do, they don’t believe it to be as significant a problem as it is because it is framed as a secondary news-item; behind a fire in Pennsylvania or a visit from the Pope.

As I said at the beginning of this entry, the first indicator of the food crisis was the price, the second the riots and the third will be the deaths from starvation. Only then, when the horse is out of the barn, will we start to take notice and be horrified. This is how we conduct ourselves. There is no recognition of the consequences of our actions. Our lifestyle, the western lifestyle that enjoys and has enjoyed so many of the world’s finite resources at a robber baron rate, is unsustainable. Ultimately, the only way we can live sustainably is if we are able to make a dramatic and collective sacrifice to our lifestyle. Only then will we stop watching others starve to death on our plasma T.Vs in high defintion.

It is only when we are all made aware of the issue and its urgency, can we push for such changes. Making small changes at home will count for nothing if there is no pressure on policy makers in Washington. But we have to do it soon.

 
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