The limit of Obama's imagination
At a time when Obama's moral voice was most needed, the reach of his wings proved to be cautiously perforated on an AIPAC line, writes Hamid Dabashi*
"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late . . . Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late.' There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect." -- Martin Luther King, Jr
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'If only Obama could burn this picture of him sitting with his wife, Michele, at the same table with Edward and Mariam Said'
I HAVE BEEN a silent witness to a succession of US presidential elections for over thirty years now. I came to the United States in August 1976, the very last year of the presidency of the incumbent Republican president Jerald R. Ford, and as he and Jimmy Carter were debating each other in the lead up to November 1976 election, in which President Ford lost and President Carter succeeded him. At the time of writing this article I am yet again witness to a highly contested series of primaries for the presidential election of 2008 -- as on the democratic front Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois have captured and divided the attention of a highly charged and massively divisive American electorate -- along the thorny issues of race and gender, establishment versus progressive politics, and above all a regressive politics of the status quo and a buoyant possibility of yet another upsurge of hope for the younger generation of Americans to give political reality to their otherwise moot and mute idealism.
Meanwhile, Senator John McCain of Arizona is leading the Republican hopefuls on a path of pathological disregard for the pain and suffering of people the world over, beginning with the poor and disenfranchised Americans. For thirty years, I have wondered what does this dazzling exercise in the democratic will of the people of the United States -- when from conservative and retrograde multimillionaires to liberal and progressive public servants fight head over heels for every single vote of ordinary or even poor people -- has to do with the rest of the world.
When I came to the United States in August 1976, the country was plunged in a deep moral apathy following the US atrocities and final defeat in Vietnam, the aggressive thinning out of the social synergy evident in the Civil Rights Movement, the onset of the Vietnam Syndrome, and above all the political anomie that had set in after the assassination of President John F Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr (1968), and then to top them all by the Watergate Scandal.
The first Vice President appointed to that position under the terms of the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution, Jerald Ford succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon and became the thirty-eighth President of the United States, serving from 1974 to 1977, effectively the interim president covering the hiatus between the beleaguered and corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon and the advent of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Ford was not elected to either of his two successive offices and was in fact the transitional figurehead covering two scandalous resignations, first by Vice President Spiro Agnew on 10 October 1973 (on corruption charges), and then by Richard Nixon on 9 August 1974 following the Watergate Scandal. Very much the establishment candidate, Ford lost that election to Jimmy Carter, the idealist peanut farmer from Georgia -- a president who had made human rights the hallmark of his renewed commitment to a more morally responsible American foreign policy.
That dream too, like all other hopes fostered in vain in this land, was not meant to be. It was during the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1976-1980) that the Iranian Revolution happened, and it was in the run-ups to the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1980-1988), that the American Hostage Crisis in Iran forever changed the face of the geopolitics in the region and even the globe, pushing the American imperial politics ever more aggressively to the right and beyond the arrested moment of Vietnam Syndrome.
For obvious reasons, all these events -- the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979, the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, and the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 -- were exceedingly important to millions of people living in the region, and thus following the American presidential elections from that point forward became a matter of overriding curiosity as to what precisely does this spectacular exercise in the democratic will of an imperial nation-state has to do with the rest of the world.
LOOKED AT from a domestic point of view, the American presidential elections are perhaps the most spectacular democratic dramas one can ever hope to witness. Consider the drama of the current election: the world will not understand what it means for a Barack Hussein Obama to be this close to be the president of the United States unless and until it can imagine an Armenian becoming the Prime Minister of Turkey, or a Turk the Chancellor of Germany, or an Egyptian Copt the President of Egypt, or a Palestinian the Prime Minister of Israel, or an Iranian Jewish woman the President of the Islamic Republic, or a Pakistani the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or an Algerian the President of France. But the sociological glory of this fact in the United States is predicated on the political calamity that ever since the commencement of the presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the ideological pendulum in this country has so radically swung to the right that it is impossible to imagine how long it will take to push it back towards a meaningful center.
The best possible scenario, so goes the best hope of this campaign, is for Barack Obama to defeat the business-as-usual of Hillary Clinton drive and then go on to defeat Senator McCain and become the first African-American President of the United States and allow the waves upon waves of hope he has managed to generate to redefine American political culture. The worst possible scenario is for Hillary Clinton to defeat Barack Obama and then go on to lose to McCain in the general election, so we will end up with yet another four to eight years of belligerent Republican thuggery around the world and predatory capitalism at home. Which one of these two scenarios, or anything between them, will come to pass -- only time will tell.
For now, the painstaking process of American Democratic machinery is yet to unfold. However, it is important to note here how former president Bill Clinton, Senator Clinton's husband, had succeeded radically in racialising the presidential election when immediately after Obama won the South Carolina primary he quipped: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here." What do Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama have in common -- other than being what Americans in their unguarded moments call "black"? So much for Clinton being "the first black president of the United States," as the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once famously said.
The most racist sound-bite of this Democratic primary so far in fact came from former President Clinton -- with one racist comment he transformed Barack Obama into a "black" candidate and sought to diminish his national, cross-racial, and universal appeal. Soon after this racist remark, Toni Morrison took that epithet back from Clinton by publicly endorsing Senator Obama in a moving letter to him. "Dear Senator Obama," she wrote, "This letter represents a first for me -- a public endorsement of a Presidential candidate. I feel driven to let you know why I am writing it. One reason is it may help gather other supporters; another is that this is one of those singular moments that nations ignore at their peril. I will not rehearse the multiple crises facing us, but of one thing I am certain: this opportunity for a national evolution (even revolution) will not come again soon, and I am convinced you are the person to capture it."
In the inner sanctum of their most dreadful despairs, the best amongst Americans now fear for Obama's life -- as they did for John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. In the fragility of that fear, and the even more fragile hope for a more humane politics that it conceals, the best among Americans continue to dream for a better and a more just world, while their elected officials continue to inflict unfathomable pain on other nations, while ignoring the ever increasing hardship of ordinary people in the US. Within that paradox dwells the combustible hope to which Obama has now put a match.
Barack Obama rises in American political consciousness after eight years of Ronald Reagan, consistently pushing the country to the right of even his own conservative politics, after four years of one cynical and opportunist President Bush, after eight more years of a President Clinton whose foreign policies was even worse than his two Republican predecessors, and then after eight long and terrorising years of yet another President Bush who has now pushed the world to the edge of moral and environmental meltdown -- with the horror of the neocons and their Oriental regiment (Fouad Ajami, Hirsi Ali, et. al.), capping the terror that this country has brought against the word, in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. When today young, innocent, hopeful, and idealist Americans cry out for "change" they mean change from this succession of catastrophe -- and they have invested that hope in Barack Obama -- for both John McCain on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side have a sustained record of warmongering abroad and cut-throat, opportunistic self-promotion in domestic politics. Barack Obama has thus captured the imagination of a nation -- its youth and idealists in particular -- in dire, desperate, and earnest need for change.
But will Barack Obama be able to deliver half the hope he has ignited in his fellow-Americans?
TO BE SURE, on many issues, both domestic and foreign, Congressman Denis Kucinich of Ohio and after him former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina (both Democratic contenders for presidency) are far superior and progressive in their politics than both Senators Barack Obama and certainly Hillary Clinton put together -- and perhaps precisely for that reason they were both ousted from the race earlier in the primaries, Kucinich earlier than Edwards. To be even more precise, despite the fact that along with many other Democratic senators, Senator Barack Obama voted against authorising President Bush to go to war in Iraq, he has voted with Republicans to increase the size and presence of the US military there (in the so-called "Surge" program); he has voted yes to reauthorise the undemocratic USA Patriot Act that endangers Americans' civil liberties; and has voted in favor of a Republican bill to authorise the construction of a 700-mile fence on the border with Mexico.
Barack Obama's record becomes particularly troublesome when we turn to the acid test of American foreign policy, namely the bugbear of its unconditional support for the Jewish apartheid state of Israel. Here he has hit the rock bottom limit of his courage and imagination, and no one has understood Obama's problem in this respect better than Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive public intellectual, political activist, and editor of Tikkun Magazine. In his essay "Obama's Jewish Problem," Rabbi Michael Lerner has poignantly observed: "A new generation of young Jews no longer blindly adopts the strategy of domination or salutes to the policies of the current government of Israel. It is these Jews who are the future, but they do not yet control the institutions of Jewish life . . . Obama's problem is that his spiritual progressive worldview is in conflict with the demands of the older generation of Jews who control the Jewish institutions and define what it is to be pro-Jewish, while his base consists of many young Jews who support him precisely because he is willing to publicly stand for the values that they hold." The problem that Rabbi Lerner identifies goes to the heart of Senator Obama's message and appeal to a younger generation of Americans across all religious, ethnic, and even political divides, and yet his political cowardice prevents him from having the courage of his own convictions.
In an article in The Electronic Intifada (4 March 2007, "How Barack Obama learned to love Israel"), Ali Abunimah, a leading Palestinian activist in Chicago, has fully exposed the manner in which the Illinois Senator gradually dovetailed his (perfectly legitimate) ambition for the White House with a systematic distancing of himself from the Palestinian cause and a simultaneous catering to the Zionist Lobby in the United States. "Israel," Senator Obama has assured his AIPAC audience in a speech on 3 March 2007, is "our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy. . . We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs."
The actual speech he delivered in March 2007 in front of AIPAC, from which Ali Abunimah excerpts certain key passages, gets worse, much worse, all culminating in his January 2008 letter to the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad -- soon after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians broke out of the Gaza concentration camp and flooded into Egypt in search of food and other basic necessities. "Dear Ambassador Khalilzad," wrote Barack Obama, "I understand that today the UN Security Council met regarding the situation in Gaza, and that a resolution or statement could be forthcoming from the Council in short order. I urge you to ensure that the Security Council issue no statement and pass no resolution on this matter that does not fully condemn the rocket assault Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel."
In his recent debate with Senator Clinton at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, just before the Super Tuesday primaries, and while referring to Senator McCain, Senator Obama quipped, "Somewhere along the line the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels." Precisely so: as did Obama's own moral standing on behalf of a new generation of hope, or "the fierce urgency of now," as he likes to quote Rev. Martin Luther King. Precisely at the moment that his moral voice for a just cause definitive to all other just causes on this planet was most needed, he fell so sadly short, and the reach of his moral wings proved to be cautiously perforated on an AIPAC line.
The record of the Zionist contingency in this particular election, as in all others, is effectively to strangle the American political culture anytime it wants to have a sigh of relief -- and draw a line from which no dreamer, no idealist, no visionary can ever dare to cross. The question that Israelis, particularly the so-called Israeli "left" ought to ask themselves is what sort of a calamity is this colonial settlement in which they live that even at the most uplifting moments of a nation, they throw around the weight of all the might and money they command and cut the wings of a soaring eagle to their own size.
NONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S fancy footwork to the AIPAC tune means that he has fully convinced the Zionist contingency of American politics that he is their man, that he too, just like Senator Clinton, is their candidate. "Israeli values are American values," Senator Hillary Clinton famously said at the height of the Israeli bombing of innocent Lebanese in July 2006. But that is perfectly normal for Hillary Clinton, who just like her husband is a political creature of unsurpassed cunning, opportunism, and self-promotion -- and thus the logic of her calculated move to New York to run for Senate when her husband's term as president ended. Throughout her campaign in 2000, as she moved to New York and run for office from a state in which she had never lived, she was rightly accused of carpet-bagging by her opponents, a charge that has stuck to her to this day.
But things are supposed to be different about Barack Obama, the man who has stirred unsurpassed hope for change in young and idealist Americans. But instead, what we witness is his move to one up Senator Clinton and ingratiate himself to AIPAC. If he could only burn that picture that Ali Abunimah has taken and published of him sitting with his wife, Michele Obama, at the same table with Edward and Mariam Said.
But -- and there is the rub -- no matter how fast Barack Obama may spin to AIPAC's music, it does not mean that the Zionists are happy, or are willing to trade the sure deal -- squarely bought and paid for -- Hillary Clinton for the young and idealist Obama. How could they trust, horribile dictu, a man with a Hussein for a middle name, a Kenyan Muslim for a father, and above all a man who speaks a progressive and hopeful language that at least in its rhetoric promises to deliver Americans form their epileptic seizure in which they cannot ever dream a liberation for their ideals and aspirations without AIPAC formal approval or else cutting their wings short where it says "Israel."
All his attempts to appease AIPAC notwithstanding, Obama remains a suspicious character to fanatical Zionists. The same essay that Ali Abunimah wrote in exposing Obama's gradual distancing from the Palestinian cause, was used by Ed Lasky in his essay, "Barack Obama and Israel" for American Thinker (22 March 2007 -- revised and republished again on 16 January 2008) categorically to dismiss Obama as a man for Israel. Lasky accused Obama of concealing his affiliation with a church that is in fact "Afro-centric" in its Christianity, accusing Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., the Pastor of the Church Obama attended, as the man who coined the term "audacity of hope" (that defines Obama's campaign), and also of having "a militant past."
"Moreover," Lasky points out, "Pastor Wright has beliefs that might disturb some of Obama's supporters. He is a believer in "liberation theology," which makes the liberation of the oppressed a paramount virtue." (This for Lasky is a vice.) Extending his dismissal of liberation theology to its very founder Gustavo Gutierrez, Lasky narrows in on "Pastor Wright for having criticised Israel and uttered the unforgivable sin: 'The Israelis have illegally occupied Palestinian territories for almost 40 years now.'" (Imagine the audacity of uttering that sentence in Chicago!) Then we hear from Lasky that "Once this history came to light, Obama started publicly distancing himself from his spiritual mentor, disinviting Wright from various Obama campaign events. Wright rationalised his current persona non grata status by stating that otherwise 'a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.'" Lasky moves on to expose more of Obama's sins by lining up Ali Abunimah and Edward Said as Palestinians whom Obama has actually met and conversed with. Lasky is particularly incensed that Obama does not have much of a pro-Israel legislative record. Scarce as this young Senator's record might be on being a pro-Israeli stooge, he has nevertheless "already compiled one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate (even more liberal than Ted Kennedy) and a great deal of his most fervent support has come from the left-wing of the party, who have turned against Hillary Clinton . . . This is precisely the wing of the Party that has been increasingly corrupted by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activists."
This is enough reason for Lasky to go after Obama for having, among other things, "decidedly very soft approach on bills dealing with drug, gang and gun control issues," for daring to make a sleight comment about Israel's apartheid wall, for having the audacity to talk about "the desperation and disorder of the powerless . . . of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi," which to Lasky translates to "appeasement, stated clearly and succinctly." The list of Lasky's concerns about Obama goes on and on and includes the support of the former President Jimmy Carter for him. As for his speech in front of AIPAC, Lasky believes this speech "left many nonplussed. This speech was, in part, prompted by his knowledge that a panel of experts in Israel considers him to be the candidate that would support the state of Israel the least." The same speech that caused anger and frustration in Ali Abunimah left Lasky with much to be desired, and not sufficient at all. After a prolonged list of litany against Obama, Lasky finally concludes, "Barack Obama does have a record to run on and it is a record that should be of concern to those who support America's relationship with Israel."
IT IS OF COURSE ultimately unfair to laser-beam on Senator Obama a calamity that has long plagued American political culture. Over the last half a century, American foreign policy is held hostage (as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have extensively demonstrated) to a single-minded commitment to the Jewish apartheid state, which has in turn degenerated its own political culture to that of Christian imperialism. The US is narratively trapped inside a single-minded commitment to the Jewish state, which now amounts to the worst common denominator of American political culture, and as such it will pull down any sign of hope that may aspire to transform this catastrophe to become the promise that it has always been -- a beacon of hope for the world. But it is equally false to blame the Israeli lobby for the calamity of American imperialism around the globe, a reality entirely sui generis and predicated on the very nature of this economic and military monstrosity.
I for one have absolutely no doubt that Obama has indeed awakened a dead soul in American political culture, a yearning, a wish, a vision perhaps always embedded in the American dream -- to be a nation among others, to wed the fate of its own poor, sick, homeless, and forsaken to that of others around the world. What sort of decency is it, what sort of historical record is it, for a country, a people, a nation, like what they call "Israel" to abort that dream at its very inception and use all its power and wherewithal not to allow it to imagine beyond the particular demands of a ghastly apartheid state.
Obama has had to renounce his connections not just with the Palestinian cause but also even to the pastor of a church he faithfully attended because he is a liberation theologian. How many of his wings will the Illinois Senator have to cut short before he can fly, and if he ever gets actually to fly how far can he soar, how deep will he fall? The thing that he has failed to understand is that he can never out-Hillary in appealing to, satisfying, and securing the endorsement of the pro-Israeli lobby. Every corner that he comes to cross and sell a bigger part of his soul to AIPAC, Hillary Clinton has already been there and done that. If he only had the courage of his convictions, if he only believed in the spectacular hope that he has generated in millions of young and idealist Americans -- including (and in fact particularly) young and idealist Jewish Americans.
The problem with Barack Obama is thus the limit of his imagination, for the hope he has managed to generate in young and progressive Americans of all colours and creeds has now far surpassed his own limited courage. He has come up through the ranks and moved from an unknown local politician in Chicago to a national figure of open-ended possibilities. When he groomed himself to look like Malcolm X, consciously modulated the cadence of his voice to that of Martin Luther King, and actively sought the public endorsement of the Kennedys, he had no idea what hidden hopes, what repressed aspirations he would awaken among young and idealist Americans. If he does not listen carefully to the echo of the voice he has unleashed in this valley, he would be yet another bitter disappointment, even if (or particularly if) he gets to be the next President of the United States.
Today the absolutely weakest link in the chain of global injustice that tests the mettle of humanity at large, is the plight of millions of Palestinians suffering the indignity of exile from their historic homeland, forsaken in refugee camps and brutalised in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That Barack Obama's message to these suffering millions is to send more missiles to the apartheid state of Israel is an obscenity that mocks every time he stands up and puts forward his messages of hope and change.
The critical question of course at this conjuncture is that if we coloured and marginal folks -- we Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Arabs, Muslims and all the most recent (legal and illegal) immigrants to this land -- will have the courage and the imagination that Barack Obama lacks. Will we cross a fence and extend a hand to a man who is after all one of us, however he may think it politically expedient to pick and chose one thing or another from the baggage he and we have brought along across the borders?
Two of my three children (born and bred here in the United States) have now reached the age when they can vote. They are both committed Obama fans and voted for him in the New York primaries on Super Tuesday. At this point, I am afraid the votes of my two children are all I can offer Brother Barack. Come next November, I too may leave my own darkest convictions behind and vote with the bright hope of my children.
Sometimes I think that the worst thing about the United States is that there is always hope for it.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.