a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Thoughts on Lawyers, Guns and Money at the End of an Election Cycle

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th November 2012

Dear sirs,

Thomas Nephew


As I’ve noted before, the level of disrespect and intolerance for alternative left viewpoints at the well-known “Lawyers, Guns & Money” blog and elsewhere bothers me.  So I’ve rewritten my comments here, and hope that a simple chart and reasoned discourse are better than the angry post I started off with.  Let us read  Robert Kuttner:

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Greens: reject Ellsberg’s advice, or don’t – just don’t run away from it

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th October 2012

October 23 video of discussion between Daniel Ellsberg , Matt Stoller (Roosevelt Institute, “naked
capitalism”), Emily Hauser, (Daily Beast), and Ben Manski (campaign manager for Green Party
presidential candidate Jill Stein), moderated by Huffington Post’s Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.

An article by Daniel Ellsberg and a reply tweet by Matt Stoller set the stage for a very interesting online roundtable last Tuesday attended remotely by Ellsberg, Stoller,  Emily Hauser (a blogger for the Daily Beast ) — and the disappointing Ben Manski, campaign manager for Jill Stein’s presidential campaign.

Daniel Ellsberg’s October 18 article “Progressives: In Swing States, Vote for Obama” was probably not a hit at the White House; the recommendation was despite seeing Obama as “a tool of Wall Street, a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents put together.” But Matt Stoller — a one time staffer for Representative Alan Grayson — caustically summarized the inherent contradiction: “Daniel Ellsberg argues for both the impeachment of and reelection of Barack Obama.”

My point here won’t be to review Stoller’s arguments — developed more fully a few days later in “The Progressive Case Against Obama” — though I think they’re well worth considering, and though I think replies have generally been of the familiar, bullying, spluttering “policing the left” quality I saw in responses to Conor Friedersdorf’s foreign policy/human rights Obama critique in September.

Instead, I want to take up Ellsberg’s arguments during the roundtable — because they went quite a bit beyond merely urging “tactical” voting by progressive voters in swing states.  Ellsberg *:

The two women who are running for the Green Party […] as I said, I’ll probably vote for her or for Rocky Anderson […]  On the other hand, I do object to the idea that he and Jill Stein and [Cheri Honkala] do, will, by their way of running, in the swing states, whether you regard them as 3 or 4 or as many as 12 or 13 […] are running in those and peeling off a net balance of Democratic voters.  They are increasing the chance of Roe v. Wade will be eliminated.  I think that is not a position that a progressive of any kind should be in, let alone a feminist one. I’m actually amazed, I think they’re acting very counterproductively for their own cause overall.  […]

Among progressives, there shouldn’t be disagreement on Roe v. Wade.  And I’m afraid that Stein is acting, by running not only in the 35 to 40 states where she would not be increasing the chance of Roe v. Wade being overturned, she’s also running in the states where she *is* helping Roe v. Wade be overturned.

So not only are voters counterproductive for contemplating a Stein vote in a swing state, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala are bad for running in one.  Not only that, Ellsberg had earlier asserted that “urging other people, getting a leverage, [having] an influence on a large number or a small number” — i.e., Joe Birkenstock with his lawn sign — was similarly wrong.

Of course, advising against third party campaigns or advocacy when they allegedly increase the chances of an undesirable outcome (i.e., Romney in 2012, or Bush in 2000) is the logical consequence of advising against third party votes in such situations.  But it’s also an illustration of what’s wrong with Ellsberg’s position — at least if you value the actual exercise of free speech, freedom of association, or a vigorous contest of ideas in our country, as opposed to merely genuflecting in the general direction of those values.  Ellsberg would have a Stein or a Nader short-circuit their own campaigns and abandon their own supporters in states whenever it might benefit the worst alternative to their victory.  Since by Ellsberg’s logic that’s roughly “always,” third party campaigns are doomed to “Groundhog Day” like re-enactments of these arguments every four years, for ever and ever, amen.

Worse, I think, it’s not clear when that ought to begin, or where that logic ends.  It was relatively clear that Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina would be 2012 “swing states” — big enough to matter, close enough to be in doubt — ever since, oh, 2008, when they were exactly the same thing.  It was also relatively clear that Obama would face a tough re-election since at least 2010.  Taken to its logical conclusion, Ellsberg is saying Stein was wrong to even try to qualify for the ballot in those states.

So what did Manski have to say to all this?


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Change we can accomplish

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th October 2012

Via Facebook, I see that an old California friend, Melinda Welsh, has written an editorial — in her capacity as founding editor of the Sacramento News & Review — urging Barack Obama’s re-election: Past/president/future: This time, it’s about change we can accomplish. We’ve corresponded a little about this before; we disagreed, but amicably, I think.   So I hope it will be OK to disagree again, a (very) little more publicly this time.

I know she’s sincere.  I know there are many more who agree with her than will agree with me — and I recommend her article to them, it’s thoughtful and well written.  But I still think Ms. Welsh doesn’t make the case she sets out to make, whether about Obama’s skeptics and the reasons not to vote for him, or more broadly about the change she thinks we can — or rather can’t — accomplish.

Straw man skeptics
First, readers are given a straw man version of Obama skeptics, one that says we just want to “punish President Obama [for not achieving all that was hoped for].”

Not at all.  The NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions, for those deemed simply supportive of groups associated with terrorist organizations; the drone kill list/”disposition matrix”, up to and including extrajudicial assassinations of Americans; a radically expanded warrantless surveillance state; chilling, tragic, trumped-up persecutions and prosecutions of Muslim-Americans, activists, and whistle-blowers; a new war without Congressional approval: these aren’t worthwhile, unaccomplished to-do items, these are deplorable, accomplished to-do items.

Worse, they’re betrayals of what Obama professed to be and was understood by supporters to be in his first presidential campaign: one who used soaring language to reject “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand,” one who affirmed that a president “does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack,” one who acknowledged that the president did not have “inherent powers under the Constitution to conduct surveillance for national security purposes without judicial warrants.”

His administration, his supporters, or both?

Maybe these are secondary issues to many readers, or they are by now. OK, everyone is different, everyone has different priorities.  But maybe, too, all too many of us have given up on what we wanted and on what we thought we were getting.  My recollection of Obama’s 2008 campaign was that it was fueled by hope for change — hope for a real, fundamental repudiation of the Bush era.  Obama evoked that hope time and again in his 2008 stump speech every time he tied McCain to Bush, every time he promised voters could “finally put an end to the Bush-McCain philosophy.” 

Instead, “Yes We Can” was followed by “But We Won’t.” (And by now, they’re even giving themselves awards for that.)

Especially in California (where I understand Obama has a very comfortable lead), Americans on the left have an opportunity to …well, yes, I suppose it is to punish Obama for these betrayals. But that wouldn’t just be because he didn’t do enough (though there are very strong cases to be made there as well).  It’s also because he’s done the wrong things, things he said he wouldn’t do. That’s not self-centered or starry-eyed, that is what democracy looks like: you say you’ll do something I want, I vote for you; you do the opposite, I don’t vote for you again.  Break the contract — lose my vote.

As good as it gets?
Where I also part ways with Ms. Welsh on her underlying analysis of what is and is not intrinsically possible, summed up by her claim that “Obama is, in every way, as good as we’re ever going to get.”  Again, not at all.  For one thing, we didn’t even get Obama — not the guy we thought we were working so hard to elect, that is.  (Me, too.)  “Yes, We Can” was true if the question was “can the American left elect a promising candidate?”  “No, we didn’t” is just the answer to whether we got a candidate who lived up to that promise, and to our achievement: his election.

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Killer sky robots — sorta like mowin your lawn

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th October 2012

“The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists (Miller, WaPo, 10/23/12)

“An right now the level of torture talk has gone from ‘Torture: Bad!’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But Not As Bad As Saddam Hussein’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But What About Ticking Bombs?’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But Not Necessarily Proof That The People Who Ordered Torture Are Bad’ to ‘Torture: We Still Talkin Bout Torture?’ to ‘Torture: Bad?’ An before we get to ‘Torture: Sorta Like Mowin Your Lawn’ I think we should try as hard as we can to wake up.”
—  wake up (Fafblog!, 7/10/04)

That sure looks like a big swing and a miss for Fafblog now, doesn’t it.

The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, U.S. officials said.

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Dear Jim: why I still won’t vote for Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th October 2012

“Peace, fellow Obama voters, I support the same war criminal you do for president, but just like the title.”
— Jim Henley, Rock-’Em, Sock-’Em Obots

As Obama’s poll numbers continue to swirl down the drain following his first debate with Romney, this whole post may be another example of what my brother once called my “comically bad timing.”  Nevertheless, I want to respond to a number of excellent posts by Jim Henley that have (as usual) challenged me to think again about my own positions.  The quote above is an appetizer; here’s more of a main course, with a memorable title — Justice Will Take Us Millions of Intricate Moves, Some of Them Annoying and Even Dispiriting — borrowed from the poet William Stafford:

I personally don’t think anything we do re this November’s ballot, including voting Libertarian or Green, will fix the country’s bipartisan commitment to militarism and panopticon. So I favor deciding what to do with November’s ballot for other reasons. That does unfortunately mean choosing which slate of war criminals should occupy the White House starting in January, as opposed to whether a slate of war criminals should do so. That hurts! I mean, I’m not putting you on here. It’s a shitty choice. In my case it compounds the stupidity I feel over thinking I was voting for something else entirely in 2008, and I hate feeling stupid. The reasons why I think it’s worth doing anyway are:

1. This (making the country more humane) is going to take more than one night.
2. On issues from health care to women’s rights, a Democratic victory will make many people’s lives better than a Republican one.
3. The actual voting will be over quickly.
4. Because voting will be over quickly, it will not stop us from doing all the other things we might choose to do to make the country genuinely better over time.

C’mon, it’s funny.

He even proposes a way out for “wavering progressives,” especially in swing states, proposing they make deals to vote for Obama if Obama supporters make it worth their while with the right action pledges.  And he hits uncomfortably close to my own mark in suggesting (to Obama supporters, actually), that “You’re not going to shame somebody onto your side. And at some point, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re no longer even trying to convert them. You just want to hurt their feelings.”  I suspect there’s going to be much more of that coming the other way, but I’ve done some of it myself, and I’ll try to stop.  Soon.

It’s interesting that Jim brings up the “what’s your vote worth to you” approach.  In “Why vote? When your vote counts for nothing“, Kevin Baker of Harper’s sees the elimination of votes for liquor/cash/connections as the key but temporary triumph of American democracy in the early 20th century.  To be sure, Jim doesn’t advocate trading votes for material gain — but the idea still essentially concedes that the alleged connection between voter and candidate is only a fiction in the early 21st century: we’re more sure of value in our vote if we trade it for something else than if we merely vote for a major party candidate based on his/her statements to us.

To be clear: that’s not Jim’s fault.  He’s got a point, though he doesn’t quite put it the way Baker does:

Try to imagine, if you can, candidate Barack Obama in 2008 running on a platform of balancing the budget and appeasing Wall Street by reducing Social Security benefits, restricting Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, increasing the retirement age, and never challenging the established hierarchy of the Democratic Party but rather returning members of the old Clinton regime to positions of power in his administration, especially those advocates of unregulated capitalism who did so much to bring on the economic crisis in the first place.  This candidate Obama would not have been elected, which is of course why you did not see him.  Yet President Obama has pursued these policies throughout his administration — and they appear to be exactly what he had in mind all along.  […]

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The curious incident of the 47% in the debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th October 2012

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
(“Silver Blaze“, Arthur Conan Doyle)

We watched last Wednesday’s presidential debate at the neighbor’s house, and their young daughter brought down a white board to keep score as the debate proceeded.  And one thing even a sixth grader — are you paying attention, David Axelrod? —  knew to watch for was the word “forty-seven.”

As may or may not be well known, that score at the end of the evening turned out to be 3-0 for Romney.*  What happened?  Why did Obama refuse to land a completely legitimate punch painting Romney as the out-of-touch, contemptuous plutocrat he is?  David Corn — the Mother Jones reporter who broke the “47%” video that had the Romney campaign reeling for much of September — was understandably interested as well.  The answer he got from a “top campaign official”:

Not that we won’t talk about it again. We will. But [what’s] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We’ve got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it’s sunk in. Ultimately the president’s goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.

Hm. Simple folk like you and me might think that Romney’s Boca Raton “47%” remarks might be the perfect vehicle for speaking to voters about their economic choices.  While Romney could simply disavow those remarks (and did the next day), even a rudimentary political talent might have had some good responses ready during the debate, whether short and brutal (“there he lies again”) or amused (“as usual, it’s even hard for Romney to keep up with Romney’s positions!  The one thing you can be sure of is that whatever he says now in public, he’ll gladly say the opposite in private — especially when he’s talking to his campaign contributors.  Whose side are they on?”)

Clearly, Obama thought about the “47%” gambit,” played out the moves, and decided he didn’t want to go there.  Why would that be? Could it be that Romney and Obama aren’t the high-contrast economic policy choices they’re commonly described as?  Might the Obama campaign be just as interested in how it will win as in whether it will win?

I think so, and I think the reason has to do with Obama’s plans for one of the most fundamental pocketbook issues there can be for the 47%: Social Security.  During the debate, Obama actually preferred to stress agreement between himself and Romney on the safety net centerpiece: You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. ” 

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Drones, civil liberties, and other stuff only a white person would write about

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th September 2012

So Conor Friedersdorf wrote “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” and Erik Loomis at the well known, sensible, liberal blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money” called that “An Essay Only a White Person Could Write,” explaining that Mr. Friedersdorf’s essay was “all about drones, civil liberties, and such,” which Mr. Loomis manfully admitted “Obama has indeed sucked on,” but “given that Friedersdorf probably doesn’t have to worry much about his next paycheck or be concerned about having an unwanted fetus in his body, it’s a luxury for him to be a one-issue voter on this particular issue.”

Actually, Friedersdorf raised not one, but a bunch of issues, and while yes, they mainly come back to human rights “and such,” he also says this:

Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.

Put a little more bluntly, by now you know you can’t really believe a word Obama says, which seems like a fairly substantial “meta-issue” to add to the little bitty human rights ones.

Give me some examples, you say?  Well, going to war in Libya without a declaration of war, for one.  In his otherwise excellent post “Is It Moral for Lefties to Vote for Obama?” Henry Farrell waves this one off, but he shouldn’t; Obama expressly said in the 2008 campaign that he wouldn’t do that,* a lot of people believed him, it mattered because lots of Americans wanted some pretty high barriers between us and the next unnecessary war, and (foolishly, it turned out) hoped Obama would be better than rivals such as, say, Hillary Clinton in this respect.

Just as Obama seemed to promise a less wartorn future, he also seemed to herald a future unsullied by the ethnic witchhunts of the Bush years.  As early as 2004, in his famous convention keynote speech, he warmed my heart and others by saying, “If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties”; he returned to the theme again in his inaugural speech: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’ sake.”

But give them up he did — and not just in some “Whereverstan” halfway around the world, but right here.  Among the top examples:

(1) With the help and encouragement of the CIA, the New York Police Department conducted blatantly racist, unconstitutional, unfounded surveillance of entire Muslim-American communities — without finding a single terrorist, though they did manage to photograph some suspicious child care centers.

(2) There’s a deeply disturbing pattern of “preemptive prosecutions” of Muslim-Americans, a practice in which young Muslim-American males are coaxed and baited into considering wrongdoing, are merely arguably in the process of doing so, or have simply found themselves in the crosshairs of some overzealous prosecutor.  I attended an event last January in which the desperate families of such men spoke up on behalf of young men like Ziyad Yaghi, arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison for decades for what amounted to loose talk and paintball practice:  32 years in Supermax prison.  Or like Ahmed Abu Ali, for studying Islam in Riyadh and having a terrorist “confession” beaten out of him by Saudi police: life sentence in a Supermax prison.

(3) Meanwhile, another Muslim-American, Tarek Mehanna, was sentenced to 17.5 years in a Supermax prison for… wait for it… simply translating a document written by Al Qaeda members from Arabic to English.  The case led ACLU’s Nancy Murray to write, “It’s official. There is a Muslim exemption to the First Amendment.

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Outgrowing Booker T. Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd September 2012

In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.”  To wit:

“[Obama’s] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”  

That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.

Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had.  And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either.  Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag.   It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*

Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions.  The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination —  but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there.  David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question.  In Sirota’s judgment,

…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).

This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways.  Sirota reports:

““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.

The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay.  The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release.  It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment,  and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers.  It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts.   And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of  New Year’s Eve, 2011.

And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties,  or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’

Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.

I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader.  In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.

In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman.  Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few.  Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.

Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage.  And in retrospect,  like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it,  Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other.    The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.

There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies.  Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” —  he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”

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Reservations about *this* black president

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th September 2012

There’s no question that Barack Obama has faced unremitting racism of all kinds – crude and subtle, conscious and unconscious — ever since bursting on to the national stage , or that his opponents have fairly openly displayed and cultivated that racism since he was elected President.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s smugly entitled comment  that no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate, Hollywood star Clint Eastwood’s excruciating live television “argument,” at the Republican convention, with an invisible, uppity, unrecognizably foul-mouthed Obama — these are but the latest examples of persistent, high-visibility appeals to racism in a United States that is still decidedly non-“post-racial.”

In his recent, celebrated Atlantic Monthly essay “Fear of a Black President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the evident handicap racism — or in the curious political science circumlocution, “racialization” — has been for the Obama presidency.  It isn’t surprising, of course, that it plays a strong role in any discourse about race.  Obama’s forays in this regard have been exceptionally rare — Coates cites a study* demonstrating that Obama has mentioned race less than any other president since 1961.   And when he does, it often doesn’t seem to help him or anyone else much.  Obama’s attempts at addressing the Henry Louis Gates** and Trayvon Martin stories were met by reflexive, polarizing racist/racialized responses his by political opponents.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe that even policy proposals by our first black president labor under an (undeserved, of course) racial handicap; Coates cites a persuasive study indicating that when random respondents are presented with the same policies attributed to either Obama or Bill Clinton, Obama-as-author fares significantly worse.

So yes: Obama faces a handicap in today’s decidedly non-“postracial” American politics that a white president would not. And yes: that reflects on the country, not on him.

But yes, also: he signed up for the job and wants another four years. We’re entitled to say “Read your oath of office and do what it says — preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution — regardless.”

I think it’s gone relatively unnoticed that Coates nearly says just that as well:

“…The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country. No one knows this better than Obama himself, who once described patriotism as more than pageantry and the scarfing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism,” Obama said in Independence, Missouri, in June 2008. Love of country, like all other forms of love, requires that you tell those you care about not simply what they want to hear but what they need to hear. …”

“But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country.”   However swaddled in nine thousand words of protective bubble-wrap, that sentence is the core of Coates’ essay.  On issues that challenge our ideals, the rule of law, or our cherished illusions of American history, Coates charges that Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear.

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Their urge to betray — and ours

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th March 2011

Until recently, Peter Benjamin was the chairman of the Washington, D.C. area Metro transit system’s Board of Directors. A former mayor of Garrett Park, he brought an avuncular personality and long experience with Metro affairs to the table. While in correspondence with us about the bag search issue I’ve written about before, he dismissed some of our assertions about the program’s drawbacks — for example, he didn’t believe it would cause much decline in ridership. But he seemed to take seriously the civil liberties issues involved.

Still, sometimes I think if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read “I’m a supporter of the ACLU, but…” I could afford the richer, more refined lifestyle I truly deserve.

And sure enough, when push came to shove at a February 10 discussion of the bag search issue, Mr. Benjamin delivered what may be the new low standard in that genre. Beginning with the heart-sinking words “I am a long term member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of my friends consider me a civil liberties nut,” Benjamin was giving the lie to those words within roughly twenty seconds. Even though asserting that the rights we have as citizens are “why we are the great country that we are” and personally believing that “bag checks are a violation of those rights, and …the beginning of a process that moves towards us having fewer and fewer and fewer of those rights,” Mr. Benjamin continued:

And if this decision were only for me, and only about me, I would say I personally am willing to take the risk of potentially having somebody get into the system and blow something up and I would be one of the victims, and I would balance that against my rights and say my rights are much more important. […]

However, I’m also a member of this board, and I was sworn to protect the safety and the security of the people who ride our system. And I don’t know how I as an individual with good conscience could allow somebody to get into our system and cause an explosion and know that somehow or another I contributed to that by overruling the best judgments of our chief executive officer and the professionals who understand this process. […]

But I don’t know that I can be in a position of saying that I have got the ability, given the responsibility that is given to me as an individual and as a member of this board to protect our riders, to say that they should take the same risk that perhaps I would be willing to take. And as long as I have to carry out that responsibility, I think I need to defer to those who believe that they understand better this issue. It’s one that I do very reluctantly, but it’s one that I do after very, very careful thought. And I think that’s the balance that each of needs to make as we consider this issue.”

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