Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Angriest Left

This past weekend, I decided to attend an event held by the Indypendent at Cooper Union in Manhattan featuring some of my favorite writers. Titled, "The 2008 Election: What’s Really At Stake?" it was headlined by authors Naomi Klein, known best today for The Shock Doctrine, and Jeremy Scahill, who has gained fame for his groundbreaking BlackWater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Lesser known writer Roberto Lovato and Malia Lazu, executive director of Harry Belafonte’s The Gathering, rounded out the panel which was moderated by radio host Laura Flanders. What I was treated to was an illuminating insight into the current mood of the progressive left, that place I warmly call home, and some of it wasn't so pretty.

I didn't exactly walk in to this with blinders. I tune in to enough progressive media to gauge the mood. For quite a while now I've noticed that much of the left is mad, very mad. And the focus of its ire seems to be sharpened and aimed at--Barack Obama.

From the moment I arrived I knew there might be trouble, when I was greeted by a Naderite and handed the usual literature. I don't really have a problem with Ralph Nader. I actually admire him, my favorite Unreasonable Man. I've never bought into the fallacy that he cost Al Gore the 2000 Election--at least singularly. Gore's inept handlers and Bush's theft of the Florida vote was the real story behind the "loss" of 2000. I've even signed those petitions to get him on the ballot. S o I'm all for equal opportunity and time for Nader--I just have no intention of voting for him, not in a year when so much is at stake.

And that night I wasn't the only one. The first up to bat before the packed Cooper Union crowd was Roberto Lovato. A gifted writer on issues of immigration rights and Latino politics, Lovato was unfortunately not having his best speaking moment. His speech was often a ramble and his constant use of slogans like Movimiento Latina America was a bit overdone. Most of the audience drifted away as he spoke, trying to follow some of his more disjointed thoughts.

Still, I found a kindred spirit in Lovato. As a person of color on the left, he had strong criticisms of Sen. Barack Obama--namely on his backwards attitude towards democratically elected leaders in Venezuela and Bolivia that form part of the new Latin America. And I couldn't agree more. I scowl each time I hear Obama parroting the sharp reactionary rhetoric that has defined America's imperialist relationship with it's southern neighbors for well over a century. That's certainly far from the "change" I want to believe in. However after ticking off all those problems, Lavato revealed that his own parents (currently out of the country) would be returning to the US just in time to cast their vote--for Barack Obama. He himself declared to the crowd, "we must elect Barack Obama." And that's when things got ugly.

There were boos and even hisses. (Who hisses? Honestly!) Under the growing murmers of discontent, Lavato seemed to waver, stumbling over his words but attempting to persevere. A more hostile audience member yelled out "Double-Talk!" with a bitter tone usually reserved for the right, when discussing "traitors" and "commies." When Lavato had finished there were smatterings of applause from the crowd--not sparse, but certainly not very strong. It was hard to tell if this was done out of disagreement, or fear of voicing dissent.

After Lavato's initial speech, it became evident this was not a place to proudly display your "Obama For Yo Mama" button. In fact, Barack Obama--and his many faults--dominated much of the discussion. Though of few words, Laura Flanders could barely conceal her contempt for what she derided as "Hype"--a mockery of Obama's "Hope." Naomi Klein tried to offer the crowd a more moderate approach, taking Obama to task yet urging them to remember that staying true to progressive issues was what mattered most. One got the sense that Klein leaned towards Obama, but seemed to choose her words carefully. Activist Malia Lazu sidestepped most of the Obama politics altogether, instead speaking of her attempts to energize youth. But when it came to taking Obama out to the woodshed and administering the whip, no one did it better than Jeremy Scahill.

If red meat can be thrown to a progressive crowd--maybe a better metaphor would be spicy tofu--Scahill tossed it out in pails and buckets. From Obama's troubling talk of expanding the Afghan war to his refusal to pledge the end of mercenaries in Iraq, Scahill left no stone unturned in his scathing critiques. And the audience ate it up. There was clapping and cheering, each time he let Obama "have it." From the way he repeatedly delivered, I suspect he enjoyed it as much as they did. As I sat there witnessing this spectacle I arrived at an observation--there's a black guy from Chicago that many on the left sure don't like. And I'm not sure what to make of it.

It's not that I don't agree with Scahill, or Klein or much in the crowd on basic issues of politics, economics, social justice, foreign policy, etc. Neither do I defend Barack Obama from their criticisms. I've certainly leveled my fair share and continue to do so. What I did find troubling was the intensity with which it was being doled out, and the lack of balance.

I've been around the left before during presidential elections, in 2000 and 2004. Certainly there was alot of heat towards Gore and Kerry. But the dislike for Obama seems to move beyond that, entering into the cynical, the mocking and at times, perhaps, the personal. Obama is not just disliked for being another establishment Democrat, he's abhorred for suggesting perhaps that he might be more than that. And there are those on the left who feel they must deconstruct him at every given opportunity. Listening to some of the speakers, namely Scahill and to a lesser extent Klein, you'd almost forget there were these guys named McCain and Palin in the race. The GOP candidates were mentioned and critiqued, but they took up a minority of the time. The bulk of their ire was reserved for Obama.

So for what it's worth, below is my lengthy take--or perhaps speculation--on what may be fueling this anti-Obama fervor on much of the left, and the many dynamics of power, identity and politics it might represent.

The Arrogance Factor

There is a strong sense of indignation and arrogance on the left when it comes to Obama--indignation that some progressives would support his candidacy and an arrogance that assumes anyone who does so is woefully duped. Like the right, some on the left seem to be put off by Obama's "hype" and his seeming "celebrity"--something many of them have been unable to bring alive in their own independent candidates. To counter this Obama-mania, they have taken up Obama-obsession. Teasing out the "real" Obama has become a favorite passtime, as it's assumed we simply must not know. In actuality however, many of us do know. We're quite up to speed. There's no need to drum it home to us each time. The real problem isn't our lack of understanding of Obama's full political spectrum, but rather the inability of some to fathom that we may be very informed and still cast a vote for a candidate of whom we are also heavily critical. Call it nuanced thought.

The Death of Pragmaticism

Speaking of nuance, when did some on the left become so entrenched in ideology that strategy no longer mattered? That's not the only way to be a progressive. The Nation endorsed Barack Obama, while at the same time remaining critical of his shortcomings. The strategy is fairly simple to comprehend. Given that someone is going to be president, and this person will greatly affect the future policy--both domestic and foreign--of the country, it is key that progressives endorse a candidate closest to their position. This person won't be perfect, but he or she has to be someone who can be pushed by progressives. It may not be easy to push them; it might get ugly. But after 8 years of a presidency that listens to no one, a more open face--and open ear--in the administration certainly can't hurt.

The Honest Lie

What was most disheartening to watch that night was the amount of ideological rhetoric that sailed through the air--things that sounded very lofty but had little to do with reality. The biggest honest lie that was repeated and applauded was that there would be "no difference" who won on Nov. 4th. Really? Does anyone actually believe that, or does it just sound nice to say? I mean has anyone taken time to read the McCain and Palin platform? From the religious fundamentalism to the threat of overthrowing Roe v. Wade to the belligerent neocon foreign policy, the GOP ticket is frightening. Am I vehmently opposed to Obama's talk of expanding the war in Afghanistan and deeply troubled by Biden's cozying up to Georgian leaders? You bet! Do I think he's light years away from dismantling the neoliberal global economic order--sadly, yes. But at the same time, I'm scared witless of almost casual talk of "war with Russia" and a guy who cheerfully sings, "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." The Bush Doctrine, even when wielded by those who don't know about it, is dangerous. I agree, anyone who thinks that Obama will come in and put an end to America's imperial-like foreign policy establishment over night is naive. However, to say there is no difference between him and what McCain-Palin might offer is delusional. And to say so when you know better, for the sake of rhetoric, is downright cynical to boot.

Choosing Your Battles

Let's be clear once again. There will be someone in the White House in Jan of 2009. And millions of people here and abroad will be affected by this. I'm deeply opposed to Obama's tough talk of a "good war" in Afghanistan that may kill more civilians; and I want a deeper committment to pull out of Iraq and help rebuild what we've destroyed. But there are more battles to fight in this world. If you want a simple case, look at the Global Gag Rule, which restricts and constricts foreign funding for abortion. In 2001, one of this first acts of George Bush Jr was to reenact the GGR. With the stroke of a pen, he directly and indirectly stripped away many of the medical reproductive avenues for poor women world wide. Today, because of the GGR, unsafe abortions have risen as a leading cause of death in countries from Kenya to Nigeria. The Democratic Platform on reproductive rights is all but guranteed to repeal this. There are dozens of issues, from the environment to education to the minimum wage, where even an imperfect Democratic leadership stands far beyond the regressive policies of the GOP--especially one dominated by the extreme fundamentalist and hawkish wing of the party. In 1999 the left was fighting against the global economic order, forcing even the insular WTO to pay attention for a few days in Seattle. Since then, under an adventurous neoconservative administration and a reckless domestic shock doctrine, the left has found itself fighting on all fronts. The few gains made over the past decades have been rolled back, and we're fighting battles that we thought we'd won years ago all over again. It doesn't seem to take a genius to realize loosening up some of those fronts would help the left better focus its much needed energy--unless we are more concerned with the romantic notion of being insurgents instead of practical progressive policy.

Dare we say...Race?

It was quite a sight to sit back and watch mostly white faces scoff at a Latino activist (Lovato) declare his support for the first African-American presidential candidate. Of course these were white liberals, and though Malcolm X warned of smiling foxes, I'm not going to evoke the specter of "racism" here. But I must ponder on the place whiteness and white privilege play in this Obama fixation. Is the whiteness of the left showing and do they even notice? Does Obama's skin color, his popularity among an oppressed group that is usually seen as an ally--or someone to preach to--vexing the left? Is there some disappoinment that he's not living up to white leftist expectations of "blackness," because, as Ralph Nader put it, he's allegedly "talking white" and not cracking down on the "exploitation in the ghettos?" Who exactly is being referred to when leftist critics speak of how Obama's "hype" has "duped" his supporters? Is this in part some dig at the supposed "gullibility" of that same economically exploited black community--which supposedly includes all the ghettos? Just whose image of blackness here is being projected onto whom? To be fair, Obama has his biting critics from the black left as well. Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report no doubt heads that PAC; he is sharp, cutting and takes no prisoners. But among black journalists he is a distinct minority, and doesn't invoke images of white liberal paternalism. Do I know for certain that race is somehow at play here? No. I'm just venturing a guess. But more important, I'm putting forth what is not an uncommon perception--one that our white friends on the left should at least be made aware.

What's the Strategy?

The obsession some of the left have placed in opposing Obama lie greatly at their own inability to form a real strategy. Again, I dig Nader, and think he should at least be allowed into the early debates. But his reasons, which he gives often, for running for President don't always add up. Much the same goes for the Green Party and others. Mind you, I believe they certainly have the right to run, and there's something monopolizing about this two-party system. But many of these guys seem to be putting the carriage before the horse. Fact is, they don't have the ability to win any Presidential election--only to serve as spoilers that remind the parties they lean towards of their anger. And that may be a good thing. But if they really want a mass movement to take them seriously, why not start out at the local level more forcefully? Why not push themselves into schoolboards and council seats and all those places at the grassroots they often work at? Get their members elected to Congress. And then, when there's a party that looks like it has the support of the people, run for the oval office. But asking many of us, in an important election year, to cast a symbolic vote, is a bit much.

Know Your Enemy

If the Democratic Party and Barack Obama are "enemies" of the left, then there may not be a strong enough word that describes the GOP and the right-wing. Though there's certainly a chasm of thought and action between us and the Democrats, there are also enough links. Whether it's the rights of women or global warming, the Democrats may not be where much of the progressive left wants them to be--but we are all certainly in the same larger geographical ideology. When it comes to the GOP, whose current incarnation hosts a big tent of religious fundamentalists, rabid war-hawks old Dixie-crats, homophobia, Creationists, trickle-down-economic theorists, and other aspects of the "unrestrained id," we don't even share the same ideological planet. Right wing ideologues like Michael Savage compares liberals to the "HIV virus" and Glenn Beck fantasizes about killing Michael Moore. In the realm of electoral politics the left (inside and outside of the party) may be the unwanted children of the Democrats, or perhaps its Dutch Uncle, who criticize and forcefully push them (with varying degrees of success and failure) to take on more progressive policies. To many on the right, we shouldn't even exist.

The moral of the story here isn't to get people to run out and vote for Obama. It's your right to exercise as you wish. Nor am I advocating, as some do, that we mute our criticisms during the election and save them for later. Speak up now and be heard! What I am critical of is the single-sided attacks by some on the left on one presidential candidate, that at the same time ignores the dangers his opponent poses. There is a difference to choose from in this election. It may not be anywhere as sharp as we'd like, but it's a bit of a stretch to deny it nevertheless. In past weeks the two major parties held their respective conventions. Both were corporate sponsored light shows, where the powerful gathered to push their partisan rhetoric. One featured a broad cross-section of America's diversity; the other seemed to show the older angry vanguard of white America, struggling to remain relevant. The DNC wasn't exactly friendly to the more heavily progressive left. They cornered off where protestors could gather, hoping to keep them out of the spotlight, and oversaw the arrest of hundreds. But the RNC took it to another level. From pre-emptive raids to the creation of a police-state that brutalized even reporters, the GOP showed they weren't simply trying to curtail protest, but ruthlessly crush it. Later this Fall, the candidates from one of those parties will be elected into the White House. We on the left will continue our struggle, no matter what happens. But we might want to decide now, which one we want to go up against.

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