On May 4, 2009, a few months before Barack Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize, a B-1 supersonic bomber dropped a 2,000 pound missile on the tiny, peasant village of Granai, in Southern Afghanistan. About 140 people, mostly women and children, were torn to shreds and scattered in a range of hundreds of feet.
The Pentagon first tried to cover up what happened. But echoes of the massacre began circulating among the foreign press, and the Army accused the Taliban of having used civilians as shields. The Asian country was soon was inflamed: a caravansary with the bodies of the victims stacked up on carts made its way to Kabul, with thousands of people shouting against the US occupants. The Pentagon then admitted that a few dozens of combatants and a few innocent people were killed. Finally, after a few weeks, almost no one outside of Afghanistan was talking about Granai anymore.
In December, when the Nobel was assigned to Obama, public opinion worldwide reacted with disbelief and scepticism. But the Establishment considered the award “positive”, and so did a number of progressive leaders, European Labour, economist Mohammed Yunus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the 14th Dalai Lama and even Fidel Castro. The chairman of the Nobel Committee said: “We have not given the prize for what may happen in the future. We are awarding Obama for what he has done in the past year.”
One of the few critical voices was the Wall Street Journal:
“What this suggests to us… is the end of what has been called ‘American exceptionalism’. This is the view that U.S. values have universal application and should be promoted without apology, and defended with military force when necessary. Put in this context, we wonder if most Americans will count this peace-of-the-future prize as a compliment.”
On the day of the announcement, with probably more frankness than others, after mentioning human imperfection, reality and war, and saying that necessary force “is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history”, Obama stated: “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather an affirmation of American leadership.”
Clearly no one in the Nobel Committee considered massacres like Granai a moral responsibility of the most militarized leadership of the planet. The unpopularity of US occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed diametrically opposite to the popularity of the US president abroad, especially in Europe. Everything seemed to work for the US propaganda machine.
But it did not work. There was a video documenting the Granai massacre, made by the combat camera of the B-1 bomber involved in the attack, and decrypted in May 2010 by WikiLeaks. The footage was documenting, with graphic precision, a war crime. Obama and Hillary Clinton used all their power to impede the public release of the video, that was later destroyed, and the main informant of Wikileaks, U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning), was jailed under the harshest conditions and later sentenced to thirty-five years in prison with dishonourable discharge.
The winning approach.
The ill-fated love story between Obama and the Left has always been a tormented one, and has undergone many hard blows. But it’s astonishing to see how the relationship managed to resist, and preserve a discrete amount of devotion – from the side of the Left – each time more deteriorated, and despite the overall sense of disappointment among those who rooted for the first Black President five years ago.
In 2008, it was the grass roots. A participation never seen before. A popular enthusiasm that astonished most commentators, in a society largely disillusioned with politics and long turned to squalid gossip and violent entertainment.
No one, of course, ever expected Obama to unveil a New Socialist Idea. Not in a country where the word “socialist” is seen by mainstream media as a blasphemy and where three full-fledged presidential candidates received less then 21,000 votes among them at the last elections.
And yet is was hearth-warming to hear an African-American president, with a long documented history of progressive advocacy, talking about universal health-care, immigration reform and gun control. Contributing, with his public image and his speeches, to a general relaxation of tones an a more friendly perception of the White House. It seemed, for a while, that the Establishment had cleansed itself of the very bad apples – greedy sharks who broke the rules of Wall Streets, incompetent strategists, arrogant warmongers. There was no revolution being televised, but it the was grass roots out there, and was already scaring WASPs to death.
Foreign affairs have had little or no effect in undermining the respectability of Obama and Clinton in much part of the Establishment Left. When back to Europe, I couldn’t help to notice how Italian or Spanish newspapers were sometimes giving the duo a tormented, problematic portrayal, but always through the lens of friendship and loyalty. Polls showed that Obama continues to remained the most popular American President in the Old Continent since JFK. And I was amazed at how easy it was for the White House staff to send out official pictures and get them shared by millions of social media users: there was little regal symbolism, in those pictures, but rather a colloquial interation with the public, a feeling of familiarity and spontaneity – Obama playing with his daughters, Obama fist-bumping a janitor. Simplicity, but yet effectiveness.
The winning approach, already used in other contests by other Presidents but perfected by this administration, was combining cynical strategic needs abroad with the advancement of civil rights at home.
A few months ago, the Supreme Court finally took a step towards the recognition of same-sex marriages nationwide, striking down the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional, after the White House had filed briefs urging judges to do so. The news got massive coverage worldwide, far wider than the attention received by the U.S. involvement in Libya’s coup and the increase of troop levels in Afghanistan.
But because the main drive has always been practicality, not humanity, all the positive changes occurred at home had no equivalent abroad.
With his A New Beginning speech in El Cairo, Obama has presented himself as a friend of the Arab world and against discrimination. But in over five years he has done little to shut down an international symbol of imperial arrogance like Guantanamo, by failing to come up with a plan in time, refusing to help House Democrats who were fighting for its closure, and then abandoning the plan altogether.
Compared to his predecessor, Obama has initiated more sophisticated policies towards governments who were long-time regulars on the “Biggest Enemies” list. But under Obama military operations in Africa and drone strikes aimed to kill suspected terrorists have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years. And when the Justice Department tried to justify the extended armed conflict outside a battlefield, against international law, they cited as historical authority a controversial speech given in 1970 by John R. Stevenson, then the top lawyer for the State Department, to defend the United States’ secret and brutal bombing of Cambodia. In that occasion Henry Kissinger claimed that he was assured that there were no civilians in the area bombed with over 4,000 air raids, which of course was not the case. So the Obama administration cited a statement that was unashamedly false, related to another unashamed episode of history.
Under Obama, the U.S. has continued to support, all over the world, regimes that engage in imprisonment of dissidents, oppression of women and exploitation of ethnic minorities: most notably Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan. And let’s not even mention the zero level of progression made towards a possible Palestinian state. When Raul Castro replaced his brother at the helm of Cuba, neither Hillary nor her President opened a window for a discussion over the most grotesque embargo in history.
At first, the presidency of Obama seemed an attempt to recapture a disillusioned citizenry. But Obama, despite a few gestures toward black people and the poor, despite talk of “human rights” abroad, remained within the historic political borders of the American system, protecting corporate wealth and power, maintaining a huge military apparatus that drained national wealth.
As Obama periodically proposed an increase of minimum wage from 7,25 to 9 dollars per hour – receiving praise for the good-willing liberals –, the entire budget for intelligence service was over $52 billion, with the National Security Agency (involved in the infamous Data-Gate) alone grabbing over $10 billion.
Unions in the U.S. have followed a downward spiral for over three decades, but the state of the organizations under Obama’s presidency hit an all-time low: in 2010, the percentage of workers belonging to a union was 11.4%, compared to 18.4% in Germany, 27.5% in Canada, and 70% in Finland. Union membership in the private sector has fallen under 7% — levels not seen since 1932.
The struggle for Obamacare – the most significant regulatory overhaul of the country’s healthcare system since 1965 – sparkled a great deal of enthusiasm, as it deserved. But how many liberal pundits in Europe discussed the fact that in the last five years there have been more deportations of illegal immigrants then during the entire Bush administration?
Yet – should we just conclude that Barack Obama has been a catastrophe for the Left?
It would be ungenerous and dismissive: for the merits and human complexity of the President, and for the nature of his “public” that, actually, might be worth a more subtle political and anthropological analysis.
The background of the Consensus.
Obama possesses the retrospective culture of a charismatic, extremely intelligent and educated man with a magnificent oratory. He’s undoubtedly one of the smartest people ever to occupy the Oval Office. And the alternative of the GOP is sufficiently bone-chilling to justify the widespread support for this President.
But something, in the way the public image of Obama is received by the middle class, is terribly wrong. And it has more to do with the acceptation of the narrative of Power than the current political contingency.
The so-called Bipartisan Consensus on corporate privileges, militarism and national rhetoric has always been very deep rooted in American society – it didn’t begin with Obama nor it will be over after him. It should come as no surprise that two controversial relics of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger, have been generally accepted – in different ways – as Benevolent Saviours by the press and their audiences. Carter, Peace Nobel Prize in 2002, who (as many other Democrats) backed the bombing of North Vietnam as far as in 1973, and was outraged when Lieutenant William Calley was sentenced to life for his role in the My Lai Massacre, to the point of instituting an “American Fighting Man’s Day” in 1971, and once elected refused to give aid to Vietnam with the motivation that “the destruction was mutual”, rose to the status of a Human Rights counsellor for this administration. And Kissinger, the mastermind behind many illegal, covert operations around the world, sponsor of Pinochet in Chile, was pretty adamant when he hugged and cheered as a future President his natural successor, Hillary Clinton – who’s reaction to the occurred sodomization and lynching of Khadafy was a big “WOW”.
The Obama administration clearly tried to heckle the disillusionment of the American people by a more palatable, less obviously aggressive language. Hence the emphasis on “Love”, “Hope”, “Change”. But on close inspection, these more liberal policies were intended to leave unharmed the power and influence of the American military and business in the world, together with the reassuring sense of superiority of American liberals. What liberals really, really loathed about Bush the most were his stupidity and his incompetence. Indeed, Bush was unique in the magnitude of horrors that he represented. But their passivity towards the “one nation” discourse remained untouched.
Domestically, the growth of the ultra-rich, the new blossoming of ethnicity/minority pride, the homogenization of consumerism on one hand, and the decline of working class consciousness on the other hand, all served to create a fertile ground for the Narrative of the Establishment, and to weaken that “Permanent Adversarial Culture” Howard Zinn was talking about. In 2008, collective action created or recreated a sense of group interest, of cultural and political mutuality, but a forty-year socio-cultural trend could not spare its toll. Forty years where the areas of conflict where broadly drained, the police force installed inside universities to prevent demos and barricades through the streets of the affluent, and much militancy humiliated and depressed by bullshit jobs and a ruthless competition.
While many comrades resorted to the politics and culture of ethnicity and religious identity, the mere existence of the working class seemed alien to many bourgeois.
Magazines editors and freelancers from Europe, still believing to embody the Sex and The City stereotype, carefully erased any reference to those sweating and struggling to make ends meet, while describing phenomena like Riots and Disorder as unintelligible. Criticism of the Establishment was accepted, of course – as long as it didn’t disturb the storyline of optimism and positivity, the thousands scheme of inspirational quotes and self-help.
In Europe, as writer Gary Younge put it, “Obamaphilia has always been as much a reflection of its weaknesses as his strengths. Like royalists in search of a benevolent monarch in whom they could invest great hopes but over whom they had no democratic control, they have sought not to leverage their own power but instead to trust in somebody else’s.”
Yet even as the worldview of Obama did not break with Exceptionalism, in many respects America has truly become less exceptional. While Europe has become more and more Americanized – and provincial – with its gated communities, hyper-controlled metropolis, dreaming of populist leaders while ignoring what happens outside its boundaries, the US has become more like Europe, in the traumatic collapse of its leadership – no longer “Rome”/”New York” but “Constantinople”. An Empire still capable, however, to radiate a certain kind of attraction over the enthusiasts who worship it.
In November 2012, right after the news of his re-election, a photo of a triumphant Obama tightly hugging his wife Michelle was released by the White House staff. It became the most popular image in social media history. The picture, with the simple caption “Four More Years”, was “liked’ 2.1 million times on Facebook and re-tweeted over one million times.
Apparently, it was all about strong emotions: it showed a thankful leader, eyes closed, caught in a private moment with his spouse. A few moments before, in a rousing speech, he had said: “Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.” In reality, that portrait was the finest example of how soft power has the capacity to co-opt and shape the debate though an invisible and poisonous hand.
Within this frame of cultural mutation, radical thinkers and working class no longer have the important role they once possessed in influencing the social organisation, politics, and sensibility of their community. While even anarchists seem to be infected by a postmodern turn and by the obsession of defining their ethnic/sexual identity instead of their ethical position in the this ocean of conformity, an economic group rarely seen as interesting, the post-industrial rich, dominates civic life and has become an intellectual superstar.
Yet, halfway through this presidency, adversarial groups have proved remarkably stubborn, balking at leaving history’s stage. Their persistence, their continuing vitality – although stunned by the flares of rhetoric and evangelical leftism—, are perhaps the best proofs that cultural insurgency must occur under the disappointment of a progressive leadership, and not during the reign of an obscurantist Right.