The symbolic significance of Obama Barack's nomination victory is not insubstantial. In a land where, not so long ago, having the slightest drop of "Negro blood" in your genetic inheritance was enough to bar you -- legally and formally -- from many jobs, educational opportunities, places of residence, medical care, full participation in society, etc. (and where these obstacles still persist, in practice if not in law, for many people), it is striking to see a man whose father was not only black but also a "full-blooded African" (cue the psychosexual "Mandingo" anxieties of generations of trembly white folk) on the doorstep of the White House. At the very least -- until the novelty wears off (and novelty wears off very, very quickly in America)-- if Obama wins the presidency, there will be some aesthetic relief in seeing a different kind of face on the tee-vee mouthing various pieties, refusing to take any options off the table, etc., in place of the long procession of pasty white males of Northern European descent.
As for the substantial significance of Obama's nomination win, there is none. The only thing that really matters is what the human being named Barack Obama will do with power (if he gets it), and not his skin color. Or to put it another way: What difference did Colin Powell's status as a non-white person in the highest cabinet office make when the question of aggressive war was on the line? None. He was later replaced not only by another non-white person, but by a non-white female, Condi Rice. What difference did Rice's ethnicity and gender make to her collusion with the Bush faction's brutal policies of aggressive war, torture, rendition, state terror, etc.? None.
The salient point of this truly degrading campaign has always been: what will the winner do in office? Will he (there is no need to add the "or she" now) immediately begin the process of withdrawing from Iraq and making reparations for the mass slaughter and mass destruction of our war crime there? And speaking of war crimes, will the winner instigate investigation and prosecution of Bush Administration officials for a host of high crimes, foreign and domestic? Will he begin the process of winding down America's worldwide military empire of more than 700 bases? Will he halt the militarization of space? Will he end the multi-generational boondoggle of "missile defense"? Will he call for the immediate repeal of the draconian Bankruptcy Bill, that bipartisan weapon of mass destruction in the elite's unrelenting class war against working people, artisans, small business owners and the poor?
These are just a very few of the many essential and highly urgent issues that a new president committed to genuine change in the corrupted currents of our moribund Republic would have to take on. It goes without saying that John McCain will do none of the things outlined above. He is a dedicated, unashamed errand boy of empire, and would never upset the apple cart -- and long-term agenda -- of the war-profiteering class and its many courtiers and dependents.
And by every indication we have seen so far, it is increasingly obvious that Barack Obama won't do these things either. How can we know this? Because, as a member of the United States Senate, he could have already been actively addressing these burning issues -- had he wanted to. He could have introduced bills of impeachment against Bush and Cheney for their high crimes. He could have already introduced bills calling for the repeal of the Military Commissions Act and the Bankruptcy Bill. He could have introduced bills outlawing rendition, closing the concentration camp on Guantanamo Bay, shutting down the worldwide gulag of "secret prisons." He could have introduced a bill calling for the full and complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and reparations for the Iraqis. He could have introduced bills rolling back the empire of bases, cutting off funds for missile defense, condemning the U.S. government's pivotal role in suffering and brutality in Somalia. He could not have stopped the war, closed Gitmo, restored the Constitution, prosecuted the Administration criminals for war crimes, torture, treason, corruption and malfeasance all by himself. But he could have at least tried to set the ball rolling, using all the institutional instruments -- and popular acclaim -- at his command to try to force action on these and other issues. But he did not do so; he is not doing so now; and there is no reason to believe that he will do so in the future, despite the eloquent lip service he occasionally pays to one or two of these points.
And already, a rather sinister theme is being woven into the heroic narrative of his campaign triumph. I'm in the "Homeland" at the moment, with a rare full exposure to the blisteringly stupid television news. And within minutes of the first word of Hillary Clinton's suspension of her campaign, I saw talking heads reaching out and giving America a big ole hug of self-congratulation for Obama's victory. "I think this speaks very well of us as a people," said one earnest commentator, a no-doubt "progressive" academic eagerly supplying a soundbite through his neatly-trimmed beard. "I think it makes us look great!" enthused no less an expert than Jim "Ace Ventura" Carey, who was collared at some sort of green consciousness event and asked his opinion of the historic development. The conventional wisdom "takeaway" was already solidifying: America is uniquely great and divinely special, because we've allowed a black man to win a presidential nomination -- and he's still alive! That's the kind of people we are. USA! USA!
But a more accurate picture of "the kind of people we are" can be found in an excellent post by Bernard Chazelle at A Tiny Revolution. As Chazelle notes, vast swathes of Americans have shown themselves to be eager, avid supporters of terrorism -- as long as it's terrorism that works, terrorism that gets the job done quickly and efficiently without getting all bogged down in complications and stuff that sometimes clutters up the teevee. You should read the whole article, but here are some excerpts:
The point of this post is not that attacking Iraq was bad (though it was); it is not that Shock-and-Awe was terrorism (though it was). It is that Bush, for once, did not lie. He asked us with utter clarity and no ambiguity whatsoever: do you want to be a terrorist? And America said yes. The question "Shall we do Shock-and-Awe?" does not mean "Do you want to avenge 9/11?" or "Do you want to liberate Iraqis?" or "Do you want to remove a WMD threat?" If it did, it would be phrased differently. There is no need to invoke terror for any of these purposes. But Shock-and-Awe explicitly appeals to the intention of terrorizing. "Do you want to do Shock-and-Awe?" means "Do you want to be a terrorist?" For this one time, the US government told the truth and called its own terrorism by its name. America understood, and America cheered....
When you plan a bombing attack on a major city and you call it Shock-and-Awe, you quite clearly intend to cause horrendous fear in the population. That would be the standard interpretation of anyone with minimum fluency in the English language: shock, awe, bombs. What else could it mean?
Indeed, the meaning of "Shock and Awe" has always been clear. Chazelle goes on to quote from the two military scholars who first clearly explicated the doctrine:
Shock-and-Awe is explained in great detail in a 1996 book written by its two architects, Ullman and Wade. The authors explain in it that the goal is to control "means of communication, transportation, food production, water supply, and other aspects of infrastructure." The objective is to cause
the threat and fear of action that may shut down all or part of the adversary's society.
One seeks to shut down, not the military infrastructure, but the adversary's society. Am I putting too much emphasis on just one unfortunate choice of words? Let's hear Ullman elaborate on the subject:
"You're sitting in Baghdad and all of a sudden you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water. In 2,3,4,5 days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."
It's unambiguous. The goal is to use violence to inspire fear in a way that will shut down all or part of society. The objective is the same as that of 9/11: bring a society to its knees by using terror. (The Ullman-Wade book even mentions Hiroshima approvingly as an example of Shock-and-Awe.)
Shock-and-awe is factually, conceptually, and morally equivalent to or worse than 9/11. Factually: Iraq Body Count estimated the death toll [of the initial "Shock-and-Awe attack at the beginning of the war] at more than 6,000, which is twice 9/11. Conceptually: The means are terrorism, i.e., the goal is to achieve political ends through violence and fear against innocent people. Morally: this was not self-defense or even retaliation; it was premeditated murder of thousands of innocent civilians (including many more children than on 9/11).
When people tell you Americans can't understand "Islamofascist terrorists," tell them that Americans, in fact, are uniquely qualified to understand bin Laden.
Will Obama -- in the White House or on the campaign trail -- denounce the "War on Terror" for what it really is: a war of state terror, waged almost entirely against civilian populations? He has not done so; indeed, on his website he calls for fighting the War on Terror in a "smarter way". (There will be no inefficient, cluttery terrorism when Obama is on the job!) He wants an even bigger, more powerful, more "stealthy" military...
So here is the significance of Obama's nomination: More Terror War. More murder -- directly, by proxy, by remote control. More manufactured enemies. A continued military presence in Iraq (all "combat troops" withdrawn, eventually, maybe, but other troops left there to "target al Qaeda in Iraq"). No reparations. A bigger, faster, more far-reaching military wrapping the globe. No options taken off the table -- ever.
Hey, you know what? The novelty is wearing off already.
**Edited to correct misquote of Obama speech.**