Disabuse Your Illusion: Weighing Obama in the Balance of Reality

Hope, said Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers, a tough little bird that sounds sweetest in the midst of a storm. It's a commonplace by now, but no less true, that Barack Obama's winged words of hope have borne him up to the high place where he stands now, on the threshold of the White House. And these words shine all the more brightly against the torrent of filth that the Bush Regime has rained down upon the American people for years. Thus it's no surprise that millions of people have been inspired by Obama – including a million who have put their money where their hope is, in the most remarkable grass-roots funding campaign in U.S. political history.

It can't be denied that an Obama presidency would be better in many respects than the Bush regime – if only for the replacement of the thousands of fanatics, cranks and witless apparatchiks with whom Bush has packed the federal bureaucracy. The ouster of these cadres will make an appreciable difference, on the ground, in the lives of many people. To cite just one instance, it is likely that an Obama administration (or a Clinton administration, for that matter) would restore the funding to family planning services and health clinics in the poorest regions of the world that Bush has maliciously – and murderously – cut off to please the religious extremists in his political base. That alone would save thousands of lives each year.

But to make this observation is not an endorsement of Obama's candidacy, nor a call for "lesser evilism." It's simply a statement of fact. As we've said here before, echoing Noam Chomsky, even small mitigations in the operation of vast power structures can translate into benefits – or alleviations of suffering – for substantial numbers of people. Again, this is an observable fact, not a value judgment. Whether these mitigations of injustice and suffering in certain instances outweigh the cost of participating in – and thereby to some extent legitimizing and perpetuating – a system that inevitably produces injustice and suffering on a massive scale is a question that each person must decide for themselves, in their own individual conscience.

And this question is certainly pertinent in the case of Barack Obama. For by the choices he has made in picking advisers to help him shape his policies, he has given every indication that while his presidency might represent a better management and presentation of the current system, it will in no way overturn or even seriously challenge it on any essential point. In other words – and bearing in mind the type of not-insubstantial mitigations noted above – he will keep doing what Bush has been doing, only more competently, less radically, with a greater care for the long-term viability of the power structure. And what is that structure that Obama seeks to refine and extend? It is an imperial system based on militarism and the exaltation of elitist profit and privilege above all other concerns.

(It should be noted that this profit/privilege motive is not always elevated to the exclusion of all other concerns – civil rights, health care, disaster relief, education, et al. There are horrors enough in this system without having to pretend that it is operated at all levels and at all times by inhuman monsters. In fact it is, like every system of power, all too human; it partakes of the same chaos, contradiction, selfishness, ignorance, and bestial impulses that afflict us all. Yet because the system is made up of human beings, it also contains traces of the empathy, awareness and striving for transcendence that flicker inside us from time to time. But however much these higher concerns might occasionally animate various individuals – or even larger factions – within the system, they are always, in the end, subordinated to the pursuit of elitist aggrandizement. Measures that attempt to address these other concerns are not allowed to hinder elitist profit and privilege in any serious way; indeed, these reforms are often designed – or forcibly perverted – in such a way as to make them serve this rapacious, relentless pursuit.)

We know that one of Obama's principal foreign policy advisers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, an incorrigible Great Gamester and one of the unsung architects of the modern world. It was Brzezinski who, as Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, devised the strategy of arming and funding violent Islamic extremists in order to destabilize Afghanistan and bait the Soviets into a military intervention to bolster their client regime in Kabul. Brzezinski can thus lay claim to being one of the fathers of the global jihad that has spawned – and been used to justify -- so much death and suffering….and so much profitable permanent war. We know that Obama has called for the American military to be even larger and more powerful, more ready to strike anywhere in the world with overwhelming force whenever the nation's "interests" – defined solely by the elite – are "threatened." We know that his plan for "withdrawing" from Iraq involves leaving an undetermined number of troops in the conquered land, carrying out the same "missions" which they are supposedly conducting now: training Iraqi security forces, fighting terrorism, protecting American assets and personnel, bringing "stability to the region," etc. And as Jeremy Scahill points out, Obama's plans could also lead to an increase in the number of private contractors – mercenaries – in Iraq. Obama has refused to support legislation banning the use of these volatile hired guns in war zones.

In all of this we can see that Obama is a "safe pair of hands" for the militarism that underpins the never-ending quest for America's "full spectrum dominance" over world affairs. The "hope" for genuine change in this regard is a tragic illusion, a hope projected onto, not embodied by Obama.

At least in the case of militarism, there is not a great deal of hypocrisy involved on Obama's part. His allegiance to the imperial project is fairly open. The domestic front, however, is a different matter. Here too Obama has become a blank screen onto which the hopes of millions for some kind of rectification of the ever-worsening economic and social injustices in American society are being projected. And again, while an Obama presidency would not be as openly radical and predatory as the Bush Regime in the pursuit of elitist profits, his choice of advisers gives every indication that his actual policies would differ largely in management and presentation, not in essence. Yet unlike the case with Obama's unabashedly militarist statements on foreign policy, the dichotomy between his progressive rhetoric on socioeconomic justice and the agenda of some of his top advisers and backers means he cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy.

A new report from Consortiumnews.com puts this in stark relief. It tells the back-story of the Finance Chair of Obama's campaign: a woman who was instrumental in devising and pushing the same kind of sub-prime loans and predatory lending practices that he now routinely denounces in public. Dennis Bernstein reports:

[In 2001], 1,406 people…lost much of their life savings when Superior Bank of Chicago went belly up in 2001 with over $1 billion in insured and uninsured deposits. This collapse came amid harsh criticism of how Superior's owners promoted sub-prime home mortgages... But this seven-year-old bank failure has relevance in another way today, since the chair of Superior’s board for five years was Penny Pritzker, a member of one of America’s richest families and the current Finance Chair for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the same candidate who has lashed out against predatory lending.

… Though Superior Bank collapsed years before the current sub-prime turmoil that is rocking the world’s financial markets – and pushing those millions of homeowners toward foreclosure – some banking experts say the Pritzkers and Superior hold a special place in the history of the sub-prime fiasco.

“The [sub-prime] financial engineering that created the Wall Street meltdown was developed by the Pritzkers and Ernst and Young, working with Merrill Lynch to sell bonds securitized by sub-prime mortgages,” Timothy J. Anderson, a whistleblower on financial and bank fraud, told me in an interview. “The sub-prime mortgages,” Anderson said, “were provided to Merrill Lynch, by a nation-wide Pritzker origination system, using Superior as the cash cow, with many millions in FDIC insured deposits. Superior’s owners were to sub-prime lending, what Michael Milken was to junk bonds.”

In other words, if you traced today’s sub-prime crisis back to its origins, you would come upon the role of the Pritzkers and Superior Bank of Chicago.

As Bernstein notes, the Pritzkers' move into predatory lending schemes stemmed from an earlier instance where elitist profit and privilege were exalted over other concerns: the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s (which saw one feckless scion of privilege, Neil Bush, walk away after costing taxpayers $1 billion to cover for his sweetheart deals with cronies). The same overriding aim to protect the privileged from the consequences of their actions was evident throughout Superior Bank's sorry saga:

Superior was founded at the tail end of 1988 in the wake of the failed Lyons Savings Bank. The Feds were trying to keep a lid on the magnitude of the S&L post-deregulation crisis and were selling failed or failing thrifts for a song, along with a lucrative package of special benefits. Chicago’s billionaire Pritzker family and their partners bought Lyons Savings for a quite reasonable $42.5 million, but were also given $645 million in tax credits. The kicker was that the buyers only had to come up with $1 million in cash, and got access to the $645 million, and all the bank’s deposits insured by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

…In a 2002 article in In These Times about Superior Bank’s collapse, business writer David Moberg reported that the bank’s operations were “tainted with the hallmarks of a mini-Enron scandal…And yet the bank’s owners, members of one of America’s wealthiest families, ultimately could end up profiting from the bank’s collapse, while many of Superior’s borrowers and depositors suffer financial losses.”

Moberg wrote that “the Superior story has a familiar ring. … Using a variety of shell companies and complex financial gimmicks, Superior’s managers and owners exaggerated the profits and financial soundness of the bank. While the company actually lost money throughout most of the ’90s, publicly it appeared to be growing remarkably fast and making unusually large profits. Under that cover, the floundering enterprise paid its owners huge dividends and provided them favorable loans and other financial deals deemed illegal by federal investigators.

“Superior’s outside auditor, which doubled as a financial consultant, engaged in dubious accounting practices that kept feckless regulators at bay. Many individuals —disproportionately low-income and minority borrowers with spotty credit record s— had apparently been exploited through predatory-lending techniques, including exorbitant fees, inadequate disclosure and high interest rates.”

Anderson said the bank owners and board members used Superior for their pioneering work in sub-prime lending, developing the financial instruments that helped set the stage for the current sub-prime meltdown…

"This is a story of two Americas with two sets of laws, one for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us,” said Clint Krislov, the depositors’ attorney, in a recent interview. “My clients will all be dead, before they get back their money, given the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the lower court, which put the predatory owners on the front of the line, if any money is recovered.”

Obama has now put one of these "predators" in charge of his campaign finances; doubtless she – or someone else of that ilk – will be placed in charge of the nation's finances if he makes it to the White House. Thus once again, it appears that any hopes that an Obama presidency will produce genuine structural change in a system designed to perpetuate harsh injustices on behalf of a privileged elite will also prove to be a tragic and painful illusion.

And so the question returns to the individual conscience: do you choose to support the chance – the hope – for some mitigation of the system's evils? Or do you reject the system altogether? Again, this is a balance that each person must strike for themselves. But it should be done with eyes wide open – and no illusions.