"Like Trees Walking": Obama and the Vision Thing

Last week, I wrote a piece on Barack Obama's victory in the race for the Democratic nomination: "Degrees of Significance." This has elicited a comment from a long-time reader whose views I respect; I'd like to respond at some length, because I think he brings up an important issue. For readers joining us from Air America, where I'm guest-blogging this week, you might want to check out the earlier piece first to get the whole picture. But here is the comment:

Chris...if you write off Obama before he's even achieved the presidency, you might as well pack it in. Because then it's all just pissing in the wind, isn't it? There's no hope of change, there's no hope of America becoming better, there's no hope of anything changing and we're all on the slippery slope to extinction. After struggling in the mire of corruption for so long you've lost (understandably) perspective. Take a short break, go somewhere nice and quiet, don't read newspapers, the internet or watch TV. Then have another look.

I'm not "writing Obama off" -- whatever that means. I'm just looking at what he is actually saying, his actual positions, and what he has actually done -- and not done -- in the U.S. Senate. In the previous post, I noted a long list of actions -- both substantive and symbolic -- that Obama could have already taken from his position of national power, then I concluded: "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."

Of course, I can't predict the future. Anything is possible, and perhaps Obama will astound us all with a new American revolution that will restore the Republic and dismantle the vast military empire America has built over many decades. Perhaps he will declare an end to the "War on Terror" -- the use of massive, nation-breaking military force, state terror, torture, rendition, secret prisons, concentration camps, and Constitution-stripping tyranny -- to deal with isolated groups of extremists that pose no existential threat to the United States. Perhaps he will establish a "Truth Commission" to investigate and prosecute the many high crimes of the Bush Administration. Perhaps he will change his position on Iraq, and call for a genuine withdrawal of all American forces there. Perhaps he will change his bellicose position on Iran, which he enunciated so forcefully to AIPAC recently. Perhaps he will forthrightly condemn the American-backed "regime change" invasion of Somalia, which has created the worst humanitarian disaster in the world (outside of Asia's recent natural disasters). Perhaps instead of stoking fears about the non-existent "Social Security crisis" -- and attending to the many Wall Street bankers and elitist lobbyists on his team -- he will call for the repeal of the draconian Bankruptcy Bill, he will shift billions of dollars from the Pentagon to the rebuilding of New Orleans and the restoration of the thousands upon thousands of refugees to their homes. Perhaps he will do all these things, and more -- even though he has not given the slightest indication whatsoever that this is what he would do in office.

Rather, in many cases, the opposite is true. He says he will do "everything, and I mean everything" to stop Iran from getting a single nuclear bomb like the thousands in the American arsenal and the hundreds in Israel's arsenal. He will take "no options" off the table in this feverish quest, including, one can only assume, the Hillary-like "obliteration" of Iran and its 70 million people. He has pledged to enlarge the American military machine, already gorged to monstrous, unmanageable size by blood and corruption. This in turn will guarantee the continued militarization of the American economy and our foreign policy, geared toward the continual fomenting of "war and rumors of war" to justify the all-devouring machine.  He pledges to continue the "War on Terror," but to do it "better, smarter," and perhaps even expanding it into Pakistan. He pledges to leave behind an unspecified number of American troops in Iraq "and the region" -- forces that will continue to launch attacks in that broken land, sowing more hatred, more blowback for America.

These are simply facts, drawn from Obama's own speeches and position papers. What sort of "perspective" should we take toward these facts? Should we squint real hard and pretend they're not there?

Here's another example. Obama was recently asked a straight question about the mountains of evidence that Bush and his top minions deliberately created a regimen of torture for their Terror War captives -- a regimen which they acknowledged would lay them open to prosecution for war crimes under U.S. and international law. (Hence their relentless drive to establish the "principle" that the president is above the law.) In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Obama was asked if he would, as president, order his Justice Department "to aggressively investigate if crimes were committed." As I noted in an earlier post on this:

It goes without saying that Obama does not give a straightforward answer to the question. He does not simply say: "Yes. I will aggressively investigate all criminal activity by the Bush Administration and bring the perpetrators to justice." Instead, he twice offers a rather odd locution: he will, he says, order his attorney general to "review the information already there" and find out if there are inquiries that "need to be pursued." Obama's emphasis on basing his actions on "what we know right now" seems puzzling, until you tie it to a later passage in his reply, when he speaks of his attitude toward impeachment.

Obama says that any decision to pursue "investigation" of "possibilities" of "genuine crimes" would be "an area where I would exercise judgment." He stressed the need to draw a distinction between "really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity." He said he would not want "my first term to be consumed by what would be perceived by Republicans as a partisan witch hunt." He then tied his thinking on torture, illegal wiretapping, aggressive war and all the other depredations of the Bush Regime to his stance on impeachment:

"I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings. And I've often said, I do not think that would be something that would be fruitful to pursue. I think impeachment should be reserved for exceptional circumstances."

In other words, very strong, credible, evidence-based charges of launching a criminal war of aggression based on deception is not an "exceptional circumstance" worthy of the investigative and prosecutorial process of impeachment. It might just be a "very dumb policy." Very strong, credible, evidence-based charges of knowingly, deliberately creating a regimen of systematic torture is not an "exceptional circumstance" worthy of impeachment; it might not even be worth further investigation by the Justice Department. It too could just be a "dumb policy" that we should forget about – especially if Republicans are going to make a fuss about it.

Again, what sort of "perspective" should we adopt toward these public statements? No one is forcing Obama to make them. I am doing him the honor that so many of his fans won't do: listening to what he really says, and believing that he means it. Should we not look at the reality in front of us -- instead of the blinding light of celebrity and the gauzy images, "like trees walking," projected by wishful thinking?

I've said many times on this site that an Obama presidency will in fact produce positive changes. As I wrote a few months ago:

It can't be denied that an Obama presidency would be better in many respects than the Bush regime [or a McCain presidency] – 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 his or her own individual conscience.

The commenter also gives voice to a sentiment that seems to be widely held out there: namely, that if we harsh the buzz about Obama, then "there's no hope of change, there's no hope of America becoming better, there's no hope of anything changing and we're all on the slippery slope to extinction."

I confess that I don't quite understand this. There is always hope of America becoming better, there is always hope for positive change. But that hope does not reside -- and has never resided -- in a single politician, or party, or faction. It resides in every individual citizen: in what they think and believe, in what they will accept and countenance, in what they will not stand for, in what they will work for. Hope resides in the amount of knowledge and truth and insight that we can all produce and disseminate and act upon. And hope depends on our ability -- and our willingness -- to confront reality as it is, to deal with our leaders and would-be leaders as they are, not as we wish them to be. For how can you change anything if you cannot see it clearly?

I wrote on this theme years ago, in response to a somewhat similar comment, which took me to task for having such a "negative perspective." I'll let it stand as the last word here. (And I promise shorter posts after this one!):

So do we counsel fatalism, a dark, defeated surrender, a retreat into bitter, curdled quietude? Not a whit. We advocate action, positive action, unstinting action, doing the only thing that human beings can do, ever: Try this, try that, try something else again; discard those approaches that don't work, that wreak havoc, that breed death and cruelty; fight against everything that would draw us down again into our own mud; expect no quarter, no lasting comfort, no true security; offer no last word, no eternal truth, but just keep stumbling, falling, careening, backsliding, crawling toward the broken light.

And what is this "broken light"? Nothing more than a metaphor for the patches of understanding – awareness, attention, knowledge, connection – that break through our darkness and stupidity for a moment now and then. A light always fractured, under threat, shifting, found then lost again, always lost. For we are creatures steeped in imperfection, in breakage and mutation, tossed up – very briefly – from the boiling, chaotic crucible of Being, itself a ragged work in progress toward unknown ends, or rather, toward no particular end at all. Why should there be an "answer" in such a reality?

This and this alone is the only "ideology" behind these writings, which try at all times to fight against the compelling but ignorant delusion that any single economic or political or religious system – indeed, any kind of system at all devised by the seething jumble of the human mind – can completely encompass the infinite variegations of existence. What matters is what works – what pulls us from our own darkness as far as possible, for as long as possible. Yet the truth remains that "what works" is always and forever only provisional – what works now, here, might not work there, then. What saves our soul today might make us sick tomorrow.

Thus all we can do is to keep looking, working, trying to clear a little more space for the light, to let it shine on our passions and our confusions, our anger and our hopes, informing and refining them, so that we can see each other better, for a moment – until death shutters all seeing forever.

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