The August 18 issue of The Nation magazine published “Change We Can Believe In. An Open Letter to Barack Obama,” online at thenation.com.
The letter begins by congratulating Obama and extolling how, through his candidacy, “Hundreds of thousands of young people have entered the political process for the first time, African-American voters have rallied behind [Obama], and many of those alienated from politics-as-usual have been re-engaged.”
But they express concern that, “Since your historic victory in the primary, there have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance—including, most notably, your vote for the FISA legislation…”
While making clear that they “recognize that compromise is necessary in any democracy,” and “understand that the pressures brought to bear on those seeking the highest office are intense,” they advise Obama, “Retreating from the stands that have been the signature of your campaign will weaken the movement whose vigorous backing you need in order to win and then deliver the change you have promised.”
After listing some of Obama’s positions that they like and some that they don’t, they pledge: “If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don’t. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected President.”
The signatories to this letter are an impressive list of writers and intellectuals, a number of whom are respected tremendously as voices of conscience. But, this letter, and its whole logic and method, is very bad. Whatever their intent, those who put their names on it are wielding their influence to get people to join them in a deadly exercise in self-delusion.
On one level, the best response to this letter are the words of Obama himself. Answering accusations that he had “moved to the right” since securing the Democratic nomination, he said, “The people who say this haven’t apparently been listening to me.”
But since those who signed The Nation’s letter are serious people making a serious argument, and since this letter reinforces themes that are constantly hammered at people, it is important to say more.
The Poison of Wishful Thinking
One of the most insidious dangers of this letter is how it “softens” Obama’s politics, distorts the meaning of his campaign, and proceeds from what the writers wish were true rather than what actually is.
Take, for instance, the letter’s claim that Obama has “sketched out a vision of a better future, in which the United States sheds its warlike stance around the globe.”
In reality, what he has “sketched out” is a vision of massive escalation—to the tune of 10,000 more troops!—of the war in Afghanistan, a willingness to unilaterally use military force in Pakistan, and a refusal to rule out using nuclear weapons against Iran! Besides voting repeatedly to continue funding the war in Iraq, Obama has made clear that his criticisms of that war are out of a desire to strengthen the influence and domination of the U.S. in the world. Really, all this is much more than a “sketch”; Obama has put forward a very concrete program of imperialist domination for all to see and hear. . . and it doesn’t entail “shedding a warlike stance” any time soon.
Or take this letter’s description of Obama’s positions as “cautious and centrist.”
What exactly is “cautious and centrist” about voting for Bush’s FISA law sanctioning massive domestic wire-tapping and retroactively protecting those who violated the rights of millions to privacy? What is “cautious and centrist” about giving a bloodthirsty speech to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that essentially writes Israel a blank check and threatens Iran with war? What is “cautious and centrist” about blaming Black fathers, in his infamous Father’s Day speech, for the way this system has written off a whole generation of youth, unable and unwilling to provide jobs or decent education or any kind of future at all, and instead funneling 1 in 9 Black men into jail?! What is “cautious and centrist” about getting to the right of George Bush’s Supreme Court and arguing for even wider use of the death penalty? What is “cautious and centrist” about promising to expand Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative?!
If all this is “cautious and centrist,” I’d really hate to see “cynical and fascist”!
More to the point, sanitizing Obama’s positions in this way is dangerously similar to how the Pentagon refers to civilians murdered in unjust wars as “collateral damage”; it has the effect of numbing people to reality and making it easier for them to acquiesce to war crimes. What is particularly painful is that many of the letter signers have a commendable history of speaking plainly and insisting people confront the full horrors of the crimes of the government, but the logic of trying to make Obama into something he is not has led them away from this principle they have stood for.