Many of the specific failures highlighted by the article I sent out yesterday by Chris Hedges criticizing the performance of the Obama Administration are legitimate points. But the way Hedges's positions are stated, and the conclusions drawn from them are not the path of spiritual progressives, in my view.There was too much anger in his statement overshadowing our spiritual progressive commitment to compassion and a spirit of generosity toward others with whose politics we disagree. And not enough sympathy for the problems anyone would face trying to get elected as President and to repair the damage of the past 30 years.
I have great respect for Chris Hedges, as one of the very few people who was a respected journalist at the New York Times and subsequently left the Times in protest of the way they ignored those of us in the anti-war movement who were warning about the lies of the Bush Administration and opposing the use of violence to achieve US ends in the Middle East, and because I am grateful that he has written a brilliant article in Tikkun on the Obama Brand and has accepted our invite to speak at our conference in D.C.
Yet in this communication I want to state places where I disagree with Hedges article, although I do at first affirm some things that are right about Hedges' position even while I don't affirm the tone and style of his communication (which, to be fair to him, was written for a different venue and not at all like the more nuanced pieces he has put into Tikkun magazine). I hope you read this through to the end, even while grumbling that it is too long (I know, but here is a basic truth about communication: if you are referencing ideas that are already popular in the culture, you can do so with a short slogan; but if you are trying to introduce new ideas that do not resonate with the "established wisdom" or "common sense" of the culture, it often takes a nuanced discussion that is longer-and hence the nuanced position may feel too long to people who have been accustomed to the dumbing down of popular discourse by the media and the politicians.)
Despite what Chris Hedges wrote, I have met Obama personally and privately on several occasions and do not believe he is a liar or a conscious manipulator. I do not agree with the decisions he has made since he won the Democratic nomination for President, and particularly after he became President, and I've gone out of my way to communicate in a clear, firm way those criticisms, and to do so in a positive language that showed exactly what he could do to change his approach.
I believe that Obama's failure to carry forward on addressing the deep yearning of tens of millions of Americans for a different world than one dominated by the moneyed interests and the fearful who rely on power and domination of others to achieve security has been a dreadful mistake. Obama aroused in people a willingness to transcend the deep cynicism engendered in many by 28 years of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush II, encouraged us to believe that he would stand for something really different, and that he would above all fulfill his promise to tell us the truth (which I and others understood to mean "the whole truth" facing him and moving him to make decisions).
It was this commitment by Obama which led many Americans to take what was for them the huge risk of dropping their defenses and allowing themselves to hope that the world that they wanted (but believed to be impossible) would finally be on the agenda, and that someone in a position of power and influence would provide leadership to achieve that world (albeit against potentially insuperable odds).
Few of them expected change overnight, none of them expected change without compromise, but all of them expected that Obama would unequivocally speak the same language and the same critique of the corporate powerful and the same critique of the Bush abandonment of human rights and civil liberties, to the whole country that he had spoken to his supporters when telling them that "you are the people we've been waiting for" and that he would deliver "change you can believe in." Most of the criticism of Obama is not about what he compromised for, but why he did it without first struggling hard for the progressive positions he articulated during his previous career as a US Senator and to crowds he met with during the campaign-that is, without trying to educate the country to the ideas he said he believed in, before making compromises on those ideas.
Lest you think that this is somehow a rarified critique coming from a few intellectuals, please note the report in the New York Times today, March 3, 2010, page B1, in which leaders of the labor movement expressed strong critique of Obama's policies and indicated that it is unlikely that Labor will be able to mobilize their local unions to work for many Democrats in the 2010 elections. The story goes on to quote one typical steelworker who worked for Obama in 2008 who says "People aren't feeling so good about the president"people really believe that he bailed out Wall Street and forgot about Main Street.
I think it's going to be a real challenge for organized labor to try to reenergize its base" in 2010 and beyond. A firefighter in Michigan is quoted as saying: "He's not what he purported to be, which was 'I'm going to change things, Im going to fight for you, the average guy in the street.' He's no;t fighting hard enough for what he believes. The ones that voted for Obama, they're not as enthusiastic." So, please understand that when we critique Obama, we predicted all this a year ago, and now we are seeing what happened when Obama followed the path he did-but we are not the ones who have created the mass defection from Obama and his weak-kneed Democratic Congress.
I'll go on to say why I disagree with Chris Hedges' article in a few more paragraphs, but please get that it is Obama, not his progressive critics, that have caused the great disappointment that flowed from his prioritizing the needs of corporations and banks and investment companies over the needs of middle income people and the poor. No one expected a magic wand-but they did expect him to fight for a progressive vision and to speak openly about what he was encountering when he was engaged in such a fight.
So when Obama failed to do that, failed to do the one thing that was in his power to do, namely, to tell the truth, to say honestly and openly to us what was happening and why he was taking the moves that he took, and to relate what he was doing to what he had said he would do, and when abandoning what he had said, to explain why and to acknowledge the pain and disappointment that any such abandonment would reasonably cause among those who had supported him precisely because they believed he would stick with his promises and would explain what he was doing and why.
So when Obama failed to stay honest and open with us about what he was doing, he caused a tremendous disappointment and humiliation among many who had opened themselves in this way, and they have reacted in part by despairing of government at all (and yes, part of the resurgent populist Tea Party movement comes from reactionaries, but part of it also comes from people who, watching Obama use big government to fund the very entrenched interests of the rich and powerful that they had understood him to promise to challenge, feel rage and anger at this betrayal, even if they didn't vote for him but secretly nurtured a fantasy that maybe finally something different would happen in government).
Another group has turned to deep despair and an unwillingness to get involved again in politics, and this may be a major factor in the triumph of right-wing forces or even fascistic forces in the next decade or two, because it's going to take a long time to get people to hope again. And finally, another group, represented by Hedges, is just so angry at having been disappointed once again, are coming to the conclusion that they were consciously manipulated and want to express their anger. And they too have a legitimate reason to be upset.
And, no, I don't buy the argument that there was nothing that Obama could do differently. Over and over again in the past six issues of Tikkun we've described in detail what he could have done differently and still could . In Tikkun we printed Memos to Obama by some of the most creative thinkers in America, and we were assured by people close to Obama that he received these. We bought a full page ad in the Washington Post and again in a very respectful manner proposed some specific steps he could take to retain the energy and hopefulness of his campaign even within the constraints of "inside-the-beltway" consciousness that was being championed by writers like E.J. Dionne and other liberals in the first months of his presidency.
The key thing that is right about Hedges is that we all need to STAND UP and become visible again now that Obama's wrong turn has made invisible the tens of millions of people who supported him in the primaries and our shared desire for a different kind of world-because to the extent that we become invisible to others and to each other, the crushing weight of the current global capitalist system-- and all its violence, injustice, and preaching of the values of selfishness, materialism, and looking out for number one and assuming that everyone else only cares about themselves and will seek to dominate us unless we dominate them first-makes people despair about changing anything, and makes plausible the rage of proto-fascist movements on the Right which give expression to the frustrations about the contemporary world but do so in destructive ways. Hedges is trying to say to the attempts to erase the yearnings of tens of millions of people for a different world: NO, WE ARE HERE, DON'T LOSE OUR PROPHETIC VOICE AND THE VALUE OF ARTICULATING OUR MESSIANIC ASPIRATIONS-and in this respect he is saying something that deserves respect. This is what is good about Hedges article.
So then where do I disagree with Hedges? Let me count the ways: