It’s a Free Country, After All

Posted: January 1, 2010 in Corporatism, Debate, Economics, Healthcare, Politics, Torture

Only the most jaded cynic could fail to be dumbfounded at recent and extraordinarily vehement criticisms of Barack Obama. All U.S. presidents have been magnets for detractors, as something is always going wrong somewhere. However, it’s also pretty amazing that very little of the criticism seems to stick. Ronald Reagan earned the sobriquet The Teflon President for his ability to avoid any lasting judgment, but the effect has outlasted old Ronny. Clinton survived two terms of the worst partisanship, damning criticism, and an impeachment; George W. Bush survived two terms of crowning stupidity, a major terrorist attack, two preemptive wars, and nonstop calls for impeachment; and now Obama appears to be able to withstand even the most vengeful attacks, even gathering an international prize despite the most meager accomplishments thus far. It’s not that Obama’s approval rating hasn’t suffered; it has. Rather, no change of policy (those in effect, not those promised) or alteration of course results from every new revelation of corruption, ineffectualness, or abandonment of principles. Nothing seems to penetrate the cocoon of advisers surrounding the president, who must be counseling what is politically possible rather than telling the truth about what must be done. Yet the charges from the media and the blogosphere continue to mount, and every analysis ends up suggesting Obama must have a hidden endgame. How else can one account for the president’s actions? The avalanche of criticism demonstrates that one can say the worst things about another person or the president short of libel or slander. It’s a free country, after all. That one notable feature of Western democracy remains despite rollbacks of all sorts of other civil liberties.

So what are some people saying about Obama? After an excessively long biographical statement, which is basically an appeal to authority, here is Nat Hentoff calling Obama “possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had.” The hedge possibly doesn’t soften the blow, nor does the disingenuous disclaimer that his assessment is not in fact hyperbole. I always hold statements using ever and of all time in low regard, as they’re typically the result of an obvious bias that today’s history trumps all other eras. Still, Hentoff’s most on-point criticism is this:

In terms of the Patriot Act, and all the other things he has pledged he would do, such as transparency in government, Obama has reneged on his promises. He pledged to end torture, but he has continued the CIA renditions where you kidnap people and send them to another country to be interrogated. Why is Obama doing that if he doesn’t want torture anymore? Throughout Obama’s career, he promised to limit the state secrets doctrine which the Bush-Cheney administration had abused enormously. The Bush administration would go into court on any kind of a case that they thought might embarrass them and would argue that it was a state secret and the case should not be continued. Obama is doing the same thing, even though he promised not to.

These are serious charges, and I’ve blogged about them before. But if this criticism itself isn’t awful enough, how can one account for the following statement, taken from Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

Really? I mean that, truly. Can Obama really claim that moral high ground? Did something occur when I wasn’t paying attention or that the media didn’t report? So he gave back the Bush adminstration’s power grab — the establishment of the imperial presidency — and no longer reserves the right to rendition and torture of so-called “enemy combatants,” defined by impregnable presidential fiat? The Guantanamo prisoners were released and the prison was closed? Sure, Obama issued the order, but he may as well order gravity turned off and see how that goes. And does anyone really believe that torture and rendition at the hands of American soldiers or functionaries is truly prohibited, whatever might be claimed?

Further, Obama’s lofty rhetoric doesn’t convince me. Force and aggression are indeed parts of human nature that will never be extinguished, but obtaining peace by waging war is essentially double-talk, like the infamous Vietnam War era trope that to save the village, it must be destroyed.

Two other authors take Obama to task for strengthening the corpocracy during his year in office: Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone and Glenn Greenwald for Salon. Taibbi focuses on Wall Street connections while Greenwald dissects the sham legislation on healthcare. Both authors lay out in uncompromising detail how the interests of the public mean nothing when balanced against corporate interests, and both make compelling arguments, which are pointless for me to pull quotes from or attempt to summarize. Read them for yourself.

During the Bush Administration, the question kept nagging at us: “Just how brazen can they be?” The brazenness referred not to critics but to the administration itself. Doubtlessly, few critics then or now pulled their punches, but as things worsen before presumably getting better (if they’ll ever in fact get better), I still have to wonder how much hurtful the criticism need be to have an effect?

  1. InTheQuiet says:

    My inner cynic tells me that, short of an armed insurrection, there’s little-to-no chance for meaningful change here in the States.

    It seems that so long as criticisms remain simple words, politicians have no real reason to pay us any mind. It’s not as though dissenters have the power to impose some form of trade embargo or what have you. Voodoo economics ensures that whole “vote with your dollars” bit is a load of crap. And let’s face it, most of this comes down to money (much as you point out with the financial gains of corporations outweighing the needs of the common man).

    Those who pay enough attention to cry fowl are in the minority so far as I can tell, or at the very least far too disorganized at this point to effect actual change. Perhaps it’s just a matter of somehow bringing people together, but just how to do so still alludes me. Especially without catching the wrong kind of attention from authorities and ending up on some goddamn ‘list’.

    • Brutus says:

      Your last line about attracting the wrong attention is what scares me. The old line about governments being afraid of their citizens is obviously now reversed. We have far more to fear, but probably not until we go beyond giving full if irrelevant voice to our dissent.

      • InTheQuiet says:

        Indeed, the government far from fears the people. We fear them.

        Considering the virtually limitless resources at the government’s disposal, the legal teams corporations keep in their stead large enough to populate an island nation, and more government agency than most well informed citizens (nevermind the overwhelming majority of relatively uninformed citizens), it’s beyond belief in a number of ways.

        And you are, of course, correct – it’s unlikely that we’ll be singled out for vocalizing dissent, but it is rather disconcerting that ‘evidence’ such as blog posts, cell-phone captured images/video, and e-mails are being admitted in to court with increasing frequency.

        Perhaps it’s the loss of privacy to the proverbial cloud, but it seems all the more with each passing day companies such as Facebook and Google are becoming intelligence-gathering agencies (by proxy) for our Government. Voluntarily submitted information, subpoenaed by any law enforcement agency you care to name, becomes de facto evidence.

        It sounds paranoid, even to me saying this… What are your thoughts on this, Brutus?

  2. Brutus says:

    Please pardon my delay. Your comment fell into the spam filter, and then I paused to think about it for a couple days.

    I’ve blogged about the growing security state in the past. Just as voluntary participation in commercial life makes one vulnerable to scams, cons, and predators, so does voluntary participation in political life (i.e., forming an opinion and voting) make one vulnerable to political memes, rhetoric, and now the state’s watchful eye. Public expression of a political perspective does indeed enable the powers that be to keep a file to be used later as evidence. And as we now know, nothing on the Internet ever goes away anymore. Yeah, it’s paranoid, but the shock is that it’s also probably true. If there is a trigger that causes the state to act against individuals, I don’t know what it is. At present, there is still considerable leeway to say the worst things imaginable about one’s political adversaries.

    The alternative is to fly under the radar, keep one’s head down, and relinquish all political life. I can understand that sort of retreat, but personally, I don’t want that life.

  3. Paulfk says:

    This is my first visit here, but I will be back soon, because I really like the way you are writing, it is so simple and honest

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