Obama and History

Adam Federman Oct 23, 2008

By Adam Federman


Would not a Barack Obama presidency signify the rehabilitation of American empire and of American financial domination? Is it not the case that if John McCain and Sarah Palin were to win, America would retreat further into a self-satisfied, parochial senescence? The uncomfortable truth is that neither outcome is really desirable.


Particularly for those on the Left, Obama’s foreign policy marks in no way a qualitative shift from the last eight years. Yes, diplomacy will be restored but this is not exactly a high bar to set. Just because you speak to other nations doesn’t mean that you stop dropping bombs, launching covert operations or being a bully. Diplomacy is without question better than war but it alone does not signify a shift in policy. And when you consider Obama’s position on Israel, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Latin America, the reality is that U.S. foreign policy seems more fixed than flexible.


Before George W. Bush was elected progressives would have perhaps pushed harder for peace in Israel-Palestine, a less belligerent stance vis-a-vis Russia, and a significantly smaller military budget. Note that it was John McCain in the second debate who said he would cut military spending, not Barack Obama. He may tie the cost of the war in Iraq—a war he voted against—to current spending troubles but he does not say that he would cut defense spending or redirect the military-industrial complex toward more peaceful and productive means. So the war and the spending will continue. Just as it seems overdone to demand that people now apologize for their support of the war (who really cares at this point, and besides, the only ones who indulged this public self-flagellation  are former candidates like John Edwards) it also seems foolish and overdone to celebrate one who opposed it. Today, we are not talking about attacking Iraq but about ending the war in Iraq. Obama has less to say about that.


Today, we hear little if anything about the course of U.S. foreign policy. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, it appears we have learned little. We continue to see our role in the world as that of a beneficent moral force. It is in part this ideology that allows us to continue to wage wars in the name of freedom and democracy even though the reality is much darker, even though the ghosts of Vietnam are now in Iraq and the war on terror may last considerably longer than the cold war.


We are at a very strange moment in our history. One of the more notable phenomena of the two-year-long election campaign is the absence of historical analysis. The words Great Depression are used with what seems total disregard for that era. I spoke to my grandmother recently, still feisty at 91, who said that they knew things were bad back then when the banks finally closed their doors. Of course they were already poor and saved whatever they could, so when they were forced to save even more it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.


Sixties radicalism is another subject referenced frequently in this campaign. But no one talks about why Bill Ayers may have been driven to join a radical underground organization at a time when many thought U.S. involvement in Vietnam was unacceptable. The other night I was flipping through Andrew Kopkind’s The Thirty Years’ Wars after having just returned from the annual harvest in Vermont at the old farm where Andy lived for much of his life.


In a short article he wrote for The Real Paper in 1980 Kopkind recounted the day that three Weathermen blew themselves up in a townhouse in Greenwich Village. It marked, he wrote, “a generational watershed for me and my cohort of “The Sixties.”’ One of the three who died was a close friend of his and the other two he considered political comrades. The explosives they were making were to be used against draft centers, police headquarters, corporate offices, banks and the like. The symbols, at least to them, of American empire.


“Their cause may have been correct,” Kopkind writes, “but their recipe was wrong, and on that winter’s day the Weather Underground detonated itself prematurely in a political vacuum, all sound and fury, signifying nothing, except death. The explosion seemed to be the end of politics, the senescence of the youth culture, the negation of idealism, the death of hope. For a short span of years that looked as long as a century our world was in turmoil and then…nothing happened.”


Our world is certainly in turmoil today. It is hard not to feel exasperated as grim financial news overshadows deeply unpopular wars and an absurdly expensive election that has devolved into farce. The question is whether we are in a political vacuum and if anything will happen.


One must acknowledge Obama’s historic candidacy. But it is unfortunate that to do so one must also, in part, be silent about that very history. Why is it historic for a nation built upon the labor of black slaves to elect a Black man president? You’d think that at a moment like this there’d be more talk of Martin Luther King Jr. and of FDR, the anti-war movement and the struggle for civil rights. It seems rather that there is a collective silence. We are all holding our breath. But for what? If there was ever a time to act, to speak and to resist it is now.

 Adam Federman is a frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal. He has written for The Nation, Counterpunch, St. Petersburg Times (Russia) and the Crier.

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