Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Final Post

By Ben Trott

This will be the last post to this blog. A few quick words before shut down, however…

This project began in September 2008. The idea was to try and provide a space in which to discuss and debate the meaning of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy from the perspective of the global left. It was originally intended to run until election day on November 4. Original texts were commissioned from political activists, intellectuals, academics, journalists and others. News and opinion by, about, or likely to be of interest to the left was aggregated from elsewhere on the web.

As a number of people pointed out at the time, however, the period of transition which began with Obama’s election and came to a close with his inauguration on January 20, provided an important opportunity for the left to build pressure on the then president-elect to start delivering on his promise of ‘change’. The transition was also, it was thought, likely to serve as an indicator of the directions his administration might take. The blog, then, tried to reinvent itself as a location in which these processes were tracked and debated.

Of course, the policy decisions the administration is likely to take remain open for contestation now that Obama has entered office. It is the domestic constellation of forces – to Obama’s left and right; in Congress and on the streets – as well as the economic, military, social and political transformations taking place on a global level, which will largely determine what the administration can or cannot achieve. Whether or not, for instance, Obama is able to deliver a ‘New New Deal’ will depend in large part on the force with which it is demanded; its form and content determined by the competing interests that seek to shape policy and influence the direction of social development.

Throughout Obama’s election campaign, the period of transition, and the first few days of his Presidency, numerous comparisons have been drawn with those who have occupied the office before him. JFK’s often ‘professorial’ style, his ability to enthuse the country’s youth, and his promise of generational change; and Obama’s own series of nods towards the governing style of Abraham Lincoln have all been widely discussed. And while the parallels between both the current economic crisis and that of the Great Depression, as well as between Obama and FDR, have been overstated, the left can nevertheless draw a few lessons from the 1930s. In response to the demands placed on him by the left, Roosevelt has often been paraphrased as saying, ‘I am convinced. Now go out and make me do it.’

The real question which this blog has sought to address, then, and which the global left needs to continue asking itself, is not really how progressive, liberal or leftwing is Barack Obama? It is rather: How can those of us on the left, in the US and beyond, develop a means of building pressure on the incoming President to push policy radically to the left – whatever his own ‘natural’ inclinations may be? This is, of course, a question to which this blog – and its contributors – have certainly not found any definitive answer; and it is one, I suspect, which will continue to be asked elsewhere. I hope, however, that these pages have made some small contribution to this important debate.

On which note, I would like to thank all of those who - directly and indirectly - contributed to this blog, and whom I imagine will continue to address this and other questions in the future.

First and foremost, my thanks go out to all those authors who contributed texts either to this blog or the magazine:
Doug Henwood, Gary Younge, Jo-ann Mort, Betsy Reed and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Graeme Chesters, Rayyan Mirza, Tadzio Mueller, Stefano Harney, Keir Milburn, Sue Katz, Raffaele Sciortin, Imran Ayata, Ewa Jasiewicz, Geoffrey Whitehall, Immanuel Wallerstein (also, here), Valery Alzaga, Patrick Bond, Rob Augman, Bill Fletcher Jr. (also, here), and Peter Tatchell.

Secondly, I would like to express thanks to all those columnists, bloggers and commentators on whose work I drew and to whom I often linked. I hope readers of this blog will continue to follow them. They include: Michael Tomasky at Guardian America, Gary Younge at the Guardian, Naomi Klein, Scott Horton at Harper’s magazine, John Nichols and Katrina Vanden Heuvel at the Nation, and Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com.

Last but not least, I would like to thank Tadzio Mueller, Manuela Bojadžijev, Imran Ayata and Dont Rhine for numerous conversations (and endless forwarded emails!) which have somehow influenced this blog.

And, naturally, thanks to everyone who has been reading!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

'The Audacity of Dope'

By Ben Trott

There have been some fairly unusual attempts to cash in on Obama's current popularity, beyond the usual badges, fridge magnets and T-shirts that often accompany political campaigns.

IKEA set up a replica Oval Office (photo) in a Washington DC's Union Station, using slogans including 'Fiscally Responsible Home Furnishings', 'The Time for Domestic Reform has Come', and 'Change Begins At Home'. They even launched a website to allow you to recommend IKEA furnishings to the White House.

Pepsi have launched a Refresh Everything campaign. And Ben and Jerry's have released a new flavour of ice cream, Yes PeCan. The most recent addition to the unofficial Obama merchandising drive: Obama heroin. Seriously!

Inaugural Protest Events

By Ben Trott

As I am sure you are aware, enormous - probably record - numbers attended Obama's inauguration last week. To get some idea of the size of the crowds, take a look at this satellite image. Amongst them were a number of protest groups (although some described their planned activities as 'presence' rather than 'protest') seeking to build pressure on the Obama administration from the left.

Democracy Now! have a short report on CODE PINK's activities at the inauguration, with an interview with one of the organisation's founders Medea Benjamin. (See also this blog entry on the Washington Times website).

The Hope from People bloc planned for the inauguration, and previously mentioned on this blog, would appear to have drawn rather low numbers. This was despite being endorsed by several prominent leftists such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and groups like Unconventional Denver who helped coordinate protests around the Democratic National Convention in August, Wooden Shoe Books Collective who run an anarchist Infoshop in Philadelphia, the San Francisco-based Friendly Fire Collective, and - again - CODE PINK. Participants gathered to distribute a flyer advocating anarchist alternatives to the notion that change can take place through the presidency. However, according to a frustrated comment posted to the bloc's blog, the event attracted 'no more than 15 to 20 people.' At present, no other report from the events in DC has been posted to the bloc's website.

In San Francisco, over the weekend prior to the inauguration, 5,000 people threw shoes at a cardboard cut-out George Bush in a form of protest which became rather widespread in the last days of his presidency. The protests were organised by Courage to Resist and Direct Action to Stop the WarAccording to David Solnit, an activist and author of Globalize Liberation and Army of None, many throwers also signed the following Peace Pledge,
'President Obama,

'We take it seriously when on election night you said, "This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change." We publicly commit that that "we the people" will organize ourselves and our communities to take action to make those changes. We agree with your statement, "I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place."

'We urge you to join us in working for these five essential changes to end the war and to begin to "end the mindset that got us into war:"

Including "non-combat" troops, private contractors (i.e. Blackwater), and close all US military bases in Iraq.

Give reparations for the human and structural damages Iraq has suffered, and stop the corporate pillaging of Iraq so that their people can control their own lives and future.

* No escalation of war in Afghanistan; troops should be withdrawn.
* Stop attacks inside Pakistan. Don't attack Iran.
* Cut military aid to governments that violate human rights or international law, such as Israel in what Amnesty International calls an "unlawful attack on Gaza."
* Close Guantanamo and all secret prisons

* Close all 800 foreign US military bases.
* Reduce military budget and troops; Stop wasting hundreds of billions needed for health care, housing, education, and green energy/jobs.

* Amnesty for all GI resisters who refuse illegal war.
* Full benefits, adequate health care (including mental health), and other supports for returning servicemen and women.

'a better world is possible.


'Concerned People in the United States'
In an article by Solnit for New York's Indypendent newspaper shortly before the inauguration he wrote,
'Barack Obama’s election seems to have dispelled some of the despair that grew up in the repressive war-making aftermath of September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and Bush’s re-election. This is good for organizing - people step up out of hope, not despair. Many of us who have a deep critique of Democrats, political parties and politicians, however, are left conflicted or confused. Whether we will see the opening of a space for real positive changes or an era in which movements and resistance get co-opted depends on whether and how we organize - and if we learn key lessons from past global justice (and other) organizing and understand how Obama’s campaign (and the independent efforts for Obama) communicated, organized and inspired.'
He then goes on to suggest five lessons which could be learned by radical movements in the Obama-era.

The 'Economist' on Obama and the Question of Betrayal

By Ben Trott

The 'Lexington' column in this week's Economist focusses on Obama's betrayal of the left - either real or perceived. It lists some of the criticism which have so far been made of Obama by progressives, liberals and those further to the left - many of which have also been flagged up on this blog.

Unsurprisingly, when the paper ask the question (which one cannot help feeling is being asked somewhat rhetorically) 'Should Mr Obama worry about all this?', there answer is: 'Not much.' The column continues,
'For one thing, he is still hugely popular. A whopping 79% of Americans approve of him. Two days before the inauguration, when a preacher told a crowd that Mr Obama was not the Messiah, he was booed (in jest, one hopes). For another, Mr Obama is not breaking as many promises as his former fans imagine. Mostly, he is breaking only promises they think he made. Had they read the small print, they would have seen that he left himself some wiggle room. During his campaign Mr Obama was, as he put it himself, “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project[ed] their own views”. He gave a lot of people the strong impression that their most urgent goals were also his. As president, he can no longer maintain this illusion.

'He must make trade-offs. He wants to cool the planet, but without stifling growth. He wants to close Guantánamo, but without freeing anyone who will then shoot up a shopping mall. He cannot govern from the centre without upsetting his left flank from time to time; nor should he try. He also wants to be re-elected and, if the past is any guide, he will pursue this goal with ruthless pragmatism. During the campaign, for example, he said he favoured civil unions but refused to endorse gay marriage. Cynical observers suspected a fudge—that he said this only to dull the sting of Republican attack ads. It seems the cynics were right: last week a gay paper dug up a long-lost questionnaire from 1996 in which he strongly endorsed gay marriage. In this case, Mr Obama really is more liberal than the image he projected. In others, the opposite may be true. The world will know soon enough.'
The LGBT paper referred to is the Windy City Times, which as the name implies is based in Obama's former hometown of Chicago. Politico.com have uploaded the relevant pages of the newspaper's report here.

The Windy City Times website also provides a link to the following White House policy statement on LGBT rights, published as Obama was sworn in as President on January 20.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gitmo to Close Within a Year; CIA Secret Prisons to be Shut; Torture Banned

By Ben Trott

On his second day in office, Obama - as was widely expected - announced the closure of Guantánamo Bay detention centre within a year. He also signed executive orders closing the CIA's network of secret prisons and banning torture.

The New York Times yesterday wrote,
'Mr. Obama’s orders struck a powerful new tone and represented an important first step toward rewriting American rules for dealing with terrorism suspects. But only his decision to halt for now the military trials under way at Guantánamo Bay seemed likely to have immediate practical significance, with other critical policy choices to be resolved by task forces set up within the administration.

'Among the questions that the White House did not resolve on Thursday were these: What should be done with terrorists who cannot be tried in American courts, either because evidence against them was obtained by torture or because intelligence is too sensitive to use in court? Should some interrogation methods remain secret to keep Al Qaeda from training to resist them? How can the United States make sure prisoners transferred to other countries will not be tortured?

'Members of Mr. Obama’s national security team have expressed a wide variety of views on interrogation and detention policy, and there is likely to be robust internal debate before the questions are resolved.'
In a statement published on the organisation's website, Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Council for Civil Liberties, who have been running the Close Gitmo campaign, said,
'These executive orders represent a giant step forward. Putting an end to Guantanamo, torture and secret prisons is a civil liberties trifecta, and President Obama should be highly commended for this bold and decisive action so early in his administration on an issue so critical to restoring an America we can be proud of again.

'There are, however, ambiguities in the orders regarding treatment of certain detainees that could either be the result of the swiftness with which these orders were issued or ambivalence within the Obama administration. We are hopeful that as the process unfolds and gets clarified, there will be no doubt that detainees must either be charged, prosecuted and convicted or they need to be released. That’s the American way; our legal system, while not always perfect, is the best in the world. Adherence to American legal principles requires unconditional action; there is no room for a middle-ground. It would be an enormous mistake for the Obama administration to allow for indefinite detention in any case, or to endeavor to create any system other than our centuries-old justice system for prosecuting detainees. If President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates hold on to any part of the Bush administration’s legal farce, they will soon end up in the very same legal morass that the prior president found himself in over the last eight years.'
David Iglesias has been appointed the Judge Advocate General who will serve as prosecutor in the Guantánamo cases. Harper's magazine blogger on legal affairs, Scott Horton, describes Iglesias as a 'good man' and the appointment as marking,
'a distinct upgrade to the quality and caliber of the prosecution effort, which recently has been beset with controversy concerning its independence. Six Gitmo prosecutors have resigned or requested reassignment, many noting that political officials of the Bush Administration improperly interfered with their management of the cases or suggested the existence of vital evidence which was being withheld from the defense.'
Much of the left have, of course, been pleased with the announcement - even if several important issues regarding the detention and treatment of terror suspects still remain unresolved. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, for example, wrote in the Guardian,
'It is, of course, right that the trials should be immediately suspended and the prison itself be closed as soon as possible. However, what follows will be just as important. If, as some have argued, secret trials on the basis of waterboarded confessions were to be repackaged and transported to the mainland, the Bush legacy of legal exceptionalism would become a permanent part of US constitutional furniture.'
Perhaps more immediately controversial, however, is likely to be the Obama administration's probable continuation of Bush-era policies on the running of wire-taps without warrants.

More Thoughts on the Speech

By Ben Trott

Florida International University law professor, Stanley Fish, in a post to the New York Times' website blog, 'Think Again', reflects on Obama's speech. He wrote, yesterday,
'It is as if the speech, rather than being a sustained performance with a cumulative power, was a framework on which a succession of verbal ornaments were hung, and we were being invited not to move forward but to stop and ponder significances only hinted at.

'And if you look at the text – spread out like a patient etherized on a table – that’s exactly what it’s like. There are few transitions and those there are – “for,” “nor,” “as for,” “so,” “and so” – seem just stuck in, providing a pause, not a marker of logical progression. Obama doesn’t deposit us at a location he has in mind from the beginning; he carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate...

'There is a technical term for this kind of writing – parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.”

'The opposite of parataxis is hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.

'Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic... The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence...

'One day after the occasion, USA Today offered as an analysis of the speech a list of the words most frequently used, words like America, common, generation, nation, people, today, world. This is exactly the right kind of analysis to perform, for it identifies the location of the speech’s energy in the repetition of key words and the associations forged among them by virtue of that repetition.

'In the years to come what USA Today has begun will be expanded and elaborated in a thousand classrooms. Canonization has already arrived.'
I believe that the following photo, posted to Flickr, is in fact of the USA Today story mentioned by Fish. It resembles, of course the tag cloud image produced by ReadWriteWeb.com mentioned here a few days ago.

The Obameter

By Ben Trott

PolitiFact.com, a website connected to Florida's St Petersberg Times newspaper, has put together a list of 500 promises made by Obama prior to becoming President. They will be tracking whether or not he makes progress towards achieving that which he promised.