Why I Disagree with Hedges on Obama
Many of the specific failures highlighted by Chris Hedges' recent article, Nader was Right about Obama, 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 Wednesday, March 3, 2010, 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 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:
1. Hedges' analysis and particularly the harsh way he expresses it leads to despair and to the "blame game" that has little usefulness in politics. Our difference here is partly the difference between two styles of prophetic leadership: one that rails against injustice, the other that moves beyond the legitimate outrage and seeks to find a way to change the reality. My own work as a social change activist and psychotherapist for forty years has led me to believe that people's ideas and perspective can be changed in fundamental ways, but that requires a mixture of prophetic outrage with genuine compassion and a spirit of generosity and respect for those with whom we disagree (even respect for the humanity of people who are doing or saying things that we feel to be outrageous-though that shouldn't stop us from strongly critiquing those perspectives). In my books over the course of the past twenty years I've shared with tens of thousands of people strategies for how those changes can take place, and they are strategies that are as much a challenge to the Left as to the Right, insisting, as I do, on the importance of psychological and spiritual sensitivity (and acknowledging that I sometimes fail to live up to my own values and deserve criticism as well).
Lets acknowledge that the Democratic Party has been overwhelmingly catering to the interests of America's ruling elites. It has also been a major force for legitimating some of the program of liberals and progressives, particularly in regard to the struggles against some of the more egregious forms of racism, sexism and homopobia in our society, it has fought for the rights of immigrants, it has weakly but nevertheless consistently opposed giving priority to defense spending over social programs. I know that this has not been anything close to what I've wanted. But the party remains a mechanism by which liberal and progressive ideas can be communicated to ordinary Americans, and, if we could get enough of those Americans to actually vote in primary elections, we could get candidates at every level of government who shared a progressive agenda. Yes, we are up against huge odds, because the wealthy will step in to fund the most conservative and corporate-friendly and rich-friendly candidates. But in the final analysis, if enough of us reach out to other people in our own communities and convince them of the need for a spiritual progressive politics, it is we who could win in the primaries and even in the general elections. I know that this is a very difficult route, but primarily difficult because it takes a lot of effort on our part to make it happen. But the Democratic Party could be taken over by people who share the analysis of the spiritual progressives.
I salute liberals who are trying to do this very thing, but I don't believe that they will succeed unless they adopt a language that is more loving, compassionate, and generous than that reflected in the piece that Hedges wrote and which we at Tikkun sent out (albeit explaining that we often send out pieces with which we disagree because the views are ones that don't get a hearing in the mainstream media and deserve to be heard even if we think they are in some important respects mistaken or "off").
Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here: I am not advocating that people follow the strategy of transforming the Democratic Party-I'm only saying that it remains a possibility that could be tried, that groups like the Progressive Democrats of America are trying precisely that and with excellent leadership from the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, and that had Nader type people with more emotional nuance and psychological sophistication and genuine empathy for the American public run in the primaries for the Presidency and the US Congress, and had those people been able to articulate their critique in a language that emphasized the spiritual and ethical dimension and the need for love, generosity, caring for others and provided the kind of alternatives that we have articulated in our Spiritual Covenant with America, including the Generosity Strategy as represented in our Global Marshall Plan (see all this at www.spiritualprogressives.org) those people might have become the Senators and Congresspeople from the states where we now have Rahm-Emanuel-chosen Blue Dog Democrats. And one such person might have been the presidential candidate in 2008.
Moreover, it remains the case that the majority of those who vote in communities of color, poverty, or low income still identify with the Democratic Party, and running in that party is a powerful way to communicate to people with whom we cannot ordinarily communicate through the corporate-controlled media that didn't even bother to cover our Strategy Conference in SF two weeks ago, though it was larger and at least as significant as the smaller sized Tea Party gatherings over which the media makes such a fuss.
To leave these people behind and turn one's back on them without having a serious strategy to reach them outside the Democratic Party is not a satisfactory political strategy, no matter how righteous and good it feels to those who have finally said no to the Democrats only to embrace a party of excessive political correctness but also excessive self-involvement and little serious outreach beyond their own fringe.
2. Hedges is wrong to characterize all liberals as lacking in emotion or leaving legitimate rage only to the proto-fascists. Here, as in Hedges' critique of the Democratic Party, there is a failure to recognize the efforts of so many very decent and ethically powerful people who have not been fully represented by their leaders. Who does he think turned out in the millions to demonstrate against the War in Iraq--all Greens? No, it was many of these Democrats. It's true that leadership like Nancy Pelosi failed to forcefully represent them, and that Obama is to some extent repeating that failure now and failing to articulate a clear worldview that could rally people and make them understand the alternative to "capitalism is the only option and domination is the only path to security" that underlies the "common wisdom" inside-the-beltway and throughout much of our society, but it is not fair to dismiss the vast majority of Democrats in this way. Doing so will not help us build a powerful anti-war movement again to counter the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and head off wars with Iran or Yemen. Just read the platform of the Democratic Party of California to see that there are voices within the Democratic Party that reflect much of what the secular progressives outside that party are calling for (though definitely not the New Bottom Line that spiritual progressives champion).
Nor is Hedges being fair or accurate when he says: "The timidity of the left exposes its cowardice, lack of a moral compass and mounting political impotence. The left stands for nothing. The damage Obama and the Democrats have done is immense. But the damage liberals do the longer they beg Obama and the Democrats for a few scraps is worse." This is unfair both because it ignores the genuine desire of people on the Left to heal and transform American society, and because it ignores the real dilemma facing those who vote for "the lesser evil"-namely their legitimate concern about the well-being of those who they perceive will be better off under a Democratic President than under a Republican President-particularly the poorest elements in our society. Their conclusion, with which I do not agree but which I believe deserves a complex and respectful response and not the dismissive and disrespectful tone that Hedges shows toward them, is that the suffering of those people will be somewhat less under a Democratic administration than under a Republican Administration, and that things like family leave, lifting the restrictions on providing birth control information in federally funded birth control centers, banning torture like waterboarding in our military bases, and other such steps, small they may be, make a big difference to those who are impacted by them and hence are worth compromising to achieve.
I'm not going to go into my arguments against that position and why I believe that taking the risks of creating an alternative party might be worth it under some circumstances, though in my view such a party would have to be very different from the Greens, and would have to have a commitment to the kind of political strategy I outline in my book The Left Hand of God, and would have to emerge from a movement to transform the Democratic party which, having obtained massive support, would then leave that party to form a spiritual progressive party, but what I will say is that the argument of those who wish to stay in the Democratic Party and make small but significant changes in the life of the most powerless is an argument that deserves respect and a more careful consideration than Hedges gives in recent piece.
Let me give just one example of what still feels compelling to me about the argument made by those who wish to transform the Democrats rather than abandon them. It's the story of the guy who sees a young child on the beach throwing back into the water some of the thousands of fish who have been swept up onto the beach after a huge tsunami. The many approaches the child and says, "What's the point of throwing those fish back in the water. Unless there is a massive movement of people down on this beach, or unless the government sends a bunch of equipment to quickly push these fish back into the sea, most of them will die. Don't you see that what you are doing can't make any difference?" To which the child responds, "To these fish I'm throwing back, it makes a difference." It is in my view hard to deny that the Democrats in power are doing more to help the poor and the oppressed, or to take steps to preserve the environment, or to take steps to protect workers' rights, than would the Republicans were they in power and than they did when they were in power. Those who argue that "there is no difference" like Nader did in 2000 really do us a disservice. It's one thing to argue that the differences are not significant enough, quite another to pretend that these two parties deliver exactly the same thing in power. It just isn't true.
I'm not convinced by that argument, because I believe that we could in fact make much important changes in this society if even twenty million people were willing to join an alternative party. But they are not convinced now, and to get them to be convinced, we need a strategy that starts with respect for those who disagree with a "leave the Democratic Party" strategy. I didn't feel enough of that respect in this particular writing of Chris Hedges. And what's ironic about that to me is that I know Chris Hedges, and know him to be a person of humility as well as passionate intensity, and so I don't dismiss him but embrace him even as I critique this particular piece. And I sent it out precisely to engender this kind of discussion. What troubles me with some of the responses that I got was that they seemed to think it wrong for us to send out articles with which we disagree. But that has always been Tikkun's policy-including printing in the magazine articles with which we disagree. It's part of our belief that the deepest truth emerges from a marketplace of ideas within which respectful debate and struggling with alternative positions can emerge (credit due to John Stuart Mill). We respect our readers enough to believe that they can hear positions with which we and they may disagree, and struggle with those positions. In fact, I've found that when people don't have that opportunity, be it on the Left, Right or the Center of politics, they end up really not fully understanding their own positions and unable to defend them when critiqued. So for that reason we've always warned our readers: if you want to know OUR position, read our editorials in the magazine, but don't assume that we agree with everything we print or send out.
3. It is wrong to describe Israel as an apartheid society. I abhor Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and we at Tikkun were the leading voice against the Occupation for 22 years until J Street, a much better financed enterprise, took our place in Washington D.C. (and is doing a terrific job of getting the message heard which we and others in similar movements pioneered in the US-though they omit from their message our prophetic Biblically-based insistence not only on the "rights" of Palestinians but also on their fundamental humanity and why a spiritual or religious person must care equally for their wellbeing as the wellbeing of Americans, Jews, Israelis and everyone else on the planet.)
But Apartheid describes the situation that existed in South Africa, not the one that exists inside the pre-67 borders of Israel. In South Africa Blacks did not vote in the election of the prime minister or of the parties who ran the country; in Israel its Palestinian residents in the pre-67 borders do vote and have ten percent of the Knesset populated by Arab representatives (and would have more if the Arabs didn't vote for Labor or other parties). In South Africa Blacks were prohibited from going to the same schools or universities a Blacks, from attending the same movie theatres or swimming on the same beaches; in Israel Arabs go to the same beaches, attend the same university classes, and in most other respects have the same political rights as Israeli Jews. True, they face the same kind of discrimination that Blacks still face in many parts of the US-it's not right and its discriminatory, and its deplorable, but it's not apartheid. Why use a term that can so easily be shot down by the Right-wingers, when what Israel is doing is not that, though arguably worse than apartheid in some important respects? The answer, I suspect, is that many activists are so frustrated at their failure to have won a majority of Westerners to our critical perspective about the Occupation that they think that if they label Israel with some well known disparaging term, that that will make it easier for Westerners to understand. But that is not a legitimate approach-you can't jump over the difficult task of explaining what is wrong with what Israel is doing by using incendiary language that actually can be refuted. Moreover, you can't really win over Westerners with a simplistic account-because many in the West remember that Israel was created in the wake of eighteen hundred years of global anti-Semitism and a twentieth century genocided that murdered one out of three Jews alive. We at Tikkun do not believe that that suffering is reason to excuse Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but we do believe it is a reason why the world had a right to return those Jews who wished to return to their ancient homeland from which they had been expelled by force, violence and repression, in an instance of global affirmative action which, unfortunately, displaced (in our view, unjustly) hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This story too is too complicated to try to summarize here, but it must be told with compassion for both sides, recognizing that both sides have a legitimate story to tell, and both sides have been cruel and violent toward the other side (as for example when Jews were climbing out of the crematoria and gas chambers of Europe and Palestinian leadership refused to allow them to enter Palestine because they were Jews, while allowing non-Jews to come to Palestine). Every part of this story has two sides at least, and it doesn't help to label one side the "evil other" and the other "the righteous victim," but to develop a sense of compassion for both sides-if the goal is to seek peace and reconciliation, rather than simply to achieve some rhetorical advance. As one who sometimes falls into this mistake, I understand the frustration felt by all who are outraged at Israeli behavior-and I believe that outrage is legitimate-but I think that the prophetic condemnation is only one part of the story, and we also need to act strategically and with generosity of spirit if we want to change the situation and alleviate the current suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Inside the West Bank and Gaza there's a totally different story, and there the conditions do resemble apartheid. Jews who settle on the West Bank have a totally different set of laws, roads, water, and much else. But again, that discrimination is not based on being Arabs so much as being part of a society that has tolerated violent attacks on Israeli civilians. I do not think that that argument is sufficient to justify Israeli behavior, but neither do I think that the Israeli behavior stems from racism as much as from fear.
How could they fear when they are so much more powerful than the Arabs they dominate? Well, if you were part of a people who had been traumatized by 1800 years of discrimination, oppression, murder and rape, and then had 1 out of every three of you murdered in the twentieth century, you too might have a difficulty in seeing things straight and recognizing yourself as the powerful one. If the US can have a majority of its citizens think that the outrageous and immoral attack on the Twin Towers provides evidence that the US itself is in danger of being destroyed by terrorists, when the US is the most powerful military force in the world, how can you doubt that the Jews could be so traumatized by our history to be acting out of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder rather than out of racism and a desire to dominate others for the sake of domination and lust for power? My point is that it doesn't help move things toward peace to be demeaning the Jewish people, or the State of Israel, though it is perfectly legitimate to oppose its policies and do what we can to change them (including using the full power of the US to do so). We at Tikkun fully support the call by the Goldstone report for an international inquiry into Israeli and Hamas war crimes if each party does not itself engage in such an inquiry in an objective and credible way. And we believe it fully appropriate for the peoples of the world to do what they can to end the Occupation of the West Bank, as long as they also use similar methods to end the occupation of Tibet by China, the end of repression in Iran, the end of the occupation of Chechnya by Russia, the end of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by the US, the end of the genocide in Darfur, and other such moral outrages. For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read my book Healing Israel/Palestine.
4. It is not a mistake for people to be demanding of Obama that he BE the Obama they voted for. But what would be a mistake is to think that such a demand is going to be given credence until we form a powerful movement of our own that is ready to take action and bring people into the streets and into nonviolent civil disobedience against the policies of the Obama Administration that are most abhorrent (e.g. the escalation of war or the funding of the banks and investment companies or its willingness to allow foreclosures on homes to continue or the give-aways to pharmaceuticals and health insurance profiteers). The huge mistake is to have treated Obama as a messiah and then expected him to deliver for us. Obama never named or targeted corporate power, and we need to do so, not just by saying what we are against, but by fighting for what we are FOR-e.g. the Global Marshall Plan and the Environmental and Ethical Amendments to the Constitution about which you can read at www.spiritualprogressives.org. We need to be more self-critical about not having built such a movement, and not as much at Obama who, facing the corporate power structure without the help of such a movement, could have been predicted to have caved as he did.
5. It is a mistake to allow Obama to face the wild charges of the right-wingers and Republican opportunists (who will oppose everything Obama calls for because they believe that his failure will bring them electoral victory in 2010) without the support and defense from people in the liberal and progressive world. Chris Hedges is correct in saying that the intensity of that assault has been aided by the failure of Obama and Congressional Democrats to passionately advocate for a different ethical vision, but instead to seem to be in bed with the corporate interests. But we should also acknowledge that at least some part of the anger against Obama stems from the same racism that has led many Americans to hate Obama with passionate intensity far out of proportion to anything he has done or failed to do. I do not minimize the impact of the humiliation that many faced who hoped for a different set of possibilities and Obama's betrayal of that hope, but I also do not believe that that accounts for all or even a majority of those who ruthlessly and unceasingly and irrationally attack everything he does.
None of this is to challenge the importance of this discussion, a discussion that will also take place at our conference in DC June 11-14 (details at www.spiritualprogressives.org)--though we will also focus on the creation of a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's decision empowering corporations, and on an Amendment that requires corporate environmental and ethical responsibility (please see various versions we are considering-at the Current Thinking section of www.spiritualprogressives.org. Nor will it prevent us from demonstrating at the White House on June 13th with the call to Obama: BE the Obama We Voted For, not the inside-the-beltway pragmatist/realist whose compromises have lost support for liberal and progressive causes and aided the upsurge of Tea Party conservatives.
And by the way, we don't mean to be disrespectful to all Tea Party people either-some of them have a righteous anger at the way government has served the interests of the powerful, and they are responding to a right wing populism because they have not encountered enough of a progressive populism, and certainly not a progressive populism that has let go of the relgio-phobia that often cripples progressive movements from being heard by masses of Americans who might otherwise agree with them.
So I hope Chris will still come to our conference, and that others who agree or disagree with him but understand the importance of discussing this in a comradely and caring way among those of us committed to peace, social justice, ecological sanity, love, generosity, and caring for others do also sign up for the conference before it fills up and closes registration as did our San Francisco conference two weeks ago. Sign up now at www.spiritualprogressives.org.
© 2010 Tikkun Magazine