Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Mike's Letter from America #12

Inauguration Day

I wasn’t with the crowds who thronged the National Mall in Washington for Obama’s inauguration, but I managed to capture some of the feeling of being squeezed tightly together while trying to catch a glimpse of a distant TV screen. I was teaching at the time, but decided to end my class early, and my students and I gathered around a public TV screen in a crowded corridor to catch the ‘historic occasion’ (copyright: all of the media).

As with all things Obama-related, it is hard to cut through the media hype to understand the true significance of the occasion. The inauguration of the USA’s first African-American president, coming immediately after Martin Luther King Day, was certainly an inspiring reminder of just how far the country has come since the days of segregation and ‘Jim Crow’. But listening to the self-congratulation in the media, you would think that electing a Black president had ended racism and exonerated the USA for over 200 years of systematic oppression of African-Americans.

Despite the hype, there were many genuinely moving moments, mostly related to the presence in the vast crowds in Washington of veteran civil rights activists. Five of the ‘Little Rock 9’ (the black students who integrated an all-white high school in Arkansas 50 years ago, in the face of angry racist mobs) were there, as was a 105-year-old African-American woman who braved the sub-zero temperatures against all the well-meaning advice of her doctors and carers. The record attendance of over 2 million people at the ceremony shows that there is a genuine public mood behind the rhetoric of change.

There are some hopeful signs that Obama does mean what he says about ‘change’, such as his pledge to close Guantanamo, and to roll back Bush’s attacks on abortion rights, as well as a refreshing willingness to proclaim the need for state intervention in the economy. Yet there is a gulf between the expectations placed on Obama and the reality of what his administration is likely to achieve. Partly, this is because of the mess he has been left by Bush – a looming depression and two wars. Partly, too, it is inevitable that any reformist leader will fail to match the hopes of the left – after all, the man is not, nor has he ever been, a socialist (despite what the right wing media pundits claim).  But many of Obama’s picks for his team suggest the he is intentionally moving to the right. They include:

·       Homophobic preacher Rick Warren, chosen to give the benediction at the Inauguration.

·       White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, son of a member of the right-wing Zionist terrorist organisation Irgun, and, like many Democratic politicians, an uncritical supporter of Israel. Emanuel even volunteered to work with the Israeli military during the 1991 Gulf War.

·       Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – Obama’s foreign policy will be in the hands of somebody who has threatened to ‘obliterate’ Iran

·       Susan Rice, Ambassador to the UN, and the person you are most likely to hear from if Obama plans a ‘humanitarian’ invasion to end genocide in Darfur.  Unfortunately for her humanitarian credentials, during her stint as secretary for African affairs in Bill Clinton’s state department she gave the green light to the Rwandan invasion of the Congo, sparking a civil war that has left 4 million dead.

·       Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary. Voted most likely to get us out of the recession, perhaps because he helped get us into it, during his time with the Federal Reserve (the US equivalent of the Bank of England), where he was a major instigator of the bail-out of Wall Street.

·       Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who knows all about military affairs from his time as a lobbyist for arms manufacturer Raytheon.

Finally, Obama himself has been sounding very hawkish recently. He advocates withdrawal from Iraq, but largely in order to send more troops to Afghanistan. His inauguration speech sounded at times like a challenge to a fight, albeit in more poetic terms then Bush would have managed. Take the phrases “our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”, or “our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” These could have come from the Bush ‘War on Terror’ lexicon.

Obama today, like Blair in 1997, is actually to the right of the popular mood that swept him to power. Our best hope is that this mood pushes the new president in directions that he doesn’t want to go. There is, for example, growing pressure on Obama to put members of the Bush administration on trial for their use of torture. When the cable news station MSBNC presented its pre-inauguration coverage from what appeared to be a fish-tank on the National Mall, the crowds outside could be seen holding posters with slogans such as ‘try Bush for war crimes’.

One incident from Tuesday seems to sum up the tensions and contradictions within Obama’s base. In the run-up to the inauguration, tickets for the event were as sought-after as golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with many changing hands for hundreds of dollars on ebay. Yet, as our local university newspaper reported, many holders of the coveted tickets never made it to their seats, as “a large number of people chanting ‘yes we can’ broke through a police barricade at the main entrance on Independence Avenue.”

Will Obama stand with the people with the golden tickets, or will he be made to listen to the millions standing outside in the cold? That is the question that will define American politics for the next four years.