Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Imperial Theater of Barack Obama

I did not intend to write on the incident in Tucson, Arizona last week, where a deranged and impressionable young man named Jared Loughner stands accused of killing six people and wounding thirteen others with the bullets of his semi-automatic Glock 19. But the dissembling words of US President Barack Obama yesterday were cutting in a deeply personal way.

A common refrain in my work is the violence our culture perpetrates on children. This is not only because I experienced it so close and so devastatingly. In 1988 one of my younger sisters, Sybil, was killed when a car smashed into her as she was crossing a street after school. She was nine years old and every bit the bright light that Christina Taylor Green, a victim of the Tucson attack, seems to have been, every bit the bright light that all kids, everywhere in the world, tend to be: energetic, creative, talented, funny, sensitive, full of love, curious, charitable.

Years ago, as I went through a process of abstracting my personal tragedies and grief--attempting to dismantle the formulation that one death is a tragedy and a million are a statistic--I found resonance in the words of Howard Zinn: All wars are wars against children. The work of Derrick Jensen was also influential to me in this context, particularly his notion that most aspects of industrial civilization--how it abuses its environment, miseducates the young, objectifies women, loathes the "other", twists language--are "strangely like war". I see strange wars perpetrated against children throughout the culture and it makes my stomach turn.

Last night, by chance, I happened upon the transcript of Obama's eulogy for the six people killed in Tucson. (The environmental organization, which I follow on facebook, linked to it, adding that the speech "beautifully shows the humanity we're all working so hard to save.") I avoid watching or listening to political speeches, especially if I haven't read them first; I am as susceptible as anyone to the manipulations of a good performance. So I read the speech and was nauseated. Here is a piece of utterly unscrupulous imperial theater, even without the tenor and cadences that have made Obama so frustratingly beloved by so many.

For the arch-defender of war that Obama is to say the things he said--to applause and adoration--about how the incident should be reflected on and how the victims should be honored, seems beyond perverse to me. Audacity indeed. Even as the Nobel Peace Prize-winner spoke, armed drone aircraft under his command continued their mission of circling and dropping bombs indiscriminately over far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And what did he say? "None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future."

But one would be a fool to expect Obama, who spoke these words on the occasion of a memorial service for six innocent people, to examine all the facts behind the tragedy or to challenge old assumptions. Not even for a day did Obama halt the atrocities at his command in honor of the victims in Tucson. He did order a moment of silence on the Monday following the shooting, but I suspect little girls in southern Afghanistan could hear the continuing roar of American warplanes overhead.

What else did he say? He said God Bless America. Peppering his speech with bits from both the Old and New Testaments, Obama (or his speechwriters) sought to express spirituality (and perhaps a specifically Christian angle) while forgetting that, at least in Dante Alighieri's vision of Hell, there are special places for fraudulent and violent politicians.

God bless America, Obama. And god bless its little girls, and little girls everywhere. Little girls suffering from the continuing American Predator drone attacks. Little girls suffering from the continuing war on Afghanistan. Little girls suffering from the continuing US occupation of Iraq. Little girls suffering from American material and political support of Israeli occupation in Palestine. Little girls suffering from American dismissal of climate change. Little girls suffering from American economic policy. Little girls suffering from corporate healthcare. Little girls suffering from corporate welfare. Little girls suffering from American institutional racism. Little girls suffering from the horrid notion of American exceptionalism: what a mean, uncharitable conviction creeping through its mainstream political culture, imbuing its people with the cognitive dissonance necessary to applaud a war criminal for gentle words offered back in eulogy! But only to little American girls.

And so on and so forth. To say nothing of little boys, and women and men. Pseudo-liberals who idolize Obama like to remind his left critics that he is not a superman. We are mocked for holding him up to his own rhetoric. I understand, as George Monbiot put it, that hypocrisy is the gap between aspirations and actions. But where are the actions that signal aspirations? They have military operational titles. They are apparent in signatures to laws and decrees that bolster empire. And to hell with little girls.

Call back the jets and the tanks and the soldiers, Obama. Call them back, every last one. Close the military bases littered across the planet. Defuse and decommission each and every nuclear bomb, submarine, and power station. Signal aspirations, impossible though they may be to realize in a capitalist democracy, to end wars against children, even if it means ending your career. End your wars.

It must be difficult to organize a funeral or memorial service, especially for tragic deaths. I would not want to have that job. But if I did, and the memorial service was for victims of violence, I would rule out inviting someone with a proven record of violence against men, women, and children. It was not mere hypocrisy on display. I may be a hypocrite, sitting here typing away at this computer and despising the hurts of industrial civilization. But I believe Obama's performance goes beyond hypocrisy, beyond cognitive dissonance and into the realm of deliberate political and emotional manipulation. If it's not pure theater then it's pure insanity, and if it's not that it's puppetry. As with his predecessors and successors and the perpetrator in Tucson, we can "examine all the facts" that lead not only to lone tragedies, but to systemic tragedies. One little girl killed is a tragedy. So are two. And so are a million.

What else did Obama say? "I want to live up to her expectations. (Applause.) I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. (Applause.) All of us--we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations. (Applause.)"

Then stop committing the atrocities.


clement said...

hi there,

i liked your criticism of obama's highfaluting rhetoric on violence and the disgusting media bias towards american tragedy.

but in my opinion, the sooner obama removes the drones and troops from afghanistan, the sooner the taliban surges to control from pakistan again and the sooner there is no schooling for afghan girls and noses cut off.

likewise with iraq: had the surge not occurred, and the sooner the last vestiges of american troops leave, the sooner a violent regime comes to power and does things like gas attacks on masses of kurds.

violence begets violence, it is true, but i think often violence begets the stability necessary to eliminate further violence. never mind the arguments about whether america was the right authority to do this; afghanistan is too far gone for that kind of moralism at this point, and perhaps what is important now is doing what it takes to stabilise afghanistan.

sincerely, clement

Keir said...

Thanks for reading, Clement. You are, however, completely incorrect in your assertions here. I think you would do well to study why repressive regimes existed in the countries the US and the West are brutalizing (hint: it's not religion). You may also want to reconsider the context of your statement that "violence begets the stability necessary to eliminate further violence." This may be correct on an individual level. Among states, however, this is never true. After a powerful state finishes brutalizing a weaker state, the weaker state becomes its client. Only someone living in the comfort of the aggressor state could call this situation stable.