I would like to start by noting that although this will not be an essay about why one should vote for Ralph Nader, I am remarkably weary of liberals wagging their fingers at those unmoved by the Democratic Party and lecturing to us about who we should—nay, must—support. In typically self-righteous fashion, they want to limit our choices because they know what’s best for us (which just so happens to be better for them). These folks love to blame Nader for all the injustices that the Democrats have actively pursued or refused to prevent since 2000. They usually cite pragmatic rather than ethical factors to justify their support of the mendacious Democratic Party: electability, lesser-evilism, the necessary beginning of genuine progressivism, and so forth.
Nothing makes this class of politico so hysterical as somebody choosing to exercise the right to vote for a candidate who best represents his or her own positions. That hysteria exposes the carefully-unexamined assumption that the purpose of voting is to fortify institutional Democratic agendas. The use of pragmatism to justify this pandering is meant to suggest a political reasonableness, but it actually functions to reinforce complicity in the same centers of power these liberals claim to challenge.
These matters illustrate another reason why voting in the United States is mostly disport, a way for the unwitting enablers of imperial neoliberalism to feel like they are participating in a civic and economic system in which they are political surplus, useful only insofar as they spend and consume. Whether or not they vote, the system will continue to operate unabated, its managers welcoming voting because it convinces would-be agitators that they are actually effecting change.
Now that these qualifications are out of the way, let’s focus on what this essay will be about: why I won’t vote for Barack Obama. I hope others will likewise eschew Obama, but I welcome them to vote their conscience. Or, I welcome them to not vote at all. There are better ways to procure a right to complain.
I won’t vote for Obama because he once was promising but has morphed into an unusually charismatic but typically mediocre politician. A man once known for engaging the issue of Palestinian liberation in Chicago’s Arab American community now can be found sharing his message of Israel-love to anybody who will listen. This change of opinion intimates a lack of integrity. Obama’s supporters will argue that he is simply doing what allows him to become a viable contender for president, to which I would respond: if one wishes to keep his or her integrity intact, then that person shouldn’t seek national office as a Democrat. Obama is willingly forfeiting his integrity for his ambition. That is his choice and it isn’t my place to make the decision on his behalf. However, it is my place to decide not to vote for him based on that choice.
The primary but not exclusive impetus for my displeasure with Obama is his suddenly avid support of Israel. It is an issue that I and many of my peers in the Arab American community cannot dismiss, as do other progressive supporters of Obama. We may be accused of shortsightedness by rejecting Obama based largely on this issue, but nearly everybody privileges one or few concerns when entering into the American political arena: religion, abortion, a particular foreign policy, immigration, the economy. I cannot listen to the man smilingly discuss the continued dispossession of millions of people who have already suffered unspeakably and then endorse such treachery with a vote.
In any case, there is no need to apologize for or shy away from emphasizing Israel’s brutality. Far from being a marginal item in the life of the United States, American support for Israeli colonization has serious moral and geopolitical consequences. It, more than any other action, generates justifiable anger toward the United States in much of Europe and almost uniformly throughout the Southern Hemisphere. It extends the bloody tradition of settler colonization in the American polity and in its imagination, a state of mind that helps facilitate so many of today’s imperialist adventures. And it renders every politician who has ever lectured an Arab nation about human rights glaringly hypocritical.
Obama’s wasted potential as a candidate is exemplified by his already-legendary “Race in America” speech. Obama critiqued the topic of race in a way that would be considered tame in an Ethnic Studies department, but that was audacious by the standards of mainstream politicians. Unexamined in the chorus of praise, however, was the following statement, offered as a rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s beliefs, which Obama patronizingly dismissed as misguided despite his refusal to condemn their messenger:
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
The statement does lots of things at once. From a public image standpoint, it allowed Obama to further distance himself from accusations that he is secretly Muslim while simultaneously cozying up to his still-slightly-suspicious Zionist patrons. As rhetoric, it enabled Obama to fulfill the requisite demand that whites be made adequately comfortable, a demand that entails the condemnation of anything that might actually threaten their privilege. This injunction is de rigueur for people of color.
But I don’t want to highlight these stupid political games. I’m more interested in what the statement doesn’t do, which is to convey anything even incidentally truthful. Obama’s claim is a profound insult not only to the Palestinians who have courageously fought for their physical and cultural survival, but to anybody who values the use of evidence to express an informed opinion. In no framework other than Zionist extremism can the Israel-Palestine conflict be attributed to “radical Islam.” Even those who disagree vehemently about the history of Palestine concur that the conflict is fundamentally territorial.
The very construct of a “radical Islam,” in fact, means nothing of substance; it is a rhetorical ploy for the intellectually vacuous. Much of Palestine’s resistance, in the past and present, has been conducted by members of the Christian minority. Palestinians, far from being religious extremists, are noted for their progressive secular institutions. The first Palestinian suicide bombing, an act said to exemplify “radical Islam,” didn’t even occur until 1994. To Obama, this is apparently the point at which the Israel-Palestine conflict started.
It is utterly indecent for a person to deem himself a moral authority on tolerance while concurrently recycling an anti-Arab racism whose existence has been devastating for the Palestinians.
For these reasons, I won’t vote for Barack Obama. His liberal supporters claim that as a complete package Obama is superior to any other candidate, despite whatever flaws may exist in his platform (if flaws are even acknowledged). To me, though, his revivalist Zionism is a flaw that I cannot overlook and that liberal pragmatists should not ignore. Obama made a choice to court the AIPAC bloc, and we fail in our duty as citizens of a democracy if we do not hold him accountable for his immorality. We fail to strengthen the well-being of our own society, and we fail in our moral obligation to those who suffer the brute end of the imperialism our taxes bankroll. Obama should therefore be punished for his choice by those who stand against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
When the liberal cognoscenti lecture Nader supporters for our obstinacy or naiveté, they are yet again performing the conceit of the privileged: they are telling us that they know our needs better than we do. (It happens right around the time they accuse Nader of egomania.) They are telling us that a commitment to Palestinians, whose dispossession the United States underwrites, is silly or unimportant. And they are telling us, without having to confront any of the consequences, to accept the permanence of Israel’s violence. We should know well enough that what they imagine to be virtuous or commonsensical is ultimately a projection of their own needs and interests.
So, consider voting for somebody other than Obama. Or consider not voting at all. It’s your choice, after all. Whatever you choose, though, just quit telling the Palestinians that their lives don’t matter.