From Kennedy to Obama: Liberalism’s Last Fling

In this season of 1968 nostalgia, one anniversary illuminates today. It is the rise and fall of Robert Kennedy, who would have been elected president of the United States had he not been assassinated in June 1968. Having traveled with Kennedy up to the moment of his shooting at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 5 June, I heard The Speech many times. He would “return government to the people” and bestow “dignity and justice” on the oppressed. “As Bernard Shaw once said,” he would say, “‘Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask: Why not?’” That was the signal to run back to the bus. It was fun until a hail of bullets passed over our shoulders.

Kennedy’s campaign is a model for Barack Obama. Like Obama, he was a senator with no achievements to his name. Like Obama, he raised the expectations of young people and minorities. Like Obama, he promised to end an unpopular war, not because he opposed the war’s conquest of other people’s land and resources, but because it was “unwinnable”.

Should Obama beat John McCain to the White House in November, it will be liberalism’s last fling. In the United States and Britain, liberalism as a war-making, divisive ideology is once again being used to destroy liberalism as a reality. A great many people understand this, as the hatred of Blair and new Labour attest, but many are disoriented and eager for “leadership” and basic social democracy. In the US, where unrelenting propaganda about American democratic uniqueness disguises a corporate system based on extremes of wealth and privilege, liberalism as expressed through the Democratic Party has played a crucial, compliant role.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy sought to rescue the party and his own ambitions from the threat of real change that came from an alliance of the civil rights campaign and the anti-war movement then commanding the streets of the main cities, and which Martin Luther King had drawn together until he was assassinated in April that year. Kennedy had supported the war in Vietnam and continued to support it in private, but this was skillfully suppressed as he competed against the maverick Eugene McCarthy, whose surprise win in the New Hampshire primary on an anti-war ticket had forced President Lyndon Johnson to abandon the idea of another term. Using the memory of his martyred brother, Kennedy assiduously exploited the electoral power of delusion among people hungry for politics that represented them, not the rich.

“These people love you,” I said to him as we left Calexico, California, where the immigrant population lived in abject poverty and people came like a great wave and swept him out of his car, his hands fastened to their lips.

“Yes, yes, sure they love me,” he replied. “I love them!” I asked him how exactly he would lift them out of poverty: just what was his political philosophy?

“Philosophy? Well, it’s based on a faith in this country and I believe that many Americans have lost this faith and I want to give it back to them, because we are the last and the best hope of the world, as Thomas Jefferson said.”

“That’s what you say in your speech. Surely the question is: How?”

“How? . . . by charting a new direction for America.”

The vacuities are familiar. Obama is his echo. Like Kennedy, Obama may well “chart a new direction for America” in specious, media-honed language, but in reality he will secure, like every president, the best damned democracy money can buy.

As their contest for the White House draws closer, watch how, regardless of the inevitable personal smears, Obama and McCain draw nearer to each other. They already concur on America’s divine right to control all before it. “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good,” said Obama. “We must lead by building a 21st-century military . . . to advance the security of all people [emphasis added].” McCain agrees. Obama says in pursuing “terrorists” he would attack Pakistan. McCain wouldn’t quarrel. Both candidates have paid ritual obeisance to the regime in Tel Aviv, unquestioning support for which defines all presidential ambition. In opposing a UN Security Council resolution implying criticism of Israel’s starvation of the people of Gaza, Obama was ahead of both McCain and Hillary Clinton. In January, pressured by the Israel lobby, he massaged a statement that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people” to now read: “Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel [emphasis added].” Such is his concern for the victims of the longest, illegal military occupation of modern times. Like all the candidates, Obama has furthered Israeli/Bush fictions about Iran, whose regime, he says absurdly, “is a threat to all of us”.

On the war in Iraq, Obama the dove and McCain the hawk are almost united. McCain now says he wants US troops to leave in five years (instead of “100 years”, his earlier option). Obama has now “reserved the right” to change his pledge to get troops out next year. “I will listen to our commanders on the ground,” he now says, echoing Bush. His adviser on Iraq, Colin Kahl, says the US should maintain up to 80,000 troops in Iraq until 2010. Like McCain, Obama has voted repeatedly in the Senate to support Bush’s demands for funding of the occupation of Iraq; and he has called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. His senior advisers embrace McCain’s proposal for an aggressive “league of democracies”, led by the United States, to circumvent the United Nations. Like McCain, he would extend the crippling embargo on Cuba.

Amusingly, both have denounced their “preachers” for speaking out. Whereas McCain’s man of God praised Hitler, in the fashion of lunatic white holy-rollers, Obama’s man, Jeremiah Wright, spoke an embarrassing truth. He said that the attacks of 11 September 2001 had taken place as a consequence of the violence of US power across the world. The media demanded that Obama disown Wright and swear an oath of loyalty to the Bush lie that “terrorists attacked America because they hate our freedoms.” So he did. The conflict in the Middle East, said Obama, was rooted not “primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel”, but in “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam”. Journalists applauded. Islamophobia is a liberal specialty.

The American media love both Obama and McCain. Reminiscent of mating calls by Guardian writers to Blair more than a decade ago, Jann Wenner, founder of the liberal Rolling Stone, wrote: “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline . . . Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon ‘the better angels of our nature’.” At the liberal New Republic, Charles Lane confessed: “I know it shouldn’t be happening, but it is. I’m falling for John McCain.” His colleague Michael Lewis had gone further. His feelings for McCain, he wrote, were like “the war that must occur inside a 14-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls.”

The objects of these uncontrollable passions are as one in their support for America’s true deity, its corporate oligarchs. Despite claiming that his campaign wealth comes from small individual donors, Obama is backed by the biggest Wall Street firms: Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, J P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, as well as the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. “Seven of the Obama campaign’s top 14 donors,” wrote the investigator Pam Martens, “consisted of officers and employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling fraudulently made mortgages.” A report by United for a Fair Economy, a non-profit group, estimates the total loss to poor Americans of color who took out sub-prime loans as being between $164bn and $213bn: the greatest loss of wealth ever recorded for people of color in the United States. “Washington lobbyists haven’t funded my campaign,” said Obama in January, “they won’t run my White House and they will not drown out the voices of working Americans when I am president.” According to files held by the Centre for Responsive Politics, the top five contributors to the Obama campaign are registered corporate lobbyists.

What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s. By offering a “new”, young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party — with the bonus of being a member of the black elite — he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US anti-war and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.

America’s war on Iran has already begun. In December, Bush secretly authorized support for two guerrilla armies inside Iran, one of which, the military arm of Mujahedin-e Khalq, is described by the state department as terrorist. The US is also engaged in attacks or subversion against Somalia, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bolivia and Venezuela. A new military command, Africom, is being set up to fight proxy wars for control of Africa’s oil and other riches. With US missiles soon to be stationed provocatively on Russia’s borders, the Cold War is back. None of these piracies and dangers has raised a whisper in the presidential campaign, not least from its great liberal hope.

Moreover, none of the candidates represents so-called mainstream America. In poll after poll, voters make clear that they want the normal decencies of jobs, proper housing and health care. They want their troops out of Iraq and the Israelis to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. This is a remarkable testimony, given the daily brainwashing of ordinary Americans in almost everything they watch and read.

On this side of the Atlantic, a deeply cynical electorate watches British liberalism’s equivalent last fling. Most of the “philosophy” of new Labour was borrowed wholesale from the US. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were interchangeable. Both were hostile to traditionalists in their parties who might question the corporate-speak of their class-based economic policies and their relish for colonial conquests. Now the British find themselves spectators to the rise of new Tory, distinguishable from Blair’s new Labour only in the personality of its leader, a former corporate public relations man who presents himself as Tonier than thou. We all deserve better.

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (Bantam/Random House, 2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. InChicago said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:28am #

    Obama, like Bush, like McCain and so much like Hillary is an entrenched Washington insider (yes even like Bobby Kennedy, except for the fact that Obama is alive and Kennedy is not, which may not last considering Hillary may use any tactic to get the White House). Obama does not have chance in this election no matter what the pundits say. The following goes against him: history (based on primaries that last this long); Racists (not race); Reverend Wright; Hillary Clinton fanatics who are upset that the race was stolen; McCain who is a centrist, friends with Joe Lieberman, white and male; and his history in Illinois which is a corrupt cesspool of dirty politics.

    The only way to save the US is vote 3rd Party. Vote libertarian, constituion or green party. Vote anything but republican or democrat. The US needs change, promised by Obama, who is just another democratic politician.

  2. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:38am #

    If you go to James Hansen’s web site and read his last two posts dated May 29 to me it makes what we face very clear. In today’s World James is one of the people who is fighting back and is using the truth not twisted logic reason and doing it very well. For me because I am older I will not have to live in a ruined World but for my kids and there kids if we don’t act on this that is what they have to look forward to. To act on this and do what is needed is hard very hard but can be done. The time is now not for short term thinking because if that is the way it play’s out there will be no long term thinking. The time is now.

  3. bozhidar balkas said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:39am #

    i have not read what obama et al said or wrote. i have decided long ago not listen to clergy or politicians.
    among politicos there are exceptions; such as nader, kucinic and maybe a few more.
    all the others represent plutocrats. this is been going on for 2 centuries.
    canada is also headed in that direction. plutocrats rule here as well; not in the same degree,tho.
    plutocrats in US control cia, fbi, city police, armed services, and four houses: WH, house of reps, senate, and house of horrors(world) thank u.

  4. Jerry D. Rose said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:42am #

    John Pilger speaks a truth that needs to be spoken—and more than that HEARD —by every fearful “progressive” in America who believes that voters this November will have no choice but to vote for Obama as the “lesser evil.” Actually he is probably the greater threat than McCain to any dim prospects for peace in the world. His ability to co-opt and placate the anti-war crowd is already seen in the inability of The Nation or Common Dreams or Democracy for America, among others, to raise a whisper of “evil” about either Obama’s hip-pocket relationship to Israel, his support of militarism and imperialism, and his financial backing by those not sympathetic to any kind of populist political agenda. The realization of this could be the open sesame for public consideration of “alternatives” to the two candidates of the corporate duopology, from which there will be a number of worthy bidders for public support.

  5. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 6:49am #

    John in just two years because of the changes in the climate on this planet many of the things we talk about now will be academic. Right now this very second the temperatures at the top of the Earth are 8 and 9 degrees above normal. That’s big and the changes from that have a little more to do than just Polar Bears

  6. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 7:24am #

    I know I am talking about one thing and John is talking about another. Right now this very second the World produces 85 million barrels of oil a day and the demand is 86.4 million a day. Food is being make into fuel and we now see people going hungry more people going hungry. The push is still on to get the economy’s going and anybody have an idea on how that will work out? Those temperatures right now up North are not the beginning but the end of the beginning for climate change and you think crops are a bit of a problem now in one year then two years more of a problem. One man or women can not solve these problems we need to slow down until we can get some things in place and we need to use the knowledge we have now with the best minds we can find. Now is the time and how to get that started I don’t know?

  7. Nicholas Moore said on May 31st, 2008 at 8:29am #

    John,
    Thank you for the RFK perspective, which was new to me.

    In Britain it was clearly a masterstroke to make a Tory (Tony Blair) the leader of the Labour party. It meant he could implement extensive corporatist policies with the support of the Tories. Labour were so thankful to be elected that they followed blindly.

    There is now a massive momentum toward tyranny and fascism (the merging of state and corporate power) which is almost unstoppable. As I grew up in the shadow of the second world war, I would sometimes wondered how the Germans allowed Hitler and the Nazis to gain power.

    Now I know. If you ask people today about war crimes in Iraq or torture in Guantanamo mostly they say ‘ … yes, but it is time to move on’ or ‘… I know but what can I do?’ or ‘ … I don’t have time to pay attention to that ‘.

    That’s what they said in Nazi Germany.

  8. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 9:24am #

    I have been watching the Democratic National Committee on c-span giving grand speeches and it is also important. In my last comment I said I don’t have the answer well a little Bob again could be a good start.
    Come gather ’round people
    Wherever you roam
    And admit that the waters
    Around you have grown
    And accept it that soon
    You’ll be drenched to the bone.
    If your time to you
    Is worth savin’
    Then you better start swimmin’
    Or you’ll sink like a stone
    For the times they are a-changin’.

    One more time
    Come gather ’round people
    Wherever you roam
    And admit that the waters
    Around you have grown
    And accept it that soon
    You’ll be drenched to the bone.
    If your time to you
    Is worth savin’
    Then you better start swimmin’
    Or you’ll sink like a stone
    For the times they are a-changin’.

  9. hp said on May 31st, 2008 at 10:12am #

    “I asked the Captain what his name was,
    and how come he didn’t drive a truck,
    he said his name was Columbus,
    I just said, “good luck.”

  10. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 12:07pm #

    You know it is amazing times. To me one of the most fascinating parts is because of the problems the times the good the bad and the ugly are much easer to spot.

  11. joed said on May 31st, 2008 at 2:45pm #

    might as well enjoy bush/cheney and the present. like leonard cohen said, “I have seen the future and it is murder.” Obama is one of them.
    too late now for your sacrifice to make things better. too late. the time for action is well past, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! nice going folks.
    it is sad about the children, isn’t is!

  12. Mark Konrad said on May 31st, 2008 at 3:53pm #

    U.S. politicians and much of the public don’t get it yet.

    America is not the only game in town anymore. State of the art technology, manufactured products and military equipment are available on the open market from nations other than the USA. America has become an economic zone, a duty free shop like you see at the airport. We’re the globalists’ bazaar or flea market, with 300 million slack-jawed consumers. We’re not particularly important to most nations of the world except in the sense that we buy a lot of natural resources (petroleum) and manufactured goods from the rest of the world. We provide very little in return except a falling-in-value dollar. Our domestic technology and engineering skills are equalled or surpassed by a number of countries who do not demand fealty to their political positions as the U.S. government does. The American elites still delude themselves with the idea that the rest of the world finds America indispensable and necessary. Thus those elites believe we can threaten and even attempt to force the submission of the world’s nations to the whims of the U.S. government through our military power. But it’s not possible. Swift’s Gulliver in Lilliput is a perfect metaphor for the United States in 2008. The smaller nations of the world are collectively much stronger than the United States, especially since the United States is dependent upon those smaller countries for energy resources (petroleum). Unfortunately American politicians don’t want to admit that and what it’s going to take to teach America some humility, humanity and introspection is a “Bridge too Far” scenario. America will eventually initiate yet another war it can’t fight then subsequently get its teeth kicked in on a foreign battlefield or several foreign battlefields simultaneously. Hopefully that does not result in the utter destruction of the United States. The scenario will be a humiliating and unquestionable defeat somewhere in the world that could clearly be much worse if America does not openly admit it’s beaten then retreat like a whipped dog. After that America must turn its attention inward, completely reject its self-appointed role of global-cop and understand it had better repair its own house first as well as learn to play well with others. Or perish. That of course includes ridding ourselves of our sixty year old tapeworm, israel.

    P.S. Some interesting energy stats:

    The United States burns approximately 21 million barrels of oil per day. That amounts to approximately 7.5 BILLION barrels of per year. (1)

    60% of that, or approximately 4 Billion barrels per year is imported from outside the country. (2)

    The most optimistic estimate of the ANWR reserves in Alaska is 36 Billion barrels. That entire reserve would replace our imports for nine years. To emphasise that — there’s only enough oil in Alaska to replace what we currently IMPORT for nine years. (3)

    The Big Alaska Oil deposit that so many people cling to in their hopes and dreams is a fantasy. There isn’t enough oil in Alaska to matter. In comparison to what’s in Alaska the Bakken reserves in Montana and North Dakota are even punier. (4)

    The USA is the third largest country in the world in terms of population and we’re the #1 nation in the world in oil imports. On the other hand Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population but they’re #18 on the list of oil importers. (5)

    Refs below.

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Alaska North Slope may hold 36 bln bbl oil – U.S. Department of Energy

    Tue, 29 Jan 2008

    WASHINGTON, Jan 29 (Reuters) – Oil and natural gas production at Alaska’s North Slope has been declining since 1988 but the region holds promise if energy prices stay high and Congress opens key areas to exploration, the U.S. Energy Department said in a report released on Tuesday.

    Through 2050, the North Slope could yield up to 36 billion barrels of oil and 137 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under optimistic assumptions, the Energy Department said.

    That would be enough to meet current U.S. oil demand for about five years and natural gas for a year and a half, but some major obstacles stand in the way of hitting those goals. (3)

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Bakken Formation oil field has up to 4.3 billion barrels
    11 April 2008

    A new federal study estimates the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota contains from 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, a figure 25 times greater than the 151 million barrels originally estimated in 1999.

    The original estimate was based on traditional drilling techniques, but a new technique used by Billings wildcatter Dick Findley in 2000 has changed that. He drilled horizontally — fracturing the porous dolomite rock that holds the oil — to make the Elm Coulee field in northeastern Montana the biggest discovery in the continental United States and Canada.

    “So this new estimate compensates for the change in technology that opened up the Elm Coulee field,” petroleum geologist Jim Halvorson of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation said Thursday.

    The Bakken Formation encompasses some 25,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The U.S. Geological Survey calls it the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed. (4)

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Refs:

    Oil consumption 2007 – USA (1)
    Here.

    Net Petroleum Imports 2006 – USA (2)
    Here.

    Alaska North Slope may hold 36 bln bbl oil – U.S. Department of Energy (3)
    Here.

    Bakken Formation Oil Field Has up to 4.3 Billion Barrels (4)
    Here.

    Oil Imports – Net by Country 2008 (5)
    Here.

  13. Parker Mead said on May 31st, 2008 at 7:05pm #

    I am an American. I live in China. There is no “democracy” here.
    People do not “vote” for their leaders. So my question is why do all of the “elected” leaders of the so called Western democracies support America’s “Global War on Terror” and willingly send their people off to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill and die when poll after poll show that the people of their respective countries overwhelmingly oppose these wars of aggression and occupation?
    The Chinese love their country and support their “unelected” leaders. Witness the response to the recent earthquake. The president and prime minister are out in their shirt sleeves with the people helping the relief efforts. I’m reminded of the picture of Bush looking out of his airplane window at the Katrina disaster.
    So maybe the people of the world don’t really need or want America’s “Freedom and Democracy” McCain or Obama? Same Same!

  14. Don Hawkins said on June 1st, 2008 at 8:03am #

    Well we go ahead and use oil and more coal in the future as the push is on all in the name of the easy way out and progress the American way of life. Just on the off chance we are destroying the planet so be it right and the reason is why?

  15. Don Hawkins said on June 1st, 2008 at 10:46am #

    Let’s pretend for a few minutes. Make believe that on CNN we see the IPCC report and James Hansen explain what is happening to this planet and we hear from Steven Hawking on the subject and then we hear about peak oil and what is on the way then we see details this very second on the temperature anomalies on the top of the World then we see what drought and flooding is doing to crops Worldwide then what is happening to our oceans and the fish. Then we see a look into the future of only two years that show’s more of the same. Remember make believe so all this information we saw in only minutes. Then of course CNN goes to commercial from our friendly oil gas and coal people. It’s a new one when the public better known as Joe public is asked how many of you out there have your pension fund or your retirement or investments in oil gas and coal because by 2030 we will need a lot more. Yes one reason why is make believe.

    Oh what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive.

  16. Don Hawkins said on June 2nd, 2008 at 7:13am #

    For those of you that care read this as it will give you knowledge to help you in the coming years.
    http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/sap/sap4-3/final-report/default.htm