Four freedoms have always formed the bedrock of American liberty. The freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the rights to privacy and to a fair trial, largely covered in the first, fourth, and sixth Amendments. It is astonishing that a single president has so thoroughly undermined all four. With the conviction of Bradley Manning Tuesday on 20 criminal charges carrying a potential sentence of 136 years in prison, the verdict on the muckraking aspect of free speech is clear—state crimes must be hidden, and those who expose them must be destroyed. That the Obama administration so vigorously pursued this outcome raises once more the question of whether America will finally see through the ruse of the modern Democratic Party and its now thoroughly disgraced leader—or will it continue, against all evidence to the contrary, to cling to that party’s threadbare mandate, now reduced to the shamefulness of being “the lesser evil.” If by chance, the American majority recognizes our Machiavelli for what he is, let this be an epitaph for the headstone of a dead mythology.
Falling for Faust
From a supposedly stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention into 2004 to the weepy confirmation in Chicago four years on, millions fell for the mystique of Barack Obama. Ignoring the realities of power—his vetting by corporate leadership, his subservience to institutional wealth, his massive funding by finance, insurance, and real estate conglomerates—they bought hook, line, and sinker the empty promise of “Change We Can Believe In.” This portmanteau served as an idealist’s suitcase into which desiccated liberals packed all their disappearing dreams. Once their man was elected, they were pacified with little more than some high-flown rhetoric and a few tawdry policy proposals destined for the Congressional guillotine. Then they could wash their hands of it and get back to the business of making money, conscience intact. Welcome to liberal politics in the 21st century.
Had anyone been following activist and author Paul Street, for instance, they would have been quickly freed from their illusions. [Paul Street, however, was initially one of deluded supporters of Obama; other progressives did regard Obama with extreme skepticism prior to his becoming president. -- DV Ed.] Or at least exposed to the truth about Obama. As evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers has laid out extensively in his book The Folly of Fools, people with a desire to believe a particular story are often impervious to facts that contradict it. There are strong evolutionary incentives for people to sustain false historical narratives in their quest to achieve survival or reproductive advantage. You can see the ease with which these farcical storylines caused millions to leap so credulously into the arms of a vitiated Democratic Party. It’s also a testament to our paucity of choice that millions of marginally deflated liberals decided to vote again for Obama in 2012, salving their consciences with the daft ‘lesser of two evils’ analogy, by which they were able to dispense with the harder questions about an electoral system that only offered two evils. No longer able to sustain their narrative of incremental change and lesser evilism, they are now left with nowhere else to go, a politically displaced people, the latest refugees of the franchise.
So here we are, five years in, and we find that our messiah-scholar is a Savonarola of apocalyptic proportions. With a world for a stage, he capers from role to role. As an imperialist, he wields power like a Borgia. As a paranoiac, he resembles a police state Napoleon. As a militant, he disregards borders like Teddy Roosevelt. As a gunrunner and friend of stateless jihad, he mimics Reagan. Our freedoms lie in spangled tatters at his feet.
As for the particular freedom of speech, Obama has taken steps to drastically circumscribe the free exchange of ideas. By grossly expanding the scope and reach of NSA surveillance and seizing the private communications of mainstream media outlets, he has sent a chill rippling through the country. Programs like PRISM and Boundless Informant—or possibly the broadest program of them all, XKeyscore—capture our private thoughts and inscribe our digital ethnographies in clandestine data silos. No doubt we’ll all think twice next time we think to speak our mind.
What about the freedom of assembly? Well, the freedom to gather in peaceful protest of government policy is dutifully enshrined in our constitution. It may not be the anointed scripture that old school right-wingers think it is, but it is the closest thing we have to a ten commandments. Obama is desecrating the tablets. By literally cordoning off the commons, we have shuttled protestors and petitioners into pens of expression that more resemble the foreyards of an abattoir than a public space. Witness the diminished strike zones of Con Edison workers last year and the truncated cobblestones of Wall Street during the Occupy protests, the rebel-swept grounds of Zuccotti Park.
But police efforts to deny protest will soon be augmented by a helpful partner. In June, an expansion of military laws granted the military explicit power to intervene in public spaces to “quell…civil disturbances.” Naturally, as breaking news about sitcom stars dominated the airwaves, this expansion of martial policy went unnoticed. The Pentagon is developing a troop force to deal with “domestic catastrophes.” You can easily imagine that useless phrase being tossed aside and substituted with “civil disturbances” caused by “domestic extremists,” formerly known as peaceful protestors. Entrapment is now a legitimate tool of police work. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now prepared to surveil your peaceable marches, infiltrate your gatherings, and sow dissent among your ranks. In so doing, the DHS can hopefully incite you to violence—at which point you cross the threshold from deranged anti-corporatist to domestic extremist (the NSA’s foreground of terrorism) and can be usefully detained and deposited in a tent prison on the periphery of your crumbling metropolis.
Due process, you say? Guantanamo prisoners, if they still had the strength to, would laugh in the face of a patriot pronouncing this blessed creed. Your indefinite imprisonment is authorized by the NDAA. As is your trumped-up trial before a military tribunal, should a show trial be necessary in your case. And so is your liquidation should anonymous authorities deem you not worth the trouble of detaining. It’s no wonder Obama signed the NDAA under cover of darkness on New Year’s Eve. A satanic verse is best inscribed in Cimmerian conclave.
How arrogant is this administration? It believes it has the right to reinterpret any judicial ruling, like the one by a brave judge prohibiting indefinite detention of Americans. Or perhaps the point is cast in sharper relief by the fact that—under the President’s guiding hand—the CIA conducts “signature strikes” on hapless villagers in countries across the Middle East—a population of people with no rights. Their crime: looking like trouble. Perhaps youngish, male, disgruntled at a pandemic lack of work, irritated by the perpetual droning in the sky, frightened by the frequent explosions in nearby villages. Hard to imagine anyone in such a climate of fear wouldn’t bear the signature of a terrorist. The ‘double-tap’ hits are equally cruel, as they obliterate first responders to an attack (by first eliciting a tragedy to which they are bound to respond). Note how the CIA here imagines that the first to respond will be nefarious terror suspects. They are not like us. We are guilty by the falsest of associations; they by the most intimate. The enemies, in these strikes, are people defending their own homes, moving to rescue mortally wounded relatives, otherwise known as ‘insurgents’. One in fifty killed are known militants. The euphemisms of mayhem drone on. How they reach a fever pitch before the shot is fired—by remote control from a benign bunker outside Sin City.
An Actor Unmasked
I’m afraid that our constitutional scholar and ethnically mixed prodigy has proven himself a shapeshifter. From friend of the downtrodden and community activist, he became the conscience of a liberal nation, the messianic voice of an oppressed minority, the hope of a guilt-ridden bourgeois. From there, amid the collapsing scenery of American society, he swiftly turned his back on his people, his adopted communities of color, and embraced the starched collars of global finance. FIRE’s favorite lackey has handed trillions to his pals in pinstripes. His rhetorical palinodes were myriad and predictable. You could do the pantomime yourself. You need only learn the maxims of cool-headed centrism, and the master the footwork of retreating promises. For every war denounced and terminated, conjure a new conflict. For every faux terrorist entrapped, draw true jihadists from the signature of a drone strike. Match each miniscule jobs program with a momentous trade agreement that offshores millions. With every reference to American exceptionalism, wiretap a citizen-suspect. Instead of dragging America off to hydrocarbon detox, launch a saturnalia of fracking. Rather than champion the underclass, spy for the ruling class.
That is the crux of it, class war. As president, you know your true constituency—it’s Ed Herman’s “unelected dictatorship of money.” The job description doesn’t mince words: befriend the rich, and defraud the poor. Chastise the whining billionaire in public, and then cut a deal behind closed doors. Lay a soft palm on the shoulder of a prole for the press, and then teach him to vote against his interests. One market, self-regulating. One people, self-censoring. One empire, self-interested. One enemy, psychopathic.
There you have it. A presidency in a nutshell. Obama has not shied away from redefining the office, although he is history’s progeny. He has consolidated the excesses and failings of his most famous predecessors. From the grave, Nixon blushes at our unblushing surveillance state. From his imperial crypt, Reagan sees his strategic stamp on arms back-channeled to Sunni contras. Clinton sees all the hallmarks of a corporate sellout in his public platitudes and private fundraisers. Bush finds his signing statements appended to every legal sheaf. They croon with envy, our presidents emeritus. The centrist for Obama’s ability to boycott conviction. The neocon for the temerity of his overreach. Chameleon, fascist, Iago, Faust. Is there a term of betrayal that won’t suit this maestro of appearances? Apparently not.