Some of them knew pleasure, and some of them knew pain,
and for some of them it was only the moment that mattered.
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth, they went flyin' around in the rain
and their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered.
And in the end, they traded their tired wings
for the resignation that living brings
and exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
for the glitter and the rouge.
And in a moment they were swept...
before the deluge.
– Jackson Browne, Before The Deluge
The President of the United States has been the subject of some (seemingly) searching media examination lately. Both Time and Newsweek magazines have featured articles describing Obama as a stymied president facing challenges that may well be insurmountable. Even our own newspaper, the Oregonian, jumped in with their own two cents' worth.
Opinion in the street has not been altogether favorable to Obama lately. I remember how I had misgivings about him even as I voted for him, and even as I defended him in conversations with some of my acquaintances who were true believers in Fox News, the National Enquirer, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. This last Christmas, a relative (who believes to this day that Obama is a Muslim) asked me again what I thought of him (this question was related to health care “reform”). When I said, “I think he's a liar,” you should have seen the look of triumph in my relative's eyes. That look of triumph made me angry, however, as I didn't want to have to go into a fact-based defense of my statement in the presence of someone who feeds on professionally-spun rumors.
Me, I think it's time to give Mr. Obama a bit of a break – but not too much of a break, because, unfortunately, I still have to be truthful. So let's talk a bit about the challenges facing this President of the United States at such a dark time for the nation and for the world, and some missteps that could have been avoided.
In all fairness to Barack Obama, the mess into which he stepped by becoming President is not a mess of his own making. Many of the trends which comprise this present mess began before a lot of us were born – including Obama. Free-market predatory economist Milton Friedman had already hit his stride by the time Obama came into the world. The liabilities of our present industrial society were only beginning to be discussed in the 1970's – a time in which Obama was just turning from a kid to a teenager, learning to shave and to drive. The arrangements of empire by which Europe and the United States exploited the rest of the world have been decades in the making.
The politicians whose rise to power facilitated America's state of denial about limits to growth entered office while he was still a college student. I think particularly of Ronald Reagan, who was aided and abetted by his friend across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher. Obama was far from the centers of power that gave us Reagan, Bush the First, and Bill Clinton, and was thus not in much of a position to do anything about them.
By the time Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate, America and its leaders had already begun to decline. Our manufacturing had largely been outsourced, our technical work was beginning to be outsourced, our main exports were starting to consist of “financial products” instead of real goods, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement were being quietly reversed, we were already fighting wars of hegemony (such as Bill Clinton's invasion of Haiti), the rich were claiming an ever-larger share of the nation's wealth and were in fact running the country while the rest of us were being trained to “aspire” to ever more lavish lifestyles, even though we were getting poorer, our resource base had long since started declining and we were having to buy more and more things on credit. By the time Obama became a U.S. Senator, the country had become mired in an unjust war of conquest in Iraq, and our collective debt was already becoming unsustainable. This was all taking place against the backdrop of the end of cheap oil and the resulting stresses on the American society and economy, and the first real beginnings of the derangement of our planet's climate. Anyone who became President in 2008 would have had one huge mess to clean up.
But in all fairness to Barack Obama, (and by “fairness,” I mean telling it like it is), I have to say that many of us who voted for him in 2008 did so because we realized that the U.S. and the First World were facing limits to our way of life – limits so profound that they would require a total change of our way of life. We clearly saw the problems we were facing – resource depletion; the decline of our “prosperity”; the blood on our collective hands and the unwillingness of other, poorer nations to allow themselves to keep getting jacked in order to keep America fat, dumb and happy; the destruction of the environment due to our excessive consumption and industrial activity.
We correctly identified these all, not as mere “problems” that could be solved by technology or trickery, but as a predicament to be gracefully accepted and endured. And we looked at Bush, McCain and Palin, and the Fox News/neocon/neoliberal crowd as children who were refusing to acknowledge reality. We saw in Obama the possibility of an adult who would speak the truth, who would tell us, “We're not going to return to the glory days of unending prosperity. It's not right that we should want to. We're in for a difficult time. Let's learn to gracefully adapt to it; I'm here to help you and to lead by example.”
Instead, he lied to us.
Just like all the Presidents from Reagan onward. And he proved to be a stooge of the rich, just like the members of the other branches of the U.S. Government and all the major political parties. Which is why there are American troops still in Iraq, there are American troops in Haiti and Colombia and the African continent and Afghanistan and Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan, there are still torture bases in Guantanamo and elsewhere, and any country that has things we want is bound, sooner or later to be described in our media as a “terrorist threat.” Oh, and the rich (especially those on Wall Street) are still getting bailed out by the Federal Government, and the “official” unemployment rate is still below 11 percent, but real unemployment is much higher. And atmospheric CO2 is at nearly 390 parts per million and 2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record, globally.
And yet, in all fairness to Barack Obama, he only told us the lie that most of us wanted to hear. It's the lie being told by every major American political figure, as well as their media mouthpieces – even though the finer details of that lie differ from liar to liar (and they fight convincingly over those minor details). It's the lie that our present troubles are “solvable” in a way that would return America to prosperity or “keep America strong!” without forcing any fundamental change in our way of life.
I am thinking just now of some conversations I've been having with people who identify themselves as conservative or sympathetic to groups like the Tea Party, who get their news and views from Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Some of these people even claim to be "well-informed." Yet they all cling rabidly to the promise held out by ultraconservative American politicians and organizers that say, “Support us, because we have The Solution. You don't have to give up your way of life. The threat to our American Way comes from them liberals and illegals and dark-skinned people and foreigners and socialists and scroungers and 'terrrists' who hate our freedoms! If we just get rid of these people, we can have prosperity forever!” In the event that these people actually seized political power in this country, they'd simply install their own liar as spokesman to tell them the kind of stories that are about to be swiftly be disproved by reality.
But the so-called American “Left” is just as much to blame in talking about clean coal, carbon capture, the promise of renewable energy and unbridled faith in the power of technology to grant us unending prosperity. I think of a guy I know... (But then, I'm trying to stop talking widely about these things around some people. Talking just makes me a bit of a pest, not to mention making me mad. Maybe I should duct tape my mouth shut.) Anyway, this guy regularly listens to KPOJ, “Portland's only progressive talk station,” where he regularly hears that the reason the economy is falling apart, the ecosystem is dying and people are jobless is because of the greedy Republicans, and that somehow a better system run by Democrats would solve all problems while guaranteeing prosperity for everyone.
It is true that many of our problems are being exacerbated by greedy rich people in places of power. But the underlying problems would still have to be faced by all of us anyway. Whenever I mention resource depletion and the resulting inevitability of the decline of the industrial economy, this guy's eyes glaze over.
So Obama's a symptom of a larger problem. We want to be lied to. We are facing a predicament, but we want to be told that it's merely a problem, a solvable problem – so we can continue driving our Escalades and Suburbans and Explorers and Yukons and Expeditions and monster trucks, so we can continue aspiring to be rich and living gluttonous and materialistic lives without thinking that such lifestyles must soon end. No matter who was President, we'd have quickly turned him into a liar. And it would soon have become obvious that he could not keep his promise to "solve" our problems.