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Eli Zaretsky
Eli Zaretsky
Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at Eugene Lang College, writes and teaches about twentieth-century cultural history, the theory and history of capitalism (especially its social and cultural dimensions), and the history of the family.

The Meaning of the Oil Spill


by: on June 11th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

It is not possible to imagine a better symbol of the miserable condition of the United States today than an oil company destroying a huge swath of the American ecosystem, society and economy, while the President sits by helplessly, saying that he is meeting with experts in order to find out “whose ass to kick.” Obviously, Obama should have seized all the equipment that BP had available to plug the leak, deputized their engineers, brought in the US navy and coast guard, and spent as necessary to deal with the problem within days, or even hours of the original spill, when it became clear that BP was in over its head.

That is what Lincoln did in 1861 when he took control of the railroads and telegraph lines around Washington DC, what Wilson did in 1916 when he nationalized the defense industries, what Roosevelt did in 1941 when he seized an aviation plant, and again in 1944 when he seized Montgomery Ward, it is what Truman did in 1947 when the government took control of the steel industry, in a sense it is what Reagan did in 1980 when the government fired the air controllers. These acts were all controversial but that is what strong Presidents did when facing threats no less severe than those in the Gulf today.

Why hasn’t Obama done anything like that? Ultimately the answer depends on understanding his individual character, but there are at least four large conditioning factors that will help us understand, if not the man, then the event.


The Man of Reason?


by: on May 30th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

What do Obama’s three greatest failures — health care, Afghanistan and the oil spill — all have in common? Each one was preceded by an elaborate attempt on Obama’s part to portray his decisions in non-partisan, quasi-scientific and technical terms. Each one was presented as seizing a middle-ground between unreasonable partisans on the two extremes. Of all of the masks worn by this carefully constructed persona, that of the man of reason is the most prominent. Let us look at how it works.

At least since the New Deal, progressives argued for health care as a universal right. They did not want to live in a world where their fellow citizens, or even their fellow human beings, died because they didn’t have access to doctors or medicine. Obama dropped this emphasis for one that foregrounded cost-cutting. According to him, evidence-based scientific research would be used to mandate medical decisions. The possibility that raising the level of the country’s health might cost money, not save money, was never directly considered.

Obama’s first expansion of the Afghan War occurred only a few weeks after taking office, but his second large-scale expansion was preceded by an elaborately choreographed set of seminars in which all the different options were supposedly considered. Those who still believe that this was anything more than a charade have to tell the rest of us what Obama learned from his seminars, i.e., in what way his post-seminar understanding of “the good war,” as he calls Afghanistan, differs.

As to the oil spill, Obama announced his support for offshore drilling on March 10, unfortunate timing for him as the BP spill occurred a few weeks later. In his announcement he said he would provide “order and certainty to offshore exploration and development … ensuring we are drilling in the right ways and the right places.” As to spills, he promised we would “employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration…. And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.”
Once again, we got the message: the non-Bush, the thoughtful ratiocinator.


Obama’s Biggest Failure


by: on May 28th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

Imagine a woman who has been in an abusive marriage for so long that she no longer knows that she is in one. Her husband defines the world for her. She is on her knees all the time, anticipating his wishes, giving him what ever she has, telling him what he wants to hear, working overtime to please him. Her world is grey, depressing, anxiety-ridden and dark. She has forgotten the dreams of her childhood, and she doesn’t know there is an alternative.

One day she meets someone who offers hope – a minister, a rabbi, a therapist, a friend. Suddenly everything brightens and it seems that she can find a way out. She will leave her husband, or transform the relationship. One way or another she will regain her sense of self. But then it doesn’t happen. The person who was expected to help her tells her that there isn’t much that can be done, and besides he or she has already done so very much for her. That’s the way the world is, she is told. You can’t really change things that much.

The American people today, a year and a half after electing Obama, are in the position of this woman. A concentrated claque of banks, insurance companies, corporations, and the Pentagon dominates their entire world. For two thirds of a century, after winning their great victory in World War Two, they have known nothing but war. They have been told, and they believe, that they live in a world overgrown with enemies of their “interests,” meaning the interests of their rulers. For most of that time, the enemy was an ill-defined “communist conspiracy,” a catch-all phrase that included anti-colonial nationalists, pan-Arabs, Latin American state-builders, and simply those who criticized America. Today there is scarcely a nation in the world in which they have not placed land mines, barbed wire, tanks, and stands of explosives; there is no sea they have not polluted with blustering, oil-dripping ships; no quartile of near space is not surfeited with their satellites; no half-formed nation they have not transformed into their serf.


Obama’s Shameful Presidency


by: on May 15th, 2010 | 14 Comments »

Charles Blow in today’s New York Times has most of the story right. According to Blow, each day brings “more news of unconscionable conservative tilts in the electorate.” The string of bad news compounds “an already palpable sense of loss and longing on the left, an enveloping fear of the inevitable: rejection…. By most accounts, Nov. 2 is going to be a blue day in blue America. That is in part because of a sizable enthusiasm gap that favors Republicans.” Nevertheless, Blow concludes, “the right may win the day, but the left will win the age. That’s because the right is running an intellectually bereft campaign of desperation and disenchantment, amplified by a recession. Great Recessions don’t last. Great ideas do.”

Bravo to Charles Blow. Everything in his article is correct, including his explanation for the Republicans’ enthusiasm. What he fails to do, however, is explain the sense of “loss and longing on the left.” The explanation is simple. After living through twelve years of Reagan and his Vice President, the first President Bush, then eight more disappointments from Bill Clinton, then eight nightmare-like years under the second President Bush, liberals, progressives and, if you will, leftists, hoped that the country would give its core liberal and progressive tradition a chance. And it had every reason to believe that with Obama as the nominee, it would have that chance since Obama positioned himself to the left of Hillary Clinton, as the anti-war candidate, as the candidate who had the most liberal voting record in the Congress, and as the candidate who was looking not just for a changed policy but a changed mindset.

Once he got the nomination, however, and especially since he became President, almost everything Obama has done has been aimed at sending the message that the difference between left and right, progressive and conservative, even Democrat and Republican, is an outmoded “partisan” or even “ideological” stance, and that what we need are people who will “solve problems,” not people who will “strike poses.”


The Obama Cult: Part Two


by: on April 1st, 2010 | Comments Off

In my last piece, I argued that a very special almost intimate resonance existed between Obama and large numbers of intellectuals and opinion-makers, and that this resonance gave a distinctive stamp to his Presidency. This resonance has deep roots in such things as the special character of the American Presidency, the decline of the party system, and the rise and character of the media. Here, however, I simply want to identify Obama’s particular and unique appeal, without yet judging or even analyzing, except briefly at the end.

The first major characteristic that gives Obama his special, in many ways unconscious, appeal is the fact that he is an African-American. Since the days of slavery, when the spirituals identified the slaves as the chosen people, Americans have believed that a young, black Moses would save them from what WEB DuBois called this “empty desert of dust and dollars.” The hope for a black salvationalist figure pervades evangelical Protestantism, Communism (and not only in the United States) and artistic modernism, e.g. in popular music and humor. Like Martin Luther King, Obama comes out of a Salvationist and messianic tradition, but what is interesting is what he does with that tradition: He seeks to repudiate it (The Reverend Wright incident showed how difficult this is). Nonetheless, Wright notwithstanding, Obama does not present himself as a representative of black America, as King or Jesse Jackson did, but as someone who can bring red and blue (NB: not black and white) together, Furthermore, certain aspects of his biography – birth in Hawaii, African father, Indonesian upbringing – soften and muffle his African-American image in ways that make it more global in an age during which America is struggling with global isolation and rejection of its supposed leadership.


The Obama Cult: Part One


by: on March 28th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

Obama has been on a tear since Reconciliation. Told that the Republicans planned to repeal the Health Care bill he said, “Go for it.” Understandably perturbed by new settlements, he cancelled a scheduled dinner with Netanyahu telling the Israeli Prime Minister to “call when anything changed.” Friday’s New York Times had a front-page picture of Obama mockingly pointing to the cover of Romney’s autobiography, an attractive young blond woman standing admiringly by.

Such examples of cockiness are not necessarily perspicacious. “Go for it” channeled Bush’s “Bring it on,” once again legitimating the former President. Insulting Netanyahu united the Israeli people in support of their Prime Minister whereas a divided Israel is crucial to the peace process. Magnanimity is a wiser response to success than crowing.

These are minor errors, perhaps, but we have also seen Obama’s cockiness at play in major ones. Asked why there were no radical voices in his economic team, he said HE would be the radical voice. Asked why he hadn’t appointed someone like Stiglitz or Krugman, he said “Why, I read all those folks.” As is now apparent, Obama’s economic policies were written by the large banks, insurance companies and other major “players;” so in that case Obama’s cockiness hid other key aspects of his personality: deference to power, and not knowing what he doesn’t know.


The True Meaning of the Health Care Victory


by: on March 24th, 2010 | 10 Comments »

There is no question but that the health care victory marks a turning point in the Obama presidency. Obama can now legitimately present himself as a strong president, a man of principle and genuine achievement, someone who, after Massachusetts, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. With his leadership, the Democratic Party can claim to have remained true to the spirit of its New Deal and populist roots, albeit with a recognition of changing times. Meanwhile the Republicans have once again over-reached, as they did under Gingrich in 1993-1995, and Bush in 2002-2003. Obama’s accomplishment is genuine, and will soon be revealed in the 2010 elections. He now has a record to run on, and the political landscape has shifted tectonically.


Obama and the Right


by: on February 4th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

From the beginning of his Presidency, Obama has been guided by one fixed principle: keep the right wing of the Republican Party at the center of the nation’s consciousness. The reason is obvious. Compared to Neanderthal Republicans, even the lamest, most conservative, most devoid of ideas Democrat will look good.

Let us examine how this works. Find a Republican who thinks we should not help people out of work; by comparison, a Democrat who wants to spend a thousand dollars on jobs looks like a latter-day Franklin Roosevelt. Find a Republican who wants to use small-scale nuclear weapons in Afghanistan; just one row over, a Democrat who only sends an army looks like Gandhi. One sees the method in Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann nightly: right wing idiocies are trotted out so that the liberals and Democrats can feel superior. Above all, never examine Obama’s policies. That would be “divisive.”


Obama’s Bridge to Nowhere


by: on January 28th, 2010 | 11 Comments »

Every President has to balance two imperatives: defeating his political opponents, and dealing with the problems that the country faces, but only a few Presidents get the opportunity to do both at once. Barack Obama was one of the few, and all of the media attempts to explain why 2008 was not 1932 or 1936 or 1964 or whatever cannot obscure the fact that he failed to rise to the occasion. Without grasping that failure, the significance of his State of the Union Address cannot be understood. When we do grasp it, we see that Obama’s Presidency rests on a carefully drawn contrast in appearance with ill-informed opponents, and on a careful convergence with their actual politics, and not on a program to lead the country in a new direction. This was especially clear in the central theme of his speech last night, deficit reduction.


Proto-Fascist Elements in America Today


by: on January 23rd, 2010 | 24 Comments »

If I were Barack Obama, I would be frightened right now, not so much because of the likelihood that there would be serious Democratic losses in the 2010 election, or even a strong challenge to my re-election in 2012. No, I would be frightened because I would feel that I was in danger of losing control of my party, of my authority in government generally, and of the respect I had among the American people. I would feel — if I had my pulse on the nation — that the country was in an unstable and volatile situation and that things could go pretty haywire pretty fast, and I wouldn’t be sure if I could control them. I would be frightened that I had taken on a job that was beyond my capacities, if I were Barack Obama.

The fact is that there are proto-fascist elements in America today, and I don’t mean the Tea-Party group or any easy, rightwing target per se. I say “proto’” fascist because I don’t want to be alarmist, and because I don’t want to use the term “fascist” as a meaningless insult. There are, however, situations when proto-fascist or extra-legal authoritarian elements do seem to surface, and this is one of them. In what follows, I want to cursorily list a few of these elements and then say a word about what has brought about the present situation.

1. The anti-Congress mood: One of the most marked aspects of societies that move in authoritarian directions is contempt for Congress or Parliament.