Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Barack Obama in Paoli, PA nine months ago yesterday

Today is one of the most momentous days in American history. Regardless of how far short of its initial promise the Obama administration should fall – and there really is no other possibility, given just how high expectations are – there can be no question that a profound transformation in American society is being set into motion. Even if you are someone who is quite skeptical of the Democrats in general – and, say,  unhappy that Rick Warren was chosen for the inaugural prayer or that Obama wants Big Medicine apologist and all-around empty suit Sanjay Gupta for Surgeon General – you can’t fail to recognize the shift away from the imperial malevolency that has sent this nation spinning out of control with wars of choice & economies of chance over the past eight years.

There are a lot of layers of event going on here at once. The most obvious is the end of a white male monopoly on power. And a step toward fully committing this country to Thomas Jefferson’s initial vision that all men are created equal, a vision that Jefferson himself could not live up to.

As important, at least, is the turn away from the pursuit of foreign policy through bullying – the “toga boys rule the world” mindset brought in by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. Far from being the world’s only superpower, we are a nation that has failed miserably at every single military adventure we’ve set our mind to, with the possible exception of the invasion of Grenada, since the end of World War II. The number of people who have died because we don’t understand – or acknowledge – our own history is startling. The percentage of those people who happen to be civilians and even children is stomach turning.

Simply by not being Bush, and by not being identified as white, and having positioned himself as the champion of change, Barack Obama does this nation an enormous amount of good. But the challenges facing the new administration are way beyond daunting. When Nero died, the Roman empire went through three more emperors in less than a year. Anyone who thinks we’re in for an easy time over the next 48 months simply hasn’t been paying attention.

I have my own reservations and concerns about the new administration. When I first endorsed Obama on February 11 of last year, I did so not because I thought he was the most progressive of candidates, but because he was the one I thought had the best chance of winning. Policy wise, he was best candidate on one issue – Iraq – but quite thoroughly one of the pack among that particular group of Democrats on everything else.

Right now, my biggest concerns are that the new president won’t get the best advice from his cabinet of mostly recycled Clintonites. And that he may be making the same mistake that neutered Jerry Brown’s governorship in California a generation ago. Brown, who came to office in 1975 mostly on the name recognition of his father, a former governor who preceded Ronald Reagan in that post, likewise ran as a post-partisan agent of change. And Brown, ever the Jesuit, really meant it. In practice this translated into a belief that government should “raise the contradictions” that already exist within society. So Brown appointed the most militant of troglodytes to various law enforcement positions, while putting serious pacifists and progressives into positions in the courts.

I actually stopped the appointment of Brown’s choice to head the state parole board, Raymond Procunier, who had been the head of the prison system during the days of the San Quentin Six and Soledad Brother fiascos. I knew that “Pro” had taken charge of the board weeks before Brown was ready to announce it, so all I had to do was leak it to the San Francisco Examiner and suggest that Brown was hiding what he knew would be a controversial appointment, since most people on the left thought Pro was responsible for the death of George Jackson. It was Brown’s secrecy more than Procunier’s record that scotched that appointment, but it also was very quickly the first in a series of "gotchas" within the Brown administration where the liberals were only too happy to “take out” the reactionaries – and vice versa. Brown’s chief counsel was soon busted because of 300 marijuana plants being grown in the backyard by his wife (herself then the chief lawyer for the Northern California chapter of the ACLU). I’ve always thought that this was payback for the Procunier misadventure. Brown’s administration never did get its sea legs, and the justices that he appointed to the State Supreme Court were eventually voted out of office because of their opposition to the death penalty.

In trying to “raise the contradiction,” Brown functionally cancelled himself out.. For largely the same reasons, I don’t think it’s feasible to truly have a “national unity” government in Washington. Rick Warren is only there for one bit of distasteful show business, but other divisions run deeper and are already visible. For example, Samantha Power, who was forced to resign her post as a foreign policy adviser to Obama during the campaign after she was quoted in the media as characterizing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” is back already as a key transition team member. I can’t imagine that she’s going to have much luck advising the new secretary of state.

So I’m holding my breath. I think the immediate challenges before us are horrific, and our options aren’t all that many. Further, there remains a tremendous amount of unfinished business in this country, a nation in which black men are still more likely to go prison than college, where women still earn less than their counterparts, where nobody wants to admit to the genocide of native peoples on which this nation was built, and where many gay & lesbian citizens are far from equal in the face of the law.

Still, today is a day when we can all feel the pent-up demand for change that exists in our society. And we can see that as a people we’ve taken a concrete step, however timorously, toward unleashing those forces. I think we’re in for some very interesting times.


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