Left Invisible

Originally published on ZNet on May 11, 2012. As a member of the so-called hard left with little taste for self-promotion and a fairly strong understanding of how the dominant ideological institutions are unlikely to permit public respectability or even mere notice for any but a tiny number of serious left thinkers and activists, I tend not to get too bent out of shape when those institutions make me and other lefties invisible. It is part of the territory for an authentic radical – a price you pay for not playing along with the powers that be. Sometimes, however, the experience of being told that you don’t officially exist can be more than a little chilling. 


One small example of that experience came to me last year. It had nothing to do with my politics. It happened when I found out that my alma mater, Binghamton University (BU), had destroyed my professional credentials file.[1] The file had been shredded, tossed down Orwell’s memory hole, along with untold thousands of others because – as a woman working in BU’s Career Planning office told me – “We weren’t making any money off them and had to stop doing credentials.” 

 “You’re kidding,” I said. 

“No, I’m not,” she said.  

“How many graduates did you notify?” 

“About half. The ones we got a hold of and who cared had us send their files to Interfolio.” (Interfolio is a private corporation that provides credentials services for a fee). 

“Half? So half of your graduates have had their credentials files wiped out before they could have them saved and transferred to this Interfolio place.” 

“Yes. We sent out e-mails and some letters.” 

“I never got one.” 

“We may not have your contact information.” 

“I used to regularly send you requests for credentials mailings via e-mail. You should have my e-mail address.” 

“We don’t save those messages. Good luck.” 

“Well, I am regularly contacted both by e-mail and by regular (postal) mail by fundraisers with BU’s Alumni Association. Somebody at Binghamton has my snail mail address and my e-mail address, that’s for sure.”

“Well, not us. Sorry, sir.” 

Truth be told, I even get phone calls from Binghamton students seeking help with the university’s alumni network. The students tell me “you’ve had a great career and made a lot of money with you’re Binghamton degree” and that this puts me in a position to sponsor them as they strive access the opportunity I enjoyed. They don’t seem to believe me when I say that the only thing my Binghamton doctorate (and my now disappeared credentials file) ever qualified me for in the field of History was the right to teach adjunct courses for $2500 a semester (and less) and a one year visiting professor gig. 

“But you’ve written books,” a Binghamton student with a Sub-Continental accent (I half-wondered if she was contacting me from a call center outside Mumbai) told me a few weeks ago. “Surely you are making a lot of money from royalties.” 

“Well, not exactly…. I’ll tell you what. If you can find my credentials file, I’ll send you my next royalty check.” 

“I’ll try, sir.” 

Now, the fact that Binghamton could not notify me about the impending liquidation of my unprofitable credentials file but can reach me regularly in pursuit of money is a political fact. It is a little epitome of the neoliberal era, wherein the “public sector” behaves in accord with market logic, stripping services that don’t “pay” while scrambling for private dollars and selling those services to private corporations. Still, it is unrelated to my particular political orientation. 

A different moment of official non-existence I recently experienced while reading the New York Times does relate to that orientation, however… 

Pulling No Left Punches on “Killer Obama” 

…Some background is in order. After leaving the informal academic proletariat, I became a social policy researcher, a civil rights research director, and (since 2006) a Left author, writer, and speaker. Two of my books have (for better or worse) had “Barack Obama” in the title. Both of these volumes were dedicated (among other things) to criticizing the deceptive peace and antiwar branding that Obama enjoyed on his path to power and even during (see below) his militantly imperial presidency. The first of these two books was written mainly in late 2007. It bore the neutral title Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). Its fourth chapter (titled “How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) tore systematically through the Obama-as-peacenik myth. It demonstrated the future president’s numerous imperial and militarist statements and record, leaving little doubt that an Obama presidency would increase U.S. aggression abroad and act very much in accord with the imperial trajectory of previous administrations. 

My second “Obama book” was less neutrally named. Its title was The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). A photo on the cover shows Obama surrounded by an adoring crowd of West Point cadets. Its second and longest chapter detailed the new president’s hard-hitting military imperialism during his first year in the White House (chapter sub-sections developed this theme in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Russia, China, Haiti, Columbia, Palestine, and Honduras) and acidly recounted Obama’s audacious defense of war in the speech he gave accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. To get a sense of the chapter’s tenor, look at the following passage from my discussion of the Orwellian absurdity of Obama’s Nobel: 

“ ‘ He’s a Killer’” 

“’Peace prize? He’s a killer.’” 

“Thus spoke a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. 

‘Obama,” the man added, ‘has only brought war to our country.’” 

“The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of one hundred gathered around the bodies of twelve people, one family from a single home. The twelve had been killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late-night raid. “ 

“’Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?’ another village resident asked. ‘He claims to want to bring security to us, but he brings only death. Death to him.’” 

“Al Jazeera went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where a U.S. bombing had butchered dozens of civilians in the spring. ‘He doesn’t deserve the award,’ a young woman said. ‘He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home.’” 

“Seven days after Obama received his Nobel, Yemeni opposition forces testified that many dozens of civilians, including a large number of children, had been killed in U.S. air raids in the southeast section of their country. The fighters reported the deaths of sixty-three people, twenty-eight of whom were children, in the province of Abyan. The killing command came directly from the president. As left commentator Barry Grey noted: ‘US President Barack Obama personally issued the order for US air strikes in Yemen last Thursday which killed scores of civilians, including women and children….The US strikes were apparently coordinated with the US-backed dictatorship of Yemen President Ali Abdallah Saleh.’”[2] 

The Empire’s New Clothes was completed before Obama’s attack on Libya, which was of course all too richly consistent with my argument. 

I spoke against Obama’s militarism and imperialism in person and on the radio around the country from mid-2008 through late 2010. I worked off core themes from the (anti-) military chapters of both books in dozens of print and Internet essays that started appearing in late 2006. 

I was hardly alone. While few if any left writers have gone to the same extent as me in writing about and against Obama’s militarism, I have hardly been the only or the most significant left critic of Obama’s foreign policy. The nation’s (and world’s) leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky was (of course) never fooled by candidate Obama’s antiwar marketing. (Neither surely were most of his many thousands of regular U.S. readers). Numerous Left writers, activists, and readers at venues like Counterpunch, ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report (BAR), and Dissident Voice joined Chomsky, Counterpunch editor Alexander Cockburn, left commentator John Pilger, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, and leading civil liberties commentator and Slate columnist Glen Greenwald (who joined Sheehan in staying dead on ant-imperial point with the transition from Bush 43 to Obama 44) in speaking and writing clearly against the imperial crimes of the “new” administration. 

The bestselling left author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was an eloquent and early left critic. “Overall,” the left journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in mid-June 2009, “[Obama is] implementing a U.S. foreign policy that…advances the interest of the American empire in a way the Republicans could only have dreamed of doing.” Scahill elaborated: 

“what people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire—who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change, when in effect what they’re doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire.” 

“I think that Obama is showing himself to be a master of misdirection—almost like a magician. He’ll say a few things in his speech that sound like they’re new, like a totally different U.S. approach, but then he’ll also at the same time roll out a policy that is further than even Bush took things.” 

The title of the article in which Scahill made these comments spoke a mouthful: “Re-branding War and Occupation.”[3] In remarks made around the same time this article appeared, Scahill observed that “Obama is an incredibly Orwellian character. He can make people think that war is peace.”[4]

Half a year later, in the wake of Obama’s Nobel award, left journalist Allan Nairn went on the officially marginalized left U.S. television show “Democracy Now” to say the following: “Once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill.[5] (But for an epic upper-Midwestern snowstorm, I would have said something very similar to two large left groups meeting at in late December of 2009 to discuss and denounce the Obama Nobel farce in the Twin Cities). Such sentiments were common at the time across the American Left of which I am part. And American leftists’ disgust with the administration’s war-making has only increased since thanks to Obama’s audacious willingness to murder, spy, torture, and intervene with impunity.   

“Those on the Left” 

Imagine, then, how strange it felt for me (and perhaps others on the “hard left”) to read an essay titled “Warrior in Chief” on the front page of the New York Times “Sunday Review” section two weeks ago. The essay’s author is Peter Bergen, director of the centrist and imperial New America Foundation, who cleverly notes that “the president has embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink.” According to Bergen: 

“The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.” 

“Liberals helped to elect Barack Obama in part because of his opposition to the Iraq War, and probably don’t celebrate all of the president’s many military accomplishments. But they are sizable…..” 

“….Mr. Obama overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged …cover wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awaki, who was born in New Mexico and…killed in an American drone strike in Yemen…” 

“…Ironically, the president used the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as an occasion to articulate his philosophy of war. He made it very clear that his opposition to the Iraq War didn’t mean that he embraced pacifism – not at all … (emphasis added).”

“If those on the left were listening, they didn’t seem to care. The left, which had loudly condemned George W. Bush for water-boarding and due process violations at Guantanamo, was relatively quiet when the Obama administration, acting as judge and executioner, ordered more than 250 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, during which at least 1,400 lives were lost.” 

“Why,” the Sunday Review section’s editors ask, “do the left and right see Obama as a peacenik?” 

Now, it is not entirely clear from Berger’s Times piece how he feels about Obama’s pronounced militarism, but his tone certainly suggests approval. Berger thinks that the president has not gotten enough credit from the right for his “readiness to use force.” He appears at the end of his essay to praise Obama for having “shaken the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ that [supposedly] provided a lens through which a generation of Democratic leaders viewed military action.” Tellingly enough, Berger has nothing to say about the many thousands of illegally occupied and criminally assaulted Muslim civilians (including many women and children) who have been murdered by “killer” Obama’s drones, missiles, bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.

What matters most for the subject of my essay here, however, is the invisibility of those who have strongly and consistently criticized the Obama administration’s militarism from the portside. What does Berger mean when he says that “those on the left” weren’t listening and/or didn’t “seem to care” when Obama used the Nobel platform to wax eloquent on the virtues of war and proceeded to mass drone-attack Pakistan and engage in other provocative and aggressive military actions? Why does the Times say that “the left…see[s] Obama as a peacenik?” My guess is that Berger is referring mainly to the more liberal wings of the militantly imperial Democratic Party (which actually shred the so-called Vietnam Syndrome quite some ago), the opinion-editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the political talk show roster at the Democratic Party organ MSNBC, and perhaps to various cadres of intellectuals and academics affiliated with such institutions as the Brookings Institution, the Kennedy School (Harvard), the Wilson Center, and the Council on Foreign Relations. The historically militarist liberal establishment’s commitment to the American Empire Project goes back many decades and was hardly suspended with Obama’s ascendancy, of course. Berger may also be thinking of the tepid occasional, barely audible complaints about Obama militarism as could sometimes be discerned at the Democratic Party-captive Nation (which refused to consider either of my Obama books for review), the pathetic performance of the Democratic Party front group MoveOn in suspending serious opposition to militarism when the nominal chief of the “machine set to kill” changed from a right wing white Republican moron with a West-Texas accent (nice cover for an aristocratic New England pedigree) to a silver-tongued black Democrat with fake-progressive credentials. It’s less likely but possible that Berger could also identify the organization United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which played a leading role in protesting Bush’s Iraq invasion and then ceased to function as an antiwar force once “the empire’s new clothes” (Obama) put a new face on U.S. militarism,

 The sorry surrender of nominally “left” outfits like MoveOn, UFPJ and The Nation certainly helps people like Berger think that “the left” doesn’t care to notice or oppose Obama’s militarism. These and other “progressive” groups certainly did their best to silence and marginalize serious left criticism of the re-branded imperialism – as predicted by John Pilger. “What,” Pilger wrote more than five months before Obama’s election, “is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of 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 antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent” (emphasis added).[6] 

Still, the longstanding imperialism of the elite “liberal” and supposed “dove” establishment and the capitulation of the co-opted “progressive movement” are hardly the sole reasons that actually Left critics of Obama’s imperialism remain officially invisible for elites like Berger and the editors of the New York Times’ ”Sunday Review.” It doesn’t take all that much work to find the many genuinely Left American venues and names – some quite well-known (like Chomsky, arguably the world’s leading political intellectual, whose books are regularly available at your local Barnes & Noble) – who did NOT “fall silent” and “accept [the new] administration for all its faults.” 

The ultimate reason is doctrinal. For those who guard the narrow spectrum of the nation’s establishment political and media culture, those who question the morality (not merely the strategic smarts) and resist the imperial crimes (not just the supposedly benevolent “mistakes”) of U.S. foreign policy (beneath and beyond partisan and personnel changes in terms of who commands the killing operation) are by ideological necessity every bit as publicly invisible as those crimes. Along with Uncle Sam’s continuing record of global sociopathic destruction, we must for moral and political reasons be sent down Orwell’s memory hole (along with my long lost credentials file). Our existence – our insistence on exposing the imperially based immorality and criminality of U.S. global policy (intimately related to savage inequalities, plutocracy, and repression in “the homeland”) – unacceptably questions the core American mantra that the United States is always fundamentally Good and Noble and Benevolent in terms of its motivation and conduct around the world. Therefore we must not exist, officially speaking. We must have no standing, no credentials for entry to the establishment-vetted “free marketplace of ideas” and the corporate-supervised court of public debate. We are labeled “extremists” of “the lunatic fringe,” not to be taken seriously as Washington’s “responsible men” of power proceed to steer the world ever deeper into authoritarian disaster, permanent war, and environmental collapse. And so, no “left” Americans with an existence worth acknowledging “cared” enough to denounce and oppose Obama’s imperialism, “the most militarily aggressive…in decades,” as far as Peter Berger and the editors of the Times are concerned. 

Let us increase our visibility along with our impact and the visibility of Washington’s crimes abroad in Chicago in two weeks. That’s when and where Obama and his band of allied Western imperial killers will be holding meets of the aggressively expansionist U.S.-led military “alliance” called NATO. (Please go to http://natoprotest.org/) Do your background reading and research, bring your bail money and police protection gear, and get ready to tell the world that there is an actual American anti-imperial Left that understands very well that the corporate-imperial Obama is not a peacenik (or a populist). We exist along with and against their criminal and bipartisan empire, which persists only over and against our protest and resistance. 

Paul Street’s many books include The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

[1] A credentials file is no small thing in the professional labor market. It contains your official undergraduate and graduate transcripts (a record of courses you have taken and grades you have received) and a set of letters of recommendation from authorities who are familiar with your academic and/or employment record. It is generally requested along the following lines in (for example) academic job advertisements: “send cover letter, vita, and credentials file, to Dr. Edward Snodgrass, Chair, Search Committee, 20th Century European History Position, Northern State University.” 

[2] The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm. 2010), 106-07.

 [3] Jeremy Scahill and Anthony Arnove, “Rebranding War and Occupation,” Socialist Worker, June 17, 2009, at http://socialistworker.org/2009/06/17/rebranding-war-and-occupation

[4] Jeremy Scahill, Speech to “Socialism 2009,” conference of the International Socialist Organization, Chicago, Illinois, June 20, 2009.

[5] “‘Obama Has Kept the Machine Set on Kill’ –Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama’s First Year in Office,” Democracy Now! (January 6, 2010), read at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/obama_has_kept_the_machine_set 

[6] John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama),” Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read at www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/31/9327/

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By | 2012-05-16T15:46:48+00:00 May 15th, 2012|Articles|