When Words Don’t Mean Anything Anymore: Reflections on the Life and Rhetoric of Barack Obama

Z Magazine, December 2014. Nothing mocks disingenuous, power-serving politicians more than their own past words. President Barack Obama is a remarkable case in point.

street-econmyOn the presidential campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, for example, Barack Obama ran on a promise to oversee “the most transparent administration in history,” specifically vowing to shield whistleblowers, whom he praised as “noble” and “courageous.” The Obama administration has waged what many civil libertarians and journalists across the political spectrum have called an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more government leakers under the draconian 1917 Espionage Act than all previous U.S. presidents combined.

As a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008, Obama promised “real immigration reform” with a clear “path to citizenship” for millions of undocumented Latinas and Latinos living in the U.S. He denounced the George W. Bush administration’s policy of mass deportations. As president, Obama has deported undocumented immigrants at a record rate—more than 2 million people to date. Further cementing his legacy as what some immigrant rights activists call “The Deporter in Chief,” Obama has recently and not for the first time delayed his promise to provide deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The only real difference with Bush has been a matter of style. In the final years of his administration, Bush undertook a harsh immigration crackdown replete with provocative military-style raids on U.S. factories and farms. As Obama prefers a stealthier, more behind-the-scenes approach, one that avoids high-profile armed-force assaults but yields a higher rate of family-shattering arrest and expulsion—this while he claims to favor “humane” reform and to be advancing a safe way for “dreamers” (“illegal” immigrants who came to the U.S. as children) to avoid expulsion.

The Green Deception

street-ecologyIn 2007 and 2008, presidential candidate Obama repeatedly posed as an environmentalist who was deeply concerned about anthropogenic climate change and determined to reduce carbon emissions. As president, Obama approved the significantly increased extraction and burning of U.S. fossil fuels through hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling, and other ecocidal practices, praising the hydrocarbon frenzy in the name of so-called national energy independence. He also acted to undermine efforts at binding global carbon emission limits at international climate summits beginning in Copenhagen in the winter of 2009.

At an AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in 2003, Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Obama declared his allegiance to single-payer, Canadian style, government-funded health insurance (basically Medicare for All). “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program,” Obama said. “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody…. A single-payer health care plan…that’s what I’d like to see.”

Once elected president, Obama made it his highest domestic policy priority to pass a corporate version of not-so “universal” health insurance “reform.” He excluded single-payer advocates from the national health care reform discussion orchestrated by the White House. His so-called Affordable Health Care Act left the nation’s leading insurance and drug companies in parasitic and massively profitable control of the nation’s absurdly expensive health care system.

What Occupy Made Obama Do

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has posed as a friend of ordinary working people and an opponent of the harsh socio-economic disparity. He has inveighed against corruption in the nation’s leading financial institutions. He has called the growth of inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” calling it a “fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.” President Obama, however, has been a good friend of the top 1 percent, which has enjoyed 95 percent of the nation’s income gains during his presidency. His Administration has expanded the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords and refused to nationalize or break up the nation’s “too-big-to fail” financial behemoths. It pushed through a corporatist health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, it has cut an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds, slashed wages, and rewarded capital flight.

It supported a Detroit bankruptcy process that raids municipal workers’ wages and pensions. Consistent with its staffing of key positions by top corporate and financial operatives, it has advanced neoliberal “free trade” agreements (including the current secret negotiations for the richly corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP, deal). It has pressed forward with the corporate schools privatization agenda, advocated deficit reduction and austerity over and against job creation and social programs, making repeated offers and attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits (in the name of a “grand deficit-slashing bargain” and “entitlement reform”); and refused to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise) or to act even minimally on behalf of Obama’s campaign promise to champion the re-legalization of union organization (to advance the rapidly abandoned Employee Free Choice Act). In these, and many other ways, Obama has been a shining monument to the reach and power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the [nation’s] unelected dictatorship of money.”

Leftists and others who have dared to criticize Obama’s business-friendly actions have been mocked by the Administration as “purists” who “do not live in the real world,” who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and who fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.” When the Occupy Movement arose across the country to denounce the extreme over-concentration of U.S. wealth and power in New Gilded Age America, Obama responded by stealing some of Occupy’s language while his Administration engaged in a coordinated federal campaign to dismantle the movement’s many urban encampments. A curious twist on the hope of many naïve liberals and progressives that a “progressive” Obama was just waiting for popular pressure to “make me do it” (New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt’s advice to labor activists in the early 1930s)—the “it” signifying the passage of social-democratic policy. Occupy “made” the president sign off on stealth police state measures to repress a populist rebellion whose rhetoric he found useful in his fake-populist re-election campaign (against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney), consistent with the once leftist Christopher Hitchens’s description of the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

Heart of Darkness

street-conrad covLast September, Obama tried to justify his launching of a new U.S. war in Iraq and Syria by telling the United Nations that the cruelty of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” It was an interesting choice of words. Heart of Darkness is the title of Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-20th century novel about a “civilized” white ivory trader’s trek down the Congo River into “barbarian” Central Africa. It’s a novel that many critics and readers have found to be fundamentally racist. That’s how young Barack Obama found Conrad’s novel when he was an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Look at the following passage in Obama’s autobiographical 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, from a section in which the future US president remembered hanging out with some of fellow Black students:

“the whole first year [at Occidental College] seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks…Except with Regina, the way she made me feel like I didn’t have to lie. Even that first time we me, the day she walked into the coffee shop and found Marcus giving me grief about my choice of reading material. Marcus had waved her over to our table, rising slightly to pull out a chair.”

“ ‘ Sister Regina,’ Marcus said, ‘You know Barack, don’t you? I’m trying to tell Brother Barack about this racist tract he’s reading.’ He held up a copy of Heart of Darkness, evidence for the court. I reached over to snatch it out of his hands.”

“ ‘Man, stop waving that thing around.’”

“ ‘See there,’ Marcus said, ‘Makes you embarrassed, don’t it – just being seen with a book like this. I’m telling you, man, this stuff will poison your mind.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Damn, I’m late for class.’ He leaned over and pecked Regina on the cheek. ‘Talk to this brother. I think he can still be saved.’”

‘Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. ‘Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.’”

“I tossed the book into my backpack. ‘Actually, he’s right,’ I said. ‘It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa is the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

“Regina blew on her coffee. ‘So why are you reading it?’”

“ ‘Because it’s assigned.’ I paused, not sure if I should go on. ‘And because – ’”

“ ‘Because…’”

“ ‘And because the book teaches me things,’ I said. ‘About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate” (emphasis added).

“ ‘And that’s important to you.’”

“My life depends on it, I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell Regina that. I just smiled and said, ‘That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.’ ”

“No Just God”: Speaking of Demons, Fear, Hate and Things Unsaid….

Obama’s rhetoric on behalf of renewed U.S. War in the Middle East this last summer and fall suggests that he remains interested in the exploitation of demons and fear and the selective presentation of facts—things unsaid in connection with a nationally narcissistic and Euro-American view of the world to encourage the majority white U.S. populace to hate officially Evil non-white Others. Besides tarring ISIS with Conrad’s Eurocentric brush, the president proclaimed last August that “No just God would stand for what [ISIS militants]…do every single day.” ISIS, he said, represented “the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.”

  • What about S. client Israel’s recurrent slaughter (with U.S. weapons and ordnance) of hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza, one of its regular exercises in “mowing the lawn?”
  • What about when (as has regularly occurred under Obama) the U.S. bombs a houseful and/or wedding party full of civilians in pursuit of one presidentially targeted “terrorist,” killing dozens in pursuit of a single official enemy?
  • How about the public beheadings that are routinely carried out for even petty crimes by Saudi Arabia, Washington’s “partner” in its re-escalated war on/of terror? How about the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to U.S.-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s?
  • How about the open S. aerial murder (described by former participants as like “shooting fish in a barrel”) of many thousands of surrendered Iraq troops on the “Highway of Death” in February 1991?
  • How about the killing and maiming of more than a million Iraqis in the course of the monumentally criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia beginning in March 2003?
  • What of U.S. assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004—attacks that (among other horrific things) targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left “a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn), plaguing the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects?
  • Or Obama’s bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk in May 2009? Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by S. explosives were children.
  • The Obama administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge S. responsibility. And the Pentagon’s revealing computer designation of ordinary Iraqis certain to be killed in the 2003 invasion as “bug- splat?”

Does any of that and more in the way of murderous and racist U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality make one look into “the heart of darkness?” What “just God” supports that sort of “civilized behavior?” Who will cure the “illness” of racial and imperial demonization and fear-mongering that fuels such dreadful wrongdoing, ghastly transgressions that provide essential context for the rise of the merciless Islamic State (in much the same way that a massive U.S. bombing campaign created the rise of the vicious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the early 1970s)?

“What do you think of Western civilization?” a journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi. “I think it would be a good idea,” the great Indian independence leader replied.

It is unthinkable, of course, that Obama or anyone else in the U.S. political and media establishment would subject U.S. foreign policy to anything like the same moral scrutiny he aims at ISIS. “We lead the world,” candidate Obama explained seven years ago, “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good…. America is the last, best hope of Earth….. America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.”

Obama elaborated in his first Inaugural Address. “Our security,” the president said, “emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”—a fascinating commentary on Fallujah, Hiroshima, the U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia, the “Highway of Death” and more.

In the televised address in which he informed the subject U.S. citizenry of his decision (made without any consultation of the populace) to attack Iraq and Syria last September, Obama gave voice to standard “American exceptionalist” doctrine. “America,” the president intoned, “our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.  But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.  From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.  These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.”

Millions across the Middle East and the world can be forgiven for taking such words with more than a grain of salt. A world littered by U.S. crimes like the My Lai massacre (a relatively small transgression compared to the broader U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” [Noam Chomsky’s term at the time] between 1962 and 1975). The “Battles of Fallujah” and the bombing of Bola Boluk is understandably unimpressed with the extent to which U.S. global policies reflect “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” It’s for nothing that the U.S. consistently ranks in global opinion surveys as the leading threat to peace and security on the planet. “The Battles We Need to Fight”

Listening to Obama’s announcement of renewed U.S. war in the Middle East last September, I was moved to find then state senator Obama’s half-eloquent speech against then U.S. President George W. Bush’s clear plans to illegally invade Iraq in fall 2002. Here’s a key passage from that oration: “I am opposed to the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income—to distract us from corporate scandals…I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man…. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him…. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States…. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida…”

“You want a fight, President Bush?… Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, suppressing dissent and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

“Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair. The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable.”

Here we are 12 years later in the ever more openly plutocratic U.S., where the top hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42 percent of U.S. residents while 16 million U.S. children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One in seven U.S. citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of militantly bipartisan abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

These savage disparities are heavily racialized. U.S. racial inequality is so steep in the Age of Obama that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black U.S. households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty”—at less than half the poverty measure—compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four- decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

And who does President want to “pick a fight” with? Against whom and what does he wish to “battle?” The vicious and amoral “1%”—the scandal-ridden corporate and financial elite that profits from massive inequality, corruption, and endless war at home and abroad while advancing ecological destruction around the world? The big energy corporations that exploit Middle Eastern oil resources and the poison the climate? Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other despotic Middle Eastern states that supply those corporations, host U.S. military bases, and receive giant U.S. military backing? Poverty, despair, and savage, highly racialized economic inequality at home and abroad? Greed? Wall Street corruption? The distraction of the “homeland” populace away from domestic inequalities by diversionary dog-wagging wars abroad? With persistent underlying societal and institutional “homeland” racism?

street-forpoljpgNo. Obama, instead, has launched a fight with a (yes) brutal Middle Eastern enemy that (as Obama said of Saddam Hussein in 2002) “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States”—a fight that that (to continue with Obama’s words 12 years ago) will “only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm[s]” of the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s many other offshoots. It’s a fight that will only reinforce inequality and repression at home, a regular outcome and bidden purpose behind imperial adventures. Washington’s “partners” in Obama’s war on ISIS include “the Saudis and the Egyptians,” who (more verbiage from Obama’s “antiwar” past) “oppress…their own people, and suppress… dissent, and tolerat[e]…corruption and inequality…so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”  Under Obama as under Bush and previous presidents,  Washington’s Sunni “partners” remain important to U.S. planners primarily because of the access they have given to U.S. and multinational oil corporations seeking to exploit and control the Persian Gulf region’s remarkable stock of fossil fuels—the very material whose capitalist over-extraction and burning are pushing the planet past the tipping points of livability.

Obama’s UN Address last September took place in the immediate aftermath of a giant, indeed historic, New York City march for action to stem catastrophic climate change. During his war speech, the president absurdly claimed that the U.S. leads the world in pressing for such action—a curious boast for the planet’s all-time top carbon emitter and the headquarters of corporate Big Carbon’s climate change denial industry.

Last December, Obama advanced some interesting reflections before some friends atop the U.S. business elite at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries.” Obama told a gathering of top business executives, “the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans…we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines.… People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter)…. I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.”

As Danny Klatch commented at Socialist Worker, “It was a touching ruling class moment…a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president…. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties—that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”

Fight racism? Obama has said less about race and racism than any Democratic U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt. He has continued his longstanding practice of lecturing Black Americans on their own personal and moral responsibility to take advantage of the “endless blessings” bestowed on what he has called “this magical place” (the U.S.).

Taking in the grand Orwellian absurdity of it all, I am reminded of a passage from young Obama’s Dreams From My Father, where Obama recalls the warning he got from an “old black poet” named Frank (in fact, the former U.S. Communist Party member Frank Marshall Davis) as he prepared to leave Honolulu and begin college in California: “What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii…he had asked me what it was I expected to get out of college. I told him I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of these young cats out here. All you know is college is that college is the next things you’re supposed to do. And all the people who are old enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.’”

“And what’s that?”

“ ‘Leaving your race at the door. Leaving your people behind…. Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore…. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race….’.”

A Prophetic Warning


Frank Davis’s warning seems more than a little prophetic three decades later. Obama’s ascendancy to the White House depended fundamentally on his “post-racial” campaign and presidency’s calculated determination to leave “race at the door”—a phenomenon that has been amply documented. Equally evident in the empirical record is candidate and president Obama’s formal allegiance—either sincere or disingenuous (my strong guess is the latter)—to “equal opportunity and the American way and all that…” Given the ultimate “corner office” (the Oval Office) by the white ruling class, he has been hailed as a credit if not to his race then certainly to purported remarkable racial progress—as “proof” that racism no longer poses serious obstacles to Black advancement and equality in the supposedly color-blind U.S.

For the purposes of this essay, however, the key phrase in Frank’s warning is “to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore.” Such manipulation has always been at the heart of the Obama phenomenon and presidency. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s long been at the heart of the reigning U.S. major party political culture where very little ever seems to change.



Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1 percent v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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By | 2014-12-06T15:42:05+00:00 December 6th, 2014|Articles|