Takimag Classic

Obama and the Left

October 26, 2008

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His campaign slogan boasts of “Change We Can Believe In.” He tells voters that “Americans are hungry for a new kind of politics.” Rolling Stone dubs him “A New Hope.”

Barack Obama is the identikit Democratic presidential candidate. He has Jack Kennedy’s youthful charisma, Jimmy Carter’s reputation as the fresh-start outsider, and Michael “son of Greek immigrants” Dukakis’s American success story. Hillary Clinton merely has her husband’s last name. Her opponent has his charisma and his “hope.” Obama’s New Hope is not only hopelessly nostalgic of the “hope” cult surrounding the last successful Democratic presidential aspirant—who providentially hailed from a place called “Hope”—but it also harkens back to the Madison Avenue-style slogans that spearheaded the campaigns of all of the 20th century’s most successful liberal presidents. Is it hard to imagine the New Hope becoming the amorphous label for Obama’s program as the Square Deal, New Freedom, New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society became for the programs of his forerunners?

If Obama’s resemblance to the ghosts of Democrats past is mostly superficial, if tellingly derivative, the ideology underlying his personality-driven candidacy substantively traces its ancestry to past Lefts. There is nothing new about Obama’s ideas, especially the tired gimmick of repackaging old ideas as “new.” 

Barack Obama was born into the Left. He describes his late mother as “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position paper liberalism.” The young Barack pursued an activism consistent with the politics he inherited. The gratitude the biracial Obama expressed in his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention “for the diversity of my heritage” could just as easily apply to his politics as it does to his ethnicity. Barack Obama is the product of many Lefts.

“To avoid being mistaken for a sellout,” Obama writes in Dreams from My Father of his days at Occidental College, “I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” After passing through this obligatory poseur phase, Obama evidenced a stronger commitment to the Left. In New York City, where Obama transferred to Columbia University after two years at Occidental, he worked for the Naderite NYPIRG and attended socialist conferences at Cooper Union.

The hyperpoliticized Obama appearing in the 1995 memoir disappears in the Obama running for president. Similarly, Obama, until the Reverend Wright affair, seemed to transcend race. The race-obsessed picture that Obama paints of himself in Dreams from My Father clashes with the anti-Al Sharpton that Obama plays on the campaign trail. The presence of an Afrocentric white mother, the absence of an African father, and growing up amidst a surrounding culture of Indonesians, Hawaiians, and whites heightened Obama’s racial consciousness. He writes of the impact that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had upon him, purchasing copies of the Nation of Islam’s Final Call newspaper, and finding Reverend Jermemiah Wright’s “Black Values System”—a separatist document—a “sensible, heartfelt list.” 

But candidate Obama doesn’t own his past, even though it might prove to own him. To become President Obama, Senator Obama necessarily sidesteps that history. His amnesic makeover is the story of the Left in microcosm.

“We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties,” Jane Addams, co-founder of Chicago’s Hull House, lamented one hundred years ago. “They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily.” Did the urban poor need the domestic missionaries or did the domestic missionaries need the urban poor?

One of those “cultivated young people” without an “outlet for their active faculties” that came to Chicago in the 1980s, as Addams had come to it in the 1880s, was Barack Obama. Educated at the best private school in Hawaii, and in the Ivy League at Columbia, Obama arrived in Chicago as a missionary from a world quite distant from the city’s South Side.

In the 1890s, Hull House became the day care, battered-woman’s center, clinic, literacy class, and homeless shelter for the immigrant-rich neighborhood surrounding Halstead Street. The direction away from activism (voluntary work for the community’s benefit) and toward passivism (demands that distant public officials solve the community’s problems) that Hull House initiated paved the way for the community organizing in which Obama later immersed himself. A Force Left took the reins from a Freedom Left at Hull House, deeming community organizing so noble that citizens should be forced to subsidize it instead of lauded for volunteering for it. Addams confessed in Twenty Years at Hull House, “One of the first lessons we learned at Hull-House was that private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city’s disinherited.”

That is the legacy Obama inherited from earlier waves of Chicago community agitators. From its founding nearly 120 years ago, Hull House established Chicago as a hotbed of passivism rather than activism. It was here in the 1930s that Saul Alinsky “rubbed raw the sores of discontent” and discovered many of his “rules for radicals.” In the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society’s Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) embarked upon an interracial movement of the poor in Uptown. A few years later, Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push tweaked Addams’s formula of shaking down the government to include big business as well. The helping hand that Hull House initially extended became a hand extended for its helping.

When Barack Obama entered Chicago community agitation as part of the Calumet Community Religious Conference, the group was in the midst of celebrating what Obama dubs “its first significant victory”—a helping of $500,000 from the state legislature for a job placement program. Though there would be community cleanups and neighborhood watches, the CCRC described in Obama’s memoirs forces the government to remove asbestos from subsidized housing, files lawsuits against the city, and wins concessions from alderman for better city services. In other words, Obama, like Hull House’s Addams, confused activism with lobbying for government give-outs. Public perceptions, likewise, confused the apposite roles of sacrifice in the activist for the demands of sacrifice in the passivist. 

After building up credibility in Chicago, Obama took a three-year sojourn at Harvard Law, and then returned to Illinois and ultimately won election to the state senate in 1996. The friends the young legislator made in his political climb are the dregs of American political life. Though the Friends of Barack (FOBs) helped propel Obama’s career in state politics, they may be his undoing come November. 

“Kill all the rich people,” philosophized Weatherman Bill Ayers in 1969. “Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.”

For sheer idiocy, Ayers’s comment is hard to beat. But later that year fellow Weatherman and future wife Bernardine Dohrn outdid him. Waxing about the Manson Family to attendees of a Weatherman “war party” in Flint, Michigan, radical sex-symbol Dohrn pronounced: “Dig it: first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!”

The couple spent the early 1970s bombing government and business targets. They emerged from the underground in the 1980s. In the 1990s, they reinvented themselves as academics and then delved into Democratic Party politics in Chicago, where they backed a local politician named Barack Obama.

In 1995, the first couple of 60s extremism hosted Obama’s political coming out party at their Chicago home. They raised money for the would-be state senator and introduced him to the players in the left-of-liberal Windy City enclave of Hyde Park. Ayers identifies Obama as a “neighbor,” but clearly the relationship is more than that. Neither the Obamas nor Dorhn and Ayers have much to say about the nature and extent of the relationship in this election year. What the public record says is disturbing.

In 1997, Michelle Obama organized a University of Chicago forum on Ayers’ book, A Kind and Just Parent: Children of Juvenile Court, in which Mr. Obama also spoke. “This panel gives students a chance to hear about the juvenile justice system not only on a theoretical level, but from the people who have experienced it,” Michelle Obama, then working for the university, claimed. The following month, Barack Obama name-dropped Ayers’s book in the Chicago Tribune. “A searing and timely account of the juvenile court system,” he judged, “and the courageous individuals who rescue hope from despair.”

From 1999 to 2002, Obama and Ayers served as trustees for the Woods Fund, a cash cow milked by the Chicago Left. As Obama sat on the Woods Fund board with the former Weatherman, Ayers conceded in his memoir that, even decades removed from Weatherman, “I can’t imagine dismissing the possibility” of setting off more bombs. But, Ayers insists, he and wife Dohrn were never terrorists. “Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.” Despite the juxtaposition of Ayers’s ill-timed self-serving memoir with 9/11, Obama again joined Ayers and Dohrn in speaking at an academic conference months later. At the same time, Ayers contributed to Obama’s state senate campaign.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has emerged as the most damaging of the FOBs. Unlike “neighbors” Ayers and Dohrn, Wright cannot be passed off as a casual acquaintance. He married the Obamas, baptized their daughters, and served as the family’s pastor. He even coined the phrase “the audacity of hope,” the title of Obama’s second book.

Labeled by the senator as an adherent of the social gospel, Wright seems more social than gospel—denouncing gay-marriage bans from the pulpit, touting the dangers of global warming in the church bulletin, and making pilgrimages to Libya with Louis Farrakhan to meet with Muammar Qaddafi. Certainly Obama was channeling Wright, and perhaps such secular millennialists as Robert Owen and John Reed, when he exuberantly told a South Carolina megachurch last fall, “We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.” Wright harkens back to a long forgotten Christian Left, hubristically deluded into thinking that the millennium would result from man’s political agency. At the same time, he fits in with the secularized 9/12 Left that imagines America behind a myriad problems—global warming, Third-World debt, 9/11 itself. It’s telling that Obama joined not a traditional church, but a politicized faith united more by race than by religion, too transfixed on the here to pay mind to the hereafter.

It’s also telling that Obama remained in the pews for two decades. “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no. God damn America,” Wright infamously preached. Whether Obama heard that particular Sunday morning sermon seems an irrelevant question given Wright’s multitudinous off-the-wall altar outbursts. The Sunday after 9/11, Reverend Wright blamed the United States for the attacks: “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, which affirms a commitment to “a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community,” outlines a ten-point “vision” that includes “economic parity” and “a non-negotiable commitment to Africa.” A race-fixated anti-American zealot, Reverend Wright is at least committed to truth in advertising. It’s doubtful that anybody, particularly someone as savvy as a United States senator, could wander into TUCC unaware of its politicized theology and race-obsessions. Why did Obama, who joined TUUC two decades ago, never wander out?  

Candidates can’t directly control who supports them. They can control whom they support. Thirty-eight years ago, Barack Obama’s friends bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and law-enforcement agencies. Seven Septembers ago, Barack Obama’s minister imagined America the culprit of 9/11. Before Obama presides over the very government his Hyde Park friends quixotically sought to overthrow and his minister damns so promiscuously, Americans, particularly the ones voting in the general election, will want a better explanation of the company he keeps. 

If Obama is so shortsighted, it is because he stands on the shoulders of midgets. He is an heir to the dynasty of paternalists—the populists, progressives, New Dealers, and Great Society liberals—who tasked government managers to absolve individuals of basic human responsibilities and consequently empowered the central government. Paternalists placed old ideas in new packages once their overreaches caused conservative interregnums to interrupt the dynasty’s continuity. Populism, progressivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society, though differing by degree and circumstance, each bequeathed a legacy to their successors. To the paternalist dynasty, Obama owes a debt. Rather than the bearer of fresh ideas, Obama is the defender of the established order of statism whose pedigree extends to the 1890s.

In announcing his presidential candidacy, Obama displayed the us-versus-them rhetorical style that owes homage to the likes of Ignatius Donnelly, Tommie Watson, and “Sockless Jerry” Simpson. “The cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests, who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play—they write the checks and you get stuck with the bills,” Obama claimed. “They get access while you get to write a letter. They think they own this government but we’re here today to take it back.” They never have actual names or faces, but instead serve as shadowy props to rationalize a more intrusive federal government. Obama’s legislation seeking to limit the salaries of corporate CEOs, even though toothless, bites into the class-warfare red-meat populists so devoured. The cosmopolitan, Harvard Law School graduate makes a peculiar populist. But so did plantation king Tommie Watson and corporate lobbyist Ignatius Donnelly.

In order to avoid “a second Gilded Age,” Obama proclaimed that America needs a president in the style of Teddy Roosevelt. “We need a president who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American.” The irony of attacking corruption while feeding its source never dawns on Obama, just as it never occurred to Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln Steffens, and other progressives of a century past who paradoxically expanded the public stables as they lamented the difficulty of cleaning them. The lofty aim of making men angelic, rather than the modest goal of making the spoils of the state less profitable, is the progressive’s dubious solution to public corruption.

In response to President Bush’s ill-fated plan to inject some market principles into Social Security, Obama chose in 2005 to defend the old New Deal rather than outline a truly new agenda. “President Roosevelt believed deeply in the American idea,” Obama expounded to a luncheon at the National Press Club. “He understood that the freedom to pursue our own individual dreams is made possible by the promise that, if fate causes us to stumble or fall, our larger American family will be there to lift us up. That if we’re willing to share even a small amount of life’s risks and rewards with each other, then we’ll all have the chance to make the most of our God-given potential.” A program launched 75 years ago in different economic circumstances is sacrosanct for Obama as the Koran is for a Muslim.

Forty-four years after Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society, Barack Obama complains: “We’ve never paid more for health care or college.” These were Lyndon Johnson’s complaints in the sixties. The Great Society, through such legislation as Medicare and the Higher Education Act, was supposed to lessen the costs of health care and education. It didn’t. It inflated them. Rather than wondering why the politicians of an earlier generation, who complained about the same high costs and promised the same panaceas, effected outcomes opposite their intentions, Obama opts to repeat their mistakes. “I’ll be a president who finally makes health care affordable to every single American,” Obama explained in his Iowa victory speech. Supporters ironically chanted, “We want change!” They don’t, and neither does their candidate. But they want you to believe that they do.

The irony here is that in defending more than a hundred years of paternalism, Obama becomes the conservative. He defends entrenched liberalism. Even the “change” he offers is nowhere near as sweeping as the unchecked regulatory state achieved through populist-era Interstate Commerce Commission, the expert state the progressives embarked upon through the Federal Reserve and the takeover of railroads, the safety-net state of the New Deal’s Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the Great Society’s provider state of Medicare and Medicaid. He seeks to inch forward whereas his antecedents sought to leap far into the future. Senator Obama is a guardian, not an insurrectionist.

Why would Mr. Obama promote a book on children and crime by a one-time advocate of parricide? What does it say of a man that he not only sat through the hate-filled sermons of Reverend Wright, but solicited the politicized pastor to marry him and baptize his children?

The intelligent Obama associated with scores of radical causes and activists not through ignorance of their message, but through belief in it.

In the candidacy of Barack Obama, one sees the history of the American Left writ small. Obama is an heir to the paternalist dynasty of the populists, progressives, New Deal, and Great Society; the Hull House-style passivism that demands city hall, the state legislature, and bodies more distant solve personal problems; the social gospel of Reverend Wright that makes politics of religion and a religion of politics; and the anti-Americanism of Ayers and Dohrn. Obama’s insistence that he offers fresh ideas stems from a refusal, common on the Left, to reflect on where those ideas came from or how those ideas fared. To remain ignorant of the Left’s abysmal track record is to perpetuate an ideology that would be dead if not for weak memories.

To know the future, study the past. But progressives can’t be bothered to see what’s been when what’s to come is so blindingly glorious. Thus, the forward-looking Left is paradoxically and perpetually stuck in the past. As antiwar activist Carl Oglesby explained during an interview for A Conservative History of the American Left, “Nobody learns anything from anybody. All the mistakes that are made have to be made all over again, in a new key, in a new tempo. What can I say? Certain things do change. The events themselves just keep cycling and recycling and cycling all over again.” The past is jealous of attention. Either one visits it for wisdom or one relives it for ignorance.

The illusion of newness propels the Left. Forgetting allows the Left to disassociate themselves from past failures, appear forever fresh and vibrant, and perpetuate what by virtue of natural selection should have perished long ago. Who has time to remember the past when a hopeful future is to be made? Like the Left he represents, Obama carries stale ideas beneath a youthful façade. Meet the new hope, same as the old hope.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left and the editor of www.flynnfiles.com.  

This article was originally published on April 16, 2008.

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