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Norman Solomon on Obama's First 100 Days

These are notes from a talk presented by SF Gray Panthers and the Unitarian-Universalist Forum on May 3, 2009.

Norman Solomon chose to evaluate Obama’s first 100 days in the context of war, especially war as he pictured it in his video “War Made Easy.” (We will be showing “War Made Easy” on Sunday, May 24, at 2 PM. Call 415-215-7575 for location. It’s also available on Netflix.)

Solomon’s outlook is that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan overshadows any “balanced” calculation of pluses and minuses, and makes such calculations meaningless. As long as we’re spending $2 billion a day on the military, it’s absurd to think of any kind of agenda of rebuilding America’s healthcare, housing, education, transportation, energy supply etc. 

The film shows Martin Luther King speaking of the “madness” of militarism, that a nation that sacrifices its people for war and war-making capacity has lost its bearings.  It’s true: War is made much too easy:

  • There were 78 straight days of bombing In Kosovo, but no American life lost, so it was considered a “perfect war”  and widely supported, even by anti-war people in the US.  It was like support for war in the early days of Vietnam.
  • And now we have “air war” and even “Clean War,” where missiles and bombs are dropped on Afghanistan and Pakistan from Nevada, and “pilots” go home and tuck their children into bed.

How are we to measure the Obama presidency? Compared to what? To Bush?  Or to our needs and aspirations?  Yes, there are vaguely hopeful signs:

  • modulation of belligerency toward Iran
  • slightly more favorable trends toward Israeli-Palestinian conflict

 But where are the real changes?

  • Where is there a real withdrawal from Iraq?
  • Where is there a single guiding standard of human rights that we can anchor ourselves to, to use as a moral compass?  When will the loss of a black youth be equal to the loss of a white police officer?
  • Where is the media reporting that a huge, devastating, dispersed, rural war is developing in Afghanistan and Pakistan that will be more like Vietnam than Iraq? Why is the media desensitizing us to the horrors of this developing war and purposely developing historical amnesia?  Why is the media making the war an abstraction?

Would-be progressives who dampen their criticism of Obama and his Afganistan/Pakistan war are enabling that war.  They need to learn to say “Obama’s war” as easily as “Bush’s war,” though, of course,  both phrases obscure imperialism and the fight for oil as the causes of these wars.

To understand where Norman Solomon is coming from, we must realize he is on the Board of Progressive Democrats of America.  He served as an Obama delegate at the 2008 Democratic convention, believing that grass-roots pressure could move Obama in a progressive direction.  Today, he spoke of being a “Progressive Democrat” *almost* as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. 

He freely acknowledged that the Democratic Party attempts to bore us to death with policy details and tamp down our expectations on the issues.  For instance, in the recent California Democratic Convention:

  • A resolution condemning the Afghanistan war was derailed.
  • A resolution supporting single payer health care, contained the word “legal residents,” and progressives had to fight like hell to get it taken out. Progressive Democrats called for healthcare for all, not healthcare apartheid. Giving in to anti-immigrant racism allowed three California counties to deny health care to undocumented people, including Sacramento, where the first cases of swine flu were identified.

He acknowledged that Obama is skilled at finding the center of political gravity and occupying it.

  • Obama  says he supports the Employee Free Choice Act and foreclosure protection, and even speaks for them, but he is not pushing them in Congress.  Obama is largely a Clinton re-tread, but Clinton was willing to expend political capital to do the wrong things, like globalizing US production with NAFTA and deregulating the banks with the Glass-Segall act.
  • Obama’s treatment of torture is emblematic of this approach—trying to please both sides by releasing the memos, but abrogating the principle of equal treatment under the law by protecting the Bush officials from prosecution.

An audience member asked Solomon what would be other good organizing issues beyond war and healthcare.  Solomon said we should organize around the environment and expose the fallacies of Obama’s market-based cap-and-trade approach to global warming.

Another audience member asked why there is no prosecution of the architects of US policy authorizing torture.  Solomon agreed, saying why is there no forgiving, look-forward-not-back approach to the millions of minorities incarcerated in the so-called war on drugs.

An audience member asked who was backing Obama.  Solomon replied that it was initially Penny Pritzker, owner of one of the largest banks, who invented and developed the whole sub-prime mortgage industry.  It was the banks that backed Obama as a Senator.  Obama was lifted to the top with the help of mass media that dismissed anyone with the mildest pro-working class propensities. During the crucial Iowa Caucuses, for instance, the Des Moines Register called Edwards “too angry.”

Finally, an audience member asked why Obama avoided the Durban UN Conference on Racism.  Solomon replied that a balanced view was necessary.  The US is becoming more multicultural; look at all the mixed marriages in the military.  This is what allowed Obama to be elected.  On the other hand, Eric Holder made many angry by saying the obvious: “Racism persists,” and Obama clearly isn’t willing to challenge Zionism or stand for the principle of equal justice, by which loss of a Palestinian child is as tragic as the loss of an Israeli child.

All in all, Norman Solomon sounded much more angry than six months ago.

Read about Norman Solomon.

SF Gray Panthers invites you to participate in a follow-up discussion of issues raised in Norman Solomon’s May 3 talk. The follow-up discussion will be:

Tuesday, May 19, 12:30 PM
Unitarian-Universalist Center
1187 Franklin St. (at Geary) SF
Fireside Room
Read more about this discussion




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