Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Archive for January, 2009

As if to prove my point…

Posted by Kevin on January 27, 2009

…from yesterday, in regard to Israel/Palestine (namely, that there isn’t a clear reason to be hopeful for a substantive change in U.S. policy), we get this from The Guardian:

The Obama administration appears intent on trying to help the Palestinians while at the same time being seen not to abandon its traditional support for Israel. The new US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reassuring Israelis, today backed the Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

“We support Israel’s right to self-defence. The [Palestinian] rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas [in Israel] cannot go unanswered,” Clinton said in her first news conference at the state department.

She added: “It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defence instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza.”

It doesn’t seem at this point that the Obama administration is willing to publicly criticize any Israeli action. Clinton’s remarks are hardly surprising; to my knowledge she’s never seen an Israeli massacre she didn’t like. But, some might say, maybe Obama will push for a just settlement for the Palestinians behind the scenes. Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. But if that’s the case, he’s only making it harder for himself in the long run by embracing Israeli framing of the conflict.


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“Cynical Obama hater”?

Posted by Kevin on January 26, 2009

The title for this post comes from an email I received a few days ago, presumably from a reader, who had the following to say:

You should really stop being such a cynical Obama hater, you know, the best way to make sure nothing good happens is to keep telling yourself only bad things are going to happen under Obama. Why don’t you try to make things better, have some optimism already!

I didn’t really want to respond at first because I thought it was kind of a ridiculous assertion and I wasn’t sure it was worth taking the time to respond to, but on further reflection I realized that a reply might help to clarify a few things and keep him and others from misunderstanding my frequent criticism of Obama and the Democratic Party.

So, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a cynical Obama hater. I guess I can’t really reject the cynical part; it’s right in the name of the blog after all! I guess I am pretty cynical in the sense that I’m suspicious of the motives of Obama and the Democratic Party, and think Obama’s reputation in some quarters as a great progressive champion is almost entirely undeserved, but I’d say my cynicism is with good reason. The last time I was somewhat optimistic about the Dems was in 2006, when they took back Congress; a fat lot of good that did me. They couldn’t manage to stop or even slow down many of the Bush administrations crimes, and in many cases were complicit in them – this includes Obama. So you’ll have to forgive me for not taking them at their word that things are going to be different now, that Obama isn’t just another mushy-middle centrist politician. I’ll believe it when I see it.

As for being an Obama hater, that to me would be someone who criticizes Obama more or less no matter what he does, and I don’t really think that applies to me. I’m definitely an Obama critic, but I won’t deny that there have been encouraging signs from Obama in his first few days in office. The question is whether he’ll keep it up, or if he’ll come under the sway of the neoliberal and/or hawkish advisers he’s surrounded himself with as time goes on.

[That’s already pretty much happened on economic policy, as Obama’s top priority seems to be handing another $350 billion to Wall Street. Because that worked out so well the last time!]

For instance, it’s undeniably good that Obama issued an order on day one to close Guantanamo (and while we’re on the subject, that Obama’s appointed a number of people to the Justice Department and especially to the Office of Legal Council who oppose torture as well as the Bush admin’s monarchical view of executive power), but it’s still unclear what system the detainees will be tried under. What have we really gained if, as some are advising him, he just ends up trying the detainees in “national security courts” where “tainted” evidence (i.e. stuff gained through torture) can be used?

Likewise, I don’t know enough about the guy one way or the other to say for sure, but it seems encouraging that Obama picked George Mitchell for his Mideast envoy, showing that he might be more evenhanded in his approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict than his predecessors. And he just remarked in a speech today that the Gaza blockade should be ended. Still, this is Obama’s only concrete statements on the issue so far, and it’s still an open question as to what he’s actually going to do about any of it. Given both Obama’s past hostility to the Palestinians and that of many of the people around him (i.e. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel), once again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

That said, I certainly do tend to come down pretty hard on the Dems on this blog, probably harder than I do on Republicans/conservatives, but it’s not because I’m implacably opposed to the Dems or something. Rather, I’m just frustrated at the fact that they’re frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to. You don’t bring about change in that fact by being a groupie, you do it by criticizing them and/or withdrawing support when they do bad things and only praising them when they deserve it.

It also has to do with my desire to offer something in my writing that other people aren’t already saying, and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of groups and blogs to cheerlead for the Dems.

I will say that, as a Green Party supporter, there’s a danger for us in being perceived as too close to being “Obama haters.” One Democratic criticism I heard during the 2008 election campaign went something along the lines of, “Greens aren’t going to vote for a Democrat anyway, so there’s no point in courting them.” Being perceived as too knee-jerk critical could make it easier to write us off.

However, I think Obama lovers pose a much bigger threat to the progressive movement than the Obama haters. An Obama lover is the opposite of our earlier definition: this is someone who supports Obama and the Dems pretty much no matter what they do. These are the people like my father-in-law who, when faced with Obama’s vote for the FISA bill, immediately did a 180 in their position on warrantless wiretapping, or at least stopped seeing it as such a big deal.

This faction of progressives, the Cult of Obama Worship as I call it, has been the main source of my frustration in recent months. Obama is going to be under enormous pressure to maintain the status quo, and no change is going to happen if the pressure is only coming from the establishment forces. If you really want him to do good things, then the best thing you can do for him is to hold his feet to the fire and create conditions under which he has to implement progressive policies if he wants to stay in office.

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Progressive excuses for Democratic complicity in Israeli brutality

Posted by Kevin on January 19, 2009

I have to say that so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the American mainstream media’s handling of the Israel/Gaza conflict. It’s nowhere near perfect, of course, but there’s still a slightly greater willingness to question Israeli claims than in past conflicts. It’s too bad that that new found openness doesn’t extend to our political system, where overwhelming majorities of both parties in Congress still express lockstep support for Israel no matter what it does, and only peripheral actors like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul are willing to speak out for the people of Gaza. Meanwhile Obama continues to hide behind his “only one President at a time” bullshit (as many others have noted, why doesn’t this extend to economic policy?).

[I was particularly disappointed by the silent complicity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the issue, as he’s one of my Senators and he’s supposed to be this great progressive crusader. Not one Senator, not even Bernie, was willing to publicly oppose the resolution supporting Israel’s attack.]

So lately I’ve been trying to figure out why the Democratic Party keeps granting knee-jerk support to Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and why the party rank and file, which overwhelmingly opposes the attack on Gaza, is largely unwilling to challenge them on the issue, often choosing instead to rationalize their party’s continuing attachment to the Israeli far right. The answers to both of these questions are closely linked, so forgive me for segueing back and forth between the two.

The primary response of many progressives when faced with Democratic intransigence on Israel/Palestine is a collective throwing up of the hands, claiming “There’s nothing we can do about it; AIPAC is just too powerful. Might as well live with it.” But the so-called “Israel lobby” isn’t some unstoppable force of nature. Groups like AIPAC are so disproportionately influential for a reason.

The main reason in this case is because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “one side of the debate (the AIPAC faction) is strong and aggressive in its criticisms and pressure tactics and the other side (the faction wanting an even-handed U.S. approach) is not.” I highly recommend reading his post in full, as well as this one from Juan Cole on roughly the same subject.

Democratic politicians have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the attack on Gaza as well as the broader Israeli occupation: they get the support of and contributions from AIPAC and its followers, knowing that the vast majority of the people on the other side might grumble about it but won’t turn against them. From Greenwald again:

Just as Congressional Democrats have known for the last eight years, Obama will know that there is only a price to pay when he acts contrary to the Republican and Beltway “centrist” agenda, but no price to pay when he acts contrary to the agenda of his most ardent supporters (because they won’t criticize him, because to do is to “tear him down,” “help Republicans,” act like a Naderite purist, etc. etc. etc.). That meek and deferential attitude — aside from being a wildly inappropriate and even dangerous way to treat a political leader — also ensures that one is irrelevant and taken for granted and one’s views easily ignored.

The solution, as he notes and as should be patently obvious, is to be willing to apply pressure to Democrats when their actions warrant it. We’ve already seen several instances in the transition where Obama was pulled to the left by progressive criticism. And, in my opinion, it involves a willingness to deny them our votes if they continue to support Israeli brutality.

But, all too many progressives are unwilling to do either of those things. Instead, they find some bullshit way to explain how the party had no other choice, or even how it’s really not so bad that the party frequently aligns itself with the Israeli far right.

A great article on this subject is “The Pragmatism of Ethnic Cleansing” by Steven Salaita. From the article:

I have seen countless times on the Internet and have heard even more frequently some variation of the following argument: “Obama had to court the Israel lobby in order to be elected; it’s part of presidential politics in the United States.” Bolder commentators suggest that it would be foolish to expect otherwise… Other liberals smugly accuse Obama’s skeptics of purism, which they say has no business in serious political conversations.

For one reason or another, many progressives see the Palestinian cause as a reasonable sacrifice in order to have a Democratic president. But as Salaita argues, “This concession may be something they’re prepared to live with, but we should remember that the Afghans and Palestinians have no choice.” American progressives aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences of the Israeli occupation (not directly, anyway), which might explain why they are often unwilling to make much of a fuss over Democratic complicity in it. (Salaita again: “I doubt Obama’s pragmatists would have been such staunch advocates of electoral realism if they, like the Palestinians, were being removed from their homes and confined to bounded ghettos.”)

In the case of Obama, whenever the issue came up during the campaign I would hear from his supporters some variation of “He doesn’t really believe that, he’s just saying it because he has to to get elected,” and/or “Once he’s in office he’ll be fair to the Palestinians.” I certainly hope that’s true, but I don’t know what they’re basing those statements on, other than faith. Some who make this argument, like Lisa Gans at the Huffington Post, claim that the reason the Israelis invaded Gaza when they did was because they wanted to get it out of the way before Obama took office, presumably because they were worried about how he might react. I’ll admit this does look slightly more plausible in light of the fact that it was announced today that Israeli troops will be out of Gaza by the time Obama’s inaugurated, but I ultimately find this argument unpersuasive. At best it’s a minor factor in Israel’s reasoning. Much more important is the upcoming Israeli elections, with both Kadima and Labor depending on the invasion to bump up their sagging poll numbers.

In any case, even if Obama doesn’t really believe what he’s plainly saying on the issue, I’d say that makes it worse, not better. As Arthur Silber points out, by making this argument his supporters are admitting that he’s a liar who isn’t willing to take a stand for what he believes in. Either that, or he’s a borderline sociopath who just doesn’t give a shit about Palestinian lives.

Given that, why should I believe he’ll be a good president? And why is it so hard for progressives to accept that maybe Obama just doesn’t care, that he’s not a closet progressive, and that perhaps he’s just another politician whose only concern is getting and holding onto power?

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Statement from Peter Welch on Gaza

Posted by Kevin on January 6, 2009

[Update I: Various edits made to this post.]

[Update II (1/10/09): In a surprise to absolutely no one, both houses of Congress this week passed resolutions voicing absolute support of Israel in its attack on Gaza. According to the roll call, Peter Welch voted for the House version (it passed by a voice vote in the Senate, so there’s no record of who did and didn’t vote for it). The text of the resolution contradicts even Welch’s milquetoast position below, making me wonder didn’t vote present if nothing else. The most likely explanation in my opinion is that he didn’t think about it much and just voted how Nancy Pelosi told him to vote, which from what I hear is pretty common with Welch. He’s not exactly known for his courage.]

Today I received an email from Rep. Peter Welch’s (D-VT) office on Israel’s attack on Gaza:

I have long supported a two-state solution as the only viable path to peace in the Middle East. The renewed violence in Gaza only sets back the prospects of achieving the two-state solution and, with it, lasting peace. It also intensifies the suffering of the people living there.

I support an immediate cease fire – and end to rocket attacks targeting Israelis and an end to Israeli military action in Gaza – and a return to the negotiating table. I also support the free passage of international relief convoys into Gaza to provide humanitarian assistance and relief to the population.

The human tragedy that is occurring in Gaza will only end when both sides recognize that their peace and prosperity will not be achieved through acts of violence, but through negotiation.

This pretty much illustrates the problems I noted in my report on the Burlington protest. It’s good that Welch supports a ceasefire, but once again there’s the false equivalency and the unwillingness to blame anyone for the crisis, and no mention of the blockade. I don’t get the impression from this statement that he’s put a whole lot of thought into the issue or feels a lot of engagement with it.

Another thing that bugged me about his statement, as with Leahy and Sanders, was the lack of any mention of concrete actions they’ve taken or are willing to take to bring about a ceasefire. They all “support” a ceasefire but won’t necessarily do anything to actually get one. Remember, one of the oldest tricks in politics is to support something in principle but oppose its implementation every step of the way.

As I’ve said previously, positions like Welch’s are an improvement over those of all too many other Democrats. Sadly, though, this sort of position is probably the best we’re going to get from the Democratic Party without some sort of massive grassroots pressure that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Although the latest polling data (via Glenn Greenwald) shows that Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose Israel’s attack on Gaza, to my knowledge it hasn’t translated into widespread criticism of the Democratic leadership. This issue just isn’t a priority for many progressives.

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Report on Gaza protest

Posted by Kevin on January 1, 2009

So on Tuesday I attended a protest in Burlington against Israeli brutality in Gaza organized by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. In the process we visited the offices of our Congressional delegation (Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders) inquiring about their positions and demanding they condemn the attack. [This is probably the best news story I’ve been able to find on it.] As a recent transplant to Vermont, I wasn’t really familiar with any of their positions on the issue beforehand, so this was a learning experience for me.

Good news first: I was glad that all three offices actually sent people out to meet with us, and that except for Welch they had statements prepared. That in itself was a big change from some parts of Illinois I’ve lived in. I went to undergrad in Dennis Hastert’s district while he was still House Speaker, and his office frequently refused to meet with opponents, at one point refusing to even accept a petition from antiwar activists. So I have a lot of respect for politicians whose staffers will meet with people they might not necessarily agree with.

I haven’t been able to find Leahy or Sanders’ statements on their websites [which unfortunately indicates that this issue isn’t a very big priority for them, especially in Welch’s case], so I’m going off of memory when I refer to them – and therefore I don’t have much in the line of direct quotes.

In their defense, I will say that the statements were a lot better than the “near-unanimous support for Israel” by other prominent Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid [or for that matter my former senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, both hardcore pro-Occupation partisans]: that Israel’s massive aerial assault is totally justified by Hamas’ primitive rocket fire, and the resulting loss of innocent life is entirely the fault of Hamas. So, I’m not saying Leahy and Sanders are sociopathic douchebags like Reid and Pelosi.

Still, I found myself pretty dissatisfied with Leahy and Sanders’ positions. I’m realistic enough not to expect that they’ll embrace Dennis Kucinich’s position (outlined in the above article), but I still hoped for a little better. Not only did they not go far enough, but they also embraced some lousy framing of the conflict. They both bent over backwards trying to please all sides, to not criticize Israel too much.

For instance, even while calling for a ceasefire, they both felt the need to preface their statements with something along the lines of, “Israel has the right to defend itself, but…” Both included statements like, “Oh, it’s horrible what both sides are doing.” Several of the protesters criticized them for trying to create a false equivalency between the two sides, as if one side doesn’t have an almost complete monopoly on the use of force, and as if the other side isn’t resisting an illegal and horrific occupation. That may not justify Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, but the context does pretty much destroy any claim of equality between the two sides, as well as any Israeli pretext of “self-defense.”

Here’s a good quote on the matter from Titus North at Electronic Intifada:

I know that it is customary for many to equally condemn both sides whenever violence flares up in the conflict, but there is nothing equal between the two sides. The Palestinians have for decades been subjected to occupation, disappropriation, assassination and siege, always with massive suffering to civilians, and are expected to accept it without lifting a finger. Should the Palestinians put up any resistance, Israel feels free to launch any scale of attack, secure in the knowledge that at most it will be subject to calls for “restraint” and condemnation of violence on “both sides.” While I do not like the rockets that get fired from Gaza, as long as we as Americans provide the military, financial and diplomatic support that makes the Israeli occupation and siege possible I feel that we as Americans are in no position to condemn the Palestinian resistance.

And another good one from Robert Fisk:
…we demand security for Israel — rightly — but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was “under siege” — as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Leahy’s statement in particular criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” attack, which sounded good at first glance until I noticed that he’s still saying an attack was on some level justified, if only it had been more “proportionate,” whatever that means.

Sanders’ statement argued for the need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but neither senator made any mention whatsoever of the cause of that crisis: Israel’s blockade. There’s not going to be a lasting resolution to the crisis without an end to the blockade, but apparently that would involve too much criticism of Israel for their tastes.

We also urged them to vote to end military aid to Israel. None of the staffers had anything to say one way or the other on the matter. I’m not optimistic.

American policy isn’t going to change unless we demand it. I strongly urge everyone reading this to write to and/or call your representatives and senators (as well as the Obama transition team) demanding that they publicly come out against Israel’s brutality in Gaza. Also consider signing this open letter to Obama from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation urging a change in Israel/Palestine policy. Write letters to the editor, and see if there’s any actions near you (or consider organizing one if there isn’t). Most importantly, educate the people around you on the conflict, and call them out if they spread misinformation or use bad framing.

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