[UPDATED] Should ‘the left’ celebrate Obama? A few thoughts…

[See below for new stuff – the conversation continued.]

An interesting comment from Drew Poe, a DC area activist and anarchist, recently showed up in my inbox:

“I am absolutely appalled that anarchists and other leftists are issuing calls to celebrate the inauguration.

I’ve got a message to every one of you anarchists and leftists out there who are critical of a planned counter-inaugural, and who are calling for this embrace of Obama: If you folks want to live in self-delusion and make YOURSELVES irrelevant across the board on every issue from the war in Iraq to Israeli Apartheid to the PATRIOT Act to economic policy to criminal justice policy and so on, then go right ahead. But just remember — when you show up to cheer this new president, when you shout that the rest of us should not protest his horrible, unforgivable positions, you are losing any credibility in the future. Don’t think you can just suddenly, a few months or a year from now you can suddenly pretend you weren’t out there shilling for Obama and publicly attacking people that wanted to stand up and oppose his policies from the start.

Look at who Obama is choosing for his administration already. Look at how he’s backing off his promises about Iraq, about tax cuts, about reversing several key Bush policies. He’s made his intentions clear for a long time, you’ve all just refused to listen — or worse, you listened, heard, but don’t care.

It’s clear what he will do in office, and it’s clear that anarchists, leftists, and people of conscience everywhere are morally compelled to oppose those policies and to always speak out against them and against the people proposing and carrying them out. If you align yourself with him, you are aligning yourself with his actions and policies, period. You are telling us not to protest those policies, period.

So just remember that, when during his first months in office Israelis continue to murder children in Gaza and there is an expansion of Israeli aggression against Palestinians, all while Obama looks on approvingly. Remember that you didn’t want us to speak out against it, remember that when others were denouncing it you were celebrating. Remember that, because we will.

You want to walk around telling us who’s ‘irrelevant’ and who isn’t, you want to act self-righteous and claim WE are ‘trivializing’ important issues, and you want to act morally superior and more historically in-tune? Fine, then let’s all just get really blunt and moralize here. Hope you like it.”

– Drew Poe

The comment was forwarded to me with something of a question attached (left anonymous intentionally):

I feel pulled in two directions. I cannot celebrate the inauguration of a U.S. president, but I do want to recognize the popular strength behind the campaign to elect Obama.  It’s a tricky moment, maybe one that others are in / have passed through as well…

Good point, one I imagine many people are struggling with at the moment.  My responses to the email (reposted here because I thought it was interesting):

1) I follow political news to a degree that might be considered unhealthy.  My take on Obama is a little different than Drew Poe’s – the Obama I have seen has always been a pragmatic left-centrist with vaguely lefty rhetoric.  Because of that, I think it’s a little strange to claim he’s backing off from promises that I don’t ever recall him making (the larger point being that wow, a lot of really progressive and radical lefty folks got caught up in his campaign – understandable, given the last eight years, but I was still kind of surprised that so many people got sucked in).  Note:  This is not meant as a compliment of Obama’s political positions so much as his ability to inspire and his ability to exude a sense of competence.  However, I think Drew Poe’s argument depends a lot on misrepresenting Obama as a traitor or betrayer, which I don’t think is true.  From an anarchist standpoint, Obama has always been an establishment figure, and thus always (charitably) has been constrained by structural forces. I don’t know why anyone would have ever thought otherwise.  In this narrow sense, I agree with Poe – why in the world would an anarchist celebrate the inaguration of a Party Politician?  As well, I think there are a LOT of people who identify as left/progressive who, after eight years of Bush, were/are desperate for basic competence, or something better than the six kinds of hell he’s put the left through.  I think that despair led to a lot more support of Obama from people who are normally quite critical of mainstream politics than would have otherwise been the case.

2) I also think Poe’s threat to excommunicate anyone who supports Obama in the next two months is, frankly, stupid.  I’ve become a believer in the necessity of coalition- and ally-building, and to pass judgment like that about something like this, in my mind, needlessly puts up a barrier to future work.  Besides, nothing prevents people from celebrating Obama and then turning around and protesting his policies; in fact, some parts of the lefty blogosphere, while ecstatic about Obama’s victory, are already preparing to push him farther left.  Poe, as far as I can tell, is not making a tactical argument (i.e. that supporting Obama now makes it harder for grassroots movements to  challenge him credibly later; I happen to disagree with that argument on fairly narrow grounds, but I think it’s a reasonable one to make), but an argument rooted in identity (state your tribal affiliations now!) and morality (the blood’s on your hands if you don’t oppose Obama now!).  I am receptive to the second argument, but I also think either Poe’s comment is directed at people who Poe knows are aware of US policy and its consequences, or Poe’s comment doesn’t give space for people to learn and change.  The latter should be problematic for anyone who identifies as an anarchist or any sort of lefty radical.

3) Perhaps ironically, I think there is a relatively simple answer to being pulled in two directions:  Celebrate the grassroots movement, but make part of that celebration the continuation of the movement and its effort for more justice and democracy (it can’t end with the election of a President!).  In the larger context of US politics, Obama is still a mainstream politician, just like Bush.  There have been no major structural changes.  In the narrower sense, of course, Obama is likely to be less hostile to justice and equality than Bush, and I think it would be wise for grassroots efforts to make use of that. However, this is a tactical question, not a strategic question.  If you ask me, the strategy of celebrating and building grassroots movements is still a good one.  The tactics that movement uses may change in the current and likely future political climate, but that’s about it.  So, don’t celebrate Obama.  Leave his name out of it as much as possible. Celebrate the organizing that’s been done, the power that’s been built. Also, don’t hold any celebration on Jan. 20th or around it…. obviously.  I’d say sooner (because that means people can start pushing Obama from the left that much sooner), but that may be hard to organize.

MAJOR UPDATE:  As part of the email conversation, I got a response that I have permission to post anonymously here:

I most definitely understand where [anon] is coming from, though not so much Drew Pole. Yeah, Obama is a corporate tool. His foreign policy stinks. He’s a pragmatic politician, etc.  And I wasn’t backing him until it became inspiring figure who talk pretty vs. evil incarnate. I usually find very little to get excited about when it comes to our “democracy.” But I am now celebrating some of what Obama has brought us. Pride that we voted a minority with an unusual background in to office (and with an Arab middle name). Pride that an elected official can use big words, correctly. Pride that we’ve at least moved a little left. Pride that the new leader of the free world isn’t an idiot representing our country. While these reasons are mostly superficial, after the last eight years, anything good, in my opinion, deserves a celebration. Whether Obama makes good on all this really vague change is yet to be seen, and what change or whom it benefits, blah blah blah.

I think the anger seething from Drew Pole is typical of an alienating leftist attitude. It’s a game, people. Sorry, but you can’t get others to view things your way if you’re gonna ostracize them for not thinking exactly like you. If you’re gonna attack people for “straying.” And that’s what you want, right? More people to think like you. I think sometimes this key point gets forgotten. I think the better tactic is to support Obama’s inauguration, but use it as an opportunity to voice some serious problems that Obama has left completely unaddressed. Or that he has addressed and you view as grievous human rights abuses. Voice them in a manner that doesn’t offend but appeals and promotes critical thought and understanding. I think most progressives who voted for Obama knew that he wasn’t that great, but that no elected America official in the office as mighty as the President ever can be, at least not in our lifetime, at least not with our current system.

Let’s just give ourselves a little pat on the back that McCain and Palin aren’t going to be heading the country. I’d tell [anon] to go to the inauguration, support it and also strike up some conversations with people about what needs to be done from the ground level. Make some contacts with people who maybe she wouldn’t have reached out to before but are now in a position where they feel empowered and energetic for action. Attitudes like Drew Pole’s are in my opinion only damaging movements such as anarchism. Do you really want to be associated with a group where leaders release such rash and ungrounded statements? (who exactly is saying by supporting Obama we can’t also criticize him? Isn’t it the leftists that say the greatest you can do for your country is criticize it?) And if groups of people go out protesting this inauguration, I think it’s only going to make voices less heard. It’s going to further a perception where anarchists and leftists live on the fringes and prefer it that way. I’m angry too. Having seen some of America’s foreign policy at work last year while living in the Middle East, I would love to completely denounce Obama and especially Biden for their attitudes. But that’s not gonna help anything. Progressives need to learn how to be more strategic.

And Dennis, I do disagree about not celebrating Obama. I think [original source of email], that article you sent out by Tim Rice has put it best so far. Obama elected as President means so much to minority populations. I have had several African-American friends say this is the first time they’ve felt proud to be an American. Try putting this question to some of your anarchist friends who are minorities. I’m very interested in their opinion. Because this discussion is most definitely existing in a vacum. I think Obama’s election can be celebrated and his policies can still be criticized and the grassroots movements will gain more from this. I think completely ignoring this election and its historic significance is foolish. I voted for Obama. I’m proud.

That last paragraph in particular, I think, is a strong counterargument to my initial comment.  I, of course, had another reply:

I appreciate your response (and it was certainly more eloquent than mine!).  Your point about what Obama means to people of color in America is especially potent, and one that I clearly overlooked.  I’m not particularly pleased with what that says about me.  In response, I guess I would attempt to synthesize my position as follows:

1.  Define what actually happened.

2.  Celebrate that.

The trick, of course, is in #1.  I would define what happened as follows:

A.  The US elected its first President of color, with much credit due to an incredible upsurge of activism and organizing by the people.  In the context of US institutional and structural racism (and democratic participation), this is big, big news.  The US also chose to overwhelmingly reject Bush and his party; this can also be (correctly, IMO) read as as rejection of Bush’s extreme tendencies (but not necessarily his underlying worldview).  That these are good things seems pretty clear to me.

B.  However, the President-elect is both a political moderate (albeit one with incredible rhetorical skills) and trapped by the structure of the US system of government.  Even assuming he is much farther to the left than I think he is, he is still constrained in what he can accomplish.  Moreover, he made a conscious decision to play within the system, a point which I think cuts both ways.

I guess the last thing I’d say is that I’m of the opinion that the best way to influence Obama is for the larger movement to own his victory (which allows the movement to partially own his agenda), and make sure everyone knows that.  Don’t let anyone, anywhere forget for one second that without a damned significant & organized movement, Obama would not be in the White House.  This is not a very idealistic statement, as it glosses the question of owning the ‘bad’ parts of Obama (Israel being a big one), but a rather pragmatic statement that admits trading ideological/moral purity for the possibility of results.  I’m still not sure how I feel about that – there is definitely something to be said for refusing to compromise one’s principles (which is where I charitably take Drew Poe to be coming from), but hey, I’d be lying if I said I never betrayed some of my beliefs.


P.S.  I certainly don’t want to pass judgment on anyone who voted for Obama.  I live in Oregon, a reliably blue state.  I have the privilege and luxury of voting for the Pacific Green Party without worrying about whether or not I am helping a Republican get elected.

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