Interview with Paul Street, author of “The Empire’s New Clothes” (Part I)
Paul Street’s The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power lays out a well-organized and solidly reasoned case for considering Obama “deeply conservative” (as Street quotes Larissa MacFarquhar saying in The New Yorker in mid-2007), rather than “deeply progressive” (as George Lakoff, along with most everyone else who identifies as left-of-center insisted a few months later).
There are chapters on Obama’s corporatism, rightwing foreign policy, industry-coddling “healthcare reform,” “the myth of the postracial presidency,” and his continuation and expansion of Bush’s assaults on civil liberties.
The main body of the book ends with a chapter called “We Were Warned,” which punctures the idea of Obama as an earnest progressive who was suddenly, after the election, co-opted or who otherwise shockingly lost his lefty mojo. It also provides an excellent takedown of his deeply conservative inaugural address.
Street caps off the book with a clear-eyed Afterword and Postscript, highlighting vital lessons unlearned.
I had the pleasure of meeting Paul at an appearance in Boston during his recent book tour and am glad to welcome him to Corrente.
Note: we plan to have Paul join us in a live blog, details to come.
Vastleft: Paul, thanks for taking the time to talk with us here at correntewire.com! Let's start by telling our readers a little about you and your history with leftist research and commentary.
The bio from your website begins:
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of four books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and (most recently) Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
More recent, still, is your second book on Obama — focused on his first year in office — The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power.
Paul Street: I am sort of an ex-academic, found my voice when I got out of the groupthink of the ivory tower on the Obama phenomenon.
Vastleft: Was Chicago your longtime home? If so, did that you give you any special early insight into Obama's rise and politics?
Paul Street: Grew up in Chicago in the Sixties and came back to live there in 2000. I think the insight was knowing that left progressives don't rise to the top in Daley's Chicago and Blago's Illinois and that many liberals and progressives had too dreamy a concept of a Chicago/Springfield politician. Also I was pretty conscious of how good and tricky the Chicago Dems were when it comes to co-opting, silencing, marginalizing and mocking real progressives and pushing questions of social justice to the margins. The Obama-Axelrod-Emanuel WH has learned from King Daley I and II, and of course you know Axelrod was Daley's media spin rainmaker.
Vastleft: Could you tell us a little about how you came to write two books about Obama, and what the differences are between the books?
Paul Street: Two things (along with a policy background and academic training) gave me something of a close up look at it: (1) Years in Chicago as a research chief at a black civil rights organization (2000-2005) put me in fairly close contact with city and state (IL) politics and policy relating to race... much contact with black politicians; a little with BO himself (not my cup of tea!); and (2) then I lived in Iowa in 2007 and covered the Caucus thing on ZNet. Watched the BO campaign fairly well.
I saw Obama as the next president early on (thought this in 2005) and I got interested in the presidential extravaganza because I was in Iowa at the time and the Caucus campaign takes over the state quite early. I kept having discussions with Iowa City progressives/intellectuals in which they would just amaze me with the extent they seemed to think Obama was some kind of left progressive... just like them. I tried to tell them about the real Obama I knew from Chicago and Illinois, to no avail. I saw the handwriting -- the fake-progressive post-Bush presidency on the wall -- by April 2007 and started trying to get a left press to sign me a contract for a book that would tell the real story, from the Left, from a left researcher and writer who knew the phenomenon from Chicago and now from Iowa and who was fighting the phenomenon as an Edwards volunteer (under the direction of my son!) in Iowa. I had no luck with the left presses. They didn't want to touch it.
I called my previous publisher, Paradigm, and sold them on a proposal... one that didn't focus just on Obama himself but understood him in historical and institutional context -- against the backdrop of U.S. political system and culture overall. The resulting book did very well (sold out) and they asked me to do a follow-up volume on the first year of the center-right corporate-military Obama presidency. I was not allowed to title this latest book "I Told You So."
But this book has my title: I chose “The Empire's New Clothes” as the title. Wanted to call the first book “The Audacity of Deception”! That was a no-go on the first book. I also tried "ObamaNation," also a no... I said "just watch, some right wing lunatic will do a right wing book called ObamaNation." It happened. The lunatic’s name is Jerome Corsi, same guy who did the insane Swift Boat book about Kerry.
Vastleft: "Not my cup of tea!" is intriguing. What was your first-hand experience with the future president?"
Paul Street: Gruff. Arrogant. Widely perceived as distant and know-it-all and arrogant and narcissistic in black Chicago... and that's exactly how he seemed in my early interactions with him. Obama was considered all Hyde Park/U. Chicago and downtown/business/Daley... not especially close to the mid-South Side ’hoods he represented in Springfield. It was only after the Keynote Address that he attained really big popularity in the black community in Chicago.
Vastleft: Does your first Obama book (I've read the second, but not the first yet) go all through the 2008 Primaries phase?
Paul Street: My first book (2008) really goes back and recaptures the Obama phenomenon and its development from the start and is rooted largely in the primary election phase. It ends in March 2008, just as it's clear that Obama, not Hillary Clinton, will have the Democratic nomination. It predicts a center-right corporate and imperial Obama presidency that will be called "socialist" and "radical" by the right wing. The second book is a record of the administration's performance from Inauguration through January 2010 or thereabouts... though the new book does have a chapter titled "We Were Warned" which reviews more than 20 ways in which voters and citizens were given abundant advance alarm about the significant degree to which a president Obama would betray his progressive imagery and branding. Another difference is that the first book included a chapter, as well as an Afterword, with detailed policy prescriptions under the title "Imagining a Progressive Future."
I would say that the first book is more optimistic/happier. It holds out significant hope that progressive promises and expectations raised and dashed by "Obama" (really by the money and empire dominated politics of the corporate-managed democracy) would or could yield a real popular and progressive upsurge. The second book's Postscript has a sad title ("The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left") and sad content about abject left and liberal stand-down and, well, surrender. This second book emerges against the backdrop of "the Tea Party's" emergence to capture and misdirect popular anger dissipated and dismissed by the know-it-all corporate Dems....
Vastleft: How did so much of the American left (or "left") get it so wrong? And to what do you attribute the unyielding, sometimes bullying support-Obama-or-else dynamics that became so pervasive upon Edwards's exit from the primaries?
Paul Street: Good questions. I’d mostly attribute it to laziness and stupidity. A lot of what passes for a left today is not that bright or energetic or imaginative, I'm afraid. The "professional left" just wants to keep the money coming. A lot of it identified very strongly with Obama: Ivy League, polished, eloquent, equanimous, nose in the air. Identity politics, a superficial sort of obsession with race not deeply understood is part of it. The fact that Obama was black (though not like Jesse, not "crude" and forceful and scary) was a big deal for Obama among part of left liberal cadre. They didn't want to hear much from radicals about how the corporate elite could use race as a propaganda tool to give a corporate-imperial president fake progressive clothing!
Vastleft: "Not like Jesse" comes up a few times in the book. Is there a particular source for that trope?
Paul Street: Oh, I know I heard my friends Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon use it over at the left zine Black Agenda Report to describe Obama and his special race-neutralist appeal to some white voters in 2007 and 2008. It means that he meticulously avoided seeming particularly black either in terms of cultural presentation or in terms of voicing any white-threatening and "angry" sounding sentiments against racism, deeply understood. It conveys a sense of "soothing, not scaring" whites, who have such delicate racial sensibilities and who are supposed to live in constant dread of the angry and vengeful black man.
Vastleft: How much progress have you seen in liberals/lefties/progressives coming down to Earth about Obama?
Paul Street: Well, the euphoria is gone (how could it not be?), but what I see in its place is excuses and rationalization and the like: "he's doing the best he can given the terrible circumstances" and all that, etc.
Vastleft: From both the right/mainstream and left we hear endlessly about tea-partiers. Where is the left populist movement?
Paul Street: Ha. Well, not sure what's happening on October 2, but it seems there is an effort to rally at least something along those lines. My fear is that that will end up just being a pre-election Dem rally.
We need to restore and expand and reinvent left-progressive social movements beneath and beyond the election cycle and the winner-take-all logic of candidates.
Vastleft: A minor detail from the book I was curious about... you say you found seven Obama supporters in Iowa who would discuss their reasons for preferring Obama, something you found to be unusual. Roughly, out of how many Obama supporters was that?
Paul Street: OMG... less than 1 percent. I had a lot of door-to-door contact. It was very distinctive. The Obama people were tight-lipped about why they supported him. I think there may have been some deliberate campaign messaging on this from the Iowa City campaign office, the Obama office. I have been told there was some of that since. It could probably also be that a lot of his supporters were just supporting an image, a marketing brand, a feeling and really didn't know much about him.
The Edwards people for example would immediately mention poverty, economic inequality, health insurance and labor rights. The Hillary people were very focused on health care.
Vastleft: A term that comes up a lot re: Obama (at least among his critics and I guess among a few of his apologists) is "neo-liberal." Do you consider that term meaningfully different from "neo-con"?
Paul Street: Neo-liberal and neo-con overlap on pro-corporate economic and trade policy but to me neo-con brings in right wing positions on social issues like guns and abortion and gay marriage. Obama is willing to accommodate a lot of neo-con energy and politics but is not a neo-con. He praised the great neo-con icon Reagan during the campaign, which ought to have been a warning sign (I mention it as one in my new book). Like a good neo-liberal, Obama has repeatedly referred to himself as a "free market guy."
Vastleft: Given Obama's lack of interest in gun control, his Executive Order limiting abortion (extending the Hyde Amendment), and his opposition to gay marriage because “God's in the mix" (which puts him to the right of Dick Cheney and Ted Olson) and his DOJ's defense of DADT, it's a pretty slim line separating him from "neo-con," isn't it?
Paul Street: Good points! And here again as with so much else, we were warned in advance. I dedicate a fair bit of my fourth chapter in The Empire's New Clothes to such nasty politics and policy. Candidate Obama's praise for Ronald Reagan and his reach out -- quite pronounced -- to Rick Warren and others (including a gay-bashing black preacher he campaigned with at one point) on the religious right threw up red flags about the starboard cultural politics he might display as president. I wish more progressives would stop saying they are "surprised" and "disappointed" by the Obama administration.
Vastleft: A major theme in your book, and one I wholeheartedly agree with, is that the public is actually interested in leftier policies than the politicians are willing to give them. However, the mainstream narrative, including from both parties, is that the country is resolutely center-right and the Democrats' hands are tied because the public's not ready for things like single-payer. Could you expand on that?
Paul Street: On a whole panoply of policies (health insurance, wealth equity, defense budget vs. social expenditures, etc... long list), the public is majority progressive/social democratic left-center. Now in terms of political identification, public opinion doesn't match up. I take this to reflect the absence of left institutions and parties and media to capture policy sentiments and societal values that are, well, pretty damn left even though many folks don't know it.
Vastleft: It's amazing how pervasive the center-right nation myth is, yes?
Paul Street: Oh yes, it's like a religion at the editorial boards of the leading papers it seems. Yes, very true... this is a big and dominant recurrent narrative we are all expected to swallow from the political and media class. It seems to be a doctrinal rule. "Because we say so." There is an interesting difference when Democrats hold the top jobs in Washington. The media goes nuts when Dems are in, with lectures on the need to "steer to the center" and avoid "ideology" and "big government" and dreaded deficits. When the rightmost of the 2-party system holds sway, it drives big government with right ideology and feeds deficits with ideologically driven (in part) tax cuts for the rich and it drives big government with war and repression, but it doesn't get the big media lecture. Interesting.
Vastleft: I also wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of Obama's inaugural speech. One important theme you raise is the authoritarian focus on “unity,” and the deprecation of “conflict and discord.” It really seems that Obama Democrats, both in the Administration and in their support network, are masters of STFU. Somehow, and this was amazingly true for those who preferred Hillary Clinton over Obama (or at least wanted a fair fight and not a coronation and outlandish character assassination), the Obama contingent always got to decide the definition of "unity," which is "giving Obama your uncritical support." The recent wave of what's now commonly called "hippie punching" on the part of the Obama administration is but one manifestation of this.
Paul Street: Please explain "hippie punching." I think I might know what that term means. On your broader observation... oh, yes!
Vastleft: I would define it as slamming the left as petulant, purist, unrealistic, divisive, etc. There was a notable exchange about it between blogger Susie Madrak and David Axelrod the other day. Here’s a thread about it from correntewire.com, with links to Susie's site and firedoglake.
Paul Street: This was very pronounced in Iowa with many of the more upper class and upper middle class Obama supporters I met. They were very into the supposed dysfunctionality of honest and angry conflict. "Chill, Obama from Harvard Law will sweep in and fix things. So please be quiet and stop talking about things like class inequality" (Edwards's little problem).
Oh, these Obama guys are very Chicago/Daley like: To them, the left is a pathetic joke, an unrealistic bunch of ridiculous and silly dreamers who dropped too much acid, read too much Fanon and needs to, yes, shut up, and let the adult so-called progressives run everything. Notice that Robert Gibbs said "the professional left" should be "drug tested" for observing parallels between the Obama and W. Bush presidencies. In my book, I found and reported many parallels and continuities between those two presidencies, and I have never dropped acid and hardly ever even smoke marijuana.
Vastleft: The section about Reinhold Niebuhr and Obama’s professed admiration for him was most interesting. As you described the philosophy, it couldn’t help but remind me of the sway that Leo Strauss’s views held with the neo-cons, with the encouragement for supposed superiors, cool and detached, to tell lies for the supposed greater good. Could you tell our readers a little about Niebuhr and “the paradox of grace”?
Paul Street: Well, I dabbled in Niebuhr a little as a college student, and recently I read my Chomsky on the guy. From a left perspective, there were reasons to say "Ugh" when David Brooks announced in (I think it was) late 2007 that Obama was a great admirer of Niebuhr!
Niebuhr became the "theologian of the [U.S.] establishment" in the post-World War II American ascendancy because of the elegant-sounding ease with which he granted imperial policymakers what the leading Left intellectual Noam Chomsky called "a divine license to kill." Niebuhr granted this moral and intellectual indulgence with his fundamentally idiotic concept of "the paradox of grace." This idea held that all great "historical achievements" are unavoidably scarred by the "taint of sin" and that policymakers must not let fear of "sinning" prevent them from acting on their "obligation to realize truth and goodness in history." As Chomsky once noted:
[Niebuhr] was revered by the Kennedy liberal types, by people [like leading Cold War architect] George Kennan. He was considered a moral teacher of the [post-WWII U.S. power elite] generation. It's interesting to look at why. I actually went through his writings once. The intellectual level is depressingly low. But there's something in there that made him appealing. It was what he called the “paradox of grace.” What it comes down to is, no matter how much you try to do good, you're always going to do harm...
That's very appealing advice for people who are planning to enter into a life of crime. To say, “no matter how much I try to do good I'm always going to harm people. That's the paradox of grace. You can't get out if it.” A wonderful idea for a Mafia don. Then he can go ahead and do whatever he feels like, and if he harms people, “Oh my God, the paradox of grace.” That explains why he was so appealing [to U.S. elites] in the post-World War II period They were going to be the managers or else the commissars for a period of global conquest, running the world, which is obviously going to entail enormous crimes. Isn't it nice to have this doctrine before us? Of course, we're superbenevolent and humane, but the paradox of grace!
Niebuhr provided a childishly simple if superficially erudite rationalization -- heralded as non-ideological "pragmatism" (a key purported attribute of Obama and his role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy) -- for U.S. war crimes in the post-World War II era. This was the basic reason that he came to be "regarded with respect approaching reverence" by leading U.S. intellectuals and state managers.
That respect, bordering on "awe," could hardly be traced to any serious cerebral accomplishment. As Niebuhr's able biographer Richard Fox observed, the venerated philosopher was a distinctly pedestrian thinker who commonly reduced his opponents' theories to simplistic caricature. Chomsky noted in 1987 that Niebuhr's "books and papers on historical topics and contemporary affairs are... sparing in factual reference... Evidently, many found his intellectual contributions to be compelling, but this effect cannot be traced to their factual content, documentation, or enlightening selection of factual materials; or to sustained rational argument, which is rarely to be discerned. It must lie somewhere else."
Vastleft: Did Niebuhr, like Leo Strauss, argue that the best and brightest could and should bend the truth in service of their presumably noble agendas?
Paul Street: Yes, in fact he said that they need to create what he called "emotionally potent over-simplifications" to help the ordinary mass sign on with policies they might not understand and might see (foolishly, in the elite's opinion) as contrary to their interests.
[Read Part II]