Monday, March 2, 2009

Obama and American exceptionalism

Criticizing Barack Obama at this point almost seems like progressive suicide in a way. I hang out on an American liberal/Democratic message board, and the adoration for that man--which is understandable considering the 8 years of the Bush administration--is incredible. The problem though is that he really isn't this ultimate progressive that he's made out to be. The euphoria of being rid of Bush and having a person who isn't a complete moron and isn't backed by a vice president who is pure evil can, and seems to, create a fog that masks some of the very legitimate criticisms that one can make. Just because he isn't as bad as Bush, that doesn't mean he deserves a free pass.

Obama made a visit to Ottawa recently and drew a crowd. It wasn't the type of crowd you would expect for an American president though. (And I don't just mean Bush here.) Rather than malcontents who deplore American foreign policy, it was almost like Obama had a cheerleading squad. This is something that really bothers me, because it exemplifies this blindness to reality I'm talking about. I can understand being excited about Obama after the eight years of Bush. I really can. But no political leader should have a cheerleading squad at home, let alone a foreign country. Maybe it's my anarchist tendencies, but that really worries me. It makes me worried that the people are going to be far too willing to accept any Obama policy fort he mere fact that he's smarter than Bush. He is more progressive than Bush. He is a charismatic leader. This, to me, is exactly why we need to be MORE critical of Obama. (And I am writing this from notes in a notebook featuring a "Yes we did!" sticker on the front cover.)

There are several policies of Obama's that really need a critical assessment, so rather than posting them all at once, I am going to do this across several posts, breaking them down by topic. These are going to be a little more verbose and serious than my previous posts, because it is an issue worthy of serious discussion, not ridicule, the way the right wing criticisms are.

Criticism No. 1 / American exceptionalism
By most popular accounts, George W. Bush is one of the worst presidents (if not THE worst) in American history. He is a worldwide icon of American arrogance and general stupidity. That isn't even really controversial at this point. The Republican party has even distanced themselves from Bush. What people don't seem to realize, or at least acknowledge, is that Bush's neoconservative policies, as egregious and extreme as they were, are simply extension of the Wilsonian idealism--the belief that the United States is the divine moral compass of the world--that has permeated every presidential administration since, well, Wilson. As far as this notion goes, Obama is no exception.

The biggest symbol of this, to me, comes from his inaugural address. "We will not apologize for our way of life." There are two obvious ways to take this.

The first is that America's freedom is why people hate them. Basically, he is trying to echo the man people are celebrating him for being so different from. (There was no shortage of similar rhetoric in his inaugural address really.) That particular notion is asinine enough that I really don't think I need to get into it.

The other interpretation is that, as per the Wilsoninan ideal, it is the United States' divine right to spread itself around the world. This, of course, has caused endless amounts of suffering from South America to Southeast Asia. The United States has hundreds of military bases throughout the world, securing its ability to maintain a military influence no matter where they need to. Of course this keeps its relations with many world leaders (sayyyy, Iran) quite hostile, which provides and excuse to keep pumping money into the military industrial complex and diverting money from other important spending projects, but I digress. American hegemony has also sought to impose the type of market globalization (even before the neoconservatism of the Bush years) that has resulted in massive global inequality, which leads to very prime conditions for the breeding of terrorists. On top of that, the United States has a longstanding history of backing brutal dictators (Nicaragua, Chile, pre-Castro Cuba, Somalia, Indonesia, etc.) who happen to be fine with the Americans having their way with their people and resources.

In short, there is a lot about the American way of life in this respect that should be apologized for. Massive inequality, terrorism (both state sponsored on the American side and radical uprisings on the side of those the U.S. has created those conditions for), extensive human rights abuses (which I'll make note of an upcoming post), and even extensive environmental degradation (which I will also discuss in an upcoming post.)

Obama's grandiose declaration that there is nothing for the American's to apologize for (along with his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, which will be my next topic) is a pretty clear declaration that while the Bush doctrine is no longer the leading ideology in Washington, Wilsonian idealism and American exceptionalism still hold exalted status as guiding ideologies.