07/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Freed Empire

Mr. Obama's recent words to the Muslim world may have hit their target. Many from across the political spectrum and around the globe are praising his powers of persuasion. They got the message. We need to break through our protective skins of prejudice and sectarian belief and see others differently. Words welcome indeed after nearly a decade of George Bush's divide-and-conquer appeals to our base instincts.

They echo Martin Luther King's appeals for unity. In fact Mr. Obama's recent pitch is similar in tone and rhetoric to his speech on race last year in the run-up to the election. Coming in the wake of the Reverend Wright brouhaha, and nominally meant to dispel notions that he might be an angry black man ready to wreak vengeance against whites, this speech was about getting us to understand each other and work toward solving problems together. Forget the past and push on to the promised land that awaits us all, he urged. Racism still exists but can and must be solved through a shared focus on the present and future.

Mr. Obama is doing what charismatic leaders must do, move citizens with the power of words and ideas to change society. But Winston Churchill's words, all over the web these past days, are apt: "Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."

We're in awe of the speeches and await the moment when their ideas are put into practice. Little has yet to change. Foreign policy looks strikingly familiar. Congress has just passed, with very little opposition, the supplemental appropriations bill to keep the wars going. As does our economic policy. It looks in fact mostly like the mumbo jumbo we were fed during the Bush years. Though now, as Arianna Huffington reports (Huffington Post, 6/19), even the pretense that what benefits Wall Street will benefit main street is slipping away.

Will his fine phrases levitate the drones from their death dives into schools and residences? Challenge the military establishment? Eliminate lobbyists? Convince corporate boards to accept less profit from weapons production? Will Armageddonists and Jihadists, everyday citizens and power players, reach out and touch each other?

George Bush's faux folksy pitches to the lowest denominator trafficked in the abstractions of freedom and the "American way." There was no pretense about change, just stay-the-course tirades that impressed a sufficient number long enough to keep it all going. Mr. Obama is also engaged in impression management. And while his form certainly rings truer, why do impressions have to be managed in the first place?

His community outreach program, now extended to the global stage, is called "Organizing for America." It's sold as a way to bypass the elite and go directly to the people during the election. Today we can register our wishes and dissatisfactions by simply accessing the White House's website. OFA is a welcome force for openness and democracy. But it's also a PR gesture with hidden motives. What is the relation between those who are organizing "for" America, and those at the grassroots level, not nearly as well fed, who are organizing the America yet to be recognized and represented?

This America has to be managed, convinced what's good for it. It's those who don't want a military buildup in the Mideast, and who cringe at the prospect of another Vietnam; who want single payer health care and see through the administration's direction as caving in to corporate power; who see corporate welfare in bailouts who are supposed to stabilize a financial system that's in fact cutting off credit, raising interest rates and denying loan modifications.

And the tragedy is that this America is in the majority, as polls confirm. It's a redux of "the experts know better -- they see what we don't." A viable democracy's leaders don't, and shouldn't, consult the polls at every turn before deciding how to act. And the people don't know all the facts, and can be a fickle lot to boot. But leaders always bid better for those who play more of a role in getting them where they are, and who pay more as well. And especially since the rise of inequality over the past generation that's enabled elites to own politicians in what has become nearly a one-party system. They no longer need the lowly to keep power. And the fickle masses have short memories!

Perhaps that's why the "cram-down" legislation, which would have given bankruptcy judges power to modify mortgages, was approved by the House recently but nayed by the Senate, whose members have much more time between elections to, well, manage the people's impressions!

We've heard these arguments before. McNamara and the inner circle of technocrats were privy to the commie threat that bypassed ordinary folks during Vietnam. Years of unfavorable polls about the war barely fazed Nixon, who admitted as much. And so the occupation went on until the exit could be managed, the impressions shaped and conformed, the rhetorical ground laid firmly so that revisionists could rewrite history as the people's memories faded, allowing the military to renew its pledge again to help young men be all they can be. This changed attitude over time helped make the lobbyists' jobs much easier in convincing legislators to appropriate more funds for weapons production in an increasingly hostile world in need of our military assistance. As I F Stone was fond of saying during Vietnam, the real danger of a gargantuan military is that more and more workers will be looking for ways to ply their skills.

With regard to health care the administration is now sponsoring "house parties" to make sure people understand what's best for them. A reprise of the early '90s when insurance companies spent millions on PR to nix anything resembling single payer, except that now the government of "change" is running the interference for the companies! The experts are out organizing for America, helping us get our heads straight about priorities: it's not universal coverage and reduced costs that are important, eliminating the waste and bureaucracy that blocks delivery of quality health care to more, but the need to preserve our current private system.

In one of the more incredible reversals of spirit uttered by Mr. Obama in recent weeks, he's argued that even though the single payer system may be better, since we already have a private system, to change course would be disastrous! For whom, we might ask? Not for the millions who have no insurance, part of the majority that needs convincing; or even those who have it but their costs are denied by greedy private providers. One of the most significant causes of bankruptcies in the US, as this group knows, is indebtedness from health care costs.

Get the profit motive out of enterprises that traffic in life versus death! This is what the yet-to-be-impressed majority already want. How many premature deaths have there been since the last assault against single payer in the early 90s? Studies show that Americans' life expectancies have dipped down well below that of European and other advanced industrialized nations who have universal care, suggesting a direct link between this decline in the US and the lack of coverage for so many whose early deaths have dropped the national average. Are the profiteers waging war against citizens?

As a country we were much closer to getting universal health care during the Truman years than we are now. So much for the progress of the American Century!

The America that the team needs to impress wants a chance to be part of the agenda, not merely given the option to ratify what's been decided. Single payer's many players need a real seat at the table. The antiwar constituency needs access to discussions.

The real danger we face is that fine phrases will replace good action, not merely preface it. One of George Bush's central ruses was that if you say something over and over again people will start to believe it! Will Mr. Obama's reach out say we've arrived, chilling the excluded from speaking out? Do the poll numbers registering his popularity say that the ready-to-be-impressed public has swallowed the rhetoric? Or at least that it's pumped up enough to extend him a waiver? We're hostages to optimistic word play. We find heroes amid every crisis, bootstrap stories in every success. Will Mr. Obama's very inspirational messages of unity and striving merely cut and paste the backstories we need to make sense of actual events in the absence of good action?

The unity message suits Wall Street and other corporations Mr. Obama said he'd confront, just fine. It's the perfect song for keeping things the same. We need only tune out the conflicts and difficult to solve issues from the past and borrow some snake-handling joie de vivre from the bible brotherhood to melt away differences. This strikes a positive chord for sure. There's no question the past cramps present options. But there's certainly not very much we can do about it.

So, Mr. Obama's messages urge, let's break free from it, get a fresh start, bring everyone--well mostly everyone!--to the table, and act as though the uninsured will magically get funds to buy coverage; the Muslim world will suddenly forget the mistaken bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in the '90s, or the policy error in the CIA-backed toppling of the Iranian regime in the '50s; or ignore the palatial embassies being built in the region, and the many military bases that dot the globe--nearly 800 by current count--to prop up our overreaching, oil-slickened foreign policy!

Going-forward-freely implies that the power imbalances of the past that led to the current crises should and can be equalized with clap-happy faces at the Dow Jones bell, like deferring to the "free market" without exposing and righting the unequal playing field that got this way through "free" actions. There are good ways to forget the past, and bad ones. You can only successfully forget the past, remove its weight on the living, by remembering it correctly. And unfortunately one of our major barriers is forgetfulness, an amnesia fed by overconsumption and instant gratification, a credit-card pathology that keeps us gorging in the moment.

It doesn't help that the media acts like everything is back to normal. A glance at the news reveals little evidence of our massive unemployment. The glittery ads for easy money continue; cheap mortgage rates are offered (for the few who can take advantage!), but the coverage is scant regarding the mortgage crisis itself and its causes. It goes with the tenor of the times in Congress. The reform spirit of late last year has virtually dissipated. No revamp of Glass-Steagall or new regulations on banking are in the works.

Can racism be solved, for example, without some acknowledgement of past wrongs that have shaped institutions and led to huge gaps between whites and non-whites? The unfair playing field can't be wished away. How we attend to past injustices will affect how we go forward, and if we progress.

We need some serious soul-searching about our foreign policy. Mr. Obama "invites" the Muslim world to be part of the international community. He apologizes, an excellent gesture, for mistakes we've made in the region. He rationalizes our military presence, now escalating, as necessary to eradicate Al-Qaeda. Of course the majorities here, there and in Europe oppose this escalation. The question unanswered is whether the 3,000 victims of 9/11 come anywhere near the numbers of victims in the Muslim world we created through our invasions. And it is debatable whether anything constructive can be accomplished over the long term if our military presence continues. Most know our presence is not just about capturing Al-Qaeda; that we're there for the oil and power. And they also know that our domineering presence has created Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Mr. Obama's fine turns of phrase can't make these facts go away. Our whole post-WW2 military build-up needs to be reexamined, particularly the post Cold War era dating from Iraq 1, the event that alienated Muslims, especially Bin Laden, our former ally in the proxy war against the Soviets in their war against Afghanistan during the 80s. America has been a force for good in the world, spreading freedom and democracy. Its institutions were once the envy of the world. But somewhere along the line, surely around the time corporations began to go overseas in the 70s to seek out cheap labor and increase profits, freedom-spreading and democracy-enhancing fertilized imperial ambitions.

Can we humanize our empire? Fledgling democracy groups all over cite our founding fathers for inspiration. Obama is infatuated with our founders, especially Lincoln. But our founders must be resting uneasily these days. We aren't the same country that their ideals promised. The freedom-spreading is being dwarfed by empire.

If it is about setting examples, we're in trouble! Our leaders ignore the wishes of the people in the most famous people's society ever constructed, supposedly the model democracy. We throw billions at banks and the rich, spend lavishly on weapons to kill people, giving the military and its lobbyists an orgy of affluence in wars we can't afford, but can't insure nearly a third of our citizens, can't manage a policy to keep people from foreclosures due to policies that allow banks to pigout on bailouts...

What can our intentions be? Do we really believe other countries want exactly what we have? They likely want much of what we used to have! To this day, hardly any of the housing destroyed by Katrina has been replaced. But we need to spread democracy and freedom overseas. Our domestic and foreign policy has created many refugees. In his first 100 days Mr. Obama has created millions of refugees in Pakistan. His bank-heavy "socialism" has created millions of refugee-homeless here, all so that the privileged can stay privileged. Ordinary citizens are being eliminated at an alarming rate everywhere that our policy tentacles reach.

Perhaps like Nixon, who in times of economic crisis started beefing up his attention to China and other countries, Obama is focusing his energy on foreign policy to escape a contentious domestic scene. But both policies are in surprising sync. They're about preserving the imperial attitude.

His words say different of course. And we can only hope that the ideas he speaks can humanize actions and lead to good results. But it seems that America now resembles Colonel Kurtz, the hero of Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, played by Marlon Brando. One of the best and brightest, a humanitarian devoted to spreading good American values and ideals, Kurtz's vision somehow gets warped and distorted in the jungle, and he loses perspective about the war's purposes and begins to massacre innocent people. The effects of his actions spawn a life of their own and get out of control, mandating more severe responses to stay the course.

This is not so far from what we're doing now. The effects of our policies over a long period of time have created many unintended consequences and much collateral damage, and this has blown back in our faces. And to maintain stability we have to get more involved than ever.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has taken the helm of a system that won't change with mere words.