There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news.
The new United States president faces challenges in almost every area of the world. The most urgent and unavoidable are Palestine-Israel, Iran, and Pakistan-Afghanistan.
First, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel must become Barack Obama's top foreign-policy priority. The longer the Palestinians remain a displaced people, the more dangerous the world becomes. Over time, Palestine has acquired the status of a cause celebre for political Islam and a symbol of America siding with the powerful against the weak. Unless the Palestinians are seen to get a modicum of justice, the entire middle east is doomed to eternal cycles of violence and destruction.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at
Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan
Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:
"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)
"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)
"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)
"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia MianThe fact that there is bitter rivalry between the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, makes the problem ever harder to solve. But as long as the issue of statehood is unresolved and conflict continues, the more Muslim anger over Palestine will mutate into new and still less predictable forms. I estimate that the crushed body of every dead Palestinian child in Gaza, flashed on TV screens across the world, costs the United States about $100 million in terms of the protection it must buy to defend itself against retributive Islamist terrorism.
Second, the US must talk to Iran. As Iran gets closer to making a nuclear weapon, there is a danger that a war of words between Washington and Tehran could trigger a real war is real. The choice as US secretary of state of Hillary Clinton, who made hawkish statements about Iran during the election campaign (echoed in part by Obama himself) on balance increases the danger.
Iran's quest for nukes is dangerous and condemnable, and sanctions are quite justifiable in my opinion. But the United States lacks a moral argument for war, because of its own nuclear stance and in light of the fact that it provided Iran with the country's initial nuclear capability during the Shah's rule. Moreover, the US has to various degrees rewarded several countries that have made nukes surreptiously: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Before and after more hardline statements on the campaign trail, Obama has offered to negotiate with Iran: a good proposal that he should carry through.
After all, nothing has been gained by rejecting Iran's numerous overtures, from the comprehensive approach suggested by Tehran in 2003 to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President George W Bush in 2006. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 also showed that US refusals to hold one-on-one talks only reinforced the problem. By contrast, nuclear negotiations in exchange for oil have partially succeeded in halting the North Korean nuclear developments.
Third, the US must take seriously the impact of "collateral damage" on civilian populations as it pursues the war against Islamists.
Since I am deeply fearful of Taliban successes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have mixed feelings about Obama's planned "surge" in Afghanistan. But heavy use of airpower has led to large numbers of non-combatant casualties. Often the coalition forces refuse to acknowledge such deaths; when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, they apologise and issue miserably small compensation. This approach swells the Taliban's ranks. If there is to be any chance of containing the Taliban menace, the coalition forces must set zero innocent civilian casualties as their goal.
In relation to the larger global environment, America needs an attitudinal change. It must repudiate grand imperial designs as well as its exceptionalism. The notion of total planetary control through "full-spectrum dominance" guided the previous Republican administration well before 9/11. The Democrats, many of whom later turned against the Iraq war, limit their criticisms to the strategy and conduct of the war, the lies and disinformation dispensed by the White House, suspicious deals with defence contractors - rather than its very conception and underlying attitudes (see Paul Rogers, "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).
Barack Obama must convince Americans of the need to obey international laws and etiquette, that they do not have some divine mission to fulfil and that its sinking economy cannot afford such fantasies now or in the future.
The lengthy political transition in the United States is over. The perils facing the new president are clear. He will need much more than rhetoric to meet them.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
The reference is to Tom Paine's Crisis No 1, which George Washington ordered read to his men in December 1776 before crossing the Delaware to attack George III's Hessian mercenaries, in a crucial turning point in the American revolutionary war.
The task of redecorating the Oval Office includes remembering and re-imagining trans-Atlantic relations
One of the first jobs of an American president is to redecorate the Oval Office. Each new president is expected to update the furniture, replace the carpet, repaint the walls and woodwork as well as add some new paintings. There are also the sculptures, usually three or four. So when he moves in today, President Barack Obama will have to decide what to do with a bronze bust of Winston Churchill.
The bust is on loan from the British government and was installed by his predecessor, President George W Bush in 2001. Bush explains it in an official White House tour video [my transcript]: "my friend the prime minister of Great Britain heard me say that I greatly admired Winston Churchill and so he saw to it that the government loaned me this and I am most honored to have this Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill. I like Churchill because he was a great war leader. He was resolute, he was tough, he knew what he believed, and he had a fabulous sense of humor. And in this job, believe me, you've gotta have a sense of humor. Otherwise it makes for the days awfully long and for the nights awfully short." (Predictably, the video inspired a spoof.)
Officially, Her Majesty's government loaned the bust to Bush for the duration of his term. At the end of this month, the bust can therefore go back to the Government Art Collection on Cockspur Street. But there is little to prevent Obama from retaining the sculpture, just like there was little that prevented him from retaining Bush's Defense Secretary and several other "holdover" officials.
Downing Street, always ready to cultivate Britain's "special relationship" with America, would probably happily extend the loan to another four to eight years. After all, no figure in the world better symbolizes the "special relationship" than Churchill. In his last Lord Mayor's Banquet Speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained it yet again: "Winston Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom, and the rights of man - of what Barack Obama described in his election night speech as the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."
Will Obama keep his Churchill? Obama's speech writers would certainly appreciate it. In the United States, the signifier "Churchill" is as positively evaluated as "Obama" in the United Kingdom right now. As Christopher Hitchens observes, in America, Churchill "occupies an unrivaled place in the common stock of reference, ranging from the mock-heroic to the downright kitsch." The man voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002, argues Hitchens, "can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln in that he was never a member of any American faction."
Good politics is not the only reason for Obama to retain the bust. Last year, the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered that Obama is in fact related to Churchill. (The researchers also found that Obama is a ninth cousin of Brad Pitt and a distant relative to five former U.S. presidents, including George W Bush.) So why not keep a bust of a distant family member which happens to be a great war leader that most Americans love?
As it is often the case, family history cuts both ways. In Kenya, the land of Obama's father, the signifier "Churchill" carries nothing but negative connotations. Several times in his long political career, Churchill was responsible for Britain's empire, which until 1963 included Kenya. It was his government which in 1952 declared the so-called Kenya Emergency - an attempt to quash a rebellion against colonial rule known as Mau Mau. For the next eight years, suspected rebels were routinely detained, tortured, hanged and shot. According to Caroline Elkins, the colonial soldiers killed between fifteen and twenty thousand Kenyans in combat, while up to one hundred thousand perished in the detention camps. One of those who endured torture in a British prison was Hussein Onyango Obama, US president's Kenyan grandfather. Traces of this story can be found in Obama's memoir Dreams from my Father as well as in a few interviews; much more is sure to come. For now, it behooves us to remember it when Obama sends his Churchill packing. The time for the Anglo-American "special relationship" to move beyond Churchill is long overdue.
Srdjan Vucetic is Dillard Fellow in International Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge
The inspiring and moving oratory of Barack Obama has become a prominent part of the soundtrack of political life in the world as well as the United States during his long march to the presidency. Now, after his inauguration, the real business starts.
Among the many challenges awaiting the new Obama administration is the feeble state of US public service, which is failing to attract the best new talent
The ground-breaking election of Barack Obama and the many foreign, domestic, and economic challenges currently facing the United States have led to a political awareness and activism not seen in many years. Ahead of tomorrow's much-anticipated inauguration, Obama's team announced the establishment of "Organizing for America", an organization that seeks to shape the inchoate energy generated by his presidential campaign. Obama often repeated his desire to "open the doors of democracy" to the American people. Such endeavours aim to make that vague aspiration more concrete.
But while Obama appeals to the general public, the institutions of public service remain in crisis. One underappreciated aspect of the Democratic presidential victory in November was just how untenable - physically, just as much as intellectually and politically - continued Republican rule would have been. As one former government official, who participated in transitions dating back to the 1970s, opined prior to the election: "There's just no more talent available on the Republican side to fill all these positions; they're all burned out."
Talent can't be taught, but it can be coaxed along. The US government, along with the public sphere writ large, needs to attract and "coax along" the most talented individuals. At present, though, the realities of gaining public service employment make the barrier to entry for young individuals extremely high.
A problem of access
Without a fundamental change in the compensation and security clearance strictures of the public sector, the most talented young individuals will forego public service, to the detriment of the nation as a whole. It behooves Obama - who promised to make public service "a central cause" of his presidency - to take a serious look at how the potential appointments of the future are thwarted even before their government careers begin.
The high barrier to entry begins when one is still in college. As every person putting together his first resume knows, internships are the building blocks upon which successful job applications rest. And yet, those fortunate enough to receive worthwhile internship offers face a daunting challenge: money. Most internships in the public sector, whether on Capitol Hill or for non-governmental organizations, are unpaid.
The whole process is a form of indentured servitude, which plays off the fact that the young person is working for free against the prestige and contacts of the organization. For those college students working their way through school or supporting themselves during the summer breaks, this is often not a tenable option. Thus, very early on, the playing field is already skewed towards those with independent means.
The very same dynamic is still at play even after graduation. Entry level positions in most public sector jobs - for example, as staff assistants on Capitol Hill - pay less than a living wage. While a certain level of sacrifice is expected, penury should not be. If a young and ambitious "go-getter" is lucky, his or her parents usually end up covering the rent and the student loan bills. For those for whom family backing is not an option, then public service - however well-intentioned - is simply not feasible.
No noble ends without the means
In a world where the cost of a college degree has risen 439 percent over the past twenty-five years (compared to a 147 percent rise in the median family income), the financial reality of paying back one's loans oftentimes takes precedence over one's passions. Moreover, the increasing dilution of an undergraduate degree due to more people attending college - a positive development, to be sure - has meant that graduate degrees and their concomitant costs have become necessities, not luxuries.
Based on an exponentially higher cost of living (including for college), stagnant wages, and a more competitive job market, this is clearly not the reality of our parent's generation (or even that of Obama's). Viewed in the context of public sector employment, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a certain individual - usually somewhat affluent - is more likely to choose public service. Overall talent, as well as a more representative cross-section of society, is surely the biggest loser.
The second aspect of entry-level government service which needs to be reassessed is in the field of national security. Despite the federal government's legitimate security concerns, the clearance process as currently conceived is too long, too onerous, and ultimately counterintuitive.
Spend enough time amongst Washington's young foreign policy professionals, and the anecdotes one hears begin to sound less like individual sob stories and more like a pattern.
For instance, take the college senior who applied for an opening at one of the government's myriad intelligence agencies. Her security clearance eventually did come through - two years later. By that time, the position she had applied for had, predictably, already been filled; she went on to work for a contractor in the private-sector.
Or take the highly-qualified young professional, American-born and of Iranian-descent, who applied for a position at the State Department. It took her a year to learn that she in fact had not gotten the clearance the job required. In the interim, she took up an internship - unpaid - at a non-governmental organization; she subsequently went into the private-sector as well.
There are two points that need to be emphasized. First, to endure the often lengthy limbo period of the clearance process requires a bedrock of financial means. (Not to mention a steely willingness to be in professional purgatory until the process runs its course.)
And second, the clearance process, almost by definition, makes it that much more difficult for qualified candidates with non-traditional backgrounds to pass. Counter-intuitively, those with extensive travel experience abroad or with foreign roots - that is, those more likely to have the skills necessary for foreign policy - are at a disadvantage in relation to a candidate who has had, since birth, the same address in middle America.
At a time when the number of translators, linguists, and area specialists in public service is completely inadequate, the process through which the government hires those responsible for formulating foreign policy and defending national security is distorted and ill-conceived.
Among Obama's to-do list after 20 January, revamping the way young people enter public service should be included. More funding - for direct increases in salary, additional scholarships and debt forgiveness programs - should be considered in order to attract the best possible candidates to the public sector. Reform of the security clearance process should be considered in order to allow the brightest individuals to enter the foreign policy establishment.
It's an irony of the economic and bureaucratic realities that, given his financial and personal background, Obama would have great trouble entering government today as a young staffer. It would be tragic if the next Obama were dissuaded from serving the country, and instead opted to become a corporate lawyer. Government desperately needs just such talents.
Neri Zilber is a writer on international politics based in New York City
Investing in physical infrastructure is not enough if an opportunity to build real "social infrastructure" in the country is squandered
Imagine a place where doctors still do
house calls. Or where childcare is affordable, professional and widely
available. Or where all new parents are paid to stay home and care for their
newborns, and receive a monthly stipend to pay for diapers, food and other
Or imagine a place where a young person doesn't have to mortgage her or his future by going in debt to pay for a college education. Or where everyone has quality, affordable health care, and all workers receive two months worth of paid vacation and holidays every year, and paid sick leave too, as well as a generous retirement.
To most Americans, such a place sounds like Never-Never land. But to most Europeans, Canadians and the Japanese, this sounds like standard operating procedure. It is important for Americans to keep this in mind as we listen to President Barack Obama announce the goals of his new administration.
For example, in announcing his economic stimulus plan, Obama unveiled some badly needed measures, including rebuilding of roads, bridges and schools and increased renewable energy production. But his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan misses an opportunity to more directly invest in the greatest "infrastructure" of all - the American people.
Public investment in physical infrastructure as a way of creating jobs and boosting consumer spending is a sensible strategy. However, it leaves American workers stranded by the same "ownership society" ideology that has been part of the problem. The fact is that the next economic recovery will be followed at some point by the next downturn. Without a different type of intervention, Americans will remain lacking in the type of institutional support and "social infrastructure" that is crucial for providing economic security in this uncertain age of global capitalism.
A more comprehensive solution has been crafted in many European countries, Japan and Canada. In these nations, a small amount of each employee's and business' income is redirected into a pool of funding to pay for universal social infrastructure like affordable childcare, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, free or nearly free-higher education, affordable health care, job training programs, adequate vacation, sufficient retirement pensions and more. Providing such benefits to all residents lays a much stronger foundation for the middle classes in these countries than anything comparable in the United States.
For example, the US is one of only five countries that do not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave (the others being a few impoverished African nations and Papua New Guinea). Fathers are granted paid leave in 65 countries, but the US guarantees fathers - as well as mothers - nothing. A majority of Americans are not even eligible for unpaid parental leave.
is also one of only a handful of nations that have no national law guaranteeing
paid sick leave, leaving some 46 million workers - 43 percent of the private
industry labour force - without paid sick days. At least 145 nations provide
paid sick days, since if you're sick, it's preferable to stay home and take
care of yourself. In the US,
the ill are forced to show up to work and infect their co-workers.
American detractors have decried this European, Canadian and Japanese way as that of a "welfare" state and "creeping socialism", but nothing could be further from the truth. A better name for this system is a "workfare" state, since all of these supports are part of a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping individuals and families healthy, productive and working. By building a safety net beneath their workers, those countries that have embraced certain social democratic reforms have put some meat on the bones of "family values".
But in America's
"ownership society", you are truly left "on your own". In
theory, this should lead to Americans paying less in taxes and having greater
discretionary income, but this has been mostly an illusion. In return for their
taxes, people in these other countries are receiving a whole host of benefits
and services for which Americans end up paying extra for, out-of-pocket, via
fees, premiums, deductibles and tuition, in addition to their taxes. When you sum up the total balance sheet, you discover that many
Americans are paying out just as much as their counterparts in other nations,
but receive a lot less for their money.
Properly understood, these workfare supports are a necessary part of infrastructure investment, just like the maintenance of physical infrastructure such as bridges and roads or spending on energy efficiency. This social infrastructure investment also creates jobs and stimulates consumer spending, even as it invests in the most precious resource of all - people.
By narrowly emphasising investment in physical infrastructure in his economic recovery plan, Obama fails to recognise how social infrastructure must be a crucial part of the mix. A failure to invest in social infrastructure during this critical time will leave the American middle class on the same shaky ground where it has always stood, vulnerable to the current as well as future economic downturns.
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. His book "Europe Rising" will be published by the University of California Press in 2009
Until the autumn of 2008 a political gambler
would have been given major odds by any bookie in America against a major
change in national and world government emerging from the corrupt backwaters of Louisiana.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here
Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly
For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here
After all, this is the state that re-elected Representative William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, even after he was caught by the FBI with $90,000 in marked currency in his freezer. This is the state in which a city magnified the destruction of a cataclysmic hurricane by re-electing a mayor proved both incompetent and self-serving, a man still to this day able to stonewall wrongdoing by literally cursing anyone who questions his word or authority. This is the state served by Representative David Vitter, still holding a death-grip on his seat in Congress after years of paying for the illegal sexual services of call-girls and strippers.
This is Louisiana
And yet the unimaginable has happened. It happened because of the unlikely collusion of three "regular" guys, all named secondarily, by or for someone else.
There is Piyush, and Anh, and... Gustav.
Who are respectively Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, Representative-elect Anh "Joseph" Cao and... hurricane Gustav.
Piyush entered the game first, a brilliant and sincere young man of Indian origins who was selected to revitalise a decaying department of health by a distinctively retro-conservative Republican governor. Chief executive Mike Foster was a man who ran a plantation with an iron hand and rode his chromed Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work. He encouraged his protégé to run to succeed him, but Jindal was unsuccessful, beaten by Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who promptly had her political career destroyed by her handling of hurricane Katrina.
Through hard work and grassroots political acumen, Jindal eventually parlayed that first position into two terms in Congress, and finally into the same governorship he had coveted under Foster. He was successful, handsome, a moderate of sorts, he was America's first governor of Indian descent, and he was a first-generation American. That noted, he was immediately thrown into contention as a possible running mate for presidential hopeful John McCain.
Jindal reportedly turned down the offer, and McCain then disastrously decided that Jindal's complete opposite was really what America needed. Instead of the intellectual and intuitive man who had converted to Catholicism in his teens and considered the priesthood, who had attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, America needed an over-dressed and under-briefed rustic Alaskan soccer mom.
"You betcha", said Sarah Palin.
"Nope", said America.
McCain's choice gave Barack Obama what he needed to win the presidency in November.
Immediately after the election, Republicans saw Jindal for what he is, the anti-Palin, and in less than a week every news magazine and editorial writer in America began writing of him as the true "future of the Republican party".
A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:
"This is personal" (23 April 2007)
"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)
"Native to America" (26 September 2007)
"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)
"Windfall" (17 December 2007)
"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)
"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)
"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)
"Loot" (8 October 2008)
"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)
"Living the American movie" (5 November 2008)
Newsweek, among others, said: "There are plenty of rising stars in the GOP. But in the wake of Barack Obama's victory on Nov. 4, none has attracted as much speculation, curiosity and unapologetic hype as Jindal."
Something else was originally scheduled to be on the ballot that November Tuesday, but was nowhere to be seen: the general election for the second congressional district House of Representatives seat from Louisiana.
Another unschooled entity, this one named Gustav by a committee of scientists, had already intervened in early September, crashing ashore in Louisiana to scatter residents and disrupt the scheduled Democratic Party primary for the House seat. The September election was set back to the November date. So instead of the general election that would encompass all parties, the presidential election Tuesday was, for the House election, merely the Democratic primary, and was again won handily by indicted Representative William Jefferson.
That dismal outcome was inevitable. Louisiana's second district was engineered as a blatant gerrymander to create the first majority African- American district in the state. That majority was inevitably parceled by power brokers into political action groups like SOUL, BOLD and COUP, all working organisations that guaranteed voter turnout of their members in return for tax-deductible contributions.
But they didn't have to work hard in November. With Obama's charismatic candidacy, there was no problem in turning out an unprecedented number of African-American voters in the second district. Jefferson's black opponents were overwhelmed as the skewed logic of empowerment prevailed, i.e., "He may be a crook, but he's our crook." His sole remaining opponent was a young attractive Hispanic woman with no real experience - she had been a TV news reporter prior to her run against Jefferson. The race was his.
But Jefferson still had the general election, now rescheduled to December, an election which the second district political organisations completely disregarded - they thought they had won in November, when Obama won, and that was that.
The future is Cao
Come December signs started sprouting along streets, signs touting a person named Anh "Joseph" Cao, the Republican candidate, and lone remaining major party candidate to face Jefferson. They were formidable signs, colourful and sturdy. They cost lots of money, which was suddenly being supplied not only by the national party, but by locals as well. People began asking who the fellow was, and most I knew simply said he was "Jefferson's only competition", so he was worth supporting, just to end the shame.
I researched a bit: Anh immigrated as a child to the United States from Vietnam, earned advanced degrees in physics and philosophy, like Jindal embraced a brief consideration of the priesthood, then took a law degree from Loyola University, where I teach. His specialty was immigration law. He stands just over five feet tall and is extremely shy, though articulate.
I have never before in my life voted for a Republican. But faced with the alternative of the further disgrace and inaction of another term from "Dollar Bill", I voted for Cao. The district's political action groups, thinking the race was in the bag, did not deign to come to the polls.
The rest of us did.
Cao won, the first person of Vietnamese extraction to be elected to Congress. Even his own people couldn't believe it. When they first started arriving in Louisiana after the war, there was resistance. Local residents did not want a wave of unknown foreigners. But slowly in New Orleans the idea of a people who loved the subtropics, fished for a living and drank beer, had rice as a staple of their diet and knew how to bake French bread - well, they seemed to fit right in. Most were French-style Catholics and formed a community in New Orleans East around their churches, though the Buddhist contingent congregated on the Westbank of the city.
It hasn't been that long since even being a Catholic or speaking French was a considered a serious detriment to getting elected to statewide office in Louisiana. Just a few decades ago it seemed a miracle that a Cajun French Catholic named Edwin Edwards became governor. Of course this is the man now sitting in a federal penitentiary, awaiting a pardon from the outgoing president, imprisoned for transgressions committed during his tenure as the state's highest elected official.
But suddenly there was Cao. And, like Jindal, the reaction was immediate:
"Less than 24 hours after his upset defeat of a longtime Democratic congressman from New Orleans, Anh ‘Joseph' Cao found the weight of the entire Republican Party resting on his diminutive shoulders.
"The chairman of the Republican National Committee said Cao's election Saturday night showed that, even battered and bruised from political drubbings in the past two years, Republicans ‘still know how to win elections.' House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was more blunt, issuing a memo Sunday declaring: ‘The future is Cao.'"
Even Senator David Vitter, the politician of hooker-for-hire fame, was trying to cleanse himself by attaching to the new representative in an interview headlined as "Disgraced Senator talks about election of Joseph Cao as an improvement to Louisiana's image."
A clean slate
So what does this dual anachronism matter? Is it even minutely significant in the long term? Jindal is a strong campaigner and has political savvy, which Cao despite his integrity and intellect does not possess. Jindal was helped in gaining his office by campaigning among Baptist and Pentecostal churches, "testifying" at many, in the process embracing traditional black religious culture.
Though Cao has even taken the step of applying for membership in Congress's Black Caucus, he has not been well-received, and African-American political organisations in Cao's district will not be caught sleeping again. Despite his possible good work, a new clean slate and a progressive outlook, the district that re-elected Jefferson ten times may be unwilling to let someone who is not of their number continue a second term in Washington. You can't count on a hurricane like Gustav every election.
Still it seems amazing that in a state known for white rural conservatism, in a party that has doggedly kept its franchise white and traditional and Protestant, voters find that they have elected two men of colour, and of foreign origin, who have both intellectual depth and an overriding passion in their beliefs.
And more amazingly these two men, who both speak in complete sentences, now have the nation's and world's attention as the "future" of the Republican party.
A party that would previously never have counted on anyone named Piyush or Anh... or Gustav.
The challenge Barack Obama faces is being compared with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1933 depression and of Abraham Lincoln at the start of the civil war. Another analogy suggests itself, with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. Then, in 1985, the USSR was at war, its economy stagnant, and the promise of the Communist dream sounded increasingly hollow. Now the U.S. is fighting two wars: one raging in the same hostile terrain of Afghanistan which saw the undoing of Soviet expansion, the other in Iraq. Begun under false pretext and in defiance of our key allies, it was said to aim at democratizing Iraq, but instead spurred religious and ethnic violence.
The enormous financial burden of the two wars-Joseph Stiglitz estimates it at $3 trillion--heavily contributed to the financial meltdown in the U.S.A. and disarray in global economy. Far from being a model for developing world, we now need to heal our own economy. Now it is America's turn to embark on overhauling its financial system, re-structuring its economy, re-inventing a more equitable government, re-examining its foreign strategy and re-thinking its basic assumptions about the world. In short, it is time for perestroika, American style. Call it transformation, as Obama does. But it must be done much better than Gorbachev's perestroika least the U.S.A. goes the way of the USSR.
It cannot be done without thinking out of the box of the Cold War mentality. But, as the war in Georgia has shown, this approach continues to poison U.S.-Russian relations.
The Russian rebuff to Georgia came after its repeated warnings against NATO expansion, after the bombing of Yugoslavia and the proclamation of Kosovo's independence. But it was Russia that was accused of reverting to the Soviet era Brezhnev doctrine. In fact, in his reckless attack on South Ossetia, Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili was inspired by U.S. abandonment, in the post-Communist era, of the strategy of peaceful resolution of conflicts in favor of the "shock and awe" bombardment of non-co-operative adversaries. This strategy has proved not only inhumane but also counter-productive.
Unless President-Elect Obama renounces this reliance on war as a means to achieve security for the United States and its allies, there is little chance that his presidency will produce a better world than the one President Bush left behind. It is incumbent upon European leaders, especially, those who refused to support U.S. in Iraq, to speak up and dissuade U.S. leaders from starting a new war and using bombing as the peace-maker of choice.
Let me now focus on the need to transform U.S. policy toward Russia. First of all, U.S. should abandon the fantasy of unipolar world domination foisted on the Bush administration by the neo-conservatives. Alas, many of our European allies were cajoled into accepting, however half-heartedly, U.S. hubris. Now we need to scale down U.S. and NATO military involvement abroad and rely on skilled diplomacy and leadership by example, not brute force or economic blackmail. We need to recognize that even though the U.S. is the only superpower, it is far from omnipotent. We need allies and partners, and that includes Russia.
We also need to recognize that many of our current problems with Russia are of our own making. Our failure to do good on the promise to disband NATO is one example. Our expansion of NATO to Russian borders is another. The decision to install an anti-missile "shield" in Poland and the Czech Republic is bound to cause more tensions.
Imposing the free market
We made mistakes even while helping post-communist Russia in its economic reform. In the 1990s, U.S. adopted an approach, espoused by Jeffrey Sachs, Andrei Shleifer, and Lawrence Summers, which amounted to clumsy efforts to impose on Russia the same free-market dogmatism that is at the root of today's global crisis. Under the misleading name of the "Washington consensus" this approach to globalizing Russia dominated the Clinton administration. Yet even in the World Bank there were prominent critics whose advice was ignored.
One was Joseph Stiglitz who challenged the orthodoxy of free-market fundamentalism with an alternative economic philosophy he called "a third way." Cognizant of the benefits of free-market, he has also recognized the important role governments can play in preventing its abuse by tycoon investors and mighty corporations. Stiglitz was squeezed out of the bank because of his views, even while being awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Another critic was professor William Easterly who later authored the book with the meaningful title The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
Free-market Healer, Heal Thyself
While lecturing Russia about the blessings of unfettered free market, we forgot the lessons taught us by Thomas Jefferson . In a letter to John Taylor in 1816, he warned that the "banking establishments," when left to their own devices, " are more dangerous than standing armies." Presciently, he foreswore "the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity" as "swindling futurity on a large scale." Jefferson knew that in a democracy the people, through its government, should have regulatory power over irresponsible bankers and investors. As the Bernard Madoff scandal has shown once again there are plenty of those ready to take the country for another Ponzi pyramid ride.
Not only did we fail to control our own banks, but we prescribed to Russia "shock therapy" that resulted in the establishment of the Seven Banks Misrule (Semibankirshchina -Семибанкирщина). In the mid 1990s they vied for the power with the Russian state. Thus, our meddling in Russia contributed to the rise of oligarchy and ascendancy of crooks and murderers. Only with the advent of Vladimir Putin to power in 1999, wrote the heroic Paul Klebnikov in his book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia, did the government's "newfound zeal in going after crooks and criminals" begin to pay off. Klebnikov was murdered in Moscow in 2004, shortly after he was made the editor of Forbes Russia.
U.S.-sponsored "shock therapy" also resulted in untold suffering for the Russian people. It destroyed the universal health care system which Obama now promises to introduce in the States. The very notions of privatization, democratization, and globalization were discredited in the mind of the Russians who came to associate them with the "tricky" America. A huge cultural disconnect between the American givers and Russian receivers was inevitable due to the closed nature of Soviet society.
But on occasion this amounted to more than a disconnect. After all, the Harvard Institute of International Development allegedly received a federal grant for U.S. foreign policy considerations, as Janine Wedel has revealed. Her research exposed how Harvard's "best and brightest colluded with a Russian clan to create a system of tycoon capitalism that will plague the Russian people for decades." Harvard's grant for ‘foreign policy considerations' was not only given without open bidding-and thus in violation of free-market's rules. In its execution there were serious violations of U.S. law, with the result that Harvard was forced to repay the government the largest penalty in its history.
Meanwhile, Russia's economic conditions improved enough to make dependence on foreign loans unnecessary. Soon the Putin government managed to undo most harmful aspects of misbegotten reforms by curbing the power of the oligarchy and restoring the Russian state's sovereignty and prestige domestically and overseas. 
Alfred Kokh, a deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin's government, recalls that U.S. officials were so heavy-handed in dealing with Yeltsin that he "was perceived (by the Russian people) as a puppet of the West, his policies dictated by the US." No wonder that in the years to follow, the Putin government's efforts to assert Russian national interests vis-à-vis the U.S. have met with the overwhelming approval of the Russian people.
Changing the Cold War stereotypes
These Russian observations are echoed by a number of Americans. Suzanne Massie, a former adviser to President Reagan, condemned the Cold War era stereotypes that pervaded the U.S. approach to Russia during the post-Communist period and flared up again during the Georgian war. "For the past eight years there has been a rising chorus of Russia bashing, growing ever more strident. We seem to have fallen into seeing Russia exclusively as aggressor and expansive. We need to get over these stereotypes in a hurry."
Two former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, likewise deplored Russia-bashing and argued against the policy of isolating Russia, which such neocons, as John Bolton, have advocated in retaliation for Russia's alleged aggression in Georgia. "It is neither feasible nor desirable to isolate a country spanning one-eighth of the earth's surface, adjoining Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and possessing a stockpile of nuclear weapons comparable to that of the United States."
Across the ocean, Sir Roderic Lyne, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, offered similar advice on openDemocracy Russia, but for different reasons: "Isolation would consolidate power in the hands of the most unreconstructed elements in Russia; deprive the West of leverage; create a pressure-cooker in a huge and heavily-armed country; and drive us ever further away from the goal of a stable and cooperative relationship with Russia." Sir Roderic chose reasonable terms for a wide-ranging Russia-and-the-West debate that has been sorely missing in the mainstream media.
Russian responses to Sir Roderic were encouraging. Fyodor Lukyanov challenged the political elites, East and West, to transcend their national bias in favor of a broader global perspective. Alexei Arbatov suggested that Russia's "Military force [in the Caucasus] was used to great effect," but "now we should build on the new respect for Russia by acting with reasonable restraint and adopting a flexible and constructive diplomatic line towards the West."
Lilia Shevtsova was not so sanguine. She criticized her Russian colleagues: "Essentially, our authors, in offering us a Russian version of Realpolitik, are trying to prove to the West and to Russia that there is a need for new international rules of play. This means rules which would allow today's Russia with its corrupt authorities and ‘petrol' economy to survive and reproduce itself in comfort. And this would be tantamount to protecting Russia's "anti-liberal and anti-Western system."
Alas, Shevtsova applied her "liberal view" to Russia only, failing to consider a similar correlation between foreign and domestic policy in Western countries. Did she not hear that after the 9-11 attack Bush tried to rally the West to a "crusade" against Al-Qaida by proclaiming the Stalinesque motto that ‘those who are not with us, are against us'? Does she not know that, on Bush's initiative, The Patriot Act was then passed which has restricted civil liberties in the United States more than during the Cold War when our adversaries were not only considerably more powerful than Al Qaida, but also had much a large following inside the United States?
Scholars advising their governments on international relations must be watchful of the dynamic correlation between foreign and domestic policy even in the most democratic countries. Ancient Greeks knew that any form of government, including democracy, has a tendency to degenerate. We, too, know that the eternal vigilance against enemies of freedom, both foreign and domestic, is the price we have to pay for the blessings of liberty. As Shevtsova seems oblivious of Western concerns with the preservation of liberty , one would doubt her credentials as a "liberal." Her views seem more consistent with those of the neo conservatives.
Neo-con's Media Megaphones
Now the neo-conservatives seem to be re-grouping to take charge of U.S. foreign policy under Obama. In fact, several neo-con columnists were elated by Obama's appointments. This makes the liberals worry whether Obama will be able to carry out the transformation he promised. Teresa Stack, president of The Nation magazine, the flagship of the liberal-left movement that voted solidly for Obama, reminds its readers: "Neocons and their corporate mainstream media megaphone are prepared to do everything in their power to thwart progressive change. We can't afford to take change for granted."
Indeed, it was the "mainstream media megaphones" that fanned hysterical russophobia during the Georgian-Russian conflict. They regurgitated comparisons of the Russian action to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. They also largely marginalized scholars like Mark Almond, a British historian, who found Russia's rebuff to Georgia fully legitimate. With greater justification, he compared the Russian action with Britain's retaliation gave to Argentine aggression in the Falklands in 1982. No great power will retreat forever, he quoted Kissinger. Indeed, after two decades of endless retreats under constant pressure from the West, Russia finally decided it can no longer retreat and hit back.
But hitting back is not a strategy. Neither is U.S. mass media hysteria. That's why Russia, the EU and the United States need to address the common concern for the prevention of armed conflicts along the Russian borders and elsewhere in the world, least they escalate into a major conflagration involving nuclear powers.
Hold Obama to his Promise
Now that Obama is about to be inaugurated, it is important to remind him of the transformation he promised to deliver. It has to be toward a more efficient, fair, and vibrant society at home and a less confrontational, less expensive, but more prudent and cooperative U.S. policy abroad.
The new policy toward Russia must include:
- Abandoning the fantasy of U.S. unipolar world domination and recognizing Russia's legitimate national security concerns;
- Abiding by international law and work within the established organizations such as the U.N., EU, OSCE, WTO, World Bank and IMF until they can be revamped to conform to the new reality;
- Returning to negotiations with Russia on all Cold War legacy issues, such as America's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Russia's repudiation of START II;
- Halting NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine or, at least, provide a ten years moratorium on such expansion;
- Cooperating with Russia in halting proliferation of nuclear weapons;
- Coordinating efforts against international piracy and terrorism, as well as against global warming and to protect the Earth's biosphere.
The New York Times described the election of Obama as a catharsis and return to the American dream that was destroyed--politically, economically and socially--under Bush. Obama's new appointments bear little signs of new thinking. They may be pragmatic in the sense of party politics, but lack a vision of the evolving global community and the role the United States and the West should play in it. As Gorbachev's perestroika showed, any attempt at radical transformation is risky. It's better to have the Russians among our cheer leaders and friends, not as our opponents or detractors.
There have always been at least two Chicagos wrestling within America's great heartland metropolis. The election of Barack Obama and the recent criminal indictment of Governor Rod Blagojevich have once again shown how the city's angels are never far away from its demons. The iconic struggles of race, class and culture have been played out in street and park, back-room and boardroom, City Hall and union hall, and of course, in the headlines and in the hot air from which the "Windy City" gets its name.
Once swampland, Chicago now towers majestically above the prairie. Its heights rest on muddy foundations. The elation of the Obama win - and the rush of its symbolic redemptive power - marked the re-emergence of a renewed Chicago on the world stage. But the honeymoon was short, shorter than anyone expected, as the city found itself cast into shame by the Blagojevich scandal. A scion of the Illinois political machine and the man responsible for filling Obama's vacant Senate seat, Blagojevich was caught auctioning off the seat (as well as the state of Illinois, it appears) to the highest bidder. At the press conference where his indictment was announced, FBI agent Robert Grant summed up the net effect of the bust: "If Illinois is not the most corrupt state, it is a hell of a competitor."
Obama's election does indeed exorcise some of the demons of Chicago's darkest history, particularly its legacy of racial strife (despite its cosmopolitanism, it remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation). Blagojevich's demise, on the other hand, is a reminder of how deep-rooted cronyism and corruption is in the city's political system. The two wrestling spirits of the city's history are visible in Obama's success and Blagojevich's shame.
All that sparkles isn't gold
Sitting in the middle of the continent, bordering one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply to the east and a thousand miles of some of the best farmland on earth to the west, this metropolis of ten million is uniquely positioned as the ostensible capital of North America. It is the third largest intermodal port and hub (for planes, trains, ships, and automobiles) in the world behind Hong Kong and Singapore.
With the recent mergers of the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Chicago and New York Mercantile Exchanges, the city reigns as the commodity capital of the world. This is certainly a mixed blessing. Although commodities and their exchanges are soon to become more valuable than oil (despite their interdependence), their speculation can have disastrous effects, like the recent spikes in food prices and the financial collapse caused by "credit-default swaps." One thing is clear: it will soon be a proving ground for all sorts of new regulation, which will certainly buoy the cause of progressive reformers.
Chicago rolled out its extensive decade-long facelift to a world audience on election night. To the north of Obama's victory stage lies Millennium Park, the eye-popping prototypical 21st century urban public space with its open-air pavilion designed by Frank Gehry, corporate donor peristyle and reflecting pool, skating rink/boulevard cafe, replica prairie habitat, Amish Kapoor's iconic "bean" sculpture, and Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain", two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool that slowly cycle through the close-up faces of one thousand Chicago citizens. Behind the park is a dense thicket of new skyscrapers, anchored by the newly completed Trump Tower. At 1,300 feet of housing-bubble hubris, it is the second tallest building in north America surpassed only by the Sears Tower, which rises a few blocks to the south.
On the opposite end of Grant Park is Central Station, a dense residential community of towers, lofts, and town homes that only ten years before was undeveloped land owned by the railroads. South of that, across Lake Shore Drive and the new postmodern Soldier Field, is the new LEED-Gold certified green convention center at McCormick Place. And just south of that is the proposed location for the 2016 Olympic village.
New growth and gleam has come with its social costs. Gentrification and deindustrialization has reshaped the city's demographic landscape, making it a much more expensive and exclusive place to live. The Chicago police are still known for their corruption and brutality. And the capo di tutti capo of the state's Democratic political machine, five-term mayor Richard M. Daley, is one of the nation's last great political bosses. Daley redefines the term "ambivalent." Beloved by the vast majority of Chicagoans for resuscitating the city during its lowest days, he is nonetheless an authoritarian. His impending retirement may portend the end of Chicago cronyism that has for so long tenaciously shaped its politics.
Industrial age strife
The city's dual politics have ancient roots. A century ago, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. In the course of fifty years it had gone from an outpost of around 4,000 to a city of 1.5 million. European immigrants, largely German, Irish, Italian and Polish, drove most of the population explosion. These new Americans toiled in sub-human conditions in the factories and slaughterhouses that defined this new filthy smoke-and-rail choked industrial titan.
It was a time, as Upton Sinclair would later write in The Jungle, his novel set in the Chicago meatpacking industry, "of haves and have-nots." Wealth and poverty existed in extremes unknown to anyone living in America today. There was little government to speak of and certainly nothing of the vast canon of legislation that gives workers and consumers the rights and protections we now have. Big business reigned supreme, and Chicago, at the center of the continent, was its beating heart.
But as with conditions today, there is only so fast a heart can beat before it goes into arrest. Since Chicago had become the center of the new industrial America, it also became the political center of the country, where the bloody struggle between capital and labor was played out in the streets. Between 1880 and 1920, Chicago hosted at least one, and sometimes both, of the major parties national conventions.
In response to worker conditions and economic disparity, political movements guided by anarchists and socialists quickly took hold in Chicago, culminating with the two-day Haymarket Affair in 1886 when police opened fire on a crowd of protesters gathered to support striking workers after someone who to this day remains unidentified tossed a bomb at the police. Eight anarchists - mostly German immigrants - were arrested and charged with the bombing. Despite no evidence against them, seven were sentenced to death. Subsequent international outrage gave strength to the progressive movement, but did great damage to the city's image.
In what could be seen as the long culmination of this uprising, President William McKinley was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt, a reformer and anti-monopolistic "trust buster" succeeded him, beginning sixteen years of Republican rule marked by deep divisions in the party. Roosevelt wanted to take the Republicans into the progressive movement, but was met with powerful resistance by those who wanted to preserve the power of the moneyed interests.
After The Jungle was published in 1906, exposing the hellish conditions workers were subjected to in the slaughterhouses, meat exports - one of the backbones of the American economy - plummeted by fifty percent. To restore confidence in American meat, Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration, one of the most essential pieces of federal regulation ever passed.
The division in the party over progressive ideology led to a formal split at the 1912 convention in Chicago, with Roosevelt taking progressive Republicans into their own party, while incumbent president William Howard Taft, Roosevelt's hand-picked successor in 1908, retained control of what was left. The split is largely credited with handing the election to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
Obama and Chicago's black politics
After World War II, Chicago once again set the tone of national politics. Forty years ago the world's eyes were also turned to Chicago. In horror, people watched as the Chicago police savaged protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. These demonstrations came on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the widespread rioting that they caused, which laid waste to much of the largely African-American West Side of the city.
Although New York and San Francisco had become the counter-cultural bookends of the nation, Chicago had become the center of political change, and the ostensible headquarters of radical groups like the Black Panthers and Weathermen. At the 1968 convention, these groups came along with thousands of ordinary citizens to redress the government's abuses of power, and the inequities of their society. The repressive response on the part of Mayor Richard J. Daley's police heralded the downfall of the Democratic Party, as well as costing Daley the Vice Presidential nomination. It also left Chicago adrift on the political sea, a discredited industrial giant rusting and crumbling like one of its old rail cars.
One shouldn't underestimate the intransigence of Chicago politics. The city's machine has always had a knack for harnessing the crowd for power, for managing upstarts and for preserving the ruling order. In both the first and second Daley eras, old school patronage was the main vehicle for keeping the city on a short leash. The elder Daley manipulated city jobs, the younger Daley exploited city contracts.
The radical undercurrents of the city, be they anarchist or socialist or black nationalist or Rainbow Coalition, have always gone head to head with the mainstream practices of the machine, and the machine has had to go to great lengths to stifle change. The 1968 war in the streets between the cops and the radicals was not just a proxy war fought between the counter-culture and the great silent majority. It also proved that the Great Society was like many American families: a well-crafted exterior masking deep anger and dysfunction and inequality.
In the wake of 1968, Chicago entered a dark age of violence, factionalization, and decay. A year later, in what was dubbed the "Days of Rage," radical protesters led by the Weathermen stormed through the city smashing and looting. In December of 1969, Fred Hampton, the charismatic and beloved young leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was murdered by the Chicago Police while he slept in his bed.
It was later revealed that Hampton's head of security, William O'Neal, was a paid FBI informant, and the raid was part of the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) carried out by Chicago's infamous "red squad." Hampton's murder was part of a plan spelled out in a FBI memo that was designed to "prevent the rise of a black 'messiah' who could unite and electrify the militant black antinationalist movement."
By 1975, when Mayor Richard J. Daley's twenty-year reign ended with his sudden death, the city entered a steep period of decline that would last for more than 20 years. It saw the exodus of more than a million people. In the 1980s, the city was dubbed "Beirut on the Lake" owing to its violence and bombed-out aesthetic. In those haggard days, aldermen carried guns into the city council chambers.
Evidence of the radicalism that drove the Black Panthers, Yippies and Weathermen has all but disappeared from American popular history. A caricatured version is sometimes taken off the shelf and dusted as we saw with the hyperbolic exploitation of the purported "relationship" between Obama and former Weather Underground founder William Ayers. Much of this is understandable. The rhetoric of Sixties radicalism bears little resemblance to Obama's language of "change." It was, at the very least, the language of division between, races, classes and generations. At its most provocative, it was the talk of insurrection and violent revolution, the apocalyptic prophesy of the great class war that would cleanse the way to peaceful utopia.
Through the legendary underground documentary, The Murder of Fred Hampton, you can get a glimpse into this world. Young and growing in strength, the Black Panthers were a committed group of Marxist revolutionaries who spoke openly of "killin' pigs." Their angry, profane and violent speeches - some of the harshest coming from Panther Minister of Defense, Bobby Rush, now a US Congressman representing the South Side of Chicago - would be utterly shocking to today's political audience, even within the Black community.
In one scene from the film, various Panthers arm themselves inside their headquarters in anticipation of a police raid. Rush and Hampton's readiness in that moment to go out fighting spoke volumes about the lengths to which they would go. It also stands in sharp contrast to the actual manner in which Hampton did indeed give his life to his cause.
This devotion was largely why Bobby Rush rose to such powerful heights in the black community. Rush's rise to power brilliantly illustrates the complex and compromising dichotomies of Chicago machine politics, how it absorbs radical energy and uses it to power the system. Particularly when it comes to black politics, the machine consumes dissent. It took in Bobby Rush, the man who was once minutes away from opening fire on the Chicago police, who would have been murdered alongside Fred Hampton had he shown up that night at Panther HQ, and effectively neutralized him. He is now an affable old politico, but not one to be trifled with. When Obama challenged Rush' Congressional seat in 2000, the current president-elect was trounced.
Many blacks in Chicago never saw Obama as "black" before he became a candidate for president. It was only when he ran against a white opponent that he became the "black" politician. In Obama's case, his "blackness" as perceived by black Chicagoans, was only skin deep. His base, and his world, consisted of mostly college-educated white people. This is partially why he was able to rise to US Senator so quickly, and why he was such a success as a politician on a national scale. It is also the same reason why a former Black Panther will never become Senator or President, but is perfectly suited to represent an almost exclusively black urban congressional district.
The Black Panthers were an expression of rage from society's underclass about the painful inequities of America. And that fiery Panther rhetoric had its roots not only in the writings of Marx and Mao, but also in the traditions of Chicago politics, where the progressive movement was born. If it were not for Emma Goldman and the Anarchists, it is doubtful there would have been the Weathermen and the Black Panthers.
Back to the future
That radical past may seem quite distant to the gleam of Chicago 3.0, but the rough-and-tumble history defines the politics and landscape from which Obama emerged. So too is the city's tendency for political infamy always lurking in the background, tainting even the most noble attempts at reform.
Ryan, a Republican, was the epitome of the old school machine politician, a good old boy in the Illinois network. A decade before he was Governor, Ryan served as Illinois' Secretary of State. During his tenure he approved some commercial drivers' licenses for ineligible candidates (mostly undocumented immigrants) in exchange for campaign contributions. Eventually that investigation led to a sweeping indictment that alleged that Ryan "awarded state contracts to friends; disbursed campaign funds to relatives and to pay personal expenses; and obstructed justice by attempting to end the state investigation of the 'license-for-bribes' scandal." He was charged with "lying to investigators and accepting cash, gifts and loans in return for his official actions as governor."
The zealotry with which Ryan was prosecuted baffled many, most notably because he wasn't really that corrupt by Illinois standards, and his prosecution came during the early years of the Bush administration when the Republican Party controlled all three branches of government, including the Department of Justice. The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was a Bush appointee. Ryan's defence was that the indictment was political retaliation for breaking ranks with the Republican party over the death penalty, which he did in 2000 when he put an official moratorium on the Illinois statute and eventually emptied death row after uncovering major flaws in most of the capital convictions. These flaws cast doubt on the guilt of many of those sentenced to die, many of whom claimed their guilty confessions and other evidence against them were extracted under torture by the Chicago police (another ongoing scandal).
The national impact of the Illinois moratorium cannot be understated: for the first time since the death penalty began to be reinstated in the 1970s its efficacy was being hauled out in front of the public and challenged from both sides of the political spectrum. For his efforts, despite being labeled a shameless opportunist by his detractors, Ryan was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. In keeping with Chicago's history, the noble is never far from the sordid.
Texans are taking their cues from Londoners these days with the
establishment of a CCTV-based surveillance program for monitoring the
US-Mexico border. A public-private initiative between the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition and the digital surveillance program Blue Servo,
the program has erected cameras in areas along the Rio Grande known for
drug smuggling and human trafficking. Explaining the need for the
cameras to France 24, Donald L. Reay, the executive director of the
Texas Virtual Border Watch Program, noted, “We have a pretty open
border with our neighbors to the south and bad people could take
advantage of that.” Internet users are the eyes of the program. When a
user logs on Blue Servo as a “Virtual Texas Deputy” they may select
from 11 cameras at various stations along the Rio Grande. At this point
they may sit back and let their civic duty take over. When they notice
bad people, they can file a report at Blue Servo which will alert the
It appears that MSNBC may have finally made their much-anticipated decision as to who will succeed the late Tim Russert as the next host of Meet the Press: the most watched Sunday talk show in America and the longest-running television show in broadcast history. In an article posted Monday, The Huffington Post is reporting with some confidence that David Gregory has seen off stiff competition to land the coveted anchor role when Tom Brokaw's run as interim host wraps up in January.
While widely respected within the media world, and viewed by many as a rising star, the prospect of Gregory being handed the keys to arguably NBC's most prized broadcasting possession has actually appeared increasingly slim in recent months. Unable to carve out a slot for himself amongst MSNBC's stellar cast of polemicists, Gregory found himself saddled with Race for the White House in March of this year: a bland panel show covering the American presidential race that clearly lacked a creative direction and suffered from its tendency to recycle talking heads chosen largely from MSNBC's own in-house pool of talent. The decision to renew the show into the New Year--under the revised and equally uninspiring moniker 1600 Pennsylvania Drive--only cast further doubt as to whether Gregory would ultimately be handed an opportunity by the network to truly shine.
However, the decision to choose Gregory over flashier and more high profile candidates such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is a huge vote of confidence for the Los Angeles native--and one that is justly deserved. Having engaged in a number of fiery exchanges with members of the Bush administration--the President himself included--while a member of the White House press corps, Gregory has quickly carved out a reputation for possessing excellent journalistic instincts, a rare ability to clearly identify "the story behind the story," and a tenacious and unrelenting style of interrogative pursuit: assets that would all mesh perfectly with the format of the highly decorated Sunday talk show.
Moreover, by choosing Gregory over Matthews and company--the pioneers of MSNBC's newfound strategy of jettisoning objectivity for opinion, which has seen the network mimic Fox News's rating success at the cost of drawing strong criticism during the presidential campaign season--MSNBC executives would ensure that the reputation of one of the few last great bastion's of balanced objectivity within the American third estate remains intact. Anyone who questions whether such an edifying description is truly merited need only look at Colin Powell's decision to announce his endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy on the show a few weeks ago--and the almost country-wide outpouring of grief following Russert's death in June of this year
A single word was Barack Obama's ringing slogan as he set out on the long march to the White House. The key appointments he has made as the world waits for him to take the controls of the American government into his hands promise, in key areas, continuity more than change.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
His books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); a
The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan(Houghton Mifflin, 2000);
More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006)
A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)
Among Godfrey Hodgson's recent openDemocracy articles on American politics:
"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)
"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)
"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)
"Barack Obama's political tour" (28 July 2008)
"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)
"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)
"Metapolitics: America's election faultline" (18 September 2008)
"The week that democracy won" (29 September 2008)
"America's economy election" (3 November 2008)
"Yes, he can!" (6 November 2008)
"Let Obama be Obama" (17 November 2008)
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state does not augur dramatic policy innovations. She may have visited eighty countries. But she did so as the wife of the last president but one.
If the master-key to putting American foreign policy into forward gear is a careful but decisive change in policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, the senator from New York is hardly the best person to do that.
If the world was waiting for Obama to show how, with his experience of Kenya and Indonesia, he could understand the rage of the powerless, Hillary Clinton is an odd choice.
The transition process has been handed to John Podesta, one of the ablest members of Bill Clinton's White House staff. It is a further indication of how, instead of bringing in new blood, he is reassembling a team from the losers of 2000. One or two high-profile jobs will go to Republicans. But almost two-thirds of the names announced so far, it has been calculated, come from the Clinton administration. Some served under Republican administrations, including the disastrous administration Obama is about to replace.
It is true that the old criteria for "diversity" will be respected. Appropriate numbers of "minorities" (defined as being African-Americans, Hispanics - and the 50%-plus of the population who are women) will receive appointments. But the great majority of the American people - who do not live in the Washington, New York, Chicago or Boston conurbations, who are not millionaire professionals and executives, and who certainly did not attend elite graduate schools - will be massively under-represented as before.
The appointment of Susan Rice, an African-American woman, as ambassador to the United Nations is to be welcomed. Rice has shown an informed commitment to Africa, in particular. But the national security adviser will be a former US marine general, James L Jones, who supported John McCain in the election. A Vietnam veteran and former supreme Nato commander, Jones is a director of Boeing.
The new secretary of defence will be...the old secretary of defence. Robert M Gates was a career CIA officer who served under both Bush presidents and has personal ties with the Bush family through his time as the head of the Bush school at Texas A & M university.
The limits of expertise
In the absolutely vital field of financial and economic reform, change is even less obvious. The prizes have gone, not just to veterans of the Clinton and Bush years, but to representatives of the very institutions and values that allowed the crisis to happen.
Timothy F Geithner, Obama's choice for secretary of the treasury, is a high achiever who wins high praise. He comes from a classic upper-class New England background. He lived abroad as a child not, like Obama, because his mother was married to an Indonesian, but because his father was an official of the Ford Foundation.
Geithner is a protegé of both Clinton's successive treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. He worked in the Bush and Clinton administrations. His appointment is scarcely a guarantee of bold new ideas and new values.
Rubin is universally admired for his brains and his charm. He was also part of the coterie of deregulators who laid the foundations for the sub prime and toxic securities catastrophe. Rubin has been described as "joined at the hip" with the former Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, himself the protegé and close friend of the far-right novelist Ayn Rand. As late as 2005 Rubin praised the "innovation" of securitising sub-prime mortgages.
Rubin was involved in the creation of Citicorp by the merger of Travelers insurance, Smith Barney stockbrokers and investment bank Salomon Brothers with Citibank to form Citicorp. In the Clinton administration Rubin pushed through repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal legislation banning mergers between commercial and investment banks, thus breaking one of the chief protections against reckless investing by the commercial banks that handle ordinary citizens' accounts and the more rococo derivative securities.
As for Summers, close friend and holiday companion of Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown, he achieved the near impossible by being in effect forced out of the presidency of Harvard, the innermost citadel of the American political and business establishment. He made not one but a series of ridiculous mistakes of judgment.
He allowed it to appear that he believed in the intellectual inferiority of women to men. He behaved with crass insensitivity, to put it mildly, in the case of Cornel West, an African-American professor of distinction who returned from Harvard to Princeton in high dudgeon after being dressed down by Summers in what appeared, and not only to West, a racist manner. He even defended a Harvard academic who was involved in dodgy investments with Russian oligarchs.
The Wall Street trap
In appointing these men with once high but now bedraggled reputations, Obama is to some extent a victim of the closed world of Wall Street. The "masters of the universe", as Tom Wolfe called them, are overwhelmingly recruited from once elite institutions. They are now exposed as exponents of reckless practices and devotees of intellectually discredited dogmas. They earn ridiculously large incomes, not so much because they are greedy but because they are fiercely competitive. Money, as one of them once memorably said, "is the way we keep score".
Their institutions are secretive and arrogant and so are they. They do not often condescend to take an interest in the affairs of anything so banal as manufacturing. Rather they occupy themselves in the more entertaining, and profitable, work of devising and trading new financial "instruments". They are as fashion-fixated in financial matters as any celebrity with the couturier or the hairdresser.
The toxic farce of the sub-prime derivatives was all too clearly foreshadowed by the 1998 collapse of Long Term Capital Management, an elite hedge-fund started by a former boss of Salamon Brothers, John Meriwether. Among the staff were brilliant mathematicians and the cleverest bond-traders from Salomon Brothers. It boasted of its recruitment to the board of two Nobel laureates in economics, Myron Scholes and Robert C Merton. Bright stars of the economics departments of Harvard, Stanford and Chicago universities were implicated in one way or another in a ziggurat of intellectual hubris and error. LCTM used ultra-sophisticated mathematical models to conduct arbitrage in the bond market and got it spectacularly wrong.
Those of us who are not mathematical geniuses and have not been privy to the secrets of the universe can be forgiven if we don't understand all the ins-and-outs of what at a less supra-lunar level would have been judged a common fraud.
All the usual things went amiss. The economic theorists and genius mathematicians didn't anticipate that Russian government bonds would default. They seem not to have appreciated that their models must refer to the surd-like unpredictability of a messy world. Scholes and his girl friend were caught exchanging imprudent emails about tax avoidance. Henry Paulson, George W Bush's treasury secretary, made a cameo appearance as a corporate raider.
LTCM, with some $125 billion of investments leveraged on less than $5 billion of capital, would have gone bust. All was not lost, however. So large a fund, with such well-connected owners, could not be allowed to fail. Or so, before Geithner and Paulson decided differently about Lehman Brothers, thus initiating a worsening of the crisis, it was then assumed. The Federal Reserve stepped in and organised a bailout. Wall Street heaved a sigh of relief, until the next time clever fellows thought up a wheeze that could not go wrong.
LCTM served a warning that Wall Street, the apex of the American economic system, had been captured by a class elite of old buddies embarrassingly reminiscent of the City of London in the bad old days. A decade later, the same mistakes, the same culture and many of the same firms were involved in the sub-prime debacle and specifically in the marketing of worthless mortgage loans as sophisticated derivatives, shovelled out with plausible salesmanship to most of the world's biggest banks.
The elite vacuum
Why has Barack Obama, the apostle of change and the prophet of hope, turned to the same old crowd who steered the ship on to the rocks? It is not, we can be sure, because he is insincere in wanting change. He may have been over-impressed by the reputations of the masters of the universe, though he is anything but naïve. There are, however, two systemic reasons why he had little alternative to inviting the world's most gilded poachers to become his gamekeepers.
The first is that Wall Street's operations have become so esoteric, and Wall Street firms are so secretive, that it would be hard to find many outsiders capable of getting quickly up to speed in what has gone wrong, let alone on what to do about it. Moreover, those that could do so (men, for example, like the liberal Nobel prize laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, or billionaire trader turned Wall Street critic George Soros) would find the street closed by a wall of silence, envy and evasion.
More important, perhaps, is the atrophy in the United States of the tradition and the profession of public service. Since the Kennedy administration and arguably since Franklin D Roosevelt and long before, presidents have preferred to govern, not through career civil servants, but through officials recruited for their loyalty and especially through their own presidential-election campaigns
There is much less of a permanent government in America than in comparably successful democracies. "Civil service" in America is used to describe the lower grades of the bureaucracy. American mandarins are known as "dollar-a-year men", meaning lawyers and bankers are so well-off that they do not need to stoop to accepting a salary, though in practice they rarely hand the salary over to charity.
This is often presented (by Americans) as an advantage. Not for the land of the free, conservatives in particular boast, a grovelling herd of timid bureaucrats. Instead, presidents can draw on a pool of men who have gone in and out of government, taking time out from the public service from time to time to refresh their personal wealth and recharge their self-esteem by serving as chairmen of boards and chief executives of corporations, especially those that can use their experience in Washington contacts to bring in government contracts.
The disadvantage of this system, that gave the nation the splendid talents of the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Henry Paulson, duly admired by the media, is that there is no permanent corps of public servants with the independence, expertise and morale to take on the business world when it has flagrantly let the nation down.
On the contrary, the top several layers of the executive branch of government too frequently go to men (and a few women) who bring to the most responsible jobs in Washington at the very least split loyalties and all too often a rancorous contempt for the whole concept of democratic government.
This is not something that can be changed overnight, and certainly not in the middle of a crisis which may be deeper and longer-lasting than has yet been understood. But it will be a tragedy if Barack Obama does not follow FDR in at the very least taking some measures to reverse the contempt for government that was one of the central themes of the conservative ascendancy that has done the country and the world so much harm.
Until it hit the headlines after the Mumbai attacks, India did not tend to receive much attention in the international press - at least not as much attention as China, Asia's other major rising power. Even with the Olympics over, China has been the subject of innumerable recent news stories and feature pieces. In noting this, I am not trying to suggest that China gets too much attention; my point is only that India could use a little more. (To this end, openDemocracy has just launched a new editorial section on India, which had been planned for some time.) In the absence of detailed reporting on India, three images of the country have tended to coexist (somewhat uneasily) in Westerners' imaginations.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50