Saturday, January 1, 2011

State of the Blog: Happy New Year? A Toe Story.

Yes We* Can!
(*we does not include Arabs, Muslims or Latin@s)

So thanks to about a million tweets and status updates I am now aware that it is 1/1/11, which is vaguely ominous and futuristic. Is this the year the intelligent machines take over? Will anyone notice when they do? Am I the only person in America who didn't get a Kindle for Christmas?

But despite the sci-fi subtext the year began gently-- at least for me. Dog slept late (the only trick I ever taught him he managed to learn) and peed right away in the snow. I ate a delicious breakfast to the sounds of the Honeymooners marathon and then, lost in thought about the upcoming year I smashed--and possibly broke, it isn't yet clear--my little toe. I jumped up and down like a Looney-Tunes character with a giant pulsing toe. A Looney-Tunes character that was yelling "FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!" (The dog, now sound asleep on my bed did not stir. Not exactly Lassie, him.) Then I sat down hard on a vintage chair, snapped one of the legs and wound up on the floor. As I sit here staring at my broken chair with a bag of organic frozen blueberries I bought five months ago as part of an antioxidant experiment slowly defrosting around my swollen toe I am struck by how quickly things can change.

I have a picture of myself from the exact moment Barack Obama won the 2008 election to become the 44th President of the United States. In it I am dumbstruck with happiness and relief. The long national nightmare of the Bush Administration was over because the American people have decided we have had enough, I thought. Obama's race was the lead story for most people, for obvious reasons. Although for me it was always secondary--since the few Arab-American politicians are extremely conservative (Darrel Issa, Jeanine Pirro) it never occurs to me to vote along ethnic lines. If an old money white guy had the right politics I wouldn't hesitate to support him over an Arab guy with the wrong ones, full stop. But the symbolic significance of Obama's ascension to the Presidency cannot be denied and I thought it represented not only a shift in the racial landscape of the US but a rejection of Bush-era conservatism.

Turns out, not so much. At least not for people like me.

It's hard to remember now given the rancorous obstruction and race-baiting of the past year and a half but there was a golden moment at the start of the Obama Presidency when his detractors weren't sure yet how to criticize him (and even many of his future enemies were still congratulating themselves for the social progress associated with his win). After dipping so low in the eyes of the world Obama's entry into our highest office seemed to signal a necessary sea- change and even conservatives seemed relieved to finally have something to celebrate.

Every American President enjoys a honeymoon period--Bush did--and how they choose to spend this political capital is instructive. Clinton, who also rode a wave of dissatisfaction with conservatism into office nearly derailed his young Presidency by trying to reform health care in 1993. (And in the process earned his wife, who'd lead the aborted effort, a reputation as an over reaching political opportunist that clings to her still). But unlike so many others I was unable to enjoy the Obama honeymoon because despite the fact that he cuts an inspiring figure I wanted to see what he was actually going to do. On the second or third day of his Presidency Obama affirmed his commitment to closing Guantanamo and I was relieved. I shouldn't have been. Not only did he not close the prison and interrogation camp at Guantanamo by his own deadline he has now--via US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs--announced that it won't close at all. At least, not anytime soon. Near the one year anniversary of the Administration's failed closure timetable--nestled conveniently in the midst of the holiday news-cycle--Gibbs said, "It's certainly not going to close in the next month [...] I think part of this depends on the Republicans' willingness to work with the administration on this.''

So this he is willing to blame the Republicans for?

Like the Obama Administration, Guantanamo is both a symbol and a functional system. It represents the corruption of US American justice and our willingness to torture and degrade our foreign "Others." (It bears remembering that the site was used to "detain" Haitians fleeing Aristide to prevent them from entering the United States as refugees under Clinton.) Functionally Guantanamo is a lawless space where the US does its dirty work and its closure would symbolize a turn of the page away from the worst excesses of the previous administration. But that did not happen so instead it signals that despite Obama's campaign promises to the contrary, the radical expansion of Executive powers engineered by Bush Administration are the new Normal for the United States. Despite a much-publicized troop withdrawal the US military presence in Iraq persists and the war in Afghanistan continues apace. So despite his campaign rhetoric Obama actually expanded US Military presence in the so-called "Muslim World." Of course he also never misses an opportunity to be made a fool of by Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, a country that would not exist without the billions of dollars we pump into it. And the so-called "peace-process" has never seemed more like a puppet show than it does under the rubric of his Presidency. It would not be much of a stretch to see Obama's repeated public humiliations at Netanyahu's hands as a rehearsal for his many embarrassing concessions to Republicans at home. And the overall message derived from these events is clear: President Obama does not care about Arabs and Muslims at home or abroad. Of course a similar list could be made by Latin@s with similarly disappointing results. The discourse linking "homeland security" with "illegal immigration" puts Arabs, Muslims and Latin@s in the same boat (pun intended) with this Administration. Even though Conservatives are the ones who have described us (All of us) as bacteria infecting the host body of the West the lack of challenge to that view put forth by the Obama Administration allows it to stand--and worse, to become an increasingly mainstream position. In sum, under President Obama Arabs, Muslims (and Latin@s) are no better off than we were under George W. Bush.

Under Bush I was angry. But under Obama I feel hopeless, the exact opposite of his promise. And as he gears up for re-election the apologists of the mainstream Left are already beginning to poo-poo the concerns of people like me and marginalize us as too radical. But is it too radical to ask that you be included among the list of concerns for your own President? To not have him sell you out to conservatives and foreign governments to earn points with the public by playing to their racism, ethnocentrism and Islamophobia?

Like my poor toe, I have been numb. But sooner or later you have to peel off the wet bag of soggy blueberries and assess the damage. Like my toe, I hope America is only bruised and not broken.

But it is too early to tell.

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