An American Awakening?

5 Oct


             The exciting presence of protestors on Wall Street (and the spread of the #OccupyWallStreet protests across the country) is a welcome respite from years of passivity in America, not only in relation to the scandalous legal and illegal abuses of comprador capitalists, but also to the prolongations of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shocking disregard of the impinging challenges of climate change, a rising Islamophobic tide at home, and a presidency that seems less willing to confront hedge fund managers than jobless masses. But will this encouraging presence be sustained in a manner that brings some hope of restored democracy and social wellbeing at home and responsible law-oriented leadership abroad?

 

            There is little doubt that this move to the streets expresses a deep disillusionment with ordinary politics based on elections and governing institutions. Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 was the last hope of the young in America who poured unprecedented enthusiasm into his campaign that promised so much and delivered so little. Perhaps worse than Obama’s failure to deliver, was his refusal to fight, or even to bring into his entourage of advisors some voices of empathy and mildly progressive outlook. From his initial appointment of Rahm Emmanuel onwards, it was clear that the Obama presidency would be shaped by the old Washington games waged by special interests, as abetted by a Republican Party leaning ever further to the right, a surging Tea Party that is pushing the opposition to the outer extremes of irrational governance, and a Democratic Party that is trying to survive mainly by mimicking Republicans. If such a portrayal of ordinary politics is more or less correct it is a wonder that a more radical sense of America’s future took so long to materialize, or even to show these present signs of displeasure with what is and engagement with what might be.

 

            For those of us with our eyes on the Middle East two observations follow. The extraordinary falling back from Obama’s speech in Cairo of 2009, which was, contrary to how it was spun by the pro-Israeli media, a very cautious approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict, but at least forward looking in its realization that something more had to be done if negotiations were ever to be more than a charade. The speech contained lots of reassurances for Israel, especially it treated the dispute as essentially territorial (withdrawal to 1967 borders, which deliberately pretends that refugee and exile rights of Palestinians are irrelevant to a just peace), and only seemed to project balance when it insisted on a suspension of settlement expansion as a confidence-building step toward a new cycle of negotiations. It really was a most modest request to insist that Israel temporarily stop expanding settlements that were almost unanimously seen as flagrant violations of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention and posing a real threat to the viability of an independent Palestinian state. When Israeli leaders and their zealous American backers indicated ‘no go,’ the Obama administration back peddled with accelerating speed, gradually isolating the United States on the global stage by the unconditionality of its support for Israel even in situations where Israel is seen by virtually the entire rest of the world as defiant toward international law. Besides this, a few months ago the leaked Palestine Papers underscored Israel’s disinterest in a negotiated solution to the conflict even in the face of Palestinian of huge Palestinian Authority concessions behind closed doors. Of course, Obama should not take the whole blame as Congress has outdone him when it comes to support for partisan positions that often seem to outdo the Knesset.

 

            The latest phase in American foreign policy in relation to the conflict is associated with the American threat to veto the statehood bid of Palestine in the UN Security Council, coupled with its arm-twisting efforts to induce others to vote with the U.S. against statehood or at least abstain, so that Palestine will not get the nine affirmative votes it needs to receive a positive recommendation and the U.S. will be spared the embarrassment and backlash of casting a veto. The shrillness of the sterile call by Obama in his 2011 speech to the General Assembly to the parties to resume negotiations after almost twenty years of futility, and for the Palestinians the effects were far worse than mere failure    (the ordeal of occupation, loss of land to settlements, annexation wall, road infrastructure).  It should finally be understood. Time is not neutral. It helps Israel, hurts Palestine.

 

            Disavowing American party and institutional politics and situating hope with the arousal of progressive forces in civil society is different from concluding that the Wall Street protests is more than a tantalizing flash in the pan at this stage. Even this cautionary commentary should make it obvious that the events owe their primary inspiration to Tahrir Square (with a surprising initial push from the Canadian anti-consumerist organization Adbusters, previous mainly known for its irreverent and vaguely anarchistic magazine by the same name), especially the ethos of a nonviolent leaderless, programless spontaneous rising that learns day by day what it is about, who it is, and what is possible. Of course, the stakes for activists are much lower than in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East, as there is little risk of death at this point on American streets. At the same time, the monsters of Wall Street are not quite as potent a unifying target for an militant opposition as was the grim personage of Hosni Mubarak, cruel autocrat of more than three decades, and so it may be harder to transform the protests into a sustainable movement.

 

            In the end, we must hope and engage. The beginnings of hope are rooted in the correctness of analysis, and so we can be thankful that this initiative places its focus on financial and corporate structures, and not on the state. Further along these lines, if the struggle will gain momentum it will be totally thanks to politics-from-below. The implicit not so subtle point is that the center of power over the destinies of the American people has shifted its locus from Washington to New York, and from the penthouse to the the basement!!  We’ll see!!

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11 Responses to “An American Awakening?”

  1. john walsh October 5, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Once again, you are giving us thoughtful ideas for reflection. And once again, I find myself agreeing with you.

  2. rantosaurus2 October 5, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    nice blog, check mine

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  3. Ray Joseph Cormier October 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Professor Falk,

    My name is Ray Joseph Cormier and I approve of this message. Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Keep up the good work and excellent writing.

    Just before checking my email informing me of this new article as a subscriber to your site, I had just posted similar thoughts in my premier discussion site, EricMargolis.com, an excerpt here:

    “The strategic interests of Pakistan and the US are different, often in conflict. Yet the US “put a gun to our head,” in the words of a former ISI director (confirmed by former President Pervez Musharraf) and forced Pakistan to join the war against Taliban, a close Pakistani ally and strategic asset.”

    I can credibly take Eric’s word on this because he has the connections and expertise. I don’t question the veracity of it.

    But in the course of freedom of speech, I would substitute CanaDa for Pakistan, suggesting CanaDa’s best strategic interests in creating a better world have been surrendered to American war policies by our current government, making Canada an obedient vassal to the Faux Pax Americana.

    We could do much better and be more influential in the world if CanaDa reverted to it’s more natural role as an Independent Honest Broker and Peace Maker. It’s obvious to me our Prime Minister is a war monger with 4 more years in power.

    I would like Eric and my fellow Canadians to discuss this situation and what can be done about it? I can’t make anyone discuss it, but I think it’s important. Harper’s Office doesn’t even send a no name generic reply when I write about that and his Israeli policy which I have on several occasions.

  4. Artie Alfreds October 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Very nice, Richard, very well put.

  5. Albert Guillaume October 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    This protest is not just another ray of hope.This kind of protest is the only hope America has and for that matter the world,before the banksters and the corporations shut this last window of opportunity for mankind to get at least a semblance of democracy.Once again,as it has been throughout history,the line in the sand is drawn with the stick of religion.It is sure to divide and enable the evil forces to conquer.The Mammon is represented by the capitalists and the banksters and corporations are again dancing around the golden calf,which is represented by the financial crises,that are artificially induced.
    We have become so used to slavery,that we do not even know true freedom anymore.
    Thank you Dr. Falk for speaking out on our behalf.
    May the collective universal consciousness see you through on this noble endeavor.

  6. kester2 October 5, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    North Americans particularly, as well as Europeans, make very poor progressives because their comfort and prosperity (for those who have good jobs) depend on generations of colonialism (yes, the US as well that was the second level beneficiary) and exploitation of people in the undeveloped world. Their discomfort today is more than slightly a function of the poor and exploited in the rest of the world catching up.

    The most reactionary citizens of the west are the suburban living, middle tier, sinecure owners who fancy themselves as potential upper middle class ‘aristocrats’. They will rush to support any political party that seems likely to block the success of the worlds’ poor’s attempts at equality…because they believe that they will lose much more than the disadvantaged gain. Often these people consider themselves liberals, but as the last Canadian Federal election and the history of the Democratic party shows, their ‘liberalism’ is the neo-liberalism of market fundamentalism. They are trained as nothing more than shoppers and their ‘values’ are learned from TV ads.

    With that huge disadvantage weighing them down, the small successes of the ‘we are the 99%’ and the Wall St protests must inevitably seem small and faltering. That they exist at all is a wonder (probably due more to Obama’s betrayals than his policies). As a disenfranchised Canadian (my vote has never elected anyone) I can only be thankful that the movement can be credited in small part to the Canadian Adbusters. It will take another couple or years before the Harper ideologues have created enough disgust for a significant number of us to join the movement.

    But we will prevail.

  7. Ann Nevans October 6, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    It is heartening to see Americans taking to the streets against the Wall Street money men who continue to reap huge profits while the poor and middle class get poorer. I waited for some anger to be expressed after the torture of Abu Ghraib, continuation of Guantanamo, renditions, appalling treatment of returning war veterans – but apathy reigned. There was very little support for labor in Madison. Maybe the examples of people fighting for their rights under dictatorships in the middle east have wakened Americans again to their right to dissent.

    Although what President Obama has achieved has been very disappointing I do approve his trying to get beyond this acrimonious bi-partisanship. He wanted to do it together which is the best way but perhaps naive considering how the republicans have desecrated any semblance of respect for the presidency or in fact anything but their own nonsensical blathering about taxes and socialism. He has turned the other cheek too many times. Now we want to see him stand up for his promises even if the legislation does not pass. It has been very disturbing of late to see him back down on important environmental legislation. He and Michelle seem keen to be portrayed as “normal Americans” slipping out for fast food hamburgers and talking about a love of French fries. What ever happened to Michelle’s organic garden ? I guess the meat industry and big agribusiness is too powerful of a lobby to go against. Unfortunately this playing to the lowest common denominator does not set any kind of an example to raise consciousness.

    Let people take to the streets and make their voices heard ! Otherwise the tea party bullies and their minions will keep taking the advantage.

  8. monalisa October 6, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    Dear Richard,
    a very complete essay.

    I was all the time wondering – as a non US citizen and living in the Middle of Europe (with our own “disappointing political carousels”!) – how long it will take until the US population sees “red” and starts to say “no” !

    Yet it seems it has started. I do hope very very much that this uprising of the peoples voice will take across the USA loud and louder and that at the end protesters will shake hands with policemen to the point that “we are all US citizen and what affects you affects me all the same”.

    I hope very very much that will happen.

    Concerning the speech of President Obama in Cairo/Egypt in 2009 the reaction of the Egyptian population was that his speech was just a “anything” and didn’t convey any real constuctive information (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/). It could all go well in future if no foreign influence will bribe (or however it will be named!!) the military. During the time of Mubarak Egypt was torn between USA and Saudi Arabia: both countries influenced strongly by haevenly supports. Egyptian people are generally more openminded – quite contrary to some European countries !

    I hope very very much that the US citizen will get their rights back – and at the same time I fear it might be that US military power will interfere.
    To me it seems that the US military power together with the power of the US Secret Service departments have become very strong factors during the last ten years and maybe determining. Hopefully my thoughts are wrong !

    I too hope that it isn’t too late for the US citizen voices.

    monalisa

  9. edwin October 6, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    While you did not mention it, there is another factor shaping US resistance to the status quo – and that is the tea party. The US is torn in a way that Egypt appears not to be.

    The disenchatment of the population is substantial. The result is unclear. Does the US emerge into a new McCarthyism or worse?

    I think you are wrong to say that America is awakening. The left wing for sure – but the right wing has been awake and quite active in its disenchantment for quite some time now.

    • Richard Falk October 6, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

      I think your observation is correct, and I have tried to take better account of the rise of the right in a version of the blog re-written for AJE. Thanks for your comment.

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