Obama and the Chicago machine

For some time now Barack Obama has been getting close to Daley's political machine. His latest favor to the machine was to endorse Dorothy Tillman in the runoff election for the 3rd ward. The ward includes much of Bronzeville, the historic black district of Chicago, parts of which are gentrifying while other parts languish in economic depression.

Tillman started out as a civil rights organizer in the '60s and was elected alderman in 1985. Since then she has spoken out strongly for slavery reparations while integrating herself ever more tightly with the Daley machine and indulging in corruption. Most recently, hers was one of the key votes that sank the big box ordinance, a bill that would have forced large chain stores in Chicago to pay their workers a living wage. As a result, labor unions have worked hard to defeat her, and may do so - no thanks to Obama, who issued his endorsement as he left a labor rally.

This comes on the heels of Obama's endorsement of Daley in the mayoral election. Before that he backed Todd Stroger for president of the Cook County Board. Stroger succeeded his father in the position, and won the primary as the machine candidate against a reformer. He has thus far distinguished himself by cutting county health services for poor people.

Why has Obama tied himself so closely to the corrupt and conservative Daley establishment? The machine's election workers will help avoid the possibility of an embarassment in the Illinois primary. Keeping in Daley's good graces also provides access to all the big political donors in Chicago - mainly large corporations, developers, and financial interests. And since the city's progressive opposition is pathetically disorganized, Obama will not pay a political price for throwing his weight behind the machine.

The real question is why would Obama not support the machine? Unless, of course, he were serious about transcending the game of power, access, and privilege that is politics.


The presidential candidates' antiwar smokescreen

For some reason, the Iraq war is emerging as a key issue in the Democratic presidential primaries. American policy in Iraq, the Middle East more generally, and the entire world should be one of the main issues up for debate. But it's weird when "debate" emerges around an issue that all three top candidates agree on. (The only candidate that I'm aware of who has a different position, Dennis Kucinich, has been excluded from contention by the media and lack of campaign funds.)

Obama apparently has the edge on Iraq, since unlike Edwards and Clinton he opposed the war from the start. Yet as this article shows, Obama's actual voting record in the Senate has been timid at best when it comes to ending American involvement.

More to the point, on what grounds is Obama's opposition to the war based? That it's immoral to invade another country? That it's wrong for the United States to dominate other parts of the world? Certainly not. As his speech to AIPAC demonstrated, he fully believes that the US has the right to control other countries, and he has made clear that violence is an option when countries like Iran defy US commands. Obama has not called for cuts in our enormous military budget, which is as big as the military spending of the rest of world combined. He has not called for closing US bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He has not promised an end to America's continuing interference against the revival of progressive forces in Latin America. He has not called for global nuclear disarmament.

Instead, Obama's statements indicate that his foreign policy would be similar to that of Bill Clinton. Clinton would not have invaded Iraq, it's true, but he had no problem maintaining sanctions against Iraq that killed a million people. He readily sent hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry to countries like Turkey and Colombia engaged in vicious state terrorism. He had no trouble backing Suharto in Indonesia even as the government massacred people in East Timor. Obama stands squarely in this long tradition of liberal imperialism: an aggressive and militarist foreign policy with the same basic goals as that of the neoconservatives (perpetuating American military and economic supremacy), but in which multilateral approaches to maintain American power are tried before switching to unilateral ones should our shows of consultation and bribery fail.

Clinton and Edwards have the same foreign policy orientation, and have yet to give any indication that their presidential administrations would be any different from Obama's. As I've followed campaign news and read blogs, I've seen a disturbing idealization of the Clinton years on the part of progressives. It's time for us to reaquaint ourselves with the crimes of the Clinton administration and understand that all of the viable Democratic candidates would be just as criminal. Should a Democrat win the election, the left will have to sharpen its critical eye and move beyond slogans like "anyone but a Republican", or risk falling into the collective torpor of the Clinton years that allowed terrible atrocities to be committed in our name.


On alienating homophobic voters

After the 2004 election, which Republicans won based on appeals to American nationalism , xenophobia, and anti-gay bigotry, I called on the left to launch a culture war against these hatreds. I predicted that Democrats would move to the right in a pathetic attempt to "neutralize the issue", giving them no electoral advantage but deepening America's culture of intolerance.

Fortunately for the Democrats, the deterioration of the Iraq war and the Hurricane Katrina debacle turned voters against the Republicans and there was no need to swing to the right on cultural issues. But Democrats have certainly not stood up against nationalism and homophobia either.

The latest evidence is the response to comments from General Peter Pace - operational commander of the mass murdering organization called the US military - who said that homosexuality, of all things, is immoral. When asked if they agreed that being gay is immoral, both Clinton and Obama refused to answer.

Clinton said:
"We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desparately need, like translation skills. [That's a weird thing to say. Because they're gay they can't fight, but they have a facility for language? -Jake] And one can argue whether it was a good idea when it was first implemented, but we know [sic] have evidence as to the fact that we are in a time of war -- when we really need as many people as we can to recruit and retain in an all-volunteer army -- we are turning people away or discharging them not because of what they've done but because of who they are."

But is it immoral?

"Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude," she said. "I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want make sure they can."
And Obama:
Newsday caught Obama as he was leaving the firefighters convention and asked him three times if he thought homosexuality is immoral.

Answer 1: "I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That's probably a good tradition to follow."

Answer 2: "I think the question here is whether somebody is willing to sacrifice for their country, should they be able to if they're doing all the things that should be done."

Answer 3: Signed autograph, posed for snapshot, jumped athletically into town car.
So not only did they refuse to simply say "no", they also promoted service to American imperialism in the process.

I wasn't really expecting any better from Edwards, who like Clinton and Obama opposes gay marriage, but here's what he had to say:
Asked by Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room whether he agrees with Pace's comments, Edwards replied, "I don't share that view."
That's not as strong as I'd like. You would think a Democrat could by now come out and say, "Homosexuality is not immoral. And our country has no place for this kind of hatred." But, as with other issues, in the face of Clinton and Obama's political cowardice, Edwards looks pretty good.


Public transit not part of the lifestyle of public transit board

I don't ride the CTA much, since my commute to school is only about a mile and I normally bike or walk. Even so, I'm on a pace to take around 150 trips on the CTA this year. A regular commuter, of course, would take around 500 trips a year plus any weekend trips.

Compare that with this:
[CTA] board member Henry Chandler Jr., who gets around in a wheelchair, rode on CTA buses and trains 129 times in 2006--more than all the other board members combined, according to the ridership summary, which was provided to the Tribune.

"I think it is helpful if board members have an experience with the system. But every individual is different, and sometimes lifestyle doesn't fit into it," said CTA chairwoman Carole Brown, who rode the CTA 53 times in 2006 using her agency photo ID badge.
Okay, if they want to live in the suburbs and foul our air by driving 3-4 hours in traffic every day, fine. But in that case, providing oversight on a key urban service that they don't bother to use should not be part of their lifestyle.

Hardly surprising tho. It's always corporate executives and lawyers and other rich people who staff "public interest" boards like this or any other "civic" organization - the Olympics bid, for example. In many ways urban elites are basically the same as they were 150 years ago - a small group of "community figures" who not only control all the businesses but generously contribute their free time to running the bodies that make the decisions about urban planning and development, disbursement of grants, running of universities, museums, &c. In other words, the operational leaders of pretty much all the public and private organizations that control our lives are the same people that sit on all the boards overseeing those organizations. Since these are the people running our cities, and since the people in Congress are all bought and paid for by these same people, it starts to look like a mass delusion that Americans talk about democracy in this country.


Obama: Make US domination of the Middle East more effective

Obama made his pitch to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday with a speech here in Chicago. I encourage anyone who still has illusions about Obama's great progressive candidacy to read the full text. Taken as a whole, the speech is sickening. It's not so much that Obama states his strong support for American imperialism in the Middle East and Israel's continuing repression - we're probably desensitized to that sort of thing by now. It's that he lavishes long passages on humanizing Israelis in service to the dehumanization of Arabs. There is no evidence from the text that Israel has ever committed a single questionable act, while Arabs are seen to be constantly terrorizing poor Israel.

In the speech Obama also spells out clear policies on Iran, Iraq, and Israel. He calls Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace" and criticizes Bush administration policy for making Iran stronger. Obama's approach would include
direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, laying out in clear terms our principles and interests. Tough-minded diplomacy would include real leverage through stronger sanctions. It would mean more determined U.S diplomacy at the United Nations. It would mean harnessing the collective power of our friends in Europe who are Iran’s major trading partners. It would mean a cooperative strategy with Gulf States who supply Iran with much of the energy resources it needs. It would mean unifying those states to recognize the threat of Iran and increase pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. It would mean full implementation of U.S. sanctions laws. And over the long term, it would mean a focused approach from us to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down.
In other words, Obama would expend considerable effort to isolate Iran and destroy its economy while conducting discussions with its government. Obama's policy would only strengthen the Irani desire for nuclear weapons to protect itself. And it's probably untenable anyway. US sanctions are already extremely strong, so the only change is that Obama would strong-arm European and Middle Eastern countries to further isolate Iran - something the Bush administration has already tried unsuccessfully. But that aside, what's revealing is that Obama supports collective punishment of the Irani people as a means of reducing their leadership - including their elected president - to subservience.

On Iraq, Obama calls for troop withdrawal to be completed by 2008 May. But, he also has this to say:
My plan also allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain and prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for international terrorism and reduce the risk of all-out chaos. In addition, we will redeploy our troops to other locations in the region, reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East.
This is a nice way of saying that altho the project of establishing Iraq as a military base from which the US could project military power throughout the region has failed, Obama has no intention of giving up the larger objective. American domination of the Middle East is the reason terrorists target the US, but just like every Republican and Democratic president since FDR, for Obama controlling the region's oil is the most important thing.

As for Israel, Obama argues that America must never apply any sort of pressure on that country - certainly not by withdrawing the massive subsidies the US provides, but not even thru toothless diplomatic pressure. "No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States", he says, and "we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance". He also blames Lebanon for Israel's attack against it, and refuses to work with the "extremists" who Palestinians elected to represent them.

Now, Clinton and Edwards (and McCain and Giuliani) are just as bad as Obama on all these issues. But people whose critical faculties have for unknown reasons been overwhelmed by Obama's empty rhetoric about hope should pay more attention to speeches like these, in which he reveals his concrete policies. We have to wait and see if Obama comes up with anything good on domestic policy, but until that time I see no reason to support him over Edwards.

A small victory for the "human nature is good" camp

A new poll shows strong support for universal health care. 65 percent of respondents rate extending insurance to those who don't have it a bigger priority than keeping health costs down for those who are already insured. 48 percent support universal health care even if their own costs increased as much as $500/year.

Republicans in the survey acquit themselves better than expected, as 30 percent support a government guarantee of health care even if it raises their own costs. On the other hand the 52 percent of Republicans along with 13 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents who oppose universal health care reveal themselves as the true assholes of the country. You can make a superficially plausible case that poor people are to blame for being poor - it's a lot harder to make that argument about sickness and disease. Here the pretense of personal responsibility is dropped, and we see that most Republicans are just selfish bastards.

For many years polls have consistently shown strong popular support for universal health care. Every time one of these polls comes out the media seem surprised - an indication of the deep contempt the media hold for democratic priorities when popular desires don't mesh with those of the business and political elites. In every article except those on polls like this, universal health care is assumed to be utopian. It's truly remarkable that despite being told at every opportunity that universal health care is impossible, large majorities of Americans continue to support it.

What will the Democrats do with these popular demands? Mike Davis, discussing the state of the party following the midterm elections, is probably right that as long as popular forces remain unorganized and apathetic, the Democrats will continue to pursue corporate money at the expense of any real reforms. But as I've written, John Edwards's health care plan is actually quite good. If Clinton and Obama match him (unlikely) or if they're denied the nomination because they can't find the political courage to support universal health care, we might make real progress.


letter to the editor, re: expanding public transit

Hey look at that, the Tribune printed a letter I wrote. It's inferior to the op-ed, but hits the same points. Unfortunately they changed my correct spelling of the word El to the Tribune's style "L". Three of the seven letters today criticize what's going on with the CTA.

Moving the public

You argue that the CTA should take care of its basic maintenance needs before building new services ("Crosstown back from the dead," Editorial, Feb. 26). But often federal funds are available that can only be used on new construction. Adequately funding existing public transit should be the first priority, but it shouldn't distract us from the ambitious expansion plans that might someday allow the metro region to escape its destructive addiction to cars. In fact, long-term planning is going on right now—but for the wrong things. Mayor Richard M. Daley and the CTA have fast-tracked the Circle Line and Block 37 airport express. These two projects might please Daley's well-heeled campaign contributors, but they do little for the huge sections of the city underserved by public transit.

Let's spend that money instead building the Mid-City Transitway "L" line on the old Crosstown Expressway route and extensions of the Dan Ryan Red Line, the Orange Line and the Yellow Line that have been discussed for years.