Obama in the Australian media

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Obama in the Australian media

Cometh the man of hope
Jonathan Schell
The Age (reprinted from The Nation)
January 24, 2009

Millions are looking to Barack Obama for hope in a world beset by crises, but should he
choose to play it safe, the consequences could be profound, writes Jonathan Schell.

"I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash
present grandeur down."Euripides, in The Trojan Women, referring to the fall of Troy


THE inauguration of Barack Obama is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is
the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United
States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the republic — "all men are
created equal" — and resonates around the world. The event fully justifies the jubilation it has
set off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.

It is now the beginning, the beginning of post-George Bush America, and fact-tempered hope
rather than joy must be the keynote. In this context, the event is like a candle that has been lit
in a dark and gusty room. How high its light will blaze is anything but clear. For the election of
this unreasonably talented and appealing man occurred together with a remarkable array of
crises, of which the economic one is only the newest.

A man and an hour: a familiar match-up. A lot has been said about the man. Analysing the
make-up of the new Administration has become the new Kremlinology, and a good deal of
ink has been spilled pondering whether the avatar of "vision" has opted instead for the status
quo, whether the fresh breeze from the hustings has already stagnated in the swamps of the
capital, whether a bold campaign platform is being traded in for mainstream governance.

And it is true that a centrist drift has been unmistakable. Joe Biden as Vice-President, Hillary
Clinton as Secretary of State, Robert Gates as Defence Secretary and Larry Summers as
chief economic adviser — these are hardly fresh faces. Yet other appointments, especially
those to environmental posts, have suggested a more venturesome presidency. And public
expectations are high: almost 80 per cent of the people are hopeful about the Obama

But what of the hour — the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face?
If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known
and familiar. Economic cycles come and go, and even the Great Depression eased up in a
little more than a decade. But this year's crisis is attended by, or embedded in, at least four
others of even larger scope.

The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have
fallen sharply from their peak, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back
those prices will rise with it?

A third crisis — less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted
— is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. The problem is not
so much an arms race as arms seepage, arms osmosis, owing to the deadly know-how that
is spreading from brain to brain in a kind of virtual pollution.

A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the human-caused
annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortages, and much else. Like
nuclear danger, the ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before
our era: the foundations of life on which humans and all species depend for survival.
Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.

Cutting across all these crises is a fifth that will be of immediate concern to the new
president: failure of the American bid for global empire and the consequent decline of US
influence abroad. The roots of the American will to empire go deep into history but reached
full flower in the Bush administration. The bid has run aground in the sands of Iraq and in the
mountains of Afghanistan, among other places. Even in the unlikely event that Obama
escapes those quagmires without precipitating new fiascoes, the appetite for military
takeovers of other countries (an idea thoroughly discredited more than a generation ago in
Vietnam) is going to be dead for a long time. The world is not going to be run by the
Pentagon, and everyone knows it. The downfall of overambitious, overreaching empires is an
old tale.

Yet if the other crises on the agenda are to be addressed, the world must be run somehow or
other. The reason is not that anyone loves world government but that the problems present
themselves on a global basis and will not yield to provincial solutions. The American decline
thus creates — or perhaps merely accentuates — a global political vacuum. It will not be
enough to mouth the words "co-operation" and "multilateralism". Something more muscular,
something more definite, will be required. (In this effort, the US must of course play a
significant role.)

contemporary crises are interwoven, forming a kind of Gordian knot. The
world does not have the luxury of dealing with them one by one.
Consider the relationship of the collapsing economy to the collapsing
environment. Economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has noted that
economists are wondering if the graph of the financial crisis will
eventually prove to be V-shaped or U-shaped; but he argues it will be

Indeed, there can be neither a V, a U or any other upward-turning graph if the remedy does
not include a green revolution and a sustainable-energy program. A dirty recovery, even if
possible, would be worse than no recovery. It would be the quickest path to a bigger bust.
The just-crashed "successful" economy, excellent as it was in producing cheap goods, was
also producing environmental catastrophe.

Environmentalists have long observed that if China tries to reach Western standards of living
along the carbon-gushing Western path, the planet will be cooked to a cinder in short order.
Now we are all in a sense in the Chinese boat. China can't have the economy we so recently
had, and we can't have it again either. We'll all have to have something quite different.

The same is true of US military power, discredited by the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires.
Additional follies of this sort have also become unaffordable. To the extent that America is to
be powerful in the21st century, it will have to be so by cultivating a quite different sort of

a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely the result of a
colossal accident — a world-historic pile-up on the global freeway. Yet
in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features
in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are
self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or
perhaps hyperactivity.

The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one's
own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic
crash is the result of investment run amok — the "masters of the universe" are the authors of
their own (and everyone's) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to
American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too
many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading towards collapse
because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion
of Iraq was the US empire's self-inflicted wound — a disaster of choice, so to speak. The
work of our own hands rises up to strike us.

All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too
many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too
great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power
war, making it — and potentially ourselves — obsolete through oversuccess. The economic
activity of humanity was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems.

Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which are now pressing in on all
sides to correct overreaching. All the crises (especially those endangering the ecosphere)
involve theft by the living from posterity. It's often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn,
devour their children. We are committing a slow-motion, cross-generational equivalent of this

My generation, the baby boomers, has been cannibalising the future to provision the present.
Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for
newspaper headlines. The question has been, "What harm are we doing to generations yet
unborn?" But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now
occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out
of our children's salaries. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The
atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines.

A "new era of responsibility" must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true all the
crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by
which the larger adjustment is set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the
sustainable world.

Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the
wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is "bubble". A bubble, in the
stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies.

When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses, and people are hurt.

Disillusion and tangible harm go together: as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does
real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people
really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious,
but the war and the dying are actual. The "safety" provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it
ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The
"limits on growth" were denied, but the oil reserves didn't get the message. The "uncertainty"
about global warming — cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy
companies — is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.

One day someone will undertake a full study of how all these bubbles grew and why they
were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the
apex of US life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media
organisations began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of, or subservience to,
wealth and power. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence
services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organisations can grind
inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been
wanted all along are presented to decision-makers at the top.

study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts
relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening
secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to
supplant, not illuminate, reality; of new offices created to draw false
new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking
careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate
bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass
destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but
were filtered out as the reports went up the chain.

For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the
truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the
science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees
editing the reports.

A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance towards reality
began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made
to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the "reality-based community",
which, the adviser said, believed that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of
discernible reality". But that was no longer true, for "we're an empire now, and when we act,
we create our own reality".

Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $US152.5 billion ($A232 billion) in
federal bail-out funds, then chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in
happier days: "This is never going to get any better than it is today. We're so big, we're never
going to swim against the tide. We are the tide."

In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not
the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a
play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not
the other way around.

Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the
various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election
has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth
and power die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after.

For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a
whole. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a
nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming were increasingly
accepted by the public — but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite
for measures such as a petrol tax to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming
intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas-devouring, pseudo-military
Hummer. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as
reflected in election results.

In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has
overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area
of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led
a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama's centrist cabinet choices seem to
promise. But they know that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now
charged with addressing.

"Reality" has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one
side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other is
the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream
choices, he is called "pragmatic". And it may well be so in political terms, as poll results

But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of
the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing
down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that
Obama's move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called "the left" or his "base" but that by
adjusting to a centre that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will
lose his effectiveness as president.

The difference between merely political pragmatism and the real thing is illustrated by Bush's
just ended career. From 2001 until 2006, he and his party dominated politics. Karl Rove's
dreams of a permanent Republican majority looked feasible. The values voters, the "soccer
moms", the Reagan Democrats and so forth were all lining up. But another key "constituency"
— one that never appears in any poll result — was quietly turning against him. It was the
constituency of the real. The adjustable-rate mortgages were heading south, energy markets
were nonplussed, the Afghan warlords were restive and the skidding Greenland ice shelf was
voting with its feet. These were the votes that undid him. To paraphrase the old saying, Bush
won power but lost the world. In the short run, delusion and deception can keep politics and
reality apart, but in the long run the two must meet. And then it is politics, not reality, that
must adjust. Euripides understood that, too.

Hence Barack Obama's victory on November 4.

In this era, political safety can spell danger, for himself and for the country and world. As he
faces the Himalayan problems of the21st century, the path of ruling through illusion is not
open to him.

He should figure out what's wrong with America and the world, honestly and directly
communicate his findings to the public, do his best to fix things and then let the results speak
for themselves.

It's a simple prescription — but lightyears away from anything that has been tried in the US
for a very long time.


Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and teaches a
course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New
Shape of Nuclear Danger.------------
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