Liberalism

The Howard Zinn/Nation Critique of Obama

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I haven't read enough of the recently deceased socialist historian Howard Zinn to have much of an opinion, aside from recalling his odd argument just after 9/11 that "true security" can "only come from using our resources to make us the model of a good society, prosperous and peacemaking, with free, universal medical care, education and housing, guaranteed decent wages and a clean environment for all." Reason's Michael C. Moynihan, for one, was not a big fan, as we'll read more about later today. But I did read with interest Zinn's negative assessment of Barack Obama's first year in office, as part of a big forum in The Nation where authors were invited to nominate a highlight and lowlight from the past 12 months. Excerpt:

I've been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.

Some people have theories about this

As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican–as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. […]

I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

Never forget!

Leaving aside the political content for a moment, there is something embodied in this response which for my money has always been among the most attractive strains of the old New Left: Namely, an independent-bent readiness to fling poo at putative political allies long before they become term-limited lame ducks. Compare the current issue of The Nation with anything produced by The Weekly Standard or National Review from 2002-2004, and you will see a much greater willingness to detach lips from presidential ring.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the dissent doesn't read as if from an alternative universe. For instance, Adolph Reed Jr.:

The only surprise about his presidency is how many ersatz leftists cling to the fiction that he's anything other than a superficially articulate neoliberal Democrat in the Clinton mold and that his administration would act in any other way.

Or Hendrik Hertzberg:

[H]e's still up on the bridge, holding a steady course in a violent storm, even as many of the rest of us are clutching the railings and puking over the side. […]

I haven't been terribly surprised at how difficult it has proved for Obama to get his modest, moderately liberal program through Congress, especially in the Senate. These difficulties are not his fault.

Or Deepak Bhargava:

Progressives and community organizers can be proud of the role we played. Had we not outmatched the tea-baggers in our advocacy, and pushed hard for the public option, we would have ended up with a thin gruel or perhaps nothing at all.

Perhaps!

I gave qualified praise for lefty disenchantment with Obama in December, and talked about how the auto bailout flouted generations of lefty critiques against the Big 3 automakers as part of our August cover package.

NEXT: 'The Babies Were Going to Die the Next Day'

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  1. When I read Zinn’s People’s History of the United States I had to give him credit: it was definitely a socialist history but Zinn was very upfront about it. The honesty was refreshing. I admit I’m still puzzled as to how he could still be a socialist; the book was one big catalog of crimes committed by government, so looking to the government for solutions seems a bit odd and stubborn to me.

    Had we not outmatched the tea-baggers in our advocacy

    OT, but I’ve noticed with some amusement that pretty much anybody who disagrees with The Great One is called a “teabagger” by the leftists.

    1. It’s the new “neocon”.

      1. It’s the new “neocon”.

        Teabaggers are Jews?

    2. You see, the “wrong people” were in charge.

      The socialists’ most adamant belief is that if only they were in charge and had total control over everything, they would made all the right decisions and eventually everything would be perfect.

      1. looking to the government for solutions seems a bit odd and stubborn to me.

        Zinn was sympathetic to anarchism, though he was fairly inconsistent about that in practice. Still, I don’t think you can fairly accuse him of looking to the government for solutions; he repeatedly said that a bottom-up social transformation would be more productive than an election.

        1. Well, I admit I’m only going off of my reading of one of his books. But the things he wanted could only have come from a coercive government. Are you saying that he believed it wouldn’t take government force? Not arguing, just trying to grasp the point you’re making.

          1. Zinn’s ideal was a grassroots, bottom-up transformation of society that didn’t rely on the state. He didn’t hew to that as a consistent principle, and was happy to support government actions that would (in his view) make people’s lives better. But he always said that was a second-best option, and he wrote that we needed “to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires.”

            So he does show an awareness that “a centralized bureuacracy” with “incentives of prison and punishment” — i.e., big government — is something best avoided, even if he’s rather fuzzy on how to avoid it and rather averse to acknowledging that markets are an instrument rather than an enemy of decentralized cooperation.

            1. Not to be silly, but isn’t this like saying
              “Zinn’s ideal was to fly, but without wings, a propulsion system, lighter-than-air balloon, or some sort of anti-gravity”. Such is the socialist utopia without a giant government to steal and redistribute.

              1. I’m not defending Zinn’s politics, which are inconsistent in a host of ways. Just pointing out that he avoided the specific inconsistency of The government constantly commits crimes — so let’s give more power to the government!

            2. In other words, he was as confused as every other “socialist-anarchist”.

  2. “The solution to capitalism is democracy,” said Howard Zinn’s most financially successful follower.

    1. He’s in the wings, chowing on twinkies, waiting for another crisis to make millions on.

      Maybe we can get him and MeMe Roth together for a movie.

    2. I wasn’t aware capitalism needed a “solution.”

      1. Like all Statist (a.k.a Fascists) they are walking solutions (final or otherwise) looking for a problem

  3. Compare the current issue of The Nation with anything produced by The Weekly Standard or National Review from 2002-2004, and you will see a much greater willingness to detach lips from presidential ring.

    They’re not analogous publications. Insider conservative media is partisan. Insider lefty media is the Party; it doesn’t need to persuade itself whose side it’s on.

    But still, no, you won’t see that. You’ll see the same style of complaint, that their president is insufficiently delivering the things they want, paired with defenses of him because at least he’s not one of those evil other guys, or not as bad as those crazies say, or not in the way they say, and it’s their fault he sucks.

    You could turn a Nation into a Weekly Standard by juggling its names and terms, impoverishing its “lifestyle” signifiers, and aiming more rebukes at the citizenry than at politicians. Those last two are the Party difference.

  4. I struggle every day to understand why some people think capitalism is a problem that requires a solution. Did they not buy that Che t-shirt and non-fat mocha latte with their own money of their own free will.

    1. The problem is that other (in their eyes less deserving) people have MORE. And how dare those illiterate, nekulturny proles have MORE than sensitive, good, right-thinking people like ME.

  5. “That’s the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights.”

    Honestly, how could anyone be so stupid to think that? What, lousy people who have terrible views of the Constitution and individual rights never go to elite law schools? Had Zinn ever met John Yoo or Cass Sunstein?

    Zinn is part of a generation of people I think who were totally fucked over by their war time experience. I blame his socialism and general stupidity on PTSD. See Mailer and Vidal for two other examples of the long term effects of serving in World War II on some people.

    1. At least Gore Vidal was hilarious and good-looking. Unlike Zinn and Mailer. I’d at least want to have a drink with him and his crazy-ass self.

      1. That is probably true, although Mailer wrote a couple of books I like. Harlotte’s Ghost is really good.

  6. People seem to forget that Howard Zinn was at the forefront of a bunch of left-wing intellectuals who solidly and loudly backed Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008. Now, they claim not to be surprised by Obama’s failure to live up to promises made. Zinn, for one, never owned up to his his role in convincing the rank and file Left to support Obama’s politics of “hope.”

    1. The left is going to re-write history and turn on Obama. By 2012, all of them will claim that he was never their candidate but only a compromise foisted on them by the evil Democratic Centrists.

      1. John, I can show you plenty of comments from before November 2008 from people like Alexander Cockburn and Matt Taibbi saying Obama was just a compromise and a sell out. They’ve always said Obama is a middle of the road Establishment politician, and they were 100% correct. The real Socialist Left wing has never been pro Obama. For that matter the Clintonista wing of the Democratic Party was also saying that Obama was too right wing but no one, rightly, ever took those people seriously.

        1. But someone voted for him. It sure wasn’t the Republicans or the conservatives. Who was that if not either the socialist left or the Clintonistas?

          1. But someone voted for him. It sure wasn’t the Republicans or the conservatives. Who was that if not either the socialist left or the Clintonistas?

            Independents. They voted for Obama in droves and mostly because he was not Bush.

            Did you just wake up from a coma?

            1. How did he win the Democratic nomination without the support of either the Clinton machine or the left? Do independents hold the majority of votes in the Democratic party? I don’t think so.

              1. In the primaries The left could only really vote for Clinton or Obama. I recall that the vote was split.

                Plus the left do what anyone does try to nominate the guy who can win in the general.

                Also where in the above comments was i supposed to deduce that you were talking about the primaries?

                1. “Also where in the above comments was i supposed to deduce that you were talking about the primaries?”

                  I thought it went without saying that the Left could not alone decide a general election. I had to be referring to the primaries. Of course he won the general election with the support of independents. I thought that point was so obvious it didn’t need to be pointed out.

              2. Through great organization and tons of money put in play in the caucuses ? toward the end of the primary Hillary was kicking his ass, but his accrued lead was just to big at that point

          2. A. Obama won independents by a huge margin. B. Just because Socialists voted for him doesn’t prove they thought he was far left. I think most people were voting against the Bush/Palin party not for the Obama party. Which is why, today, Obama really has no power base. You can only complain about Bush for so long. Obama’s best hope in 2012 is someone like Palin – a Romney type will probably put a quick end to Obamaism.

            1. Obama won’t win in 2012 unless the economy turns around in a big way. If unemployment is still over 8% anyone with an R after their name will win.

          3. I’m picturing the scene in 1984 when they tear down all of the banners denouncing their enemy (now ally) in mid-rally, blaming their presence on spies.

          4. This doesn’t fit the narritive I’ve allreddy comitted too!

      2. By 2012 they’ll be calling him a DLCer, or worse, a “neocon/teabagger” for failing to deliver their shiny pink utopia of democratic socialism.

  7. Namely, an independent-bent readiness to fling poo at putative political allies long before they become term-limited lame ducks.

    The left has never shied away from tossing out human rights. My evidence would be the entire 20th century. The fact that they don’t care what Obama does with terrorists is proof of nothing.

    The fact that they are abandoning him for his failure at pushing a progressive agenda is laughable. Obama did not fail because he is a failure. He failed because the public does not want what he and the left are peddling.

    The fact that Zinn does hold human rights to a high standard is not a feature of his left leaning politics. In relation to standard left wing ideology it is a bug.

    1. I don’t know about Zinn, but I gaurentee you that if Obama had delivered them single payer healthcare and card check and cap and trade, no many Leftists would have cared what he did with terror suspects.

  8. Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights.

    That is weird cuz when I hear that someone went to Harvard Law school my first presumption is that they are dedicated to destroying constitutional rights.

    1. Hey! Not all of us!

      1. Was McNamara a Harvard law grad or just a Harvard grad?

  9. Deepak Bhargava:
    “Progressives and community organizers can be proud of the role we played. Had we not outmatched the tea-baggers in our advocacy, and pushed hard for the public option, we would have ended up with a thin gruel or perhaps nothing at all.”

    Note to Mr. Bhargava: eggs /= chickens; count the later, not the former.

  10. so looking to the government for solutions seems a bit odd and stubborn to me.

    But in Zinn’s idea of Socialism the people and the government are really one. Which is why I tend to think of Socialists as good people at heart, but hopelessly naive. They seem to think that you can have a society of selfless responsive bureaucrats and where every citizen is fully engaged in the workings of a transparent government and, I suppose, all take turns being the government. An idealized Athenian Democracy basically.

    1. State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

      -Nietzsche

      1. His aphorisms are great.

    2. It is an idealized version of the human being. It goes back to Marxism. In order for Marxism to work, you have to have the new socialist man. You have to eliminate the bourgeoisie classes and have a society of workers. A society of pure socialist men who work for the collective instead of themselves is the only one in which pure socialism can work.

      The problem is that no one really does that. The new socialist man has never existed. So the socialist inevitably end up supporting horrible government repression. The moment the citizen does something like grow tomatoes in his back yard and work for something besides the collective, he undermines the entire system. Since people are not perfect, the state has to put a stop to that kind of thing via coercion. Socialists really are bad people. They want to coercively change human nature into their liking. First, it is totally unrealistic, so you just get the oppression without the new man. Second, even if it was realistic, it is a thoroughly sick and immoral idea to forcibly transform human beings into mindless machines working for the collective rather than themselves. Sorry, but socialists are evil. Their stupidity and naivety doesn’t excuse them.

      1. “you have to have the new socialist man. You have to eliminate the bourgeoisie classes and have a society of workers. A society of pure socialist men who work for the collective instead of themselves is the only one in which pure socialism can work.”
        I’m not sure this is a disagreement:
        It’s not that the New Soviet Man had to be ‘workers’; they had to ignore their own best interests. ‘Workers’ don’t do that any more than do the bourgeoisie.
        The beauty of Austrian economics is that it captures and exploits the fact that people work toward their own best interest; as such, it becomes self-policing.
        The leftist approach, given the unreality of the New Soviet Man means totalitarianism must become structural to that approach.

    3. Which is why I tend to think of Socialists as good people at heart, but hopelessly naive.

      Now, maybe a couple of generations ago you could have argued this, but now? With all the evidence we have that Socialism is a soul-crushing, life-destroying ideology?

      By their works shall you know them.

      1. With all the evidence we have that Socialism is a soul-crushing, life-destroying ideology?

        There’s also evidence that in a small homogeneous population of like minded educated individuals – a Shaker village, a Christian monastery, or Sweden – Socialism of one form or another can work and provide people with meaning to their lives. But that sort of Socialism doesn’t scale, or perpetuate itself beyond a few generations of believers. On the other hand Austrian economics, or the Randian vision, is great for the motivated, the hard working and the smart – but it doesn’t address what the hell we’re supposed to do with the lazy and the dumb. Let them starve? All people may be endowed with equal rights, but not equal talents and capabilities. Socialism uses a repressive model of leveling everyone – OK for the below average people, not so good for everyone else. Libertarian philosophies seem to ignore that issue or pretend that given the right incentives everyone will work hard enough to do just fine, which also turns out to be a myth. The traditional conservative model of free markets tempered by Christian charity and the stigmatizing of excess opulence may be the best solution ever devised but modern American libertarianism seems too often to have descended into a simplistic philosophy of “what’s good for me personally is what’s best for society”.

        1. The examples you cited, with the exception of “Sweden”, are voluntary. You may choose to join one of those communities, or you may choose to leave if it’s not working out for you.
          We’ll see what happens to Sweden as Eurabia grows.

  11. They seem to think that you can have a society of selfless responsive bureaucrats and where every citizen is fully engaged in the workings of a transparent government

    I have found that the naivete to the good of government you speak of has no ideological bounds. The left just tend to be better at exploiting it.

  12. I thought the website was called ‘Reason.’

    1. We’ve literally never heard this joke before. How could we have missed that obvious joke all this time?

      1. I think he is just trying to get you drunk so he can take advantage of you.

        DRINK!

    2. You need to update your DNS. You’re trying to get to the Asshat Commmenter’s Stale Joke Archive, but your machine’s pointing you to Free Minds and Free Markets.

      Get that fixed, and you should be a lot more comfortable.

      Oh, and maybe make a HOSTS file with
      reason.com 127.0.0.0
      in it. It will make us a lot more comfortable.

      Thanx.

      Oh, and… drink!

  13. Here’s what Devan Downey, star guard for South Carolina, said about Obama when asked about Obama’s call to the Kentucky wildcats. Obama called to thank them for raising money for Haiti and congratulate them for becoming the #1 ranked team; then the gamecocks beat them.

    “Yeah, I’m aware of it, but I’m kind of scared to mention something about this president,” Downey joked. “I don’t want anybody knocking at my door. I don’t have anything to say about Obama.”

  14. Agreed that the socialist crap from Zinn was dumb…but here is a good clip from Zinn:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHJCjWj4avY

    Remember, war is the health of the state. People like Moynihan are bigger statist than Zinn in my book.

  15. When I had to go to California a few months ago I saw lots of Volvos with “End the War”, “Jail Bush”, and “Obama” stickers. It made me wonder which would be pealed off first. Today I saw my California ex-pat left wing neighbor’s car which last month sported all these same sentiments. The Bush and Obama stickers are now gone leaving only the anti-war strip. Looks like the rats are deserting the ship all right.

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