The Howard Zinn/Nation Critique of Obama


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.


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.