No Invisible Men

An interesting item from Alfred McCoy – it seems that opium farming generates fifty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and supports twenty percent of its population.

So he suggests we think about this:

To understand the Afghan War, one basic point must be grasped: in poor nations with weak state services, agriculture is the foundation for all politics, binding villagers to the government or warlords or rebels. The ultimate aim of counterinsurgency strategy is always to establish the state’s authority. When the economy is illicit and by definition beyond government control, this task becomes monumental. If the insurgents capture that illicit economy, as the Taliban have done, then the task becomes little short of insurmountable.

That’s from “The Opium Wars in Afghanistan” – a short history of the three Afghan wars of the past three decades. Now what? What have we gotten ourselves into?

And consider Tom Freidman in the New York Times with this:

This newspaper carried a very troubling article on the front page on Monday. It detailed how President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had invited Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul – in order to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration – after the White House had rescinded an invitation to Mr. Karzai to come to Washington because the Afghan president had gutted an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in his re-election last year.

He’s referring to this article that notes “according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban.” The news here – “‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.”


That is what we’re getting for risking thousands of US soldiers and having spent $200 billion already. This news is a flashing red light, warning that the Obama team is violating at least three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy.

Of course he makes these up as he goes along – he’s like that – but the first rule is rather obvious:

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. …

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

Well, yes – and there is the McCoy item too. And there is Freidman’s second rule, never want it more than they do:

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul – the latest being President Obama himself – to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?

Freidman suggests that Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, feel the same way too. They can make us dance.

And there’s the third rule Freidman invents:

In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

When Karzai believes that the way to punish America for snubbing him is by inviting Iran’s president to Kabul – who delivered a virulently anti-US speech from inside the presidential palace – you have to pay close attention to that. It means Karzai must think that anti-Americanism plays well on the streets of Afghanistan and that by dabbling in it himself – as he did during his presidential campaign – he will strengthen himself politically. That is not a good sign.

No kidding. And this analysis from the man, Freidman, who said even if there were no WMD in Iraq at all, after all, and it turned out that in spite of what we were told, Saddam Hussein actually had no connection at all to al-Qaeda, no matter – the Iraq War was the perfect thing to do. We had to show folks in that part of the world that no one pushes us around, and we had to make it all very local and very dramatic – bust down the door, any will do, and rough up the hapless dude in front of the wife and kids, and if he whines or calls out to Allah, tell him he can just suck on this.

It seems that approach is a bit counterproductive, and the Afghan War is proving that once again. Of course some people consider Freidman a moral monster, for this and for calling for a pan-Islamic civil war so they’d all just go ahead and kill each other or something. But he’s considered an important thinker. The New York Times pays him big bucks for thinking big thoughts, and making up new rules, kind of like Bill Maher – without the wit and basic decency.

But although Freidman considers Obama a fool for even talking with the corrupt and hopeless Hamid Karzai that is the approach Obama takes, generally, on all conflicts, foreign or domestic. You talk, you listen – you try to figure out what can be done with the other party, and what just won’t work. You don’t give in, but you listen. You at least give it a try.

And we elected Obama knowing full well that’s what he would do. McCain wouldn’t. McCain was all for slapping folks around and telling them to stop the bullshit – and then they would, or so he told us. McCain running mate, Sarah Palin, was of the same mind – that’s how she dealt with her kids, and Wasilla, and Alaska. You laid down the law. Yeah, one kid got knocked up, by that Levi Johnston fellow whose mother was later sent to jail for pushing drugs, and now the fifteen-year-old daughter is in deep trouble with drinking and vandalism and drugs – but the principle holds true. You lay down the law, and people do what they’re told.

That this manifestly does not work is obvious. Grudging compliance turns into resentment, and resentment grows as the person mulls over and begins to obsess about having their own powerlessness rubbed in their face, publicly, and then they act out. What else would you expect to happen?

And in America it’s like that with race. It always has been. Long ago Langston Hughes wrote that short poem about that raisin in the sun, the one that explodes – it was about a dream deferred. Many white folks must have seen that odd little poem as a threat – give us what we say, as a matter of common decency, we deserve, or this country will explode, and you won’t like what happens one bit. Others must have seen it as a simple observation. Rub someone’s powerlessness in their face, publicly, or even worse, pretend they don’t exist (what Ralph Ellison was getting at in Invisible Man), or worse yet, patronize them, telling them, with a smile, you’ll get to their concerns later, as their concerns are really important to you, and then go to lunch with your friends – and certain things are bound to happen. And they’re not good things. Everyone has had a tiny little taste of that – the recording that says please hold, your call is important to us – and you know how you felt as five minutes turned into thirty and then an hour, and then you hung up. Multiply that by a billion or so.

And now we have a black president, and it’s not very surprising that he knows not to do anything like that to anyone – friends or enemies. No good can come of saying wait, not now, later. You can at least listen. It keeps any raisins from exploding. And no good can come of pretending that the other party doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist – see the Bush-Cheney administration on North Korea. They exploded their first nuclear device – and that was some raisin.

Obama seems to get this – and maybe those who voted for him must have sensed the logic that underlies it all, even if so many of those who voted for him were white folks. Perhaps the development of modern call-waiting queues with soft-rock elevator music and periodic canned your-call-is-important-to-us messages kicking in helped a bit. They could relate. You don’t have to be black.

So perhaps Obama’s experience as a black man informs his governing style and his approach to international affairs. He’s not Thomas Freidman, the white guy. Of course many on the left are frustrated with Obama’s insistence on taking Republicans seriously, even if the Republicans say they will break him, and say they want him to fail, even if America fails, and will always vote against anything he wants done – and even if he incorporates what they want into whatever it is, after he’s carefully listened to them, they’ll vote against it anyway. Everyone saw that with healthcare reform. What’s the point?

But maybe there’s no point. It’s just a frame of mind, or more precisely, a philosophic and moral position. You don’t shut people out, and you don’t pretend they’re invisible, and you never rub their powerlessness in their face, publicly. You just don’t do that. It’s just not right. And of course is amazingly bad politics, if you’re playing a long game. Doing any of that may feel good – really, really good – in the present. Bush seemed to get off on that – and Cheney certainly did. But you pay later. And they both did. Maybe you have to be black to understand, but probably not. Being observant might suffice.

Of course there are some scholars who say we cannot have an effective black president, as any black president would have an odd and different perspective on things, one informed by race. You may be one of those who say that’s just what we want, someone who understands what happens to those others dismiss or just cannot see, and accounts for that. But you’d be arguing with the conservative black scholar Shelby Steele – and he’s the anti-Obama. He too was born to a black father and a white mother – his father, a black truck driver, met his mother, a white social worker, while she was working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). And Steele attended the University of Utah, where he later taught black literature and studied for his PhD, but when he was finally offered a tenured position at the university he turned it down. He had married a white woman and Utah was no place for an interracial couple to live. He ended up at San Jose State.

So far so good, but he’s a self-described Black conservative – opposed to affirmative action and other such “unsuccessful liberal campaigns to promote equal opportunity for African-Americans.” You see blacks have been “twice betrayed” – first, by slavery and oppression, and then by group preferences mandated by the government that “discourage self-agency and personal responsibility” in blacks. The problem is that white Americans see blacks as victims to ease their guilty conscience, while blacks attempt to turn their status as victims into a kind of currency, with no purchasing power. That’s why, in 2007, he wrote A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Obama is a “bound man” to his “black identity” – the kind of guy from whom grievance and protest become personal truth. All black men are like that, except for Steele himself. And after Obama won Steele said Obama had been just like Louis Armstrong, donning the “bargainer’s mask” in his bid for white acceptance – Obama demeaned himself by playing Happy Darkie. In short, Obama takes whites – who Steele claims have always been stigmatized as racist and had to prove they are not – “off the hook.” And who doesn’t like Louis Armstrong?

Still, it’s something. But see Adam Serwer:

Guys, it’s really hard to be Shelby Steele. First you write a book about how Barack Obama can’t win the 2008 election because he’s constrained by the traditional roles of black people in American politics. After he wins you’re stuck writing harried op-eds about how he only won because white people felt really guilty and wanted to vote for a black guy, a thesis belied by the available demographic information. Conversely, you praise then-candidate for RNC Chair Michael Steele as someone with “integrity” who “really stands for something,” which was already embarrassing enough at the time.

Then, when the political winds seem to be blowing misfortune Obama’s way, you eagerly rub your hands together and write about how Obama is ineffectual as a president because he never had the chops to get the job done after all, because he was only elected because he’s black. Then, of course, Obama pushes historic health-care legislation through Congress that puts him on the same playing field as the most prominent Democratic presidents in American history.

Serwer embeds all the links if you want to look up any of that, but since Steele has been wrong on these matters, you may not choose to spend the time that would take, carefully reviewing errors in judgment. What the point?

But there’s something new. In the Wall Street Journal Steele writes this – all of Obama’s recent accomplishments were only achieved because Obama, as a black man, needs to prove that he’s just as good as all the other white presidents:

Mr. Obama’s success has always been ephemeral because it was based on an illusion: that if we Americans could transcend race enough to elect a black president, we could transcend all manner of human banalities and be on our way to human perfectibility. A black president would put us in a higher human territory. And yet the poor man we elected to play out this fantasy is now torturing us with his need to reflect our grandiosity back to us.

Serwer is amused:

A president with an inflated sense of ego and concern over his ultimate historical legacy? How black of him.

But he also sees what’s going on:

Steele keeps reassuring his conservative audience that this fop Obama is a pushover whose only advantage is being black. And those who believe him do so because they want to be reassured that Obama isn’t exceptional. And because Steele himself is black, his followers assume he must know about these things. Then they lose, and they scratch their heads and start muttering angrily about Teleprompters. Steele’s work helps conservatives cling to myths about liberal black folks being the products of white charity, and they don’t contradict him because they don’t actually know enough black people to know better.

If you’re Shelby Steele, though, you can’t actually abandon your thesis, no matter how much harm you’re doing the cause of conservatism or your party, because you offer a specific product – reassurance to whites that anti-black racism is a thing of the past and that they’ve fulfilled their ethical obligations to blacks. Therefore, any substantive expansion of the social safety net isn’t about social responsibility but exploitation. … Steele is bound to a vision of a world where black people’s existence is defined by exploiting white guilt for personal advantage. So it doesn’t occur to Steele that extending health-care coverage to 32 million people is a good in and of itself worth fighting for, because he likely sees it as merely a crude redistribution of resources from one race to another under terms he sees as unfair.

Just who is the “bound man” here?

Not only is Steele offering the same kind of reassurance to white conservatives that he accuses Obama of offering to whites in general, he doesn’t even have the freedom to admit that he’s wrong.

But it’s more than race. A 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll recently found that fifty percent of respondents would be willing to support an openly-gay presidential candidate. And then the Family Research Council, the prominent religious right group with ties to the Republican leadership, suggested that President Obama may effectively already be our first gay president:

If it was argued during his two terms in office that Bill Clinton was “our first black President” because of his supposed liberal policies that would benefit African-Americans (though I’m not quite sure what President Clinton did, that he wasn’t forced to do, that would benefit any minority except for Chinese monks with political donations to spend.) With that argument shouldn’t Barack Obama already be our “first gay President” due to his liberal policies pushing the homosexual agenda?

Steve Benen comments:

The Family Research Council isn’t saying President Obama is gay; it’s saying President Obama might as well be considered gay, the same way Bill Clinton was considered black.

And the religious right wonders why it’s so hard to take their movement seriously.

But Benen offers these facts:

In his first year, the president has presented a package of domestic partnership benefits for federal workers, lifted the travel/immigration ban on those with HIV/AIDS, expanded hate-crime laws, addressed the diplomatic passport issue, issued a strong Pride Month proclamation, hosted a White House event to honor the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and taken the initial steps in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He’s also publicly expressed his support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and making the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act law.

It’s a start, and it’s apparently enough to make major religious right groups publish foolish things.

And just why is it an insult? As with race, you may be one of those who say that’s just what we want, someone who understands what happens to those others dismiss or just cannot see, and accounts for that. There are worse things than that. Ask the parents of Matthew Shepard.

So yes, Obama’s experience as a black man informs his governing style and his approach to international affairs. He’s no Thomas Freidman. You got a problem with that?

But of course there’s no fixing Afghanistan.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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