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PGB: Selective Amnesia & Historical Revisionism


A Word From Afar: Selective Amnesia And Historical Revisionism In The US Presidential Campaign

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan

The gap between the Democratic and Republican tickets has widened going into the final two weeks of the US presidential campaign. The financial and stock market crashes have stoked popular resentment against the architects of economic policy during the last eight years, and the post convention “bounce” in support for Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin has been replaced by increased discomfort with his judgment and temperament and her aptitude for leadership and socially conservative views. Meanwhile, the relative success of the Iraq occupation has been counter-balanced by the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which was the original front in the purported “war against terror” and which remains so today. Given anti-incumbent sentiment amongst the US electorate, the decisive advantage is to the Democrats.

The Democratic Party certainly has its share of blame in contributing to the market and security debacles of recent times, but the last three weeks have seen a perfect storm of negative political fallout for the Republicans. Revelations about Governor Palin’s abuse of power in pursuing the unjustified dismissal of her ex-brother in law from the Alaska State Police are just the latest in a series of body blows to the Republican ticket. If current trends continue, the November 4 election could be a rout of historic proportions, including further losses of congressional seats by the Republicans that could bring the Democrats close to a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress (which is what is needed to pass legislation).

In a sign of desperation, the McCain/Palin campaign has turned away from earlier promises of “clean” campaigning and launched, in concert with its media lackeys, increasingly vicious attacks on Senator Obama’s character, personal history and past associations. No longer able to compete on the pressing substantive issues of the economy, public policy, and American foreign misadventures, the McCain/Palin strategy is to divert public attention into so-called “culture wars” and replaying the domestic ideological divisions of the past. In parallel, they rebut any critique of their personal or professional behavior as politically motivated by a biased press and unpatriotic Democratic partisans. Having replaced the original campaign team with advisors from the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove school of wedge politics (in which sensitive issues like race, immigration, national security, abortion and homosexual rights are played upon so as to elicit mobilized fear in the more conservative segments of the electorate), the McCain/Palin ticket is in full negative attack mode.

The contours of the strategy are simple: use historical revisionism and selective amnesia to assault Barrack Obama on a personal level. Reject all critiques as partisan. Concentrate debate on the opponent rather than one’s record of service. The assumption is that the public is too dumb to know better. The specific attack points involve Obama’s association with Vietnam-era radicals and contemporary community organizations and religious leaders along with questions about his citizenship and heritage.

The main focus of the strategy is Senator Obama’s past associations, especially his involvement with William Ayers, a former Weatherman convicted of bombing the Pentagon and other government buildings in the early 1970s. Ayers is now a professor in Chicago, a well-respected education policy expert who is active in progressive politics in that city (he received the 1997 Chicago citizen of the year award). He is also a neighbour of Senator Obama in the liberal enclave of Hyde Park and has participated in community organizing events, fund-raisers and committees with him.

Republicans maintain that Ayers is an unrepentant terrorist and that Senator Obama, although only 8 years old at the time of Mr. Ayers bombing campaign, is guilty by association with him. The trouble with this claim is that it assumes that Mr. Ayers’ current activities are an extension of his past, and that involvement in contemporary progressive causes like improving inner-city education are the modern equivalent of pipe bombs. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the guerrilla activities of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers in the early 1970s were reflective of the extraordinary degree of popular conflict over the Vietnam War at that time. Although their violent actions were not condoned by the majority of the population, the behaviour of such militant groups occurred in a political climate which saw, among other things, Ohio National Guardsmen shoot to death nearly a score of unarmed student protestors at Kent State University, Chicago police attack peaceful demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention, race riots sweep black ghettos in a number of major cities (resulting in dozens of deaths at police hands) and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy murdered. Marches and demonstrations against the war attracted hundreds of thousands. A tidal wave of students and young people joined a variety of activist groups at the time, many of which endorsed “direct action” tactics against the establishment led by Republican Richard Nixon (the president who authorised the secret bombing of Cambodia, the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the wiretapping of political opponents and the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices). Those were, in effect, extraordinary times. To ignore the context of the moment in order to make it seem as if Mr. Ayers' activities then were akin to those of Islamic extremists now is to stretch the point too far. To associate Barrack Obama with any of it is beyond the pale.

The same is true for Senator Obama’s association with the Reverends Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pflegler. The former leads the largest black Christian church in Chicago and the latter is a well-known catholic activist for social justice. Both are open in their anti-status quo perspectives and both have long records of community activism championing the plight of the urban underclass in the city in which Mr. Obama came of political age. Although their rhetoric in the pulpit is fiery, both have worked within the political system to advance their communitarian goals. They are, in effect, the progressive equivalent to the likes of Jerry Flawell, Pat Robertson and other Christian conservatives with political agendas. Likewise, attempting to link Senator Obama with the notoriously anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam because of their mutual interest in Chicago South Side politics is akin to linking John McCain and Sarah Palin to abortion clinic bombers because both are “pro-life.” Farrakhan endorsing Obama as the “messiah” equates to Robertson proclaiming George W. Bush the “chosen one.” Endorsements are not alliances.

Equally specious is the reasoning of those who see in the support given by Leftist organizations to the Obama presidency a communist conspiracy to overthrow the US government. As a self-professed liberal in a traditionally conservative country, Barrack Obama naturally attracts Left support, including those of Marxist-Leninists and other disgruntled segments of US political society. That does not mean that he shares their philosophy or agrees with them on specific issues, especially given the fact that he has played the establishment game in order to achieve higher national office. In fact, for the militant Left, Obama is both an Oreo (literally) and a sell-out. If he ever was a radical (and there is no evidence to suggest that), he has betrayed everything he used to stand for in the quest for power.

The same misunderstanding holds true for foreigners seeing in Obama a kindred spirit: the US status quo made him what he his today, both in education as well as in politics. He may be liberal but he knows which side his political bread is buttered---and it is not in Iran or North Korea, even if he deigns to sit down and talk to their leaders without preconditions. It is delusional to think that he somehow will impose a socialist agenda on the US if he achieves the presidency, or that he will completely reverse the foreign policy of his predecessor. His proposed changes are reformist, not revolutionary.

On a related front, the Republican attack dogs led by “Katushka” Palin (Katushka being a Russian massed rocket array with considerable firepower but limited accuracy) have zeroed in on Senator Obama’s association with the community organisation network known as ACORN. ACORN is the umbrella organisation that unites a diverse array of community groups around the US. Organised by region, these groups use ACORN as an amplifier, echo chamber and lobbyist for their respective demands while engaging in solidarity networking and training. As a networking combine ACORN is a grassroots, progressive ensemble dedicated to improving the material and social conditions of disadvantaged groups countrywide.

As a liberal politician Senator Obama worked with ACORN activists during his days as a community organizer and state senator in Illinois. The charge against him is that ACORN somehow precipitated the sub-prime loan crisis by pressuring banks to lend to poor working class mortgage-seekers struggling to buy their first homes, and that he, along with black activists like the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, were part of the pressure groups threatening to boycott banks that refused to engage in the at-risk lending scheme. In this scenario Obama is personally responsible for the financial meltdown.

The trouble with the depiction of events is that the program that provided for sub-prime loans to poor, first time home buyers was approved by Congress, which guaranteed granting such loans under strict criteria and oversight, and which provided federal insurance to private lenders. No bank was “forced” into the scheme, and individual banks ultimately had the right to deny loans if they felt that the exposure was too great. Truth be told, it was not poor (mostly black) first time home buyers but middle class (mostly white) opportunists increasing their personal debt in order to purchase real estate as investment property that precipitated the sub-prime crisis. In the rush to buy real estate, middle class households over-borrowed and banks and finance agencies lent far beyond their cash reserves, making the whole scheme a credit-dependent shell game. When the financial market began to suffer a liquidity crisis, the mortgage market collapsed, leaving middle class investors bankrupt or foreclosed. The banks themselves eventually followed the path to ruin. ACORN had nothing to do with that.

Put another way: does anyone in their right (eous) mind believe that the total accumulated debt of the American working poor who benefited from ACORN-backed sub-prime mortgage lending policies in destitute areas brought down the entire US financial system? Is it not correct to point out that defaulting at-risk working poor mortgage holders were foreclosed on their properties immediately and that the sub-prime crisis only became so when the gullible mass of middle class real estate speculators got financially overextended? There is a class and race aspect to this issue that no US presidential candidate dares to address. They ignore it at their peril.

The final line of attack is on Senator Obama’s family heritage. To the widely disseminated (and discredited) accusations that he is a closet Muslim (as if that is a crime), there is the charge that he is not a US citizen. Questions about his Hawaiian birth certificate have been raised by right-wing activists keen to ascertain if he is in fact precluded from the presidency because he is not a natural-born US citizen (as US law specifies). Here again, the search for dirt misses the mark. Not only is Hawaii a US state (which some on the right appear not to know, believing instead that as a US territory its residents are not allowed to vote—which also is incorrect). Obama is a US citizen by virtue of the fact that he was born on US soil and his mother was an American (this is true whether he has a birth certificate or not). In order to lose his citizenship right he would have to have officially applied for citizenship in another country, renouncing his US citizenship in the process. He has not done so. Whether his birth certificate went missing is an issue for state authorities in Hawaii to answer (since birth certificates are not part of the public record in Hawaii), but it does not change the facts. Senator Obama is neither Muslim, foreign born or a non-US citizen.

There is danger in the Republican strategy of historical revisionism and selective amnesia. In 1968 Richard Nixon campaigned with a running mate who was a relatively unknown state governor. His role in the campaign was to serve as Nixon’s attack dog. In that role he blamed the “liberal” press for misrepresenting Republican views and accused the mainstream media of being “nattering nabobs of negativity.” He delivered blistering personal attacks on his political opponents. He also made a number of gaffes in interviews, including opinions on race and social mores that were seen as intolerant at best and racist and authoritarian at worst. After the election, the former governor-turned vice president was indicted on corruption and misuse of authority charges while in State office, eventually forcing him to resign (he was subsequently convicted). That person was Spiro Agnew.

If past association is anything to go by, John McCain has problems. Not only was he directly associated with Richard Secord and other individuals covertly involved in the Iran/Contra scandal (which involved illegal arms-for-cash and drugs swaps between the Iranian government, White House officials such as Oliver North and US-backed anti-Sandinista guerillas operating from Honduras). He also was a financial beneficiary and public supporter of Charles Keating, the criminal financier whose failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association was bailed out by the US government for over 3 billion dollars in the late 1980s.

McCain was one of the “Keating Five,” the group of US Senators who were charged with corruption for improperly interfering in federal investigations of Mr. Keating’s business practices. The senators were accused of receiving over 1.3 million dollars in campaign contributions from Mr. Keating in exchange for keeping federal regulators at bay, only to have the collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan lead to the failure of 747 savings and loan associations, with a total cost to the US taxpayer of US$124.6 billion in bailout funds (paid by the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations). A Congressional committee and the FBI subsequently cleared McCain of impropriety, but he was rebuked for exercising “poor judgment” in his dealings with Mr. Keating. That he now rails against “corruption” on Wall Street and calls for more regulation of financial markets is hypocritical to the point of ridiculous.

Other issues of “character” could well trip up the Republican ticket. Serial adultery, pill-popping thievery, abuse of political position to pursue personal vendettas or ideological agendas, solicitation or acceptance of gifts from entities with a vested interest in legislation, association with people convicted of felonies—surely McCain and Palin do not want to go there.

The point is not whether there are more skeletons in the McCain/Palin closet than there are in that of Obama/Biden. It is not whether Governor Palin’s record as governor will turn out to be akin to Spiro Agnew’s or that Senator McCain is singularly unequipped to deal with matters of financial import or trust. The issue is that a strategy of personal attack is a double-edged sword for those who initiate it. In her zealous fervor Mrs. Palin may not be able to grasp that fact (since her historical amnesia appears to be real) but Senator McCain surely understands what it is like to live in a political glass house.

It is therefore discouraging to see that McCain has allowed himself to be manipulated into such a corner by his advisors. Trading in selective facts and distorted representations in order to impugn his opponent’s character is unethical. Remaining silent in the face of his supporter’s thinly veiled racist, xenophobic and slanderous attacks on Mr. Obama is cowardly. Tacitly endorsing such views and tactics undermines his claim to be an honest, “straight talking” agent of change. That alone disqualifies him from being president, and in the end it will guarantee that he lose the election. After all, the American people may be dumbly selective when reflecting upon their past history, but they are not stupid when it comes to their immediate future.

Paul G. Buchanan studies comparative strategic thought. He was formerly an analyst and consultant to several US security agencies.

ENDS


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