Thursday, April 23, 2009

August Wilson and the Ongoing Legacy of Racism in American Art



Just one more openly blatant example of just how insidious and pervasive American racism actually is and aggressively continues to be. In other words: "Same O, Same O" or as we've been saying since the day we arrived on these lowdown dirty shores: Same shit, Different day...


P.S. The real question is as always: What are we gonna do about it?

Race an Issue in Wilson Play, and in Its Production
April 22, 2009
New York Times

In life, the playwright August Wilson had an all-but-official rule: No white directors for major productions of his work, which was one reason that a film was never made from his 10 plays about African-American life in the 20th century. “Fences,” one of the two awarded the Pulitzer Prize, foundered in Hollywood because of his insistence on a black director.

Yet in the years since Wilson died in 2005, an increasing number of white directors have staged his plays, and last week came a milestone: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which opened on April 16, is the first Broadway revival of a Wilson play since his death and the first ever on Broadway with a white director, the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher.

The selection of Mr. Sher by the producer, Lincoln Center Theater, has prompted concern and even outrage among some black directors, who say this production represents a lost opportunity for a black director, for whom few opportunities exist on Broadway or at major regional theaters. Wilson himself felt that black directors best understood his characters, and he saw his plays as chances to give them high-profile work. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, however, approved Mr. Sher as director.

This production of “Joe Turner” also stands as an unusual collaboration, and by all accounts a happy one, between a white director and an almost entirely black cast on Broadway, a rarity itself. At times the actors were directing the director, as they discussed the ways that black Americans relate to one another and to their white neighbors and nemeses.

“I’ve learned more from this cast than any group that I’ve ever worked with,” said Mr. Sher, who won a Tony for “South Pacific.” “But I also learned an enormous amount about the lack of opportunity in theater today. More Ibsen should be directed by black directors. More Shakespeare. More Chekhov.”

Several black directors, in interviews, raised the same issue, but also expressed sharp disappointment in commercial and nonprofit producers for failing to create those opportunities.

“Straight up institutional racism” was how one black director of Wilson’s plays on Broadway, Marion McClinton, described Lincoln Center Theater’s selection of Mr. Sher, to a Minnesota newspaper this winter. In an interview this week, Mr. McClinton said choosing white directors for Wilson plays not only denied opportunities for black directors, but also reflected a double standard because so few black directors were chosen for major productions of canonical works by white playwrights.

Kenny Leon, the Broadway director of the last two works in the 10-play Wilson cycle — “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” — said Broadway lacked “a level playing field” for black directors.

“I have to work with my agent to remind people that, yes, I direct comedies, I do musicals, I do plays about all races of people just like other directors do,” said Mr. Leon, who earned a Drama Desk directing nomination for his one other outing on Broadway, “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004.

Several other black directors have written or called André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, expressing similar concerns, Mr. Bishop said. “It’s not so much about Bart, but about wanting to work,” he said. “This experience has started a conversation about opportunities for black directors, and I’m taking it very seriously.”

This revival of “Joe Turner,” originally produced on Broadway in 1988, started with Mr. Bishop’s looking for another play to do with Mr. Sher, who became resident director at Lincoln Center Theater last year. Mr. Bishop said he was drawn to the play not only “as a magnificent piece of writing,” but also as a match for Mr. Sher. Just as Mr. Sher’s “South Pacific” mixes xenophobia and powerfully symbolic characters like Bloody Mary with deep emotion and a naturalistic environment, so is “Joe Turner” rich in both racial and social metaphors.

At the same time, Mr. Bishop said he “thought a lot” about whether to hire a white director. “Obviously I was very aware that the Wilson estate might say no, and I also didn’t want to risk offending people,” he said. He added that Mr. Sher was the only white director he would have chosen. It fell to Mr. Sher to seek the rights to the play, and here he had some advantage. He had been artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle, where Wilson lived; the two had met on a few occasions, and Mr. Sher had become close to Wilson’s widow, Ms. Romero, the executor of his estate.

“I called Constanza and told her I wanted to direct ‘Joe Turner,’ and the only thing I asked was that she not answer me for three days,” Mr. Sher said.

“I wanted to give her time to think it all through,” he said.

Ms. Romero, who was born in Colombia, said in an interview that she and her husband had talked about who should direct his work. Wilson was widely known as a passionate advocate for blacks in theater and film; in the 1990s, he and the director and writer Robert Brustein sparred at length in print and in person about the role of race in everything from a playwright’s vision to casting.

“While August had been this heavyweight champion of black culture and the African-American experience on stage, that was his work when he was alive,” Ms. Romero said.

“My work is to get these stories out there,” she said, “and to help ensure that audiences walk out of the plays with a deeper understanding for these American stories and for the ways our cultures intertwine.”

Mr. Sher’s experience on “Joe Turner,” set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh in 1911, has been an object lesson in this regard. His cast and Ms. Romero offered advice and insights on everything from the kind of coat that a central character would wear to the staging of the juba, an African dance at the end of Act I.

“When they told me Bart was directing, my first response was, ‘But isn’t he white?’ — so I was intrigued,” said LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays the boarding-house matron Bertha. “And from the start he was so collaborative. He would say, ‘I know this,’ and we would say, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know this.’ ”

“As directors go,” she said, “he was an amazing listener.”

Still, the choice of Mr. Sher has set a precedent in the eyes of some veterans of Wilson’s plays — a precedent that they believe the playwright would not like.

“August told me himself that the reason he did not want white directors was because if one ever had a chance to do one of his plays on Broadway, it would be very unlikely that a black director would ever be chosen again to direct his plays on that level,” said Charles S. Dutton, who starred in the original production of “Joe Turner” at Yale Repertory Theater in 1986. “We’ll see what happens now that Mr. Sher is being lauded as a major new interpreter for August’s work,” Mr. Dutton added.

It is up to Ms. Romero to sign off on future productions of Wilson’s work, on Broadway and off, and she said she had no plans to apply a racial litmus test to directors.

“It’s the quality of the work that matters now,” she said.

The Obama Administration Must Prosecute Bush Administration Officials for Ordering Torture

Sen. Carl Levin
Democratic U.S. Senator from Michigan

April 21, 2009

New Report: Bush Officials Tried to Shift Blame for Detainee Abuse to Low-Ranking Soldiers

Today we're releasing the declassified report of the Senate Armed Services Committee's investigation into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The report was approved by the Armed Services Committee on November 20, 2008 and has, in the intervening period, been under review at the Department of Defense for declassification.

In my judgment, the report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse - such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan - to low ranking soldiers. Claims, such as that made by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a "few bad apples," were simply false.

The truth is that, early on, it was senior civilian leaders who set the tone. On September 16, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that the United States turn to the "dark side" in our response to 9/11. Not long after that, after White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales called parts of the Geneva Conventions "quaint," President Bush determined that provisions of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to certain detainees. Other senior officials followed the President and Vice President's lead, authorizing policies that included harsh and abusive interrogation techniques.

The record established by the Committee's investigation shows that senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques. Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses. As the Committee report concluded, authorizations of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials resulted in abuse and conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.

In a May 10, 2007, letter to his troops, General David Petraeus said that "what sets us apart from our enemies in this fight... is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings." With last week's release of the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinions, it is now widely known that Bush administration officials distorted Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape "SERE" training - a legitimate program used by the military to train our troops to resist abusive enemy interrogations - by authorizing abusive techniques from SERE for use in detainee interrogations. Those decisions conveyed the message that abusive treatment was appropriate for detainees in U.S. custody. They were also an affront to the values articulated by General Petraeus.

In SERE training, U.S. troops are briefly exposed, in a highly controlled setting, to abusive interrogation techniques used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions. The techniques are based on tactics used by Chinese Communists against American soldiers during the Korean War for the purpose of eliciting false confessions for propaganda purposes. Techniques used in SERE training include stripping trainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, subjecting them to face and body slaps, depriving them of sleep, throwing them up against a wall, confining them in a small box, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. Until recently, the Navy SERE school also used waterboarding. The purpose of the SERE program is to provide U.S. troops who might be captured a taste of the treatment they might face so that they might have a better chance of surviving captivity and resisting abusive and coercive interrogations.

SERE training techniques were never intended to be used in the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody. The Committee's report, however, reveals troubling new details of how SERE techniques came to be used in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Influence of SERE on Military Interrogations at Guantanamo Bay

The Committee's investigation uncovered new details about the influence of SERE techniques on military interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). According to newly released testimony from a military behavioral scientist who worked with interrogators at GTMO, "By early October [2002] there was increasing pressure to get 'tougher' with detainee interrogations" at GTMO. (p. 50). As a result, on October 2, 2002, two weeks after attending interrogation training led by SERE instructors from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the DoD agency that oversees SERE training, the behavioral scientist and a colleague drafted a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques at GTMO. The behavioral scientist said he was told by GTMO's intelligence chief that the interrogation memo needed to contain coercive techniques or it "wasn't going to go very far." (p. 50). Declassified excerpts from that memo indicate that it included stress positions, food deprivation, forced grooming, hooding, removal of clothing, exposure to cold weather or water, and scenarios designed to convince a detainee that "he might experience a painful or fatal outcome." On October 11, 2002, Major General Michael Dunlavey, the Commander of JTF-170 at GTMO requested authority to use aggressive techniques. MG Dunlavey's request was based on the memo produced by the behavioral scientists.

MG Dunlavey's request eventually made its way to Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel Jim Haynes' desk. Notwithstanding serious legal concerns raised by the military service lawyers, Haynes recommended that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approve 15 of the interrogation techniques requested by GTMO. On December 2, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld approved Haynes' recommendation, authorizing such techniques as stress positions, removal of clothing, use of phobias (such as fear of dogs), and deprivation of light and auditory stimuli.

The Committee's investigation revealed that, following Secretary Rumsfeld's authorization, senior staff at GTMO drafted a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the use of SERE techniques, including stress positions, forcibly stripping detainees, slapping, and "walling" them. That SOP stated that "The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at U.S. military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real-world interrogations." Weeks later, in January 2003, trainers from the Navy SERE school travelled to GTMO and provided training to interrogators on the use of SERE techniques on detainees. (pp. 98-104).

Impact of Secretary Rumsfeld's Authorization on Interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan

The influence of Secretary Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002, authorization was not limited to interrogations at GTMO. Newly declassified excerpts from a January 11, 2003, legal review by a Special Mission Unit (SMU) Task Force lawyer in Afghanistan state that "SECDEF's approval of these techniques provides us the most persuasive argument for use of 'advanced techniques' as we capture possible [high value targets] ... the fact that SECDEF approved the use of the... techniques at GTMO, [which is] subject to the same laws, provides an analogy and basis for use of these techniques [in accordance with] international and U.S. law." (p.154).

The Committee's report also includes a summary of a July 15, 2004, interview with CENTCOM's then-Deputy Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) about Secretary Rumsfeld's authorization and its impact in Afghanistan. The Deputy SJA said: "the methodologies approved for GTMO... would appear to me to be legal interrogation processes. [The Secretary of Defense] had approved them. The General Counsel had approved them. .. I believe it is fair to say the procedures approved for Guantanamo were legal for Afghanistan." (p. 156).

The Committee's report provides extensive details about how the aggressive techniques made their way from Afghanistan to Iraq. In February 2003, an SMU Task Force designated for operations in Iraq obtained a copy of the SMU interrogation policy from Afghanistan that included aggressive techniques, changed the letterhead, and adopted the policy verbatim. (p. 158) Months later, the Interrogation Officer in Charge at Abu Ghraib obtained a copy of the SMU interrogation policy and submitted it, virtually unchanged, through her chain of command to Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7), led at the time by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. On September 14, 2003, Lieutenant General Sanchez issued an interrogation policy for CJTF-7 that authorized interrogators to use stress positions, environmental manipulation, sleep management, and military working dogs to exploit detainees' fears in their interrogations of detainees.

The Committee's investigation uncovered documents indicating that, almost immediately after LTG Sanchez issued his September 14, 2003, policy, CENTCOM lawyers raised concerns about its legality. One newly declassified email from a CENTCOM lawyer to the Staff Judge Advocate at CJTF-7 - sent just three days after the policy was issued - warned that "Many of the techniques [in the CJTF-7 policy] appear to violate [Geneva Convention] III and IV and should not be used . . ." (p. 203). Even though the Bush administration acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions applied in Iraq, it was not until nearly a month later that CJTF-7 revised that policy.

Not only did SERE techniques make their way to Iraq, but SERE instructors did as well. In September 2003, JPRA sent a team to Iraq to provide assistance to interrogation operations at an SMU Task Force. The Chief of Human Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Task Force testified to the Committee in February 2008 that JPRA personnel demonstrated SERE techniques to SMU personnel including so-called "walling" and striking a detainee as they do in SERE school. (p. 175). As we heard at our September 2008 hearing, JPRA personnel were present during abusive interrogations during that same trip, including one where a detainee was placed on his knees in a stress position and was repeatedly slapped by an interrogator. (p. 176). JPRA personnel even participated in an interrogation, taking physical control of a detainee, forcibly stripping him naked, and giving orders for him to be kept in a stress position for 12 hours. In August 3, 2007, testimony to the Committee, one of the JPRA team members said that, with respect to stripping the detainee, "we [had] done this 100 times, 1000 times with our [SERE school] students." The Committee's investigation revealed that forced nudity continued to be used in interrogations at the SMU Task Force for months after the JPRA visit. (pp. 181-182).

Over the course of the investigation, the Committee obtained the statements and interviews of scores of military personnel at Abu Ghraib. These statements reveal that the interrogation techniques authorized by Secretary Rumsfeld in December 2002 for use at GTMO - including stress positions, forced nudity, and military working dogs - were used by military intelligence personnel responsible for interrogations.

The Interrogation Officer in Charge in Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003 acknowledged that stress positions were used in interrogations at Abu Ghraib. (p. 212).
An Army dog handler at Abu Ghraib told military investigators in February 2004 that "someone from [military intelligence] gave me a list of cells, for me to go see, and pretty much have my dog bark at them... Having the dogs bark at detainees was psychologically breaking them down for interrogation purposes." (p. 209).

An intelligence analyst at Abu Ghraib told military investigators in May 2004 that it was "common that the detainees on [military intelligence] hold in the hard site were initially kept naked and given clothing as an incentive to cooperate with us." (p. 212).

An interrogator told military investigators in May 2004 that it was "common to see detainees in cells without clothes or naked" and says it was "one of our approaches." (p. 213).

The investigation also revealed that interrogation policies authorizing aggressive techniques were approved months after the CJTF-7 policy was revised to exclude the techniques, and even after the investigation into detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib had already begun. For example, an interrogation policy approved in February 2004 in Iraq included techniques such as use of military working dogs and stress positions. (p. 220).

A policy approved for CJTF-7 units in Iraq in March 2004 also included aggressive techniques. While much of the March 2004 policy remains classified, newly declassified excerpts indicate that it warned that interrogators "should consider the fact that some interrogation techniques are viewed as inhumane or otherwise inconsistent with international law before applying each technique. These techniques are labeled with a [CAUTION]." Among the techniques labeled as such were a technique involving power tools, stress positions, and the presence of military working dogs. (pp. 220-221).

Warnings about Using SERE Techniques in Interrogations

Some have asked why, if it is okay for our own U.S. personnel to be subjected to physical and psychological pressures in SERE school, what is wrong with using those SERE training techniques on detainees? The Committee's investigation answered that question.

On October 2, 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Banks, the senior Army SERE psychologist warned against using SERE training techniques during interrogations in an email to personnel at GTMO, writing that:

[T]he use of physical pressures brings with it a large number of potential negative side effects... When individuals are gradually exposed to increasing levels of discomfort, it is more common for them to resist harder... If individuals are put under enough discomfort, i.e. pain, they will eventually do whatever it takes to stop the pain. This will increase the amount of information they tell the interrogator, but it does not mean the information is accurate. In fact, it usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain... Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low. The likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the level of resistance in a detainee is very high... (p. 53).

Likewise, the Deputy Commander of DoD's Criminal Investigative Task Force at GTMO told the Committee in 2006 that CITF "was troubled with the rationale that techniques used to harden resistance to interrogations would be the basis for the utilization of techniques to obtain information." (p. 69).

Other newly declassified emails reveal additional warnings. In June 2004, after many SERE techniques had been authorized in interrogations and JPRA was considering sending its SERE trainers to interrogation facilities in Afghanistan, another SERE psychologist warned: "[W]e need to really stress the difference between what instructors do at SERE school (done to INCREASE RESISTANCE capability in students) versus what is taught at interrogator school (done to gather information). What is done by SERE instructors is by definition ineffective interrogator conduct... Simply stated, SERE school does not train you on how to interrogate, and things you 'learn' there by osmosis about interrogation are probably wrong if copied by interrogators." (p. 229).


If we are to retain our status as a leader in the world, we must acknowledge and confront the abuse of detainees in our custody. The Committee's report and investigation makes significant progress toward that goal. There is still the question, however, of whether high level officials who approved and authorized those policies should be held accountable. I have recommended to Attorney General Holder that he select a distinguished individual or individuals - either inside or outside the Justice Department, such as retired federal judges - to look at the volumes of evidence relating to treatment of detainees, including evidence in the Senate Armed Services Committee's report, and to recommend what steps, if any, should be taken to establish accountability of high-level officials - including lawyers.

Senate Report: Harsh Tactics Used In Attempt to Establish Non-Existent Iraq-al Qaida Link

A report released Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee presented new details regarding Bush administration officials' approval of the military's use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects. The 232-page, newly declassified report was approved by the Armed Services Committee on November 20, 2008, and had since then been under review at the Department of Defense for declassification.

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wrote about the significance of the report on HuffPost:

In my judgment, the report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse - such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan - to low ranking soldiers. Claims, such as that made by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a "few bad apples," were simply false.

The report revealed new information about the origins of the military's interrogation techniques. As the Washington Post writes:

[The report] sheds new light on the adaptation of techniques from a U.S. military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), used to train American service personnel to resist interrogations if captured by an enemy that does not honor the Geneva Conventions' ban on torture.

The military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) has been reported to have reverse-engineered these methods to break al-Qaeda prisoners. The techniques, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning, were drawn from the methods used by Chinese Communists to coerce confessions from U.S. soldiers during the Korean War -- a lineage that one instructor appeared to readily acknowledge.

"We can provide the ability to exploit personnel based on how our enemies have done this type of thing over the last five decades," Joseph Witsch wrote in a July 2002 memo.

What is perhaps more alarming is that few, if any, of the top officials involved in allowing the use of these interrogations methods knew anything about their 'gruesome origins' nor bothered to actually investigate what it was they were approving, according to the New York Times:

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq was one of the factors motivating the use of these interrogation methods. From McClatchy:

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.
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"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

While the New York Times had previously reported in December about how the Armed Services Committee report pinned much of the blame for detainee abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on Donald Rumsfeld--Rumsfeld said at the time that the report contained ""unfounded allegations against those who have served our nation"--Politico flags some of the new details about the former Defense Secretary's role:

The report contains a Jan. 11, 2003 memo written by a military lawyer in Afghanistan linking use of harsh techniques against prisoners directly to approval of the methods by Rumsfeld. "SECDEF's approval of these techniques provides us the most persuasive argument for use of 'advanced techniques." Rumsfeld a few days later rescinded authority for use of the techniques at Guantanamo but military lawyers in Afghanistan still considered them permissible.

As for the impact of the report, the Washington Post notes that "the new findings are expected to add further pressure on the White House to authorize an independent investigation of the Bush-era interrogation policies." Earlier in the day Tuesday President Obama said he was open to the possible prosecution of Bush administration officials.

HuffPost's Ryan Grim has more on what may be in store for Bush administration lawyers such as Jay Bybee:

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), in arguing for Bybee's impeachment, says that the purpose of the memos was not to give an honest legal analysis, but to deem legal behavior that is clearly illegal in order to encourage that illegal activity. The charge, says Nadler, would be something along the lines of conspiracy to abet torture.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) announced Tuesday he would hold a hearing looking into the role Bush administration lawyers played in justifying torture. Some lawyers, Conyers told the Huffington Post, were engaged in honest analysis of the law. Others, he said, were simple law breakers.

"There are some who tried to do a get-out-of-jail-free card. Obviously, there are some that that's all they were thinking," said Conyers, declining to name specific names, citing his upcoming hearings.

But he has a few in mind. "We're coming after these guys," he said.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Moving Beyond Obama's 'HopeMobile' Template: Naomi Klein Throws Down the Gauntlet


In a typically incisive, witty, and analytically sharp analysis of President Obama and his national political fanbase the brilliant political journalist, social theorist, and leftist activist Naomi Klein calls on us all to take full political and ideological responsibility for seriously addressing and moving far beyond the infantile limitations and distortions of simpleminded hero worship in our critical assessments of Obama's greatest strengths and weaknesses as a political figure and executive administrator of the American government. What Klein so clearly demands of us is that we put aside any sentimentalized notions of who Obama is and what his sponsored public policy positions actually stand for. Even more importantly Klein points out that it's absolutely crucial that the rest of us not forget who we are and what we stand for (and are both willing and able to fight for). It's a very important, even necessary distinction to make that allows us to remain truly proactive and mature adults in our ongoing critical engagement with the President, his administration, and the larger political, economic, and cultural forces that Obama represents or embodies. Thanks Naomi! Your comments as usual are both refreshing and informative (not to mention often very funny)...




A Lexicon of Disappointment


This article appeared in the May 4, 2009 edition of The Nation.
April 15, 2009

All is not well in Obamafanland. It's not clear exactly what accounts for the change of mood. Maybe it was the rancid smell emanating from Treasury's latest bank bailout. Or the news that the president's chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, earned millions from the very Wall Street banks and hedge funds he is protecting from reregulation now. Or perhaps it began earlier, with Obama's silence during Israel's Gaza attack.

Whatever the last straw, a growing number of Obama enthusiasts are starting to entertain the possibility that their man is not, in fact, going to save the world if we all just hope really hard.

This is a good thing. If the superfan culture that brought Obama to power is going to transform itself into an independent political movement, one fierce enough to produce programs capable of meeting the current crises, we are all going to have to stop hoping and start demanding.

The first stage, however, is to understand fully the awkward in-between space in which many US progressive movements find themselves. To do that, we need a new language, one specific to the Obama moment. Here is a start.

Hopeover. Like a hangover, a hopeover comes from having overindulged in something that felt good at the time but wasn't really all that healthy, leading to feelings of remorse, even shame. It's the political equivalent of the crash after a sugar high. Sample sentence: "When I listened to Obama's economic speech my heart soared. But then, when I tried to tell a friend about his plans for the millions of layoffs and foreclosures, I found myself saying nothing at all. I've got a serious hopeover."

Hoper coaster. Like a roller coaster, the hoper coaster describes the intense emotional peaks and valleys of the Obama era, the veering between joy at having a president who supports safe-sex education and despondency that single-payer healthcare is off the table at the very moment when it could actually become a reality. Sample sentence: "I was so psyched when Obama said he is closing Guantánamo. But now they are fighting like mad to make sure the prisoners in Bagram have no legal rights at all. Stop this hoper coaster--I want to get off!"

Hopesick. Like the homesick, hopesick individuals are intensely nostalgic. They miss the rush of optimism from the campaign trail and are forever trying to recapture that warm, hopey feeling--usually by exaggerating the significance of relatively minor acts of Obama decency. Sample sentences: "I was feeling really hopesick about the escalation in Afghanistan, but then I watched a YouTube video of Michelle in her organic garden and it felt like inauguration day all over again. A few hours later, when I heard that the Obama administration was boycotting a major UN racism conference, the hopesickness came back hard. So I watched slideshows of Michelle wearing clothes made by ethnically diverse independent fashion designers, and that sort of helped."

Hope fiend. With hope receding, the hope fiend, like the dope fiend, goes into serious withdrawal, willing to do anything to chase the buzz. (Closely related to hopesickness but more severe, usually affecting middle-aged males.) Sample sentence: "Joe told me he actually believes Obama deliberately brought in Summers so that he would blow the bailout, and then Obama would have the excuse he needs to do what he really wants: nationalize the banks and turn them into credit unions. What a hope fiend!"

Hopebreak. Like the heartbroken lover, the hopebroken Obama-ite is not mad but terribly sad. She projected messianic powers onto Obama and is now inconsolable in her disappointment. Sample sentence: "I really believed Obama would finally force us to confront the legacy of slavery in this country and start a serious national conversation about race. But now he never seems to mention race, and he's using twisted legal arguments to keep us from even confronting the crimes of the Bush years. Every time I hear him say 'move forward,' I'm hopebroken all over again."

Hopelash. Like a backlash, hopelash is a 180-degree reversal of everything Obama-related. Sufferers were once Obama's most passionate evangelists. Now they are his angriest critics. Sample sentence: "At least with Bush everyone knew he was an asshole. Now we've got the same wars, the same lawless prisons, the same Washington corruption, but everyone is cheering like Stepford wives. It's time for a full-on hopelash."

In trying to name these various hope-related ailments, I found myself wondering what the late Studs Terkel would have said about our collective hopeover. He surely would have urged us not to give in to despair. I reached for one of his last books, Hope Dies Last. I didn't have to read long. The book opens with the words: "Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up."

And that pretty much says it all. Hope was a fine slogan when rooting for a long-shot presidential candidate. But as a posture toward the president of the most powerful nation on earth, it is dangerously deferential. The task as we move forward (as Obama likes to say) is not to abandon hope but to find more appropriate homes for it--in the factories, neighborhoods and schools where tactics like sit-ins, squats and occupations are seeing a resurgence.

Political scientist Sam Gindin wrote recently that the labor movement can do more than protect the status quo. It can demand, for instance, that shuttered auto plants be converted into green-future factories, capable of producing mass-transit vehicles and technology for a renewable energy system. "Being realistic means taking hope out of speeches," he wrote, "and putting it in the hands of workers."

Which brings me to the final entry in the lexicon.

Hoperoots. Sample sentence: "It's time to stop waiting for hope to be handed down, and start pushing it up, from the hoperoots"

About Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist and the author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (September 2007); an earlier international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; and the collection Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002)