This past week I’ve been trying to understand the political construction of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work in relation to neoliberalism and state violence. Coates is in the news as he makes the rounds to launch his new book We Were Eight Years In Power, a retrospective on the Obama era and the rise of Trump. While I congratulate the widely acclaimed author on the publication of his latest tome, I cannot personally recommend his fundamentally flawed and largely superficial thinking “about race”, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.
For now, I want to focus on what’s been keeping me up at night for the last several years: the complicity of the Democratic Party (and Obama’s coterie of willfully ignorant fans) in the maintenance of multiple forms of state violence. Because Coates writes so much about Obama–and because of his positioning as one of the most widely read black social critics at the apex of the corporate media and publishing worlds–any consideration of Obama’s presidency must take into account the portrait produced in Coates’ writing. His romantic portrayals of the first black president (and his descriptions of race and politics) play an influential role in shaping (and setting the boundaries of) the convoluted and largely useless national conversation “about race” . In trying to understand Coates’ structural position and appeal to powerful white liberals, it’s become increasingly clear to me that his views (at least, the views he has publicly expressed) are obviously related to the political agenda of at least one of his employers, namely The Atlantic.
I confess that until very recently (as in, the last few days), I knew nothing of the politics of The Atlantic. But a cursory review of the editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, makes a few things quite clear: the man at the helm of magazine is a prison-guard-turned-journalist strongly aligned with the Democratic Party who whitewashes Democrats’ war crimes accordingly, regularly uses his publishing platforms to rationalize state violence, defends the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land (while expressing the appropriate amount of liberal hand-wringing over the settlements), undermines and discredits critics of Zionism, and, predictably, hates Noam Chomsky.
It should come as no surprise that Goldberg is a big fan of Barack Obama and has played a leading role in producing a relatively rosy portrait of the 44th president. Goldberg and some of his colleagues at The Atlantic promote what they view as a “liberal” vision of “democracy” that somehow happily coexists with settler colonialism, massive state violence, white supremacy, systemic racism, poverty, hypercapitalist exploitation and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, including women and children, who stand in the way of the ruling elites’ determination to acquire absolute hegemony and strategically secure material resources no matter the cost. Of course, even publications that whitewash war crimes, like The Atlantic, have to at least gesture toward a functioning moral compass. And so we see articles like this one covering Obama’s drone strikes (and the lies he’s told about them) alongside popular puff pieces written by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, such “gotta see both sides” coverage functions to bolster The Atlantic’s false appearance of objectivity and fair-mindedness.
In any case, as I’ve read more about the politics behind both Goldberg’s and Coates’ writing, I’ve also been reading even more about Obama’s militarism and war crimes, which the Democrats implicitly and, at times, explicitly co-sign. The topic of Obama’s historic and very personal involvement in promoting state violence began to unsettle me during his first term–but didn’t devastate me until his second term. As I began reading reports and media coverage of Obama’s drone wars and war crimes, it became exceedingly and painfully clear that his commitment to militarism was unprecedented both in terms of its scope (at least seven wars) and its unconstitutional ruthlessness (a literal assassination campaign run by the president). These were disturbing revelations for me as someone who, until five or six years ago, had an idealized view of the United States and perhaps especially the Democratic Party.
I can personally attest to the difficulty of confronting these horrific truths about politicians, entire political systems, and, well, ourselves. I somehow managed to compartmentalize my knowledge of Obama’s drones during his first term, buoyed by the psychological wages of identity politics (“The first black president!”) that allowed me to push aside and largely ignore disturbing news about the president’s wars and focus, instead, on how good it felt to finally have someone who looked like me in a position of power.
And then something changed for me both before and after the 2012 election. Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragic awakening. My stubborn naiveté is still on display in a blog post, written here, that went low-key viral. Entitled “Dear America: It’s Not You, It’s Me”, the piece shows that at the dawn of Obama’s second term, I was still very much in the grips of a nostalgic fantasy about what the United States actually is and what it actually does to maintain global hegemony. But the black-woman-created Black Lives Matter movement inspired by Travyon’s death also created an opening for me–an opening that, combined with my own research, would eventually shatter any remaining illusions I had about the true intentions and truly horrific policies of the amoral, bloodthirsty ruling elite governing our society.
As I began belatedly waking up to Democrats’ complicity with state violence, I learned that politically astute observers had been ringing the alarms for whole entire generations. As early as 1956, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois rejected both major parties in a blunt repudiation of Democrats and Republicans’ common agenda of disenfranchising the poor and promoting endless war. In a scorching piece published in The Nation entitled “Why I Won’t Vote”, Du Bois denounced the farcical nature of “liberal democracy” in the United States.
“I believe,” Du Bois wrote, ominously, “that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States [and] that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”
It is worth noting, as Du Bois explains in his essay, that he reached this accurate, grim assessment of the United States after spending a lifetime arguing in favor of “the lesser evil” and agitating for civil rights here and abroad. Du Bois, who died on the eve of the 1965 March on Washington, spent the better part of his 95 years on this planet carefully studying the history of racial and class oppression, worked to establish the first scientific school of sociology, remained heavily involved in scholarship and political activism and arguably dedicated more of his life-time to the cause of human rights than the vast majority of people who ever lived. At the end of his long career examining power and politics, this scholar-activist correctly concluded that “American democracy” does not exist. Over 70 years ago, Dr. Du Bois pleaded for his fellow citizens to face political reality: “Stop yelling about a democracy we do not have. Democracy is dead in the United States.”
If multiple passages of Du Bois’s 1956 essay read like present-day descriptions of our politics, it’s precisely because of the success of the ruling elite the scholar decried. Take for example, this scathing, and sadly, still completely relevant indictment:
The present Administration is carrying on the greatest preparation for war in the history of mankind . . . The weight of our taxation is unbearable and rests mainly and deliberately on the poor. This Administration is dominated and directed by wealth and for the accumulation of wealth. It runs smoothly like a well-organized industry and should do so because industry runs it for the benefit of industry. Corporate wealth profits as never before in history. We turn over the national resources to private profit and have few funds left for education, health or housing. Our crime, especially juvenile crime, is increasing. Its increase is perfectly logical; for a generation we have been teaching our youth to kill, destroy, steal and rape in war; what can we expect in peace? We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is “legal” we call it high profits and the profiteers help decide what is legal. If the theft is “illegal” the thief can fight it out in court, with excellent chances to win if he receives the accolade of the right newspapers.
Of course, the preceding account of corruption, hypocrisy, media collusion, deliberate impoverishment, over-investment in war and under-investment in education and health could have been written about every single administration between 1956 and the present day. But chances are, you’ve never read it. Indeed, the only thing more disheartening than the accuracy of Du Bois’s political analysis is the astounding success of the ruling elite in ensuring that millions of citizens either remain in ignorance of these political facts or, even worse, celebrate them.
Du Bois’s appraisal would be echoed, years later, by Martin Luther King–not in the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that he gave the day after Du Bois’s death, but in the year leading up to his own. Toward the end of his life, the actual Martin Luther King–not the watered down caricature created by the ruling elite–came to fiercely oppose U.S. militarism, capitalist exploitation and state violence–and was, predictably, opposed by a rainbow coalition of militarist “liberals”, including the NAACP, Dr. Ralph Bunche as well as the moral disaster known as The New York Times.
Speaking on April 4th 1967 at the famous Riverside Church in Harlem–a year to the day before his assassination–Martin Luther King, Jr. launched a searing critique of the United States’ role in perpetrating multiple forms of injustice, oppression and terror at home and abroad. The speech–“Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break the Silence”–has been largely silenced by the same ruling elites King courageously wigsnatched and excoriated. I would urge you to not only read the speech in its entirety, but to actually listen to it and hear Dr. King’s erudite condemnation of the United States’ role in perpetuating systemic racism, militarism, poverty and war crimes.
The lamentable truth of King’s description of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” grows exponentially more devastating with each passing year. King denounced the warmongering of the United States military as “demonic” and inextricably linked to the oppression of the poor. Recounting his own political transformation as he observed the unfolding horrors of the Vietnam War, he wrote:
I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
This Martin Luther King Jr., who, a decade earlier was still waxing poetic the American Dream, began speaking openly about the reality of the American nightmare. From the pulpit of the Riverside Church, Dr. King warned, to widespread, and intentionally manufactured, indifference:
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Approaching spiritual death. Those words were spoken fifty years ago.
The United States would continue murdering, torturing and raping civilians, children included, in Vietnam for eight years after the Riverside speech–seven long years after his suspiciously timely untimely death. Over 2 million innocent Vietnamese civilians were needlessly murdered during the Vietnam War. And, whether ruled by Democrats or Republicans, the nation that King saw standing on the precipice of spiritual death would descend ever more deeply into the bottomless pit of immorality and mass destruction required by those who seek to maintain military and material dominance no matter the cost.
But no matter how many principled human rights activists, intellectuals, investigative journalists and observers ring the alarm, the death cult of Western and hypercapitalist hegemony marches on. Which returns us to the matter of Obama–and the Democrat-aligned writers, intellectuals, politicians and dark money–that continue to obscure the the role of the Democratic Party in bolstering the power of the rainbow coalition of ruling elites who have emerged, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, to pursue the strategic interests of the United States and the global, hypercapitalist military-industrial-complex that justifies and bankrolls eternal war and unprecedented destruction of life (human, non-human and environmental).
This is what keeps me up at night: not merely the harrowing political trajectory of the Senator from Illinois, but the widely successful ideological hegemony of the ruling elite that ensured he was “selected before he was elected”.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how many books and exposés are written on the immorality of our government’s bipartisan crimes, hundreds of millions of people keep not caring. From one generation to the next, the overwhelming majority of the nation’s citizenry continue to either ignore structural oppressions and widespread atrocities committed in our name, or rationalize and justify those very same oppressions and atrocities. It is this stunning, indisputable success of U.S. propaganda, dissimulation and ideological brainwashing that troubles me the most.
We are at the unfathomably abysmal point where multiple generations of “liberals” who see themselves as decent simply do not care about children murdered in our name. Certainly the vast majority of the U.S. population does not care about civilian deaths in unjust wars–despite the fact that we know these wars have been established on the basis of outright lies.
On the one hand is a constitutional lawyer who decided to shred the constitution, join the ruling elite and become an unrepentant killer. On the other hand are the millions of people who still don’t know (and don’t care to know) that he did all these things–and more. The sad reality is that most Democrats still cannot face, much less condemn, the reality that their “liberal” favorite, the first black president, the living, breathing embodiment of “exceptionalism”, was the king of child-killing drones and family-destroying deportation policies. Propaganda and ignorance combine to produce a population that idolizes the same politicians busily taking away our fundamental rights–including the right of U.S. citizens to not be summarily murdered by the president of the United States without due process or trial. There is still, among “alt-center” corporate Democrats, a refusal to acknowledge their own party’s role in promoting fascism and continually destroying the possibility of anything approaching “democracy” here and abroad.
Reading about Obama’s assassination campaign over these past years has been demoralizing to say the least. But realizing that millions of U.S. citizens don’t care and haven’t really cared about state violence since the inception of the nation challenges my faith in humanity.
The New York Times’ largely glowing coverage of Obama’s assassination program makes it abundantly clear that the man and his campaign strategists were fully aware his warm and fuzzy liberal image would provide cover for hawkish militarism and, eventually, war crimes. It can’t be argued that those who read this article on Obama’s assassination campaign (which killed innocents) didn’t know of his crimes. Yes, there were people who read the article and had what may be called a normal human reaction (disgust, moral repudiation and outrage). But, as the comments section makes clear, there were many other readers who were all too happy to defend – on moral grounds! – the murder of innocent civilians, kids included. This is what “patriotism” has come to mean in the minds of millions of people who think of themselves as “pragmatic”, well-meaning liberals: if other people’s children must die to protect the material interests of the 1% who rule this nation, then they must die.
Such people read the whole horrific account of a man so unhinged with narcissism, bloodlust and thirst for power that he genuinely believed himself personally and uniquely qualified to kill human beings (women, children included) by remote control and conclude: Yes we can!
The sad reality is that Obama’s acolytes read these astonishing reports and, due to the overwhelming success of this nation’s death-cult propaganda, see and celebrate war crimes we can believe in.
That’s what shakes me to my core–not Obama’s chilling descent from naive ambition to “unrepentant liar and murderer for the empire”, but the fact that millions of ordinary people–people just like me–can be manipulated into ignoring, whitewashing and rationalizing state violence wittingly and unwittingly.
I am still coming to terms with my own role in actively supporting Obama’s first campaign, an effort that involved defending Obama and the Democrats’ agenda on international TV in two languages. You can check out videos of me lionizing Obama and, sadly, even Hillary Clinton, here.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct the various forms of historical, political and sociological ignorance and denial that allowed me to accept and parrot so many falsehoods about the United States. It would be easy to say “I was young and naive”, but the truth of the matter is much more sinister than this. The fact is that until relatively recently, I, like millions of my fellow citizens, abdicated my civic responsibilities to do my own homework, reach beyond the headlines and confront the hypocrisy, lies and war crimes perpetrated by my own government for centuries. And I did this, not merely out of ignorance, but also out of a desperate need to cling to “feel-good” narratives about my country–and myself.
As I said, I am still thinking these things through–and writing about them. My next book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race: The Essential Guide to Confronting White Supremacy, blends rigorous engagement with interdisciplinary research on racism, a dose of humor and admittedly painful, personal accounts of my own political and intellectual journey. It’s a journey that’s still unfolding, as I continue to learn more about history, geopolitics and various aspects of theorizing oppression. It’s also a journey that I’ve been taking very publicly through various televised and digitally mediated interventions over the course of the last ten years.
I hope that the book not only helps debunk common misconceptions about race and racism, but also provides insights into the political transformations that can occur as we, individually and collectively, come face to face with the long, utterly depressing history of human oppressions, as well as the specific and historically unprecedented machinations of these United States. I’ll be sharing more news about the book in coming weeks.
8 thoughts on “War Crimes We Can Believe In”
Thoughtful, honest writing. I’m sharing to all. Please fix spelling error “other readers who were all to happy”
While Riverside Church is close to Harlem, it is not in Harlem.
What makes you say that?
Widespread coverage of King’s speech describe the Riverside speech as taking place in Harlem. You’d also have to tell NPR, Jacobin and, well, Harlem Magazine that Riverside Church isn’t in Harlem because they all correctly state that it is.
One shocking expose piece of politico material!
Thank you so much for not only taking the time to write this, but to provide source material as well. I intend to read the articles and essays you source to help my own understanding. It’s a lot to take in, but very important to examine how the machine keeps going. I want to help break down the machine, and your tweets and essays help provide clarity on how it is continually oiled.
I will share this with friends to hopefully bring more people into the fold of fighting systematic racism. Thank you again.
My jumping off point came when Walter Scott was shot in the back eight times while running away and the policeman said he was in fear for his life. Mr. Obama’s verbal reaction was, I thought, much less heartfelt than his verbal reaction to a shooting of a police officer. I felt he was being politically correct as opposed to being outraged. So I wrote a letter, for the second time, to a President of the United States. I received a “Presidential” reply, no surprise there. I realized in my heart that I knew if I received a reply it would be “Presidential”. A politician “selected before he was elected.” I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Enough to read it again. Hope to see many more.
I also noticed Obama’s muted reaction to black suffering — and his continued patronizing lecturing toward black people. It was very disconcerting. Still is..