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We are citizens, and Obama is a politician. You might not like that word. But the fact is he’s a politician. He’s other things, too—he’s a very sensitive and intelligent and thoughtful and promising person. But he’s a politician.
If you’re a citizen, you have to know the difference between them and you—the difference between what they have to do and what you have to do. And there are things they don’t have to do, if you make it clear to them they don’t have to do it.
From the beginning, I liked Obama. But the first time it suddenly struck me that he was a politician was early on, when Joe Lieberman was running for the Democratic nomination for his Senate seat in 2006.
Lieberman—who, as you know, was and is a war lover—was running for the Democratic nomination, and his opponent was a man named Ned Lamont, who was the peace candidate. And Obama went to Connecticut to support Lieberman against Lamont.
It took me aback. I say that to indicate that, yes, Obama was and is a politician. So we must not be swept away into an unthinking and unquestioning acceptance of what Obama does.
Our job is not to give him a blank check or simply be cheerleaders. It was good that we were cheerleaders while he was running for office, but it’s not good to be cheerleaders now. Because we want the country to go beyond where it has been in the past. We want to make a clean break from what it has been in the past.
I had a teacher at Columbia University named Richard Hofstadter, who wrote a book called The American Political Tradition, and in it, he examined presidents from the Founding Fathers down through Franklin Roosevelt. There were liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. And there were differences between them. But he found that the so-called liberals were not as liberal as people thought—and that the difference between the liberals and the conservatives, and between Republicans and Democrats, was not a polar difference. There was a common thread that ran through all American history, and all of the presidents—Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative—followed this thread.
The thread consisted of two elements: one, nationalism; and two, capitalism. And Obama is not yet free of that powerful double heritage.
We can see it in the policies that have been enunciated so far, even though he’s been in office only a short time.
Some people might say, “Well, what do you expect?”
And the answer is that we expect a lot.
People say, “What, are you a dreamer?”
And the answer is, yes, we’re dreamers. We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don’t want war. We don’t want capitalism. We want a decent society.
We better hold on to that dream—because if we don’t, we’ll sink closer and closer to this reality that we have, and that we don’t want.
Be wary when you hear about the glories of the market system. The market system is what we’ve had. Let the market decide, they say. The government mustn’t give people free health care; let the market decide.
Which is what the market has been doing—and that’s why we have forty-eight million people without health care. The market has decided that. Leave things to the market, and there are two million people homeless. Leave things to the market, and there are millions and millions of people who can’t pay their rent. Leave things to the market, and there are thirty-five million people who go hungry.
You can’t leave it to the market. If you’re facing an economic crisis like we’re facing now, you can’t do what was done in the past. You can’t pour money into the upper levels of the country—and into the banks and corporations—and hope that it somehow trickles down.
What was one of the first things that happened when the Bush Administration saw that the economy was in trouble? A $700 billion bailout, and who did we give the $700 billion to? To the financial institutions that caused this crisis.
This was when the Presidential campaign was still going on, and it pained me to see Obama standing there, endorsing this huge bailout to the corporations.
What Obama should have been saying was: Hey, wait a while. The banks aren’t poverty stricken. The CEOs aren’t poverty stricken. But there are people who are out of work. There are people who can’t pay their mortgages. Let’s take $700 billion and give it directly to the people who need it. Let’s take $1 trillion, let’s take $2 trillion.
Let’s take this money and give it directly to the people who need it. Give it to the people who have to pay their mortgages. Nobody should be evicted. Nobody should be left with their belongings out on the street.
Obama wants to spend perhaps a trillion more on the banks. Like Bush, he’s not giving it directly to homeowners. Unlike the Republicans, Obama also wants to spend $800 billion for his economic stimulus plan. Which is good—the idea of a stimulus is good. But if you look closely at the plan, too much of it goes through the market, through corporations.
It gives tax breaks to businesses, hoping that they’ll hire people. No—if people need jobs, you don’t give money to the corporations, hoping that maybe jobs will be created. You give people work immediately.
A lot of people don’t know the history of the New Deal of the 1930s. The New Deal didn’t go far enough, but it had some very good ideas. And the reason the New Deal came to these good ideas was because there was huge agitation in this country, and Roosevelt had to react. So what did he do? He took billions of dollars and said the government was going to hire people. You’re out of work? The government has a job for you.
As a result of this, lots of very wonderful work was done all over the country. Several million young people were put into the Civilian Conservation Corps. They went around the country, building bridges and roads and playgrounds, and doing remarkable things.
The government created a federal arts program. It wasn’t going to wait for the markets to decide that. The government set up a program and hired thousands of unemployed artists: playwrights, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers. What was the result? The result was the production of 200,000 pieces of art. Today, around the country, there are thousands of murals painted by people in the WPA program. Plays were put on all over the country at very cheap prices, so that people who had never seen a play in their lives were able to afford to go.
And that’s just a glimmer of what could be done. The government has to represent the people’s needs. The government can’t give the job of representing the people’s needs to corporations and the banks, because they don’t care about the people’s needs. They only care about profit.
In the course of his campaign, Obama said something that struck me as very wise—and when people say something very wise, you have to remember it, because they may not hold to it. You may have to remind them of that wise thing they said.
Obama was talking about the war in Iraq, and he said, “It’s not just that we have to get out of Iraq.” He said “get out of Iraq,” and we mustn’t forget it. We must keep reminding him: Out of Iraq, out of Iraq, out of Iraq—not next year, not two years from now, but out of Iraq now.
But listen to the second part, too. His whole sentence was: “It’s not enough to get out of Iraq; we have to get out of the mindset that led us into Iraq.”
What is the mindset that got us into Iraq?
It’s the mindset that says force will do the trick. Violence, war, bombers—that they will bring democracy and liberty to the people.
It’s the mindset that says America has some God-given right to invade other countries for their own benefit. We will bring civilization to the Mexicans in 1846. We will bring freedom to the Cubans in 1898. We will bring democracy to the Filipinos in 1900. You know how successful we’ve been at bringing democracy all over the world.
Obama has not gotten out of this militaristic missionary mindset. He talks about sending tens of thousands of more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama is a very smart guy, and surely he must know some of the history. You don’t have to know a lot to know the history of Afghanistan has been decades and decades and decades and decades of Western powers trying to impose their will on Afghanistan by force: the English, the Russians, and now the Americans. What has been the result? The result has been a ruined country.
This is the mindset that sends 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and that says, as Obama has, that we’ve got to have a bigger military. My heart sank when Obama said that. Why do we need a bigger military? We have an enormous military budget. Has Obama talked about cutting the military budget in half or some fraction? No.
We have military bases in more than a hundred countries. We have fourteen military bases on Okinawa alone. Who wants us there? The governments. They get benefits. But the people don’t really want us there. There have been huge demonstrations in Italy against the establishment of a U.S. military base. There have been big demonstrations in South Korea and on Okinawa.
One of the first acts of the Obama Administration was to send Predator missiles to bomb Pakistan. People died. The claim is, “Oh, we’re very precise with our weapons. We have the latest equipment. We can target anywhere and hit just what we want.”
This is the mindset of technological infatuation. Yes, they can actually decide that they’re going to bomb this one house. But there’s one problem: They don’t know who’s in the house. They can hit one car with a rocket from a great distance. Do they know who’s in the car? No.
And later—after the bodies have been taken out of the car, after the bodies have been taken out of the house—they tell you, “Well, there were three suspected terrorists in that house, and yes, there’s seven other people killed, including two children, but we got the suspected terrorists.”
But notice that the word is “suspected.” The truth is they don’t know who the terrorists are.
So, yes, we have to get out of the mindset that got us into Iraq, but we’ve got to identify that mindset. And Obama has to be pulled by the people who elected him, by the people who are enthusiastic about him, to renounce that mindset. We’re the ones who have to tell him, “No, you’re on the wrong course with this militaristic idea of using force to accomplish things in the world. We won’t accomplish anything that way, and we’ll remain a hated country in the world.”
Obama has talked about a vision for this country. You have to have a vision, and now I want to tell Obama what his vision should be.
The vision should be of a nation that becomes liked all over the world. I won’t even say loved—it’ll take a while to build up to that. A nation that is not feared, not disliked, not hated, as too often we are, but a nation that is looked upon as peaceful, because we’ve withdrawn our military bases from all these countries.
We don’t need to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars on the military budget. Take all the money allocated to military bases and the military budget, and—this is part of the emancipation—you can use that money to give everybody free health care, to guarantee jobs to everybody who doesn’t have a job, guaranteed payment of rent to everybody who can’t pay their rent, build child care centers.
Let’s use the money to help other people around the world, not to send bombers over there. When disasters take place, they need helicopters to transport people out of the floods and out of devastated areas. They need helicopters to save people’s lives, and the helicopters are over in the Middle East, bombing and strafing people.
What’s required is a total turnaround. We want a country that uses its resources, its wealth, and its power to help people, not to hurt them. That’s what we need.
This is a vision we have to keep alive. We shouldn’t be easily satisfied and say, “Oh well, give him a break. Obama deserves respect.”
But you don’t respect somebody when you give them a blank check. You respect somebody when you treat them as an equal to you, and as somebody you can talk to and somebody who will listen to you.
Not only is Obama a politician. Worse, he’s surrounded by politicians. And some of them he picked himself. He picked Hillary Clinton, he picked Lawrence Summers, he picked people who show no sign of breaking from the past.
We are citizens. We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from their eyes and say, “Well, we have to compromise, we have to do this for political reasons.” No, we have to speak our minds.
This is the position that the abolitionists were in before the Civil War, and people said, “Well, you have to look at it from Lincoln’s point of view.” Lincoln didn’t believe that his first priority was abolishing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement did, and the abolitionists said, “We’re not going to put ourselves in Lincoln’s position. We are going to express our own position, and we are going to express it so powerfully that Lincoln will have to listen to us.”
And the anti-slavery movement grew large enough and powerful enough that Lincoln had to listen. That’s how we got the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
That’s been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today.
Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” “Voices of a People’s History” (with Anthony Arnove), and “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.” Thanks to Alex Read and Matt Korn for transcribing Zinn’s talk on February 2 at the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Washington, D.C., from which this is adapted.