Wall of Fear

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

“Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators — when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead.”

The chicken hawks still have a mega-forum. This was Newt Gingrich the other day, discussing “the handshake” on “Fox and Friends,” and having his words — no matter how simplistic they were, no matter the moral cowardice they masked — widely and uncritically quoted throughout the media afterward.

The handshake! The empire trembles. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, grinning like only a “harsh critic of America” can grin, shakes hands with Barack Obama, the naive young president, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last weekend. They have their pictures taken. Click, gotcha! Then Chavez really pushes the envelope, giving Obama a ’70s-era book, “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano — which is critical of Europe, the West, colonial exploitation. The world’s only superpower may not recover from this unprovoked assault on its ignorance. Or something.

“Jimmy Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher . . .”

It doesn’t matter how stupid the arguments these people — Gingrich, most Republicans, far too many Democrats, the Washington Establishment, the mainstream media, the military industrial complex — put forth. What matters is the decibel level, the aggressive certainty and the presence of Satan (who eats weaklings for breakfast). Call it the Wall of Fear. Call it Godzilla. It’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s consistent: Be. Very. Afraid.

And it works. Americans are quick to pick up their guns and play Alamo. Any progressive agenda this country adapts, any global initiative that involves cooperation — talking to Iran, shaking hands with Venezuela — has to pass through the Wall of Fear.

Forget disarmament. Obama is kept busy having to defend a handshake . . . with a democratically elected “dictator” who somehow managed to bloodlessly dodge the 2002, U.S.-backed coup against him, and who isn’t implicated in death squads and other brutalities that were the standard practice of traditional U.S. allies in Latin America, such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Efrain (“If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea”) Rios Montt of Guatemala.

Obama defended the handshake forthrightly: “Even within this imaginative crowd,” he told reporters, “I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.”

Of course, that was about it. Like some other recent initiatives of his administration that have the tinge of campaign-promised “change,” he only went so far. For instance, the White House announced the easing of travel restrictions with Cuba, but said the crushing economic embargo would remain in place. The secret CIA torture memos have been released, but Obama remains coy as to whether anyone — in particular, the Bush administration officials who provided legal justification for these war crimes — would be prosecuted. Mostly he has emphasized the need to “move forward,” rather than dwell on the crimes and horrors of the Bush era and demand a measure of accountability.

And this attitude is causing fury to amount among the activist and politically astute sector of the Obama constituency. The criticism from this sector is sometimes as harsh on Obama as it was on Bush, accompanied by cries of betrayal and “they’re all alike.”

This is understandable, of course. Obama wasn’t elected to play politics. He was elected to change the country: to change its relationship with the world and with itself. He was elected to end the Bush wars and clean up the financial mess. But on some, if not most, days, he seems cautious, timid, responsive more to the Wall Street greedheads and fear-based special interests than to the people who voted for him — more of a participant in established corruption than an agent of change.

While noting this, I remain far more (cautiously) optimistic with Obama in office than I’d be if McPain/Bush III had won the 2008 election. Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, writing about the CIA memos, gets at why:

“I think the significance of Obama’s decision to release those memos — and the political courage it took — shouldn’t be minimized,” he wrote last week, describing the likelihood that the pressure not to do so was enormous, that a “twisted anti-democratic mentality is the one that predominates in our political class” and bucking it “is simply not done.. . . Obama knowingly infuriated the CIA” for very little political gain.

The fear crowd will cry weakness every step of the way. They will oppose the sanity of global cooperation and obfuscate the privileges and crimes of the governing status quo with every last resource at their disposal. If they can’t win Obama fully to their side, they’ll try to bring him down. Right now he’s straddling the future and the past, and it’s up to us — a passionate and vocal citizenry — to pull him to the future.