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Moving the Middle

The airwaves seethe and the fiber-optics networks thrum with right-wing attacks on Obama, many of them mean-spirited and just-this-side-of-rational. Sometimes the vitriol veers into the supernatural.

Let’s not pretend this doesn’t make a difference. What people think depends in part on what they hear and read; otherwise, none of us would bother talking or writing. I recently heard a student — a black student at an historically black college — tell his classmates that he sincerely believes Barack Obama may be the Antichrist.

In this context, even I — who am currently very angry at Obama for Gaza and Pakistan, not to mention bailing out the bankers while leaving their victims drowning in debt — feel the urge to protectively rush to the rescue, defending the beleaguered president from his embittered attackers.

Thus, it might seem that the kind thing to do right now would be to withhold criticism from the left. But that shifts the center position (which Obama likes to occupy) to the right.

In last week’s Nation, Benjamin Dangl argued that U.S. leftists ought to pressure Obama in the same way that the MST pressures president Luiz In√°cio Lula da Silva in Brazil. That comparison didn’t work for me: Lula came to power due to the support of the MST, promising land reform and “zero hunger” among other progressive policies.

Obama, on the other hand, has never pretended to be anything other than a centrist. He owes the left no allegiance. Furthermore, the US left has nowhere near the ability to mobilize the grassroots as the MST, which truly is is a movement of the dispossessed. The closest match in the US is Acorn, I guess.

So, let’s set aside the question of whether MST-style protests would be effective as moot, and think about what might make a difference here and now.

Whatever others would like him to be, Obama seems to think of himself as a conciliating centrist capable of coming up with middle-ground positions that will satisfy everybody’s basic needs.

Right now, the only voices we’re hearing loudly and clearly are those of the hard-right Republicans like Rush Limbaugh and those of center-right Democrats like Nancy Pelosi. This sites the rhetorical center rather further right than it should be, leaving out everybody from center-left moderates like my fellow faculty members to all-the-way leftists like my freegan friends.

That means that, counterintuitively, the best way to counter critiques of Obama is with more critiques of Obama. We need a diversity of voices speaking up from left-of-center if we want the “center” that Obama will try to occupy to shift in our direction.

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