An American Awakening?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Oct 2011
The exciting presence of protestors on Wall Street (and the spread of the #OccupyWallStreet protests across the country) is a welcome respite from years of passivity in America, not only in relation to the scandalous legal and illegal abuses of comprador capitalists, but also to the prolongations of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shocking disregard of the impinging challenges of climate change, a rising Islamophobic tide at home, and a presidency that seems less willing to confront hedge fund managers than jobless masses. But will this encouraging presence be sustained in a manner that brings some hope of restored democracy and social wellbeing at home and responsible law-oriented leadership abroad?
There is little doubt that this move to the streets expresses a deep disillusionment with ordinary politics based on elections and governing institutions. Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 was the last hope of the young in America who poured unprecedented enthusiasm into his campaign that promised so much and delivered so little. Perhaps worse than Obama’s failure to deliver, was his refusal to fight, or even to bring into his entourage of advisors some voices of empathy and mildly progressive outlook. From his initial appointment of Rahm Emmanuel onwards, it was clear that the Obama presidency would be shaped by the old Washington games waged by special interests, as abetted by a Republican Party leaning ever further to the right, a surging Tea Party that is pushing the opposition to the outer extremes of irrational governance, and a Democratic Party that is trying to survive mainly by mimicking Republicans. If such a portrayal of ordinary politics is more or less correct it is a wonder that a more radical sense of America’s future took so long to materialize, or even to show these present signs of displeasure with what is and engagement with what might be.
For those of us with our eyes on the Middle East two observations follow. The extraordinary falling back from Obama’s speech in Cairo of 2009, which was, contrary to how it was spun by the pro-Israeli media, a very cautious approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict, but at least forward looking in its realization that something more had to be done if negotiations were ever to be more than a charade. The speech contained lots of reassurances for Israel, especially it treated the dispute as essentially territorial (withdrawal to 1967 borders, which deliberately pretends that refugee and exile rights of Palestinians are irrelevant to a just peace), and only seemed to project balance when it insisted on a suspension of settlement expansion as a confidence-building step toward a new cycle of negotiations. It really was a most modest request to insist that Israel temporarily stop expanding settlements that were almost unanimously seen as flagrant violations of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention and posing a real threat to the viability of an independent Palestinian state. When Israeli leaders and their zealous American backers indicated ‘no go,’ the Obama administration back peddled with accelerating speed, gradually isolating the United States on the global stage by the unconditionality of its support for Israel even in situations where Israel is seen by virtually the entire rest of the world as defiant toward international law. Besides this, a few months ago the leaked Palestine Papers underscored Israel’s disinterest in a negotiated solution to the conflict even in the face of Palestinian of huge Palestinian Authority concessions behind closed doors. Of course, Obama should not take the whole blame as Congress has outdone him when it comes to support for partisan positions that often seem to outdo the Knesset.
The latest phase in American foreign policy in relation to the conflict is associated with the American threat to veto the statehood bid of Palestine in the UN Security Council, coupled with its arm-twisting efforts to induce others to vote with the U.S. against statehood or at least abstain, so that Palestine will not get the nine affirmative votes it needs to receive a positive recommendation and the U.S. will be spared the embarrassment and backlash of casting a veto. The shrillness of the sterile call by Obama in his 2011 speech to the General Assembly to the parties to resume negotiations after almost twenty years of futility, and for the Palestinians the effects were far worse than mere failure (the ordeal of occupation, loss of land to settlements, annexation wall, road infrastructure). It should finally be understood. Time is not neutral. It helps Israel, hurts Palestine.
Disavowing American party and institutional politics and situating hope with the arousal of progressive forces in civil society is different from concluding that the Wall Street protests is more than a tantalizing flash in the pan at this stage. Even this cautionary commentary should make it obvious that the events owe their primary inspiration to Tahrir Square (with a surprising initial push from the Canadian anti-consumerist organization Adbusters, previous mainly known for its irreverent and vaguely anarchistic magazine by the same name), especially the ethos of a nonviolent leaderless, programless spontaneous rising that learns day by day what it is about, who it is, and what is possible. Of course, the stakes for activists are much lower than in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East, as there is little risk of death at this point on American streets. At the same time, the monsters of Wall Street are not quite as potent a unifying target for an militant opposition as was the grim personage of Hosni Mubarak, cruel autocrat of more than three decades, and so it may be harder to transform the protests into a sustainable movement.
In the end, we must hope and engage. The beginnings of hope are rooted in the correctness of analysis, and so we can be thankful that this initiative places its focus on financial and corporate structures, and not on the state. Further along these lines, if the struggle will gain momentum it will be totally thanks to politics-from-below. The implicit not so subtle point is that the center of power over the destinies of the American people has shifted its locus from Washington to New York, and from the penthouse to the the basement!! We’ll see!!
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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