Obama, no hero

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

A brief anecdote: in 2008, all students in my high school were required to read one of two books for summer reading: Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father or John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers.

I noted the suspicious similarity in titles and chose Obama’s, which I imagined to be marginally more interesting. I don’t know if it was, and I don’t recall how far I got, but I know I didn’t finish it. I remember it was extremely boring and even then I recognized it as tedious and largely empty hagiography.

Twelve years later, Obama has a new book, A Promised Land. From its slow, steady, dribbling out—excerpts of which I have seen on twitter and in reviews—clearly the tendentiousness remains. Only now he’s been President. Well-timed, God help us.

Aside from people ridiculing its shallow, often factually inaccurate claims—the most meaningful reflection I’ve seen was Osita Nwanevu’s characteristically thoughtful essay in The New Republic. In it he artfully, if not viciously, tears apart the pretensions that appear to underlie the book. One is left with the sense that Obama has insight more or less equivalent to David Brooks—famously, Obama’s favorite columnist, a man who more than anyone, at The New York Times and probably in all liberal media, pristinely distills the platonic banality and emptiness at the heart of this culture and its last two neoliberal decades, its plodding artlessness. Brooks is interminably boring and, well, Obama is too. Just look at this playlist Obama released as accompaniment to his book. It could’ve been produced by an algorithm. It probably was produced by an algorithm.

And yet Obama’s dullness—like Brooks’—obscures something deeper, and darker: an intense, structural, bureaucratic immorality at the heart of his character, a quality that arguably defined his time in office, prepped the way for Trump’s, and appears poised in hyper-accelerated form to return to the White House in the form of a Biden administration. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” Obama said. Indeed, sitting behind a desk and signing off on assassination lists allowing targeted drone strikes thousands of miles away—as that faraway region grew increasingly fractured and unstable through his two terms—I guess he was.

I’m not here to relitigate Obama’s tenure. Increasingly I wonder if there is a point. Not because the history is unimportant or his presidency is well-understood, but in spite of both being untrue. Frankly, I have serious doubts about the efficacy of that project in a moment as cynical and historically illiterate as this one, a moment which seems to preclude in its essential, desperate character any mass reevaluation of the past, especially of Obama—and by extension of the American project itself—and I fear this hegemony may never be broken.

Why? As we progress further into dystopia—which will be the case whether or not Biden is president—I suspect, darkly, that for a vast many (excluding, obviously, those who hate Obama for racist reasons) Obama will remain the last president of a “normal,” “functioning” America. And thus his era, and the man himself, will continue to be looked back on fondly, and nostalgically, by a broad swath of the electorate. While some of us have no trouble seeing Obama’s role in facilitating the transition into increasingly overt dystopia, how many more people will understand, who don’t already—or more importantly, care? The onslaught of a horrific present and future—even one largely predetermined by the actions of the past—makes it difficult to think in this narrow moment, to seriously reflect. And what is the alternative—to be like Benjamin’s angelus novus, increasingly horrified at the steady uncovering of the past, yet simultaneously paralyzed as we are propelled into the oblivion of the future?

What is perhaps darkest is that this all appears quite OK with Obama, a man who is clearly extremely intelligent, but who has demonstrated a concern, most of all, with protecting his legacy. And he’s now in a pretty cozy spot in that respect. As things continue to worsen, the reactionary assessment of Obama will not change—it will only be solidified—as he may well appear to be the last president of an essentially stable, normal United States of America. That history may not be real, but isn’t that always the case?

In any event—no more Obama. Well, a little more: we had a conversation last weekend with Eric Draitser of Counterpunch about the Obama administration’s prosecution of the War in Libya—but also about the broader implications of neoliberal interventionism, and its legacy up to the present. Please listen below or in your podcast app (end talk)—and check out Eric’s article on Libya and support his work on Patreon.  

Below you will find another climate roundup, including an article on the Permian-Triassic mass extinction—generally less well-known than the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which wiped out the dinosaurs, but more frighteningly relevant to the present.

We also share two new, somewhat lighter sections: a brief selection of interesting wikipedia entries that may inspire in you some further digging, as well as a look at the episode “Death Ship” of what may be the greatest TV show of all time: The Twilight Zone.

And finally, we have another assorted list of recommendations at the end.

So please—take your time, click through—and subscribe, share, comment, you know the drill.

Also note: this issue may appear cut-off when viewed in your e-mail inbox, so it is best viewed on Substack.


[Climate Roundup

Daily CO2 (recorded 12/2/20 in Mauna Loa, Hawaii):  413.59 ppm

Burning Fossil Fuels Helped Drive Earth’s Most Massive Extinction

Paleontologists call it the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but it has another name: “the Great Dying.” It happened about 252 million years ago, and, over the course of just tens of thousands of years, 96 percent of all life in the oceans and, perhaps, roughly 70 percent of all land life vanished forever.

The smoking gun was ancient volcanism in what is today Siberia, where volcanoes disgorged enough magma and lava over about a million years to cover an amount of land equivalent to a third or even half of the surface area of the United States.

But volcanism on its own didn’t cause the extinction. The Great Dying was fueled, two separate teams of scientists report in two recent papers, by extensive oil and coal deposits that the Siberian magma blazed through, leading to combustion that released greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

Strategy of the central position

The strategy of the central position was a key tactical doctrine followed by Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars.[1] It involved attacking two cooperating armies at their hinge, swinging around to fight one until it fled, then turning to face the other. The strategy allowed the use of a smaller force to defeat a larger one. However, these tactics, while successful at the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, failed at the Battle of Waterloo, and Napoleon was defeated because he was not able to prevent the joining of the British and Dutch forces by the Prussian forces.[2]…..

The tactic loses at least some of its advantage when employed against successive wings or flanks of a single force with a unified command structure, as a single defending force’s better communication and coordination enable it to better execute a pincer movement against the attacker.

George de Mohrenschildt

On April 1, 1977, Jeanne de Mohrenschildt gave the House Select Committee on Assassinations a print of a photograph showing Lee Harvey Oswald standing in his Dallas backyard holding two newspapers and a rifle, and with a pistol on his hip – a photograph taken by Oswald’s wife Marina. While similar to other prints that had been found among Oswald’s effects on November 23, 1963, the existence of this particular print was previously unknown. On the back was written “To my friend George from Lee Oswald” and the date "5/IV/63" (April 5, 1963),[79] along with the words “Copyright Geo de M” and a Russian phrase translated as “Hunter after fascists, ha-ha-ha!!!” Handwriting specialists later concluded that the words “To my friend George ...” and Oswald’s signature were written by Lee Harvey Oswald, but could not determine whether the rest was the writing of Oswald, his wife or de Mohrenschildt.[80] De Mohrenschildt assumed that Marina had written it sarcastically.[80]

De Mohrenschildt wrote in his manuscript that he had missed Oswald’s photograph in packing for the move to Haiti in May 1963, which was why he had not mentioned it to the Warren Commission (though he had noted in his manuscript that Oswald had a rifle in April 1963, and scoffed to Oswald that he had missed General Walker, remembering that Oswald had blanched at the joke). According to de Mohrenschildt, the photograph was not found among his stored papers until he and his wife found it in February 1967. When analyzed by the HSCA in 1977, this photo turned out to be a first-generation print of the backyard photo already known to the Warren Commission as “CE-133A” and which had probably been taken on March 31, 1963.[81]

The Limits to Growth

The Limits to Growth (LTG) is a 1972 report[1] on the exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources, studied by computer simulation.[2] Commissioned by the Club of Rome, the findings of the study were first presented at international gatherings in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1971….

After reviewing their computer simulations, the research team came to the following conclusions:

  1. Given business as usual, i.e., no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” This includes the following:

    • Global Industrial output per capita reaches a peak around 2008, followed by a rapid decline

    • Global Food per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline

    • Global Services per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline

    • Global population reaches a peak in 2030, followed by a rapid decline

  2. Growth trends existing in 1972 could be altered so that sustainable ecological and economic stability could be achieved.

  3. The sooner the world’s people start striving for the second outcome above, the better the chance of achieving it.

[The Twilight Zone

“Death Ship” — The Twilight Zone: Season 4, Episode 6 — originally aired 2/7/1963

Picture of the spaceship E-89, cruising above the thirteenth planet of star system fifty-one, the year 1997. In a little while, supposedly, the ship will be landed and specimens taken: vegetable, mineral and, if any, animal. These will be brought back to overpopulated Earth, where technicians will evaluate them and, if everything is satisfactory, stamp their findings with the word ‘inhabitable’ and open up yet another planet for colonization. These are the things that are supposed to happen . . . Picture of the crew of the spaceship E-89: Captain Ross, Lieutenant Mason, Lieutenant Carter. Three men who have just reached a place which is as far from home as they will ever be. Three men who in a matter of minutes will be plunged into the darkest nightmare reaches of the Twilight Zone.

Be forewarned: video contains spoilers…

Season 4 is, for me, the least well-known of The Twilight Zone’s five seasons. Unlike seasons 1-3, and 5, the episodes in season 4 are close to an hour in length. For this reason, I don’t think they are often (or ever?) re-broadcast on TV. Season 4 is also conspicuously absent from Netflix. I believe Rod Serling was unhappy with the longer format, and that, broadly speaking, many of the episodes aren’t considered among the series’ best.

That said, while I haven’t seen season 4 in its entirety, this episode is fucking tight, and the length absolutely works. Jack Klugman is excellent as the captain who can’t accept… well, you’ll see. All the performances are excellent. It’s better than Black Mirror or that Crown show or whatever the fuck else is on Netflix.

If you don’t have the show on DVD—which you should!—this episode can probably be found for rent on Amazon // YouTube // somewhere on the internet.

“Included in ‘Death Ship’ are a number of visually impressive futuristic props, including the spaceship itself (a leftover from the movie Forbidden Planet) and an
on-bridge device that scans the planet’s surface. Realistic paintings depict the wrecked spaceship and the exterior of a house back on Earth. Also worth noting are the day and night shots of the spaceship landing and taking off. ‘The MGM special-effects department did this,’ Herbart Hirschman recalls. ‘I supervised the construction and told them what I wanted. We built a miniature to show the ship landing and taking off. It was on a table with sand and little plants. The ship was suspended from invisible wires. And as the ship was slowing in the descent, I wanted to see the sand billowing up. It was very expensive, but I felt that it was essential to the credibility of the show.’” — The Twilight Zone Companion (Second Edition) by Marc Scott Zicree

Already the following article in The New Republic is out of date, but you ought to read it anyway; its searing indictment of Cuomo and his, how can I say this politely, aggressive stupidity, remain absolutely relevant:

New York’s Feckless, Scientifically Illiterate Response to the Covid Second Wave

In July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a poster to commemorate what New York had just suffered. It depicted a mountain in the shape of the state’s Covid-19 case count. “We went up the mountain, we curved the mountain, we came down the other side,” he said. What he didn’t mention is that the mountain was a pile of dead bodies, the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who might not have died had he and other leaders throughout the state acted earlier and more decisively.

Now the bodies are starting to pile up again, even as Cuomo is hawking a book he wrote about his own heroism leading his state through the early part of the pandemic. New York State, like almost the entire country, is experiencing uncontrolled spread. New York City, hardest hit in the spring but able to keep infections at bay during the summer, is entering a second wave. We are seeing over 1,000 new cases a day, a situation we haven’t experienced since May, with a worrying increase in deaths.

Name an American president who is reactionary, racist, a celebrity, and senile! Or, how did this all begin, Ronald?

I recently revisited this very brief essay by Bruno Latour, which remains, in my view, one of the most insightful examinations of the political changes taking place in this country and worldwide over the last several years:

I begin with the simple idea that climate change and its denial have been organizing all of contemporary politics at least for the last three decades. Climate change plays the same role that social questions and the class struggle played over the two preceding centuries.

We can understand nothing about the way inequalities have exploded for forty years, and the accompanying movement towards massive deregulation, if we don’t admit that a good part of the globalized elite had perfectly understood what was going on with the bad news about the state of the planet, which, thanks to the work of scientists, began to crystallize at the beginning of the nineties.

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