Get ready for an onset from the wacky anti-communist right wing.* Just in time for the fall elections, one of their most loyal scribes, Stanley Kurtz, is out with a new book about our “radical in chief,” by which he means, believe it or not, Barack Obama.
Yes, the same Barack Obama who has sent tens of thousands of young Americans off to central Asia for no discernible reason other than the preservation of U.S. influence in the region. The same Barack Obama who has steadfastly refused to nationalize a sclerotic and corrupt banking system. The same Barack Obama who brought centrists like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner into office to steer the economic ship that had run aground under President Bush.
Whatever Barack Obama thought his politics were when he and I were both active in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s (he was at Occidental College while I was at U.C. Berkeley, both schools part of the statewide Campuses United Against Apartheid), he had long since abandoned them in favor of his opportunistic and winding road to political power.
But that has not stopped the troglodyte right from hoping that the red-baiting tactics of the 1950s can help restore the Republicans to power. And Stanley Kurtz has been among the most effective in misleading people about the real nature of Obama’s politics, which I believe are fundamentally bureaucratic and authoritarian in a faux radical guise. Kurtz attempts to connect the dots among the various groups and individuals that Obama had some, though often very little, contact with during his rise to political prominence and power.
But Kurtz fails to make sense of what he has found, whether in his discussion of the Midwest Academy, with which Obama had no direct link, or UNO, a hispanic neighborhood organization that Obama did briefly ally with on an educational reform effort while a community organizer, or Michael Harrington who could have been a far more constructive influence on Obama had Obama in fact been drawn to him, or, most importantly, with Bill Ayers, about whom more here because Ayers and Obama were in fact close professionally and personally for many years.
Stanley and I crossed blogging paths during the election campaign because of our shared concern that the University of Illinois denied him access to the archives stored there from the now defunct Chicago Annenberg Challenge, or CAC. The CAC was a non-profit corporation established in Chicago in 1995 to funnel a $49 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation (matched by $100 mn more in grants from other Chicago groups) to reform projects in the Chicago public school system. The CAC was the brainchild of Bill Ayers, then an education professor at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus. Ayers appointed Barack Obama as the CAC’s board chair after consultation with the small coalition of foundation and reform groups he had built as part of designing the CAC proposal.
(While I was attacked by left Democrats like teachers’ union official Leo Casey because I had the temerity to point out the role of Ayers in elevating Obama to this post at a critical stage in Obama’s young career – just months before he launched his first campaign for political office – Ayers’ role was confirmed recently by liberal David Remnick of the New Yorker magazine in his book on Obama.)
While Kurtz was eventually allowed access to the CAC documents, it was disturbing to learn that the former CAC executive director, Ken Rolling, who was appointed by the CAC board headed by Obama, had been in touch privately with the library asking to delay Kurtz’ access to the documents which were already listed as available for public use and had been, I was told by a Chicago Tribune reporter, accessed earlier in the year by another researcher.
I had also been told that a source in the Obama campaign had direct knowledge that David Axelrod was personally in contact with Bill Ayers in an attempt to coordinate a response by the campaign to the CAC documents. And a senior Democratic Party source said that Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dorhn were providing Obama and his wife Michelle with suggested names for enventual appointees to White House positions.
The list included Van Jones, an environmental activist with a maoist background who was first appointed and then quickly pushed off the President’s staff when it was alleged he had signed a petition supporting a group that questioned the fact that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were instigated by fundamentalists. Valerie Jarrett, another member of the Obama inner circle, publicly confirmed at a NetRoots convention that Obama had kept an eye on Jones from his days as a maoist activist in the early 1990s.
Until late in the campaign very few people, however, had paid attention to the close relationship between Ayers and Obama. But a senior Democratic party figure supporting the Obama campaign confirmed that the relationship was longstanding and that the CAC appointment was a way for Ayers to help advance Obama’s career.
Because of Bill Ayers’ history as a terrorist with the Weather Underground movement the right saw a gold mine in these connections. Certainly a relationship with Ayers would be toxic to Obama who deftly sidestepped efforts to link him to Ayers during the campaign. A compliant mainstream media did much to help in the effort, most notably the New York Times which despite sending several reporters to cover the story somehow could not discover what was common knowledge among many on the left in Chicago, that Obama and Ayers were friends. Such good friends, in fact, that no one raised an eyebrow when Ayers appointed him to the CAC board or when Ayers and his wife, fellow terrorist and now law professor at Northwestern Bernardine Dohrn, hosted a campaign event for Obama in the fall of 1995 at their Hyde Park town house.
Here is where Kurtz, however, begins to misread the Ayers/Obama relationship. The blind spot he shares with many on the right is the presumption, conscious or not, that the left and democracy are somehow incompatible. Kurtz defines socialism, for example, to be no different than stalinism. Thus he mindlessly melds together individuals and organizations that in reality were often in very serious conflict with each other.
For example, a reader of his book comes away thinking that the it is highly likely that Paul and Heather Booth, the former SDS activists who set up the Midwest Academy, as well as Michael Harrington and his Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, shared political values with other former SDS’ers like the maoist Mike Klonsky or the violent Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn just because all of them at some point in their lives uttered the word “socialism.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The only meaningful left, including a socialist left, is one that is firmly committed to democracy. Thus, as an academic I have researched the tensions in the Sandinista revolution between those committed to democracy versus those committed to top down state controlled solutions to economic backwardness. I have examined the issue of international labor rights in stalinist controlled eastern Europe as well as communist China. As a union organizer before pursuing my academic career I advocated for democratic rights inside the union movement as well as inside the workplace.
One need only spend a few minutes – and frankly most normal people cannot stomach much more than that – reviewing the political perspective of someone like Bill Ayers or his wife Dohrn, or their adopted son Chesa Boudin (biological son of jailed terrorists who were comrades of Ayers and Dohrn in the Weather Underground) or their 60s SDS ally, Mike Klonsky (the leader of a maoist sect who received his PhD under Bill Ayers and then got approximately $1 million in grant money from the CAC led by Obama and Ayers), to conclude that authoritarianism, not democracy, is at the heart of their politics.
But to lump left liberals – which is what they are despite their occasional radical rhetoric – like Heather and Paul Booth much less Michael Harringon, one of America’s most important anti-stalinist social democrats, in with Ayers, Klonsky and Dohrn is absurd and, in light of Kurtz’s academic training, it borders on intellectual malfeasance.
Harrington, in fact, had been at the critical national conference of SDS at Port Huron in 1962 as a representative of the League for Industrial Democracy which had funded the meeting. SDS was, in fact, the renamed Student League for Industrial Democracy, the youth wing of LID, a pro-labor group close to the Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas. Harrington came away viscerally opposed to the nascent SDS effort because he thought the students were naive about stalinism and overly hostile to organized labor. He was right on both counts and these were two failings that SDS never fully rectified. But Harrington dealt with these problems in a bureaucratic manner that contributed to a fatal alienation between him and the burgeoning New Left.
His leading opponent among the younger (Harrington was only 34 at the time) student activists? Tom Hayden, today a leading Obamabot, then just beginning his career as one of the more opportunistic radicals of his generation. These early and important fissures among radicals go unnoticed by Kurtz.
As Kurtz himself suggests but does not seem to think significant, the Booths went in a completely different direction from Ayers and Dohrn when SDS broke up at the end of the 60’s.
Ayers and Dohrn organized underground cells to bomb, maim and terrorize. The Booths took a road that helped Paul Booth end up working for an AFL-CIO bureaucrat, Gerald McEntee of AFSCME. Hardly one what would call a “revolutionary path.” Perhaps Kurtz is confused by the fact that every once in a while McEntee himself utters class based rhetoric.
In any case, this attempt at connecting the dots misses the point. If only the young Obama had spent more time with the Michael Harrington’s of the world! Even though Obama had that chance – as Kurtz says, he attended the Socialist Scholars Conferences that Harrington helped organize – he took another path, working instead closely with Ayers and Dohrn.
Ironically the major policy issue that likely first brought Obama and Ayers together and was later at the heart of the CAC project in mid-90s Chicago, was what I view as an undemocratic approach to reform of education. While you can do a search for my numerous blog posts on this issue here, the short story is that Ayers and Obama both backed the imposition in Chicago in the late 1980s of “local control” of public schools through legislatively mandated “local school councils” with the power to hire and fire school principals, against the will of the Chicago teachers’ union and many leading community groups, particularly those in the black community. The fear of the union, rightly in my view, was that local control would enable foundations and big business interests in Chicago to manipulate parents against teachers.
Far from being “democratic” as Ayers attempted to argue, local control was bureaucratic and allowed those powerful groups to hide their attempt to break the union behind the understandable frustration of many parents with the poorly funded and organized schools. The widely dispersed councils could be easily manipulated by committed activists like Ayers and Klonsky and there was, as widely respected education scholar Dorothy Shipps would argue, no means of influencing the entire school system through an accountable and transparent district wide assembly. No wonder then that the Heritage Foundation praised the local control movement. They understood that local control was a stepping stone to “school choice,” their misguided effort to introduce a naive view of capitalist markets into the education system.
The CAC in the mid-90s was an effort to revitalize that local control movement in what was called at the time the Chicago School Wars. By then big business in Chicago and its mayor, Richard Daley the second, had lost interest in Ayers’ pet project as it had failed to break the union. Daley was engaged in an effort to gut the councils. And so Obama and Ayers worked side by side against the Daley administration to beef up the councils they had both fought for nearly a decade earlier, when Obama was a community organizer on the Chicago South Side.
But in his book and in a long article that presaged the book’s conclusions in the Wall Street Journal, Kurtz ignored the real meaning of this odd alliance of the right, business, foundations, Ayers and Obama behind “local control” and concentrates on other far less important efforts like money that was funneled by the CAC to pan-African oriented curricular reform. In fact, local control is barely mentioned at all in the book, despite Kurtz’s interest in the “community organizing” origins of Ayers and Obama’s politics.
And Kurtz ignores altogether the centrality of support for local school councils by the Ayers and Obama led Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Yet, Ayers was very familiar with local control stretching back to the SDS support of it in the infamous Brownsville teachers strike in New York City in 1968 when the SDS scabbed on the teachers striking there.
Of course, Kurtz is not alone in being fooled by what it means to fund a project like the South Shore African Village Collaborative or Aztec-themed school project called Telpochcalli, as the CAC did. Too many on the left view such politically correct efforts as genuine and constructive approaches to reform. Too many on the left fall for, as well, Ayers’ and Dohrn’s pro-Castro and pro-Hugo Chavez politics, a modern day version of the third worldism that the Weather Underground propagated in the 1970s.
Some, a small minority, on the left actually think people like Chavez and Castro are leftists but far more are taken in by the naive view that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This idea hobbled the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s, when thousands cheered “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” despite Ho’s record as a butcher of the real Vietnamese left. And today too many cheer Chavez as he crushes genuine life out of the Venezuelan poor and working class or Hamas and Hezbollah when they wave the image of “Che” Guevara on the west bank.
Faux radicals like Ayers and Dohrn exploit that kind of thinking to disable the left and isolate it. No doubt at some point a young Barry Obama himself fell for this kind of world view, changing his name to Barack, attending the church of Jeremiah Wright, joining the law firm of Dohrn law school classmate and former anti-war radical Judson Miner, and using those relationships to carve a path to political power through the south side of Chicago. There he found the remnants of a stalinist-influenced labor movement like SEIU’s Tom Balanoff, scion of the “Battling Balanoffs,” a stalinist clan once embedded in the South Side’s steel plants.
But to confuse this career path with a genuine left, a genuine commitment to democracy, as Kurtz does, indeed must to sustain his worldview, is to do a disservice to honest and accurate historical and political analysis.
*To see just how wacky this crowd can be spend a few minutes at Amazon.com and review the debate I had with some in this crowd about the Kurtz book.