Friday, July 17, 2009

Hope, denial and collective amnesia

Perhaps this is an outdated scandal by now. It has been a month since the heart of the FIFA Confederations Cup and in the midst of that drama brewed a scandal: Egypt’s football team players, a group of lady prostitutes and thousands of stolen dollars. At a press conference the morning after the thunderous victory of Egypt over Italy Egyptian team players were questioned about a South African police report that was purportedly filed by the Egyptian players themselves, claiming that a group of prostitutes stole thousands of dollars from their rooms the night before. No comments were made.

The next day, following a sorry loss to the US, the Egyptian press got hold of the story and were fuming. Soon enough the news spread throughout Egypt. The Egyptian coach and team players of course denied the accusations that they were partying all night in the midst of the tournament. They are good Muslims after all.

Too bad for the Egyptian team that that same night the Brazilian players had also been robbed by a group of prostitutes and had filed a complaint with the South African police. For a second I delighted in the fact that women had stolen the spotlight, if only briefly, in the midst of this football mania, this spectacular show of manly manliness. But then again, I quickly realized, the women had entered the stage through the “back door”, ei ah la.

When I talked to a group of Egyptian friends about this, they were a bit frustrated with the journalists who were making very loud noise about it. Plus, it couldn’t be true. Not likely the Egyptian team would be so stupid as to be partying right before an important match in the semi-finals. If only it were unbelievable for those with some public authority, bestowed with public trust – and funded (at least partly) by the public, – to be acting irresponsibly!

This scandal of decadence (did anyone ask why they would be holding thousands of dollars in their hotel rooms, anyway?!) and disregard for the public (it is difficult to claim national football teams as ‘national’, anyway) seemed so fitting in this age of massive private wealth accumulation and an elite global class gone mad. At least for me as an American this scandal – and the simultaneous societal outrage and denial it provoked – reminds me of the hope of Obama mania. And the overwhelming collective amnesia built around it.

Obama did not have much of a background at the federal level to substantiate his proclamations during the presidential election campaign, but surely he had an enduring presence and eloquent speech to back them up (cough...). Well, in fact, more than that: Obama’s minimal record in the US Senate actually sufficiently refuted his campaign promises. I will give two simple examples.

There was hope that Obama and his administration really would take an anti-war stance. Obama boldly declared he was against the war in Iraq, and there was a collective will to believe this declaration, even though he was not even in the Senate when the initial US attack on Iraq was launched. Further, one would not have to look very far to confirm that during his short term in the Senate he actually did vote for the continuation of the occupation as he consistently approved the budget for military appropriations. And now there is still hope that the Obama administration’s escalation of war in Afghanistan will lead to a quick resolution (on US terms, of course) and that the US military really will leave Iraq soon. Really, the Obama administration must be outmaneuvered by the Pentagon guys!

On the campaign trail Obama took a hard stance against the public-private revolving door: There will be no lobbyists in my administration, he declared! This was a particularly outrageous promise in that at that very moment he was receiving millions of dollars worth of contributions from Wall Street firms. And again, just a couple years before, in 2005 while in the Senate, in one of the few votes against his fellow Democrats (Clinton, Kerry and the gang) Obama voted in favor of the passage of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, under which “citizens are denied the right to use their own state courts to bring class actions against corporations that violate these state wage and hour and state civil rights laws, even where that corporation has hundreds of employees in that state..” (from Pam Martens’s 2008 ZNet article on “Obama’s Money Cartel”).

And of course months into the Obama administration and after the appointment of cabinet and department heads, the public-private revolving door keeps revolving. As Matt Taibbi points out in his new Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine,” about the entrenchment of Goldman Sachs in the US political and economic infrastructure, a month into office Obama appointed Mark Paterson as number two in the Treasury, who had been a year earlier one of the head Goldman Sachs lobbyists. The list of financial heads in key government posts is long, as is the history of the ‘revolving door’. (Full access to Taibbi's article is available on Rolling Stone's website. You can also check out a series of interviews of Taibbi on the BreakRoom through youtube. And of course Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine documents this history that dates back long before the Bush administration.)

And the hope in the Obama administration seems to continue with all the declarations of the “hard road” ahead for Obama, his need to rethink, he needing to be pushed, his smarts.

Grasping for reasons to hope. And denial, plain and simple. Just about any kind of change would have passed through the collective amnesia in the US that Bush did not act alone. Not even did his administration act alone. And surely the blatant imperial stances and policies of the fear-ridden Bush years were not such a departure from the history of US imperialism.

Continued denial will only perpetuate elite excesses, gross injustices and bad policies. Nor will growing cynicism help. But surely what can help is a hard look and open/public confrontation like the journalists and commentators gave here by not letting the football team just get away with it. And like all of us who try to remain vigilant and speak truth to power.

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