Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama, Machiavelli, and the Prince

A bit of forewarning: as I’ve spent the entirety of the last two weeks writing about purely academic, literary concepts, I’d really like to explore something a little bit more political. Due to this, I’ve chosen to write about a chapter found in Howard Zinn’s Passionate Declarations, which is a rather large book, and can really best be summed up as a damnation of U.S. foreign and internal policy, as well as something of an attack against the ideologies that prop it up. That isn’t to say it’s anti-American; rather, it’s pro-humanist, and against the various policies that the U.S. has enacted that has been against the bettering of humanity as a whole. It’s kind of difficult to describe it succinctly, and it also doesn’t help that I haven’t read it in its entirety for well over a year.

That said, I did read the chapter called ‘Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy.’ Early in the chapter, Zinn lays out a variety of theories and political concepts that Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian statesman/political theorist, laid out. Chief among them is the notion that the means justify the ends, provided that the ends are good unto themselves. This concept has been used repeatedly throughout history to justify all manner of atrocities, including but not limited to, the bombing of Cambodia whom, when we were bombing, we were, officially, at peace with, and of pretty much conquering the entirety of Latin America for economic gain.

Arguments are often made that the actions taken south of Mexico were to preserve national security and to fend off the communists, but Zinn argues, persuasively, otherwise; he says that these actions, such as the Bay of Pigs incident and, before the socialist uprising of Fidel Castro, the installment of the despot Batista in Cuba, that we enacted not to stop communism - specifically, Russian communism, which could not have realistically invaded the U.S. from socialist Cuba, or any other part of South America (he cites the inability of the Russians to win a war with Afghanistan - on their own border - as proof of this) - but, as stated, to secure the economic interests of the U.S. He quotes a U.S. senator (unnamed, unfortunately) who, when asked about the U.S. essentially going to war with Panama over access to its canal, said simply, “We stole it fair and square.”

Zinn moves forward to describe another concept critical to Machiavellian politics; that of the Fox and the Lion. The Fox, he says, must deceive both his enemy and his people; lacking the raw power necessary to subdue them by force, he must convince them that his ways are the best ways. The Lion, he says, must alternatively crush his enemies, sometimes because, simply, he can, but most often because they are aware of the deception enacted by enemies.

Zinn extends this concept further, and labels “Advisors” as critical elements of both Lion and Fox methodologies. He uses the example of Henry Kissinger as a primary Fox - he was primarily responsible for the bombings of Cambodia, and has been implicated in a great many atrocities committed in southern Asia. Most importantly, it was, again, Kissinger that was responsible - not the Prince that he played Advisor to. By permitting Advisors to be the great movers of potential evil, it shields the Prince - who must always attend to either the love or the domination of his people - from damages incurred by actions done by the Advisor. This is what gives rise to the term, “plausible deniability,” and has been used throughout American history to commit a great many evils.

At this point, I would like to move away somewhat from the text and delve into current matters of politics. As we are all aware at this point, Barack Obama has become President, ushering in - we hope, and were promised - an era of progressive change. I’m tempted to even capitalize change because it was such a massively Big Idea, but is change what the American people are receiving?

Last week, Obama appointed the fifth RIAA - the Recording Industry Association of America - to the Department of Justice, most notably the guy that took Tanya Anderson to trial for sharing a handful of mp3s online. I cannot find, at the moment, his name, but just the same, the RIAA has been responsible for a series of lawsuits against individuals for sharing a variety of music files online. Most often, these were cases involving college students, single mothers, and other normal people - these are not wealthy people, nor are they people attempting to attain wealth by distributing music online. The RIAA sued them, in some cases - Tanya Anderson’s included - for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Somehow, these corporations felt that this was fair.

By appointing these RIAA lawyers to the DoJ, Obama has not demonstrated the Change that he was elected to produce - rather, it appears that he is pandering instead to the major businesses of our nation. This somewhat digresses from the Machiavellian concepts laid out earlier, and indeed, will be dissimilar for now - but what stance will Obama himself take when these lawyers begin using their cruel and evil tactics on people that deserve nowhere near as harsh of a treatment as they will receive? I imagine, he will say, that he has plausible deniability - that the DoJ lawyers were individually responsible, and not him. I seem to recall DoJ Chief Gonzales using this exact argument when allegations were brought against him. This is not the Change that I voted for.

Further damning, the Obama administration has invoked the ‘State Secret’ privelage multiple times since coming to office, most recently to protect both the federal government and the telecom companies from being sued by the American people for violating their Constitutional rights to privacy. The particularly painful part is that Obama himself, both before and during his Presidential bid, fought against exactly this kind of treatment of the American people. Again, this is not the Change that we voted for - rather, this is a continuation of the Bush/Cheney policies that have all but damned our nation in the eyes of the world. The following quote comes from a article that I found interesting, although possibly uncited, asking exactly the same question I have posited;
“Does it represent a continuation of the Bushies' obsession with putting secrecy and executive power above basic constitutional rights? Is it a sweeping power grab by the executive branch, that sets set a broad and dangerous precedent for future cases by asserting that the government has the right to get lawsuits dismissed merely by claiming that state secrets are at stake, without giving judges any discretion whatsoever?
In a word, yes.”

So, at the least, it’s not just me that’s upset by this. I remember, before the actual election and during the campaign, speaking with some friends about this; “Man, if he fucks this up, then our entire generation will be as jaded as Kennedy’s after they shot him.” I’m beginning to fear that this is happening, and quite faster than anyone could have anticipated - although Obama has made many conciliatory moves on the international front, he remains positively damned on the home front. My fear in this is that he will continue hiding behind the Bush secrecy doctrine - why is this a fear? Because there can be no great Advisor, in the Machiavellian sense, than a policy that is utterly immune to prosecution.

No comments: