BOOK REVIEW Obama's hidden radical past Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of
American Socialism, by Stanley Kurtz
If Donald Trump had been hired by Barack Obama's re-election campaign, he could
not have done a better job of distracting public attention from the president's
sketchy past. The silly conspiracy theory about Obama's birth certificate has
been put aside, but not his deep involvement in the radical fringe of American
politics. Any number of investigators have delved into
Obama's past, but none as thoroughly as Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Ethics
and Public Policy Center.
A book's virtues are always its defects, and the great virtue of Kurtz'
investigation - his exhaustive examination of archival material - make the
present volume more a reference work than a rabble-rousing missive to the Glenn
Beck audience. Kurtz bends over backwards to distinguish fact from supposition,
and refers meticulously to documentary sources. This sort of scholarship does
not lend itself to sound bites, but it should be required reading for anyone
who wants to pierce the veil of Obama's self-constructed enigma.
From it we may conclude either that Obama secretly harbors a radical social
agenda, or that he lied outrageously about views he held in the past. In either
case, the president is not the man he claimed to be in the 2008 campaign, and
has a great deal to answer for to American voters.
"Late in the afternoon of 1983," the story begins, "Barack Obama made his way
into the historic Great Hall of Manhattan's Cooper Union to attend a 'Socialist
Scholars Conference.' Within twenty-four hours, his life had transformed. There
at that conference Obama discovered his vocation as a community organizer, as
well as a political program to guide him throughout his adult life." Obama was
then a senior at Columbia University.
As it happens, I was a senior at Columbia a decade earlier, and attended a
couple of the annual Socialist Scholars' Conferences; in 1988, long after I had
repudiated my youthful radicalism, I was in a PhD program at City University of
New York, and ran into some of the conference organizers - as it happens, the
same gang who ran the 1983 conference that Obama attended. At the time, they
were making violent threats against art historians for the crime of wanting to
reach classical Western art.
As a matter of personal experience, I can report that the Socialist Scholars
Conference was not an academic exercise for the intellectually curious, but a
Walpurgisnacht for hard-core activists. No-one came who was not prepared to
kiss the goat's hindquarters.
Back in the early 1970s, during my days as a student radical, the wildfire
student protests against the Vietnam War and black nationalism were the hope of
American socialists. By the 1980s, when Kurtz picks up the trail, socialists
had been forced deeper into the woodwork. ACORN (the Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now) and other vehicles for the young Obama's
aspirations were born of the Marxist regroupment during the Reagan years. "The
secret, well understood by leading organizers (Barack Obama included), yet
still unknown to the vast majority of Americans, is that contemporary community
organizing is largely a socialist enterprise - a novel adaptation of Marxist
principles and practices to modern American realities," Kurtz concludes.
Obama, to be sure, was a radical before he turned up at the 1983 Socialist
Scholars Conference. Kurtz observes that in Obama's memoir Dreams of My Father,
"Obama speaks of carefully choosing his friends at Occidental College from
among the 'Marxist professors,' 'structural feminists,' and other radical
outsiders. Even in his early college years, Obama was determined 'to avoid
being mistaken for a sellout.'"
Peddling socialism - a dirty word in mainstream American parlance - required
some repackaging, and that is what the 1983 conference proposed. Peter Dreier,
one of the speakers Obama heard, proposed to bring down American capitalism
from below, by swamping governments with entitlement programs. Dreier
envisioned "a revolution of rising entitlements" that "cannot be abandoned
without undermining the legitimacy of the capitalist class". In the short run,
Dreier claimed, "the process leads to expansion of state activity and budgets,
and … to fiscal crisis in the public sector. In the longer run, it may give
socialist norms an opportunity for expansion or at least visibility."
Obama went on to community organizing in Chicago, blending into a leftist web
of foundations and front groups with an explicitly socialist agenda. Central to
the Chicago nexus was the Midwest Academy, founded by activists from Students
for a Democratic Society to make "community organizing" the springboard for a
new socialist movement. "The Midwest Academy is the hidden key to Barack
Obama's political career," Kurtz writes. "A bit of effort devoted to the
Midwest Academy's hidden past opens the door to the heretofore secret history
of contemporary American socialism - and to the heart and soul of Barack
Obama's hidden political world." This prominently includes ACORN, as well as
two foundations - the Woods Foundation and the Annenberg Challenge - where
Obama worked with the unrepentant Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers.
The radical flamboyance of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, fit
right into Obama's world, Kurtz reports. The ex-terrorist Ayers and Obama
"jointly funneled foundation money to radical education programs that echoed
Wright's anti-capitalist Afro-centrism".
These highlights barely suggest the flavor of Kurtz' account, which provides
detailed organizational charts, histories, and smoking-gun documentation about
the world of left-wing organizations in which Obama circulated through the
formative stages of his career.
The documentation is exhaustive, and the source attribution impeccable. What
conclusion can the reader draw after wading through this dossier?
It seems whimsical to assert that Obama and his fellow socialists - starting in
1983 - really intended to swamp the federal budget with entitlements and bring
down capitalism by bankrupting the state. Nonetheless, transfer payments went
out of control on Obama's watch. Nearly a fifth of all personal income receipts
by Americans now consist of transfer payments, which is to say that a fifth of
all personal income received by Americans is redistribution of tax payments
from other Americans.
Transfer Payment Receipts as a Percentage of All Personal Income
Source: Commerce Department
The Johnson administration's Great Society program doubled transfer payments
from a mere 7% of income to an average of 13% during the four decades from 1976
to 2006. The last spike to the 18% level is ominous.
Government spending now comprises 40% of American national income, up from 30%
in 2000. That's the same proportion as in Germany; "socialist" Sweden is at
47%. By contrast, ex-communist Russia is at just 34%, and China at 18%. Since
America's victory over Russia in the Cold War, in a sense, America and Russia
have switched places. Comparisons of this sort, to be sure, can be misleading,
for most of the increase in US government spending reflects the aging of the US
population and the consequent demands on Social Security and Medicare.
If we consider the state of the credit markets, though, the de facto
socialization of the US economy seems all the more alarming. In effect, the US
Treasury under Obama borrowed an extra trillion to trillion-and-a-half dollars,
while private credit markets cut their borrowing by a similar amount. That is
entirely without precedent.
Bond Market Issuance by Sector (Billions of Dollars)
These changes occurred before Obama's health care program kicked in. This will
add several more percentage points to the government's share of GDP, pushing
the US towards Swedish levels. By design or not, the US is in fact moving
toward socialism. That alone makes it imperative to consider Kurtz' claim that
Obama came to office as a socialist with malice aforethought.
Of course, the president may not be a convinced socialist; he may simply be a
talented liar, happy to throw his old comrades under the bus, as he did to
Reverend Wright during the 2008 campaign. One might argue that a convinced
socialist would not have passed up the chance to nationalize the banking system
in early 2009, when the market had priced in a high probability of bankruptcy.
The left-leaning Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman advocated nationalization, as
did the International Monetary Fund's former chief economist Simon Johnson. Had
Obama announced that bank nationalization was the only way to save the economy,
no-one could have stood in his way. That he did not do so might suggest that he
is less concerned about Marx than the main chance.
Perhaps the designation "socialist" does not quite capture the essence of
Obama's radicalism. Unlike the unreconstructed Marxists with whom Obama made
common cause during his community organizing days, Obama's concern may not have
been economics. As he arrived in Chicago to begin organizing at the Altgeld
housing projects in Chicago's rundown South Side, he compared the poor blacks
of Chicago to the even poorer Muslims of Indonesia with whom he lived for five
years: For all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order,
a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to
observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining
and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that
made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself.
Obama's mother spent her career as an anthropologist trying to protect the
traditional craftsmen of Indonesia from the encouragement of global capitalism,
"putting her body on the line," in the quaint lingo of 1960's radicalism, by
marrying two Muslim men. Perhaps, as I argued in 2008, Obama's motivations stem
less from Marxist economic views than "anti-colonial" rage at perceived
In practice, socialist and radical Muslim networks around Obama overlapped. As
Obama's ties to University of Chicago professor Rashid
Khalidi are part of a broader web of connections between Obama, Ayers, and
Chicago's leftist foundations. Although Khalidi denies having been a spokesman
for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, the evidence that he
was is very strong. To make sense of the ties between this prominent
Palestinian activist and Obama's radical world, keep in mind that Obama was a
frequent dinner guest in the Khalidi home. At the same time, Bill Ayers was a
friend to both Rashid Khalidi and his wife, Mona … In 1999, Obama brought Ayers
onto the board of the Woods Fund. In 2000, the Khalidis hosted a fundraiser for
Obama's congressional run against Bobby Rush. Soon after, Obama and Ayers began
channeling Woods Fund money to the Arab American Action Network, a group
founded by Rashid and Mona Khalidi.
This dimension of Obama's radicalism is mentioned but not elaborated. In
fairness to Kurtz, an examination of Obama's "anti-colonial" sympathies would
require another book. I hope he writes it, and soon.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. View comments on this
article in Spengler's Expat
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