BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Obama, the questions mount
, April 2, 2011
Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism
by Stanley Kurtz
(New York: Threshold Editions)
Hardcover: 485 pages
Reviewed by Mervyn F. Bendle
The remarkable ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has provoked a great deal of research and reflection by sceptical commentators and conservative scholars. There have been biographical studies of Obama, e.g., Aaron Klein’s The Manchurian President (2010). There have also been historical analyses that help locate Obama in the evolution of the radical left, with some focusing on the international context and especially on Obama’s attitude towards Islamism, e.g., Jamie Glazov’s United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror (2009).
Others locate Obama within the history of the left in America, and Stanley Kurtz’s new book, Radical-in-Chief, is an excellent addition to this important stream of research, complementing earlier works like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2007).
Unfortunately, the American use of words can sometimes be misleading for Australian readers. For example, “liberal” in the American context has come to mean “socialist” in the sense of a large-scale social transformation involving state intervention in every aspect of life, radically re-engineering popular consciousness and all human relationships. Therefore, both Radical-in-Chief and Liberal Fascism are concerned with a political ideology similar to that shared in Australia by the intelligentsia, the left-wing of the ALP and the Greens.
Both of these books emphasise the historical connections between Obama and earlier radical ideologues and activists. However, while Goldberg traces this history over nearly a century, Kurtz emphasises the extent to which Obama remains ideologically under the influence of the New Left doctrines of the Sixties, epitomised by a hatred of American society and Western civilisation.
He also stresses the importance of Obama’s training as a community organiser, applying the principles of dissimulation and manipulation advocated by Saul Alinsky. He absorbed these ideas and methods under the influence of the communist union organiser, Frank Marshall Davis (who may also have been his real father); at Occidental College; at the radical Midwest Academy (“the hidden key to Obama’s political career” (p.132)); and during the mysterious “lost chapter” of his life at Columbia University in the early 1980s.
Kurtz claims that Obama’s attendance at a Karl Marx Centennial Socialist Scholars Conference in April 1983 transformed his life, allowing him to discover “his vocation as a community organiser, as well as adopt a political program to guide him throughout his adult life” (p.1).
Obama adopted “the Marxist-Leninist view that a violent socialist revolution was likely within his lifetime” (p.10). This was coupled with the New Left theory that radical social transformation could be achieved by using the apparatus of the capitalist state against itself, for example, by flooding “state and local welfare systems with more applicants than they could possibly afford”, while “stoking the sense of entitlement and rage” of the underprivileged, and encouraging them “to demand government support as their right” (p.197), thus causing a “revolution of rising expectations”.
Fortunately for Obama, the influence of Alinsky helped him realise the need to obscure and deny his ideological convictions and radical associations if he was to develop a successful political career.
Thus equipped, Obama subsequently “lived and worked … in the midst of Chicago’s largely hidden socialist world, the existence of which had been disclosed to him by those conferences in New York”, and where his “organising and political careers depended upon his gaining the confidence and support of some of the savviest socialists in the country” (p.16). These included Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, the unpunished and unrepentant leaders of the Weathermen terrorist group. The pair later launched Obama’s political career by staging a dinner to introduce Obama to important figures in the radical network. It appears that Ayers was also the ghost-writer of Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father.
Ayers exploited his profile as a famous Sixties militant within Chicago’s very powerful radical network. There he portrayed himself as “a revolutionary anarcho-communist … intent on overthrowing the government” (p.265). As Kurtz discusses in detail, Ayers and Obama worked closely together at several important charitable foundations in that city, raising and disposing of tens of millions of dollars on various programs, mainly in the field of education “reform”.
Some of these allowed Ayers to implement (unsuccessfully) his own radical theories. Others simply served to channel funds to radical political groups in the local community, including one run by Dohrn at the university where she worked. Her approach is characterised by the belief that America is a “white supremacist” and “structurally racist” society that employs state terror against black people and can therefore be a legitimate target of terrorists (pp.291-2).
Another key figure in understanding the ideological continuity of Obama’s career is the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the radical black-church movement that he led.
Kurtz doesn’t claim that Obama necessarily shared all Wright’s extreme beliefs — e.g., that America is to blame for the 9/11 attacks because of its support of Israel, and that the government “created the AIDS virus as an instrument of genocide against black people” (p.299). Nevertheless, he does emphasise that for some 20 years “Obama put up with nonsense like that because he shared Wright’s socialist worldview”, and saw Wright “as an important element of his long-term political strategy” (p.299).
A vital component of this strategy was Obama’s desire “to inspire and mobilise a movement of the religious left”, by presenting himself as a committed Christian (p.299). Consequently, he derived the title of his 2004 second book, The Audacity of Hope, from a famous sermon by Wright and made it the theme of his “career-making keynote address at the 2004 Democratic national convention” (p.299), while in his autobiography Obama cites Wright’s view that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” (p.306).
The ideological force behind Wright and “the most radical black church in the country” (p.301) is the black theology of James Cone, who also rose to prominence in the Sixties and remains influential in various divinity schools. In his influential tract, Black Theology and Black Power, Cone presents all white people as oppressors simply by virtue of their skin colour, and insists that the aim of the black intellectual is to “aid in the destruction of America”, through the mobilisation of “black anger and white guilt”, and that “to stir that guilt, the Black Power theologian must tell the story of American oppression so powerfully”, that white men will “tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil” (pp.301-2).
Obama also enjoyed long-term associations with various shady operators in Chicago and, in particular, with the extremely influential socialist front group, ACORN (the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now), which had some 400,000 members and 1,200 neighbourhood chapters in over 100 cities.
ACORN operated many dubious schemes and played a role in causing the 2008 global financial crisis by vigorously promoting sub-prime home-lending schemes for ultra-low income applicants, using violent demonstrations to intimidate banks and other institutions (p.229) and lobbying politicians. These schemes were eventually forced onto American banks under the Clinton Administration, causing the accumulation of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of defaulted loans and massively over-valued housing stock held as collateral, in many cases wiping out the reserves and shareholders’ funds of thousands of financial institutions.
Kurtz illuminates the complexities of ACORN’s activities with a series of detailed charts (pp.194-6), and he also cites a report of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which found that “ACORN is a single corrupt corporate enterprise composed of a series of holding companies”, which are financially, operationally, and politically co-dependent, are bound together by a system of illegal agreements, and that “the crimes committed in furtherance of these agreements constitutes a criminal conspiracy” (p.203). Denied government funding, ACORN eventually disbanded, although its main component parts continue to exist under new names. Its activities illustrate how contemporary militants exploit the state for their own purposes.
Overall, Kurtz does an excellent job establishing the links between Obama and various radical organisations and activists. This is a difficult task because of the extreme secrecy surrounding virtually every aspect of Obama’s past. For example, access has been denied to the following key documents relating to Obama’s past: full birth certificate; baptism records; adoption records; parents’ marriage licences; parents’ divorce documents; passport details; medical records; kindergarten, school, college and university records; university thesis; Harvard law school admission test results; any evidence of scholarly publications justifying his election as president of the Harvard Law Review or his appointment as a tenure track academic. Moreover, virtually no friends or girlfriends from Obama’s school, college or university years have been identified; and it appears Michelle is the first woman known to have been romantically involved with Obama in America.
Other examples of this massive screen of secrecy abound. For example, an absurd situation arose when Obama’s campaign staff realised it needed to identify key characters in Dreams from My Father, in order to formulate responses to any attacks they might face (p.328). Such people were, of course, allegedly from Obama’s past with their names perhaps altered to provide a degree of anonymity.
Obviously, the quickest way to identify these people would have been simply to ask Obama — after all, he knew who they were and he wrote the book … didn’t he? As it turned out, Obama wouldn’t (or couldn’t) provide this information, even to his own campaign research director, who was forced to do the best she could without his help.
Consequently, despite the richness of its detail, the principal value of Kurtz’s book lies paradoxically in illuminating how little is known about Obama, while also highlighting the implications of what is undoubtedly a systematic attempt to obscure his personal history. Its principal weakness is that it fails to show that Obama really is the “radical-in-chief”, when it appears likely that he is actually a front man, working to an agenda determined by others.
Ultimately, we must still wait for the full truth about Obama to emerge, confident that it will prove to be one of the most incredible episodes in modern political history.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University, Queensland. He reviewed Aaron Klein’s The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists,in News Weekly (August 7, 2010).