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Thursday, April 27, 2017


I have several times on this blog remarked on the ability of some of the greatest thinkers of the past three centuries to forge groundbreaking theories from the most unpromising materials, materials often that their contemporaries considered beneath serious notice:  Adam Smith and David Ricardo, fashioning economic theory out of the “higgling and jiggling” of the marketplace, Edward Tyler transmuting travelers’ tales of the South Sea Islands into the discipline of Anthropology, Émile Durkheim discovering Sociology in statistics of suicide, Freud following the trail of dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue into the depths of the unconscious.  I have the very greatest admiration for these theorists and would imitate them if I could, but confronted as I am now by a president of stultifying crudity, banality, cruelty, corruption, and mendacity, I find myself struggling to find anything significant or illuminating to say.  The contemplation of Trump makes me feel dull, enervated, appalled.  I do not have the capacity of the great satirists of the Western tradition to make art out of disgust.

During my morning walks, I find myself retreating into extended inner monologues explaining the intricacies of Game Theory or rehearsing the elegant arguments of David Hume.  Duty requires me to call the office of a Senator, sign an online petition, make yet another token donation, but there is no joy in these small acts, no sense of the beauty of ideas.  I fear that I grow stupid.

Across America, indeed throughout the world, Trump and the Republicans are making the world uglier, crueler, harsher, more inhuman and unjust even than it already was.

And now Barack Obama is accepting a Wall Street backed $400,000 fee for a speech in Chicago.

I weep.


s. wallerstein said...

I picked up on this same perception of Obama when he decided to spend his first vacation as a non-president with the billionaire Richard Branson, the epitome of jet set superficiality. I wouldn't have expected him to spend them with the African-Americans of the Chicago inner city, whom he once organized or discussing Kant with you, but he could have spent them showing his daughters around Le Louvre or the ruins of the Acropolis.

Lots of people have the illusion that mainstream democrats are like "us", only more pragmatic: they work within the system to reform capitalism, while we scream on the street corners.

No, there are two tribes, with two different projects. We (the people who genuinely want to reform capitalism) have more in common with the little fringe groups on the Marxist-Leninist left than we do with the mainstream Democrats. We may be too world-weary and skeptical of human nature to believe that a socialist revolution is around the corner or even around the next 3 or 4 corners, but we and the Trotskyites are on the same road.

Unknown said...

I too was appalled and disappointed in reading of Obama's $400K speech. It can't be because he needs the money--he and Michele have signed a $60 million contract for their memoirs. And they were already millionaires several times over from royalties for his previous books. I don't begrudge them a dime of that--but $400K for a speech to fat cats is obscene.

The Clintons at least had the excuse that they were essentially broke when they left the White House.

Chris said...

Considering he took over 44million from wall street in his 08 campaign, what's another $400,000? The fact anyone is surprised by this is itself surprising.

s. wallerstein said...


Up until now, Obama had a series of excuses: he was going to work within the system to make whatever changes he could pragmatically make and for that, he needed campaign money. He couldn't make those changes, the story goes, for a variety of reasons: the Republicans, the Israel lobby, the insurance companies, the Wall St. lobby, the Supreme Court, etc., etc., etc.

The guy is on his own now. He has no cash problems, as David Palmeter points out, and any university in the English-speaking world would pay him a salary all of us can only dream of to give a few lectures about political theory each semester.

So does he take the university job? Does he take a job as director of Amnesty International or a similar organization?

No, he shows his cards and they are not pretty ones.

Anonymous said...

You weep? Stop this self-indulgent blubbering at once. Think of Socrates or the Stoics.

Tom Cathcart said...

Do I detect a strain of Puritanism running through this thread? Like me, Obama does not hold a public office and never will. If Cantor Fitzgerald offered me $400,000 to speak, would I turn it down? No. (They haven't.) Would I say, "No, but I'll do it for $5000"? No. I must admit, I winced when I saw it too. But why? Because it's "unseemly"? Because I want him to be Mother Teresa? Well, It is unseemly and I do want him to be Mother Teresa. It is disappointing that he isn't. But in the scheme of things, this is a 1.

Chris said...

Tom, your argument has the cart before the horse, the klan hasn't asked you to speak either: that's the point!

Tom Cathcart said...

What do they pay?

Chris said...

Not the point. Why isn't Sanders invited to wall street? Same reason the klan isn't inviting you.

Chris said...

I guess. I don't mean to be rude, condescending, or upset anyone, but Obama gave the game away 8 years, and 7 years, and 6 years, and.... to be surprised now, what sort of ideological blinders are people wearing!? This is a Marxist-Anarchist blog, since when did Marxist-Anarchists act shocked that a United States president put the interest of the bourgeoisie before the working class....

Honestly, I consider Obama to be one of the most wicked presidents precisely because he was so effective at pulling the wool over the eyes of people who in ANY OTHER circumstance would have seen through his smile for the class traitor he always was.

Unknown said...

Tom Cathcart,

I'd speak to Cantor Fitzgerald for a lot less than $400K, but that isn't the point. Obama is selling the presidency (not the first to do that) to an audience that hasn't a progressive bone its body. Their motive? Who knows? The celebrity? Payoff for services rendered?

If the Obamas were not wealthy, it would be one thing. But ex-presidents get a six figure pension, an office and staff, and Secret Service protection. When on top of this they are already in the famous 1%, they shouldn't need the money.

One possible exception for which I have no evidence. Maybe he will donate the money to a worth charity, something like the Southern Poverty Law Center. If he were to use his celebrity to do that kind of thing, I'd applaud.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

I agree with Tom. This isn't a bribe, and it doesn't really add any new information to what we already knew about Obama.

All this story proves is that Obama has joined the "speakers circuit" industry and is accepting a fair market price for his "services" -- and that he's rather tone deaf when it comes to noise from the grass-roots movement on the left. This isn't surprising.

If you're not convinced, consider a point made by the author of the Slate apologia for Obama on this topic (1st link below): namely, that thanks to Obama's own tax policies, 40 percent of that 400K will be paid to Uncle Sam. This will be money taken from big banks and put back into government coffers. So a form of redistribution, no?

Or suppose Obama had privately pledged to give the 60 percent he'll get after taxes to charity. (And it's almost inconceivable that his actual charitable givings don't actually add up to much more than that amount.) Would this mitigate the supposed iniquity of his accepting money from the grubby hands of of Wall Street fat cats?

If all this still sounds like so much lame rationalization, consider Obama's supposed hypocrisy in light of Noam Chomsky's "hypocrisy" as pointed out in a Hoover Institute article back in 2006 (2nd link below). There it was revealed that Chomsky retained a tax attorney to lower the tax rate on some of his intellectual properties, that he raised his speaking fee from 9 to 12 thousand dollars after 9/11 (when evidentially he was more in demand than previously), and that he chose a stock fund retirement plan that invests in oil companies, military, pharmaceuticals, etc., when other, more liberal-friendly stock funds were available.

Did the Hoover Institue score a palpable hit on Chomsky by pointing this out? Maybe, somewhat, but not really. I feel the same about Obama.

Now Tom did say that he winced at the story, and so did I. But I would argue that this is a matter of optics more than anything. As the Slate article points out, the industry to which Obama has decided to lend his celebrity is one "in which conspicuous consumption is a measure of self-worth." From which it follows that Obama's speech isn't about currying favor or doing a victory lap with his cronies so much as it's about a bunch of rich people wanting to be seen at a swanky event where an admired ex-president will be speaking (trite platitudes, no doubt), and Obama being more than happy to take their cash.

Is it dispiriting and unseemly that Obama has let himself act as a token in this way? Sure. Is it counterproductive to the movement us plebes are trying to foster? Yes! But again, it could just be that Obama thinks he's gaming the system for the greater good. In any case, I don't believe it should greatly alter our perception of him, whatever that might be.

Hey Man said...

I think Chris is right. Obama's taking this money indicates something bad, and something we already knew. The indicator is not so bad in itself, but that which is indicated is pretty bad.

Jerry Fresia said...

Finally the bloom is off the St. Obama rose. One hopes. He sold out his presidency to finance
capital long ago. And it's ironic that Mother Teresa's name pops up here; she was another sell-out
who pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. Do we need to go through this item by bloody item? Come come!

What makes me weep is that I will have to watch the guy lip-syncing populism until the day I die.

Chris said...

"If all this still sounds like so much lame rationalization"

Yes it does.

Someone needs to do a research project on people's uncompromising deference to power, and their subsequent genuflections.

People, stop with the long winded justifications. The reason Wall Street pays people in power such top dollars is for access to the party, and so the party won't turn Bernie on them. Period. Case solved.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

An MIT professor charging more after 9/11 for speaking gigs, to student and academic groups, is QUALITATIVELY DIFFERENT than the former most powerful man on the planet speaking to the most powerful non-state institution on the planet. Come on! What's next, my wife raised here hair dyeing prices, ergo it's okay Obama is a corporate shill?

Repeating: In this case it's not necessarily the money that's the problem, it's that he was invited (and accepted). Neither will ever occur for Bernie or Stein. If you doubt this, ask yourself what would you think if Obama spoke at the KKK for $1,000. It wouldn't be the money that bothered us...

Jerry, no worries, I know Mother Theresa was a total fraud who imposed mass suffering on the innocent in Calcutta!

s. wallerstein said...

As to Chomsky, first of all I do imagine that he would speak for free to striking workers or occupy wall st., etc. If not, that is a point against him.

The article says that Chomsky has a net worth of 2 million dollars. If that includes the value of his house, that makes him well-to-do, but not exactly among the super-rich.

By the way, someone who sells a lot of books that he writes himself is not a capitalist, althought the article claims Chomsky is. A capitalist exploits the labor power of someone else, which Chomsky does not, as far as I know.

Chomsky saw a tax attorney. So what? I've seen one too. Tax codes are fairly complicated and at times one needs to see an expert in order to know exactly which taxes one has to pay.

Chris said...

I've seen a tax attorney too, and I make barely above minimum wage as a doctoral student teaching classes. Ipso facto, Obama is fine to give wall street speeches!

Anonymous said...

Why would any of this surprise you?

Matt Steadman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Ruth Marcus's column in today's Washington Post says it all for me: