August 2020

Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rodriguez: 'We wanted a Nelson Mandela, We got a Clarence Thomas'

We Wanted a Nelson Mandela; We got a Clarence Thomas

By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
Photo: Roberto Rodriquez walking for migrants who died in the Sonoran Desert/Photo Brenda Norrell

President Barack Obama is an enigma. No one quite seems to know what
he actually stands for.

Most progressives saw in the election of Obama, a Nelson Mandela
figure. Based on his first year in office, many are understandably

Conversely, much of the right wing of this country demonize(d) him as
a Joseph Stalin figure, this in a “right-center” country

The context of the 2008 election is important in making sense of these
views; it was a landslide. Obama garnered 54% of the electorate
compared to 46% for McCain (Apparently, someone forgot to tell the
electorate that we live in a “right-center” country).

Understanding this, the 2010 analyses of McCain/Palin and their
supporters matter little because it is their views that were
thoroughly repudiated in the 2008 elections. And their hostile
opinions of the president have not actually changed. If anything,
they’ve been emboldened by now having 41 votes in the senate –
compared to 59 for the Democrats (Apparently neither party can count
as Bush never needed 59 votes to govern forcefully, albeit for the
wrong causes). They would be quite happy with a Torquemada figure,
someone who governs from a place of fear, with an iron fist, who is
not afraid to employ torture.

The Obama enigma has more to do with the expectations of those who
swept him into office. In truth, those who thought they had gotten
Mandela – a liberator – were few because most understood that Obama
was elected head of an empire, not head of the UN Human Rights
Commission. Many more Democrats and Independents thought they had
elected a Martin Luther King figure – someone who would fight for the
rights and dignity of all human beings. Unquestionably, Obama indeed
can speak like MLK, but his actions, especially on matters of war and
peace and human rights, have been much closer to Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas.

The Obama/Biden administration is clearly different than a
McCain/Palin administration would have been. Obama has set a different
tone worldwide, but he has not substantively altered the Bush-Cheney
doctrine. And rather than investigate former administration officials
for their roles in carrying out an illegal war, Obama unilaterally has
given them “get-out-of-jail free” cards. Worse, he’s embraced most of
Bush’s extra-legal policies in court. The only substantive difference
has come in relation to Guantanamo. For conservatives, Guantanamo is
Nirvana – a place outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. While he
has moved swiftly to close it down, he has not repudiated its most
reprehensible feature: indefinite detention of suspects without

The context of the 2008 election was a clear repudiation of all things
Bush-Cheney. Bush argued that September 11, 2001 had given him the
right to ignore the U.S. Constitution, Congress and the U.S. Supreme
Court, and international law. Beyond that, he crafted a circular
argument for his assertion and exercise of dictatorial powers; we were
a nation at war. That assertion depended upon a condition of permanent
worldwide war.

That’s why people had hoped for an MLK figure. That instead we got a
Clarence Thomas is not hyperbole. Time and again, the Obama
administration has upheld virtually every Bush war policy in and out
of court, including the notion of an all-powerful unitary executive,
the right to permanent worldwide war, the right to hold prisoners
indefinitely without charges and to rendition them and to illegally
spy on Americans.

At home, Obama has bungled his electoral mandate, especially on health
care, the economy and immigration. Rather than govern with a clear
moral authority, he has instead governed weakly from “the middle,” as
a naïve politician, appeasing the same right wing opponents that
detest his every move. Ironically, Bush did not receive a decisive
electoral mandate, yet he governed decisively. Contrarily, Obama was
given a massive electoral mandate, only to govern timidly as though he
owes his victory to the sore losers Tea Party Movement.

There are several precedents for governing from the middle. One came
in the early 20th century in Mexico after the ouster of dictator
Porfirio Diaz. The naïve new president, Francisco Madero, thought he
could reconcile the nation by ignoring his own supporters while
appeasing Diaz’s allies. He left them in power where they soon deposed

Hopefully Obama will not suffer the same fate. However, unless and
until he begins to act upon his stated convictions, he will continue
to find himself proverbially in the middle of the political highway as
roadkill. He doesn’t have to be Mandela; the 2008 Obama will suffice.

Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be
reached at:

No comments: