“Obama is a Prisoner of this Machine”


The American sociologist Norman Birnbaum is disappointed by Obama’s politics

Interview with Norman Birnbaum

A few years ago Barack Obama pleaded in Europe for the rule of law and respect for human rights. Today his politics is connected with drone attacks and spying. Norman Birnbaum explains that Obama must do justice to different interests and why he fails.

[This interview published on 6/18/2013 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.dradio.de/dkultur/sendungen/themen/2148050/RADIOFEUILLETON.]

Question: President Barack Obama will arrive in Berlin tonight and tomorrow give a speech at the Brandenburg gate. Will hundreds of thousands of Germans cheer him as five years ago when he was a candidate for the presidency? The disappointment over Obama is great on this side of the Atlantic and obviously across the Atlantic. The American sociologist whom we interview on the telephone is also among the disappointed. Good day, Mr. Birnbaum!

Norman Birnbaum: Good day!

Question: I rummaged through our archives and discovered we spoke about Obama in 2011. You said you were disappointed by Obama. Has this disappointment become even greater?

Birnbaum: Yes, it is a mixture of disappointment and sorrow, both an analytically colored and professionally colored despair over the incapacities of our leader.

Question: On Deutschland (Germany) radio, I speak with the American sociologist Norman Birnbaum about Obama and the disappointment of the left. Mr. Birnbaum, how is this discussed in the US? Is there a broad open debate or do people hold back with criticism of Obama? Noam Chomsky recently reproached America’s intellectuals for being corrupt and not really going to the public with their criticism.

Birnbaum: A middle class is corrupt. Taken by the market, influence or income, there is a technocratic middle class. These people are all educated and attended our universities. They are administrative technicians and careerists. We do not have a great union movement. It is hard for anyone who wants to be critical and politically active to make a connection with young people.

The Occupy movement is gone. People are nearly forced to adapt to the existing agencies, groups and institutions in this very divided society that cannot be compared with Europe. Under these circumstances, there is a discussion. One only needs to read the editorials and opinion pages in the New York Times. This is an opportunity. Viewing the blog universe, I would say antagonism toward Obama is rather great.

Question: Look back four or five years, Mr. Birnbaum. At that time Obama at least in Europe stood for the rule of law and respect for human rights. Bush on the other hand was for water-boarding and Guantanamo. We all obviously erred. Obama kills targeted persons – the so-called drone war – more than Bush. He spies on vast numbers of people. Then there is still this NDAA, the law on national defense according to which US citizens can be locked up indefinitely without being charged or facing trial. Obama promised change. But what has changed except that he looks better than Bush and can speak better?

Birnbaum: Yes, we also ask that question. Responsibility for this guilt, the cause and reason for these events is not the offense of this or that president but a machine that has its own laws, so to speak. Persons who step out of line are disciplined. Soon we will have the 50th year of the famous Kennedy visit in Berlin when our young president was a hero of freedom. Kennedy was murdered several months later.

No one really believes this Oswald acted alone. There are many speculations that it was a massive conspiracy. Five years later, his gifted younger brother set out to become a reformist president and the great leader Martin Luther King. Thus there are ways people in our system are warned not to exceed certain limits. I believe Obama has learned this lesson from our history without saying or admitting this. He has a great inner inhibition about bringing too many seeds of conflict to the surface because he believes that cannot be controlled.

Question: Can everything be blamed on the machine? I think Obama personally reviews death-lists for drone attacks every Tuesday and decides who to kill and who not to kill.

Birnbaum: Yes, he can correct that. I believe this will be gradually corrected. We could summarize by saying he does not believe he has enough public support to start a fight with the machine.

Question: The sociologist and journalist Norman Birnbaum is disappointed by Obama. Thank you for the conversation, Mr. Birnbaum!

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