Clinton and the Function of Historic Accomplishment

Throughout history, the ruling classes and their functionaries and scribes have operated with what we might call the Big Person theory of history – that is, history as the telling of biographies that legitimizes their rule (Pharaoh, etc.), makes the social order appear open and progressive (Obama, etc.), or hides asymmetries of power behind the failure of weak leaders or the horror of terrible ones (Stalin is socialism, yet Hitler was anomalous). It’s the stories of firsts and singular accomplishments, personalities and prophets, heroes and foes, individual winners and losers. It’s hard to resist the lure of celebrity. The master statuses of the famous and infamous draw our attention. Sometimes we live through them. The cult of personality is the result of socialization in a hierarchical society.

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes, “To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity [the selection, simplification, and emphasis of fact that is inevitable for both cartographers and historians] but an ideological choice. It serves-unwittingly-to justify what was done.” Zinn contends that, as a scholarly and a moral matter, we must highlight and condemn “the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress.” 

“One reason these atrocities are still with us,” Zinn writes, ”is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.” 

In a famous passage he writes, 

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they – the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court – represent the nation as a whole.

I have long embraced Zinn’s point of view – even before I read his words! This is why I bristle at the corporate media and liberal academics pushing the line that Clinton’s inevitable run for president represents a great moment in the history of equality. A member of the elite is held up as breaking barriers that still remain in place for millions of women. It’s liberal feminism as branding. It shouldn’t impress us.

We saw a similar thing during the Obama presidential campaign. All the while he was denying that his race was significant (quite the contrast with Clinton’s claim that the mere fact that she is a woman carries historic significance), the media nonetheless guided the public to support Obama by appealing to his identity as a black man, insisting of course on a whitewashed version of black identity (“Denounce your former pastor Jeremiah Wright – and even your own grandmother – as bigots”), so that spectators could feel part for a “historic moment,” one that allowed them to tell themselves that they had played a role in breaking down the barriers that reproduce inequality and that put black citizens at risk for police brutality and violent street crime. 

In reality, the public participated in a corporate propaganda campaign to repackage American empire. A black Democrat with an Arabic name who denies there is a black America. He couldn’t have been more perfect. “We’re glad that nasty business of racism is behind us,” the public could say while wrenching their shoulders out of joint to pat themselves on the back. And then, “What’s this Tea Party deal?” And now, “Trump!”Celebrating as a special moment the fact that Clinton will be a female presidential candidate not only neglects all the women who have already been female presidential candidates, but masks the misery and corruption that follow her from office to office. And the blood dripping from her hands.

This is a woman – I identify her gender because she and her supporters do – who was put in charge by her then-governor husband of de-professionalizing public school teachers in Arkansas, humiliating them by forcing them to take tests, undermining their unions. She worked with her then-president husband to sell a crime bill to the public that played a key role in throwing hundreds of thousands of young black men into prison, slandering the targets as “super predators” who “must be brought to heel.” She stumped for the notorious trade deal NAFTA, which resulted in the loss of more than three-quarters of a million good paying jobs in America. She stood behind her husband who ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the New Deal-era program for poor children, thus throwing millions of poor people, disproportionately black, off of welfare. She stood by the Clinton administration’s sanctions against Iraq, which led to the deaths of half a million children under the age of five. Then-state secretary Madeline Albright, who stumps for Clinton, said the children’s deaths were “worth it.” Clinton advocated the bombing of Yugoslavia (by her own admission she called her husband and, in her words, “urged him to bomb”), which resulted in mass civilian casualties. 

This is a woman who, as Senator from New York, voted to authorize President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a war crime that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people and led to the rise of ISIL. As senator, Clinton did nothing to stop the widespread torture program perpetrated by the Bush administration. She supported the Wall Street bailout. She supported the PATRIOT Act and its reauthorization. As senator and secretary, and now as candidate for president she supports the illegal annexation of Palestine by Israel and periodic invasions and massacres in Gaza. “We are here to show solidarity and support for Israel. We will stand with Israel, because Israel is standing for American values as well as Israeli ones,” she said of Israel illegal 2006 invasion of Lebanon. For years she blocked ways forward for gay and lesbian rights. “Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and woman.” 

As Secretary of State, Clinton supported Obama’s drone killing operations. She prevailed over Vice President Biden’s objection to sending 20,000 troops to Afghanistan. She played a key role in legitimizing the 2009 Honduran coup d’état that saw the installation of a fascist government. She persuaded Obama to bomb Libya. Upon hearing the news of the torture-murder of Muammar Qaddafi at the hand of US-backed “rebels,” she quipped “We can, we saw, he died,” and then cackled. Not only was the bombing of Libya illegal under international law, it wasn’t even approved by Congress. She was at the center of distorting the facts on the ground in Syria, urging the arming of the insurgents in Syria with a manifold increase in killing and destruction. Hillary Clinton signed an agreement committing millions of tax dollars to the building of the Caracol sweatshop assembly park in the north of Haiti. She sold her office to funnel money into the Clinton Foundation in exchange for arms sales to nations with terrible human rights records, including the Mecca of beheadings and suppression of women’s rights Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used the weapons to bomb Yemen. She described US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his wife, who used rape as a weapon, as “friends of the family.” She ordered American officials to spy on high ranking UN diplomats, including collecting their biometric information. She is on record threatening to “obliterate” Iran and opposed Obama’s peace agreement with Iran. She supports the death penalty. She aggressively supported the TPP under Obama (despite what she says today). Same with the Keystone XL pipeline. And then there is her enabling of her husband’s aggressive sexual and violent behavior towards women. 

Zinn writes,

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

The evidence is clear. Hillary Clinton is on the side of executioners. The corporate media and public liberal intellectuals are portraying Clinton’s rise to the Democratic Party’s candidate for president as a historic moment in the history of a nation that always does right in the end. In telling this story as the only story worth telling, they are blocking from view the suffering of millions of people caused by policies Clinton and her ilk have deployed and supported. They are portraying a functionary of the ruling class as a civil rights hero. 

Hillary Clinton is not a champion for women. She is not a champion for workers. She is not a champion for poor people. Clinton represents corporate power and wealthy families. She is not one of us. Just as Obama’s election did not change the suffering of black America, the election of Clinton will not ameliorate the suffering of women under capitalist patriarchy. It will just give it cover. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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