What Obama Omitted

Dissent is a magazine for people who worry. So here is something to worry about, highlighted by Barack Obama’s inaugural address. I am certainly glad that it was his inauguration, but what he said or, better, didn’t say, illustrates one of the central problems of left politics today. We are committed to the struggle for economic equality and to the role of unions in that struggle, and right now that commitment is not a source of political strength, as we once thought it would be.

The high point of Obama’s speech was the “Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall” moment. He was widely praised for his commitment to gender, racial, and sexual equality. But there was, from our standpoint, a startling omission: where was Flint, Michigan, on the list or any other place marking the struggles of the labor movement? I am sure the omission was deliberate, as was Obama’s failure in the State of the Union address to condemn the lavishly funded campaign against public unions, especially the teachers’ union, or to praise the union members who worked so hard for him in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not a word.

Of course, we are committed to the politics represented by Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Socialists and social democrats have been deeply involved in the movements for gender, racial, and sexual equality, and there is still much to do. But what Obama signaled is that those movements are going to win (though only in a certain sense of “winning”). It is already politically risky for anyone with national political ambitions to take a clear-cut stand against them. This is what winning means: middle- and upper-class African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians are finally going to join American society as equals or almost-equals. It is going to happen, and when it happens, many activists in those movements will go home.

But we won’t go home, because there will still be many Americans living in or near poverty, which is the most persistent and pervasive of all oppressions. Many of them will be women and African Americans, but many will be white men, too. The needs of the working and the unemployed poor are not recognized today as a central political issue. Blacks are beautiful, and women are strong, and gays and lesbians have become, or are becoming, mainstream. The poor, by contrast, are not beautiful or strong, and they are frighteningly marginal in America today. An egalitarian politics focused not on gender, race, or sex, but on wealth and poverty is barely visible. But that is our politics. There are many other causes that engage our energies, but we have no center without that. There is no socialism or social democracy without a movement for economic equality. That movement is not on the president’s list, which we have to worry about, since it’s at the very top of ours.

-Michael Walzer

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.