Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What Hasn't Been Tried

For the last two years, many of us who sincerely wanted Barack Obama to succeed have repeatedly called for the administration and the Democratic leadership to concentrate on rallying their liberal base. It is our belief that elections are won by getting your base to vote, not by taking it for granted and going after that elusive sliver of the electorate misleadingly referred to as “independents.”

In the run-up to the midterms, liberals tried to get the base to the polls by pointing out, quite correctly, what a disaster the Republicans represent for the future of our country. I believe that most of the liberal voters who are well-informed about what is going on in Washington realize the importance of voting. What many such liberals don’t understand is that a large percentage of the base are not particularly well-informed, and need to be rallied and courted in terms of their beliefs and interests in order to be persuaded to vote, especially in a non-Presidential race.

Obama and the Democratic leadership still cling to the Clinton-era strategy of aiming towards a supposed “center’ in order to win “moderates” and “independents” away from the Republicans. They conveniently forget that this strategy lost the Congress in 1994, made the 2000 election so close that it could be stolen, and continued to fail until the implosion of the Bush administration made the resurgence of 2006 possible, followed by Obama’s win in 2008.

Hillary Clinton ran a predictable hawkish, centrist, corporate-friendly campaign in 2008. Obama defeated her by running to her left. The fact that Obama was black was a volatile wild-card element in the primaries, and I think it made the latter stages closer than they might otherwise have been. Such is the sad truth about our country, which has been reinforced a thousandfold by the behavior of the Republicans since Obama’s victory.

Obama was never much more liberal than Clinton. But liberal voters propelled him to the White House. Once he was in there, to the dismay of those of us who are well-informed on these matters, he appointed centrists and Clintonites to almost all his major posts. He kept Bush’s defense secretary, and he even tried to appoint a right-wing Republican as his Commerce Secretary.

The President’s apparent conviction that he could work with Republicans proved false, as is now evident. I find it amazing that he didn't already know this. Eight years of Bush clearly showed the country that the Republicans were all about ruling absolutely, without compromise, and throwing red meat to their base. The Presidential campaign itself was a disgraceful display of racist code words and fear mongering, with Fox News leading the way in branding Obama a radical leftist, secret Muslim, black nationalist, and terrorist sympathizer. The empty suit McCain followed the script, and lost convincingly.

In the last two years, as the Democrats saw themselves losing the PR game to the 24-hour onslaught of Fox and its Republican parrots, the Obama team expressed frustration with the “left.” It seems that the left could never be satisfied, that they were ruining it for the Democrats, looking for perfection instead of progress, and so forth. Significantly, no one on Obama’s team would address substantive criticisms from the left concerning its war and anti-terror policies, which did not reverse the illegal actions of the Bush administration, but continued them and even reinforced them.

In any case, the “left” that the Obama administration complained about was a small group of columnists and bloggers who dared to think independently, and whose influence compared to the right wing noise machine was ludicrously overestimated. But in practice, what Obama did was exactly what Bill Clinton had done earlier—take his base for granted instead of wooing them. After all, the reasoning goes, where else do they have to go? This is, sad to say, very true, but what they don’t take into account is that the base becomes apathetic when its interests are taken for granted. Sure, it’s dumb and self-defeating for the base not to vote—nevertheless this is political reality. If you don’t stir up your base, it will become apathetic and you will lose.

The die-hard Clintonite centrists would of course dispute this point. And admittedly, there isn’t enough solid evidence to prove what I’m saying to be sound political advice. Why? Because it’s never really been tried. Not in the last forty years, at least. “Liberal” became a bad word, and the substance of liberalism was whittled away to nothing. The story of the push-over Democrat, the weak, wimpy, indecisive, cave-in Democrat, was tailored by the Reaganites, and then the Democrats tried the suit on themselves, and it fit.

Obama seems to be taking exactly the wrong lesson from the midterms. Rather than recognize the failure to rally his own base, he seems to believe that the voters are more conservative than he thought, and that he now has to kowtow to the right wing. It’s a spectacle profoundly depressing to witness.

To understand why the Democrats pursue their failed strategy over and over, instead of trying to be a liberal party as they must do in order to win, is not as difficult as it may seem. The simple truth is that they’re afraid of the corporate elites who wield such enormous power in this country. Most of them are tied to corporate money, and would never have been elected in the first place without those millions of dollars flowing into their campaigns. Most of the rich are conservative. It doesn’t matter that they are much more conservative than the majority of voters—their money and power offsets that fact. So the Democrats try to walk a tightrope between their need to appeal to an essentially liberal base and their need for corporate backing. The result is the appearance of constant gutlessness and waffling. The Republicans have no such conflict. The beliefs of their conservative base coincide for the most part with the demands of the corporate elites. So they don’t need to compromise or practice bipartisanship, and they don’t.

On a purely strategic level, the Clintonite strategy is a loser. When a party makes massive political gains as the Democrats did in 2008, they don’t evaporate in a mere two years unless the strategy is fatally flawed. The Democrats can’t rely on the awfulness of the Republicans to keep winning. Once the Democrats are in power, the Republicans can just blame everything on them, and the voters will fall for it. Why? Once again, because the liberal base is being taken for granted, ignored, discounted, and minimized. The Democrats don’t do this because they’re stupid, but because their alliance with the corporate elites makes it almost impossible to stand firmly and equivocally with their liberal base.

The true challenge facing the Democratic Party, then, is quite sobering. In order to win and keep winning, the Democrats will have to defy their corporate backers. They will have to campaign against corporate rule in all its aspects—Wall Street, the banking system, the military industrial complex, and the right-wing corporate noise machine. They will have to do this quite explicitly and without compromise. It might mean going “into the wilderness” as the conservatives did after being slaughtered in 1964, reemerging with a winning strategy in 1980. The alternative is to keep losing.

It seems highly unlikely that this will happen. It’s more likely that the Democrats will continue to try to play their wishy-washy centrist game. Which leaves the liberal base with a stark choice: form their own party, or actively work within the Democratic Party at every level from the grassroots on up to transform it into a truly liberal party. Both are very difficult challenges. But the only other choice, as I see it, is to be crushed by the right.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Springtime for Hitler

Hitler has made a comeback. Maybe you’ve noticed. The execrable tea baggers have made a habit of equating Obama with Hitler and the Holocaust. Their deranged pied piper Glenn Beck has indulged in this inflammatory rhetoric repeatedly, and more than a few Republican politicians have played the Nazi card as well. On the other side, anti-Bush protesters were not always above the occasional Bush = Hitler sign, and Naomi Wolf was only one of the more popular figures on the left warning against the coming of fascism, and using parallels with Germany to make their points. Dick Durbin compared torture at Gitmo to similar practices by the Nazis and others, which I thought was fair, but being a liberal Democrat he was forced to apologize soon after. You won’t hear Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann apologizing for their loose metaphors. Not in this lifetime.

The standard objection to all this is that it trivializes Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, World War II, and all the people who died during that terrible time. It’s a valid objection. Making such glib comparisons exposes you as an ignoramus, or at best a dilettante of history. It also arouses violent emotions without illuminating present issues and conditions. In most instances, it’s simply a way for a demagogue to manipulate a mob, and that is never a good thing.

However, I think it is important to examine why Hitler and the Nazis are such emotionally charged subjects, and why they would gain currency as rhetorical weapons at this point in our history.

In politics, historical events are always in danger of being turned into abstractions. Ideologues are adept at viewing human beings as objects of an impersonal process, but the rest of us are not immune from this distancing effect. History can become a series of markers or cues triggering a limited set of images and responses. Think “Holocaust” and you might picture a pile of dead bodies, or photos of emaciated prisoners in striped uniforms. Without connecting to the reality of historical events, we end up regarding them as symbols.

Yet the reality still affects us at a level well beneath our conscious mental strategies. One description of this reality as it affects us, for instance, might be that in living memory, in a modern world of cars and airplanes and movies, in a supposedly civilized world, a government of a modern country rounded people up by the millions and methodically slaughtered them like animals. The Holocaust taught us that a movement, gaining power as a state, could commit crimes of greater savagery and extent than was thought possible. Since then, of course, we have learned of mass murder in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, but the Nazis were our first awakening to the horror of what totalitarianism can do.

A common denial mechanism has been to focus on Germany as a special case, as if there were something peculiar to that country that made it capable of such enormous crimes. There were of course social and cultural factors special to Germany that have to be taken into account, but there were enthusiastic Nazis in other countries, including France and England, and even a few in the United States. In any case, an authoritarian ideology won’t necessarily look exactly like Nazism in a different country, but it might have very similar effects. Many Americans seem to think that there’s something magical about being American that will prevent us from succumbing to a dictatorship. This is pure childishness.

This terrible historical event, then, this trauma that occurred a mere sixty to seventy years ago, has cast a shadow over us ever since. To read about what happened to the victims of Nazism is to try to imagine, however inadequately, what it would feel like to have your own loved ones, your own family, and the very world you grew up in, be at the mercy of an overpowering and merciless evil. It happened to them. The fear, perhaps unspoken, is: could it happen to us?

The Cold War did little to allay such fears, but at least they were generally projected onto the other, the enemy. But after the Cold War, the United States has been the one preeminent military power. Since the invention of nuclear weapons, the state has means of destruction at its disposal that Hitler could only dream of. What, then, if a similar evil came to power in America? What could the world do to stop it?

The ever-increasing police powers of the modern state raise justifiable fears as well. Governments continue to push for more surveillance, wider abilities to tap into communications, more cameras, less privacy. After the September 11 attacks, the White House used the threat of terrorism in order to gain untrammeled powers for the executive, including imprisonment without trial, kidnapping, torture, and assassination. Antiwar and other protest movements saw themselves identified with terrorism so that the government could shut them down. The militarization of police forces is another ominous sign of authoritarian ideology suppressing dissent and other civil liberties.

Hitler comparisons are coming out into the open because of fear. As we see with the Tea Party, fear is easily exploited by reactionary political figures for their own ends. But as irrational as much of the fear that is expressed publicly can be, it has roots in reality. People feel insecure and powerless in the face of huge economic, political, and military interests that obviously have much more control of what happens than they do. And since the Nazis showed us that we cannot trust in a supposed inherent goodness of human nature to prevent the worst and most unimaginable crimes from occurring, they end up representing our insecurity and fear and powerlessness today.

“Godwin’s Law” is a humorous acknowledgment of an inevitable cliché: Nazism will be used to characterize something we don’t agree with. But the experience of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the war are still so central to the political dilemmas of modern history that we can’t simply rule it out of order. It is necessary to learn what we can from the history of the Nazis. We can make comparisons and contrasts between the actual political conditions of pre-war Europe and today. From this we can draw general conclusions about authoritarian ideology, racism, the mass psychology of crowds, the use of scapegoating as a political tool, militarism, the dangers of executive power, and many other things. These philosophical insights, and not superficial comparisons using imagery and symbolism, can help us avoid falling into barbarism again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Super Duper

Lest anyone forget, the United States is a superpower. “Superpower” is a term coined by a strategy wonk named Nicholas Spykman in 1943, and then picked up by every think tank parasite since then. It might seem odd at first that the Marvel comic book perspective would take on such geopolitical gravitas, but when you look more closely you notice that United States foreign policy since the end of World War II has closely resembled the power fantasies of an adolescent weakling.

When politicians and their media toadies talk about how they love America, they’re not thinking about the Constitution or John Adams or any of that crap. To them, America is big battleships and jet fighters, pounding the rest of the world into dust. It’s also oil rigs and luxurious mansions and piles of money. And for the people, the luckiest people in the goddamn world, it means strip malls and TV and a McDonald’s at every exit. But above all this looms the superpower, the bald eagle, Captain America, the indispensable busybody who keeps the world from spinning off its axis by exporting freedom in the form of aid, especially guns—lots and lots of guns.

Most of us were raised with the superpower belief drummed into us. It was the status quo. It was just assumed that if the United States didn’t take a “leadership” role in the world, unimaginable chaos would ensue. There was always the Soviet Union and China to keep us on our toes. Curiously, the end of the Cold War did not inspire the Captain to take off his star-spangled suit and retire to private life. No, sir. Now we were the only superpower left standing, and the neoconservatives believed that this was the moment when America could be king of the world. We could reshape the Middle East in our image. All we needed was a terrorist bogeyman, and off we went. Operation Iraqi Freedom!

That turned out to be Operation Destroy an Entire Country, but has that made our leaders question the superpower ethos? Not at all, for we still need to win in Afghanistan. Iran, of course, is always a threat. And don’t forget to staunchly support Israel no matter what crazy things it does.

I suppose this might be some kind of a thrill ride for a small portion of the ruling class. But for the rest of us, superpower status hasn’t been that great. With most of our money being soaked up by the military or the spook agencies, squandered in foreign adventures, and looted by our duly elected criminals for their private gain, there’s not much left for us, our schools, our hospitals, our roads, our cities, or our homes. Some of us are beginning to think it would be nice to live in just a normal country rather than a superpower—a country that wasn’t in charge of everything, just there to help its actual population seek life, liberty, and happiness.

However, there are a lot of us who still think that the world will collapse if we don’t have military bases in every corner of the globe. There are a lot of us who won’t love their country any more unless it acts like an overweight bully with a trigger finger like them. There a lot of us still addicted to comic books featuring fights between pure good and pure evil, and dialogue featuring words like “Pow!” and “Splat!”

I don’t know what it will take for Americans to get tired of all this supercrap that impoverishes us, makes us stupid, and leaves the field of government vacant for the most vicious among us to rule. The irony is that if we pulled out of the Middle East, got rid of our military bases, and concentrated on our own welfare, and used what strength we had to set an example of peace, the world would not fall apart. It might even flourish.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Happened? (After '68)

1968 was a bad year for the left. MLK and RFK, two leading figures of hope, were conveniently murdered. Antiwar protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago were met by a full-scale police riot, which of course the Republicans blamed on the demonstrators. In November, Richard Nixon was elected President, ensuring seven more years of war in Vietnam.

The movement for peace and human rights continued in the 1970s, and the new women’s rights and gay rights movements sprung to life, but in hindsight we can see that 1968 was the peak year of a leftist revolt that was then beaten back by an extended reaction from the right wing. With this reaction consolidated by the victory of the Reaganites in 1980, a development that has marginalized progressives right up to the present day, it is natural that we ask ourselves: What happened?

Two main factors are evident: 1. The concerted backlash by reactionaries, and by extension, the corporate-political establishment of which they formed a major part. 2. The shortcomings and internal contradictions of the movement itself, which made it vulnerable to this reaction.

In our zeal to examine the second factor, it is easy to underestimate the importance of the first. The FBI’s secret COINTELPRO actions, initiated by the rabid anticommunist and racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the late 1950s, went into high gear when antiwar protests and black liberation movements started rocking the nation in the 1960s. This was an illegal program designed to circumvent Supreme Court rulings protecting dissident groups from government spying. Progressive groups were infiltrated by agents posing as activists, who would then foster disunity by advocating violence and even committing violent acts to discredit these groups. They would create feuds within groups by sending fake letters to movement leaders from other leaders that caused personal animosity and splits. They planted false stories in newspapers and on TV attributing words and actions to individuals and groups that were untrue. They created false evidence in order to convict dissidents in court, and suborned perjury by officers for the same ends. They vandalized groups’ offices, broke in and stole documents, contrived to have dissidents threatened with violence, beaten, and assassinated. (The murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by Chicago police was part of a COINTELPRO operation.) They tapped phones, conducted surveillance, and used the IRS as a weapon against people, including Democratic politicians. This is only a brief summary. The range of illegal FBI activities against the movement was extensive. The targets weren’t just militant groups, either, but also nonviolent groups like The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP; along with numerous public figures who expressed antiwar or pro-civil rights views, such as Dick Gregory or the actress Jean Seberg.

A significant example of the right turning events to its own advantage was the indictment of eight prominent leftist leaders for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. The charges were absurd, and the verdicts were eventually overturned, but this outrageous circus trial sidelined these leaders for over a year and focused the country’s attention on personalities and sensationalism rather than the real issues of racism and the war.

On the public side, Republicans and right-wing Democrats demonized the movement as violators of “law and order,” which was one of Nixon’s campaign mantras. They exploited white racial fears, stoked by the black riots in the cities, to characterize black activists as anti-American criminals that needed to be put down. The “get tough” approach to crime resulted in a beefed-up “war on drugs” that conspicuously targeted blacks. With the advent of Reagan, mandatory minimum sentences were combined with a massive investment in new prisons to create a huge prison population, close to half of which was African American. Fringe groups like The Weathermen were given prominent attention in order to cast the entire movement as dangerous. In the absence of the internationally revered Dr. King, black leaders such as Jesse Jackson were routinely ridiculed and marginalized.

The right was deeply humiliated by the failure in Vietnam, and set about scapegoating the protesters and the press as the culprits for “losing” the war. Myths such as the protestor spitting on the returning veteran at the airport were widely propagated. The campaign against the media for being too “liberal” frightened the media elites into the cowed subservience and abandonment of journalistic principles that we see today. Similar backlash efforts were made on the political and cultural fronts against the women’s movement, stereotyping feminists in the public mind as scary man-hating radicals who were destroying the country’s morals. After the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, the right used abortion as a wedge issue to marginalize the women’s movement. The gay rights movement has also, of course, met with continued public backlash.

The combination of secret illegal harassment and political reaction was so massive that it can’t be fully catalogued here. Racism was a major element, but the reaction was a broad-based one against all movements towards peace and social justice. Even if the movement had been more disciplined and unified, and had been able to overcome its failings, it is doubtful that it would prospered under such an onslaught. The people who own the country were determined to have their own revolution, against the Great Society and the New Deal, and for the complete deregulation of business.

So after this exhausting description of right-wing reaction, what can we say about the shortcomings of the human rights and antiwar movements? With the distance of four decades, we can look back without being blinded by passion, or by the knowledge that the movement was, in most important things, right. We were right about the war, right about racism, right about the inherent inequalities of the system. Yet self-examination can perhaps help new generations to avoid our mistakes.

First of all, the antiwar movement was primarily a student-led movement. Young people were the ones threatened by the draft, so naturally they were the ones that spearheaded opposition to the war. Some of the tactics, such as shutting down the universities, spurred opposition, but that was to be expected. There’s an element that will always be offended by any kind of demonstration, and there’s no point in trying to mollify that element. The antiwar movement succeeded in drawing the public’s attention to the war, and turning public sentiment against it.

But some of the youthful anger expressed itself in counterproductive ways. Against the background of a youth culture explosion, there was a fairly overt hostility to the older generation. The struggle was characterized as between freedom-loving youth and repressive old people—“Don’t trust anyone over 30” and similar nonsense. A movement must build bridges between age groups, not put up barriers. The frequent stridency and absolutism of the rhetoric tended to alienate middle-aged and older Americans who were otherwise sympathetic to more progressive visions of society. A similar effect occurred regarding class differences. The movement generally ignored economic issues that affected working people. It failed to exploit the rampant inequalities of the American economy, which cut across racial lines. Instead, the cultural aspect intruded—the youth culture inveighed against “straight” people with short hair and more conventional social habits as if there were no commonalities of interest. To a large degree, the working class turned its back against the movement, perceiving it as just a group of spoiled, well-off brats. Some of this was inevitable, but it might have been mitigated by a conscious effort to welcome a much more diverse cultural mix into the movement.

Youthful rage also expressed itself against authority in ways that were politically naïve. I’m thinking of the widespread and popular use of the term “pigs,” especially referring to police officers. Yes, the police were tools of repression. But calling them pigs only increased the divide between the majority of middle and working class Americans that respect the police, and the student-dominated movement.

The civil rights movement made great gains against incredible odds. As long as the issue was segregation, the public sympathized. A more difficult task was ahead: the bringing of the struggle to the whole nation rather than just the South, coupled with a broader protest against economic inequality. Dr. King was making steps towards that goal. Meanwhile, younger black activists got fed up with the brutality aimed against their communities, and a more militant wing of the movement emerged, starting with Malcolm X and continuing with the Black Panthers and others. Malcolm was demonized as an instigator of violence, but in fact he was advocating self-defense. That, and an outspoken defiance of white supremacist assumptions, made him a powerful voice. There developed, however, a tension between the proponents of nonviolence such as Dr. King and the black militants. I think it was a mistake for Malcolm to criticize the nonviolent movement as he did, which only served to create a rift in the movement that was readily exploited by its enemies. It would have been wiser to express support for Dr. King, and not emphasize the tactical differences in public. One may discount the important of this, but I remember African American radicals who despised Martin Luther King as some sort of Uncle Tom. There were also black liberals who condemned Malcolm X. A movement needs to support its strategic allies, even if there are major differences in ideas on how to go about making change, rather than fight one another while the movement’s enemies sit back and enjoy the show.

A major misstep of the movement was a general rallying around the idea of “revolution” as a goal. Elements of the movement, historically naïve regarding the history of the Soviet Union and China, embraced a “Third World” brand of Marxism. Mao, Ho Chih Minh, and Che Guevara became heroes of the movement. This was so outside the mainstream of American political consciousness that it was doomed to failure from the start. An armed revolution was always impossible in this country, and to advocate it was really nothing more than youthful folly. With the might of the military-industrial complex facing us, the belief that a few militant groups could overthrow the government was lunacy. To be fair, the majority of the movement knew that political progress was incremental, but the cry of revolution, fueled by the urgency of Vietnam and the absolute necessity of ending the war, became a rhetorical cache that produced nothing but a massive political backfire. It was natural to sympathize with the forces struggling against imperialism in the Third World, and this led to open support of the North Vietnamese and “Vietcong,” with Vietcong flags flying at demonstrations, and so forth. As it turned out, the Vietnamese resistance established yet another authoritarian statist regime after their victory in 1975. Leftists didn’t anticipate that, and perhaps they shouldn’t have been expected to. But in terms of practical politics, there’s a great tactical difference between protesting a war and openly siding with the people who are shooting at your country’s soldiers. Regardless of the ideological issues involved, it was bound to create an alienating effect. The most prominent symbol of this effect was the widespread demonization of Jane Fonda for visiting North Vietnam in 1972. As usual, public perceptions are watered down into personal terms by the media, and then turned into fodder for the right.

An American progressive movement, then, must embrace America and its Constitution in order to succeed, not advocate the overthrowing of America. Some of that wisdom was expressed in the movement, but not enough to undo the damage done by unreflecting anger and ideology. A corollary to this is that the movement needed to work both inside and outside “the system.” One can’t abandon the field of practical politics and expect to succeed. Many people refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because of his connection to Johnson and the war. The feelings are understandable, but the alternative was Nixon, and there was a far better chance of ending the war, and a lot of other needed things, if Humphrey was in the White House.

I have mentioned the cultural context a few times. This is in fact central to the wider public’s perception of the “60s,” and gives us a key as to some major movement flaws. Coinciding with the predominately youthful civil rights and antiwar movements was a cultural youth explosion. There were a lot more of us, because of the postwar “baby boom.” Rock and roll became more popular than any adult would have predicted. As a reaction against the emotional repression of their upbringing, young people also started experimenting with drugs, especially ones that heightened perceptions and feelings, i.e. cannabis and psychedelics. Combined with a sexual mores, this resulted in the proverbial “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” a catchphrase for a new supposed “counterculture.” Since the leftist movement was predominately youthful in character, the counterculture influenced it with a broadening of sensibility and outlook. The influence worked the other way as well, with youth in general being exposed to progressive political views, but this influence was not of the same strength or degree. Most people were not politically active, and that applied to counterculture people as well. Reactionaries have always equated the two, hating them both equally as the same thing, but events have proved that they were different in important ways.

With a few exceptions, most rock groups were not overtly political, outside of a general advocacy of love and peace. And the notion that music was a revolutionary force was soon proven illusory. The potential for big profits from rock music became obvious, and the groups went from peace and love festivals to stadiums in fairly short order, while the music itself lost most of the faintly progressive flavor it once had. By the end of the 70s, rock’s message was basically “let’s party and have fun,” which is what it was in the 50s. The arrival of punk heralded a general rejection of mainstream values, but not a political consciousness of any significance. Capitalism has proven that it can swallow almost any cultural phenomenon and turn it into an affirmation of itself. Long hair on men was originally a startling note of defiance, and it suggested a redrawing of assumptions about gender roles. A little bit of that still remains, like an aftertaste, but it’s really just a hairstyle at this point. When Newt Gingrich’s hair is longer than that of the Beatles in ’64, you know that long hair doesn’t have much meaning.

Drugs were also supposed to be revolutionary in some way. The more traditional leftists generally avoided this trap, but the Yippies proclaimed it as part of a new world of freedom, and of course Leary and Kesey and the Beatles and all the rest of them indicated a general expansion of consciousness. Well, it was, in a way, and for a little while, but for many it became an end in itself. The fact is, there’s nothing inherently radical about pot smoking or tripping on acid, outside of it being a defiance of the law. A guy smoking a bong in his basement and listening to Pink Floyd is not working for peace or social justice. He’s just having a good time. And many right-wingers, racists, and apolitical pleasure seekers have also enjoyed having a good time in the last forty years, without it affecting their political awareness at all. It could even be argued that the contemplative nature of the altered states involved, usually somewhat passive, works against the kind of energy and commitment needed in a political movement. Then, once other drugs came into the picture, such as heroin and cocaine, whatever progressive cultural effects drug use might have had evaporated to almost nothing. There is evidence that this transition to the so-called “harder” drugs was secretly promoted and enabled by the national security state.

Looser sexual mores had arguably a more long-term effect on the political culture. The women’s movement was born partly in reaction to the rampant sexism within the leftist movement. The gay rights movement was helped along by a greater tolerance for sexual diversity. Still, sexual “liberation” was easily co-opted by capitalism and incorporated into a culture of objectification and pornography that is not politically progressive in the slightest, but only reaffirms patriarchal structures in a new form. In general, we see the effect of the 60s on our cultural environment to a far greater degree than on our political one. Much of this is to the good, but without change in the political and economic power structure, cultural changes are confined mostly to the private sphere, where they can be assimilated by anyone regardless of politics, and are in any case constantly under attack from the religious right and other cultural conservatives.

We return then to my distinction between the movement and the counterculture. The counterculture involved far more people, and it was only briefly and tangentially connected to the movement. Once the draft ended in 1973, the antiwar movement deflated. The only logical conclusion was that many young people were involved because it was their lives on the line; once that threat was removed, they left. A movement cannot survive solely on opposition to a particular war—instead of an antiwar movement, it needs to be a peace movement that targets the confluence of military, corporate and political interests that continue to keep the country involved in wars. And a movement based on young people cannot win—it must contain the widest spectrum of ages, ethnic background, and classes in order to sustain itself for the long run.

For indeed it was the “long run” that we ignored. The ferment of the 1960s was so new, so exciting and intoxicating, and so dominated by youth (which of course doesn’t take the long view but always looks to the present) that the movement failed to work for sustained progress over decades of struggle. The urgency of ending the war played a major part in this. Of course it had to be stopped, but not to the point of disregarding the long-range goals that were vital to sustaining political progress. But rather than continue to mourn over a promise unfulfilled, or seethe with rage over battles lost, we can learn from the past. The movements for peace and justice today are still somewhat fragmented, separated into different identities and issues and thus not always united in focus. But they are more inclusive than the movement of the 60s, more mature, paying more attention to social and economic issues that face Americans, less naïve regarding what is possible, more strategically savvy in terms of its public relations and pronouncements, with eyes more surely trained on the future for the planet instead of this group or that. The challenges are also greater. We face the threat of environmental disaster and a resurgence of fascism. But I feel more hopeful seeing the activists of today, and their great energy and effort, then I did in the 1960s and 70s.

So what happened, after all? Just this: we were forced to grow up.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A Government of Men

Now that Obama has authorized assassinating a U.S. citizen I am compelled to repeat the old verity: "We should have a government of laws and not of men."

President Obama seems to think that because his judgment is better than that of George W. Bush, it is okay to exercise unchecked executive power, even to the point of assassinating U.S. citizens.

Even if I were to agree, and trusted Obama to make the right decisions, this is entirely irrelevant. For such an executive power to exist violates the rule of law and basic American values. I cannot trust that another President after Obama would not use this power in unscrupulous ways, to silence political opposition or eliminate troublesome critics. A government of "laws, not of men" means that we don't base our decisions on trust of individuals, but on rules that apply to everyone.

This spook CIA criminality, this amoral gangland-style foreign policy, continues to undermine our country regardless of which of the two corporate parties are in power. For the President to think that there are no consequences, no blowback, for this kind of reckless, arrogant, murderous behavior is naive at best. Leaving aside all my concessions to practical politics and supposedly good intentions, I declare that is morally revolting and will surely rebound someday to our great harm.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Would Health Care Reform Help You?

Today it's my honor to publish a piece by guest blogger Barbara O'Brien.

Many obstacles and stumbling blocks remain in the way of health care reform. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged, and then the House and Senate both will vote on the final bill. We don’t yet know what will be in the final bill, or if the final bill will be passed into law. Passage will be especially difficult in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. It is still possible that after all this angst, just one grandstanding senator could kill the whole thing.

But just for fun, let’s look at what conventional wisdom says will be in the final bill and see if there is anything in it that will be an immediate benefit to people with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease.

It is likely that the final bill will provide additional funding for state high-risk insurance pools. Currently more than 30 states run such pools, which are nonprofit, state-sponsored health insurance plans for people who can’t buy insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The biggest problem with such pools is that, often, the insurance they offer is too expensive for many who might need it. Both the Senate and House bills provide $5 billion in subsidies for state high-risk pools to make the insurance more affordable.

Under the Senate bill, beginning in 2014, private companies would no longer be able to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions, nor could they charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Until then, the state high-risk pools could provide some help.

Closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap — also called the “doughnut hole” — is another potential provision that could help some patients with asbestos-related disease. The “doughnut hole” is the gap between the coverage for yearly out-of-pocket expenses provided by Medicare Part D and Medicare’s “catastrophic coverage” threshold.

For example, in 2009 Medicare Part D paid at least 75 percent of what patients paid for prescription drugs up to $2,700. After that, patients must pay for all of their prescription medications until what they have paid exceeds $6,154. At that point, the catastrophic coverage takes over, and Medicare pays for all but 5 percent of the patient’s drug bills. The final health care reform bill probably will provide for paying at least 50 percent of out-of-pocket costs in the doughnut hole.

You may have heard the bills include budget cuts to the Medicare program, and this has been a big concern to many people. Proponents of the bill insist that savings can be found to pay for the cuts, and that people who depend on Medicare won’t face reduced services. But this is a complex issue that I want to address in a later post.

The long-term provisions probably will include many other provisions that would benefit patients with asbestos-related disease, including increased funding for medical research. Although there are many complaints about the bill coming from all parts of the political spectrum, on the whole it would be a huge benefit to many people.

— Barbara O’Brien

Sunday, January 24, 2010


It's my sad duty to announce that this blog is going on hiatus for an indefinite period of time. I'm not deleting it, but I won't be updating it unless the spirit compels me to, for the time being at least.

Blogs don't really get traffic unless they're updated at least once a week. I haven't been able to do that for quite some time. And now I need to focus on something greater--writing a book.

The book will be about ideas concerning spirituality, religion, and reason--ideas that I've already explored at some length on this blog. I seek a different way of writing about this. The declarative style ("such and such is true" or "you are this, or that") is fine for those already accepting a tradition. What I want to do is explore what we mean when we use spiritual and religious language, rather than merely accept them or dismiss them as somehow prima facie true or false.

My political commentary has covered just about everything that I'm concerned with. Frankly, it's hard to come up with much that is new when political events mostly consist of "same old, same old." For anyone still interested in that aspect of my writing, I point to my Twitter page.

In the meantime, I wish to thank the few loyal readers who have kept up with the blog over the years and offered their comments, arguments, and encouragements. A writer always needs to know that someone is reading. You keep me going. I appreciate it.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Fool's Game

In the progressive debate over American politics, an ugly aspect of reality is expressed by the conviction that “both parties are the same.” On one level, there’s truth in that statement. On another level, I don’t agree, and I think it can pose a trap for us.

The truth is that both parties are beholden to the corporate class that owns this country, and to the “national security” forces that advance the interests of that class. This is a very sobering truth that should not be avoided, because to do so is to succumb to a perpetual naïvete in American politics. The citizenry, which has been effectively reduced to a mere “electorate,” is expected to believe in the story of two diametrically opposed national parties and to put its hopes in one of the two. Liberals put their hopes in the Democratic Party, for differing and complex reasons which ultimately boil down to the simple fact that the Republican Party does not accommodate liberal points of view, whereas the Democrats ostensibly do.

The trap, however, which is laid for us in the statement that “both parties are the same” is that this ugly truth tends to produce apathy, despair, and an anger which can find little outlet in positive action. Political action outside the two parties has been effectively marginalized in the last four decades by reactionary forces, aided by the media, which has become almost wholly reactionary itself. Such political action must continue, however, and grass roots progressives must find new ways to organize, both in opposition to the corporate class and in support of positive alternatives that are firmly based in local communities. But progressives must also step up their efforts to change the Democratic Party and gain greater influence over its actions and policies.

This is simply a matter of practical politics. Grassroots change can only work in concert with transformation of existing political institutions. They have to go together because a movement wholly situated outside these institutions, without effective allies within them, will be defeated by the superior financial clout of the corporate class.

The realization that both parties serve the corporate class is a general truth that should not obscure important differences within that class, and within the political culture. The key difference at this time is between corporate internationalists who see themselves as part of a network that includes other countries, and proto-fascists who dream of total American dominance of the world. The Republican Party is now virtually controlled by the latter faction. At home they seek to abolish Constitutional government in favor of a centralized authoritarian state similar to China, where dissent is silenced, women and minorities are kept within patriarchal and white supremacist norms, and revanchist Christian groups are granted a repressive supervision over social and cultural policy. The Democratic Party is largely controlled by the internationalists, whose domestic policy tends to be more liberal, allowing more opportunity for women and minorities and putting a brake on fundamentalist demands. In foreign policy the Democrats still support corporate interests abroad, but with more of an emphasis on cooperation. On human rights they are alarmingly similar to the fascists, practicing double standards in regard to Israel and U.S.-sponsored authoritarian regimes, although there are conflicts within the Party on these issues.

The Republicans in power are an unmitigated disaster for progressives. They admit of no influence whatsoever. The Democrats represent a chance for influence. But the road is uphill and littered with obstacles. This is the difference, and it should not be ignored. To simply throw up one’s hands and say they’re absolutely the same is to counsel despair.

Liberal observers are often perplexed by the passive behavior of Democrats in the face of vicious Republican attacks. I have been puzzled myself. At times I can’t help but think that Democrats in Washington don’t realize how weak and pathetic they appear. Republicans are bold and relentless in their attacks. There is no lie they won’t stoop to tell. Yet rarely do Democrats hit back. And it’s not all just an attempt to be adult or “above the fray.” Obama and the Democrats talked seriously about bipartisanship and “reaching across the aisle”—this after 16 years of unparalleled Republican viciousness and intransigence.

The reason for this odd behavior, I believe, has to do with the two parties’ different constituencies, or “bases.” The Republican base generally does not recognize the corporate class as an enemy, unless certain elements, such as the Hollywood entertainment industry, are demonized as cultural elitists. Thus there is no conflict between the right-wing electoral base and the party’s corporate funders. But the Democrats, on the other hand, are split between their corporate funders, who are fundamentally conservative, and their electoral base, which tends to be more liberal on both domestic and foreign issues. So they try to placate their electoral base in certain ways, while being careful not to rock the corporate boat. Their passivity in the face of Republican attacks is not due to their fear of Republicans, but their fear of the corporate class and the national security apparatus that supports it.

Liberals who advocate accommodation in order to get things done are wedded to a very narrow idea of what is possible. Since the political make-up of Washington is what it is, they counsel resignation to that fact. But the possible isn't some inert fact. You influence what is possible by taking chances. To not take chances is to relegate the party to minority status even when it has Congressional majorities and the White House. We’ve seen exactly that during Obama’s first year. He and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, don’t take progressives seriously. They don’t fear what progressives can do because we haven’t proven we can do anything.

I am convinced that accommodation is a failed strategy, both politically and in terms of successful policy. You can accommodate with Eisenhower Republicans, with reasonable men. But they don't exist any more. Reaching out to fascists is naïve. But because of corporate dominance of the process, Obama and the Democrats will continue to put on this dumb show of bipartisan reasonableness unless progressives find ways to flex political muscle. This constant scurrying to the right, a repeat of Clinton’s failures, won't stop until progressives develop strength and resolve to confront, challenge, and put their foot down, not just to Republicans (although that would be a good start) but to the so-called centrists, the corporate shills who stand in the way of change.

That means developing an aggressive, in-your-face political identity that doesn’t back down from right wing threats and intimidation, that gives back as good as it gets, and that is not afraid to attack the servile media, the complacent DC pundits, and most of importantly of all, Wall Street, the intelligence spooks, and the Pentagon. By rallying the base with a fighting spirit rather than the meek accommodation that gets us nowhere, progressives can become a force to be reckoned with, inside and outside of the Democratic Party.