E S S A Y S
By Sam Smith
The Progressive Review
The politics of nothingness
The politics of ethnicity, gender and zipcode
Missing in action: the American left
Just words on just words
What do Joe Manchin, Brian Schweitzer, Dave Freudenthal, Brad Henry, and Rocky Anderson have in common?
Liberals losing it
Nobody left but us
What life would be like without liberals
Lies of our times
State of the Bush Report
Michael Kelly's libel
Why liberals lose elections
Pickups for Dean
Is that all there is?
Democrats: open up or shut up
Of heroes in politics
The American Idol election
Talking about politics
The politics of anger
Whose left is it anyway?
How I got fired as a liberal
The politics of nothingness
Perusing still more puerile pandering in the cause of pacific politics by Barack Oblather, a vision suddenly appeared. While, according to Google, a few others have already experienced this transformational experience, it is still rare enough to deserve mention.
The apparition was, without doubt, Chauncy Gardiner aka Chance the gardener, the last manifestation of magnificent nothingness to appear on the American political scene - albeit the fiction of Chance was safely contained in the movie "Being There" while Obama is running for election to a real White House.
Like Obama, no one knew where Chance had come from. Even the CIA and FBI were unable to discover any information, with each concluding he is a clever cover-up by one of their own agents.
In the final scene, reports Wikipedia, "Chance is seen apparently walking across the surface of a lake while the most important movers and shakers in the USA discuss running him for President. This scene continues to generate discussion and controversy. Clearly we see Chance walking on water, an act with a clear biblical reference. . . Is there a prosaic explanation, such as hidden stepping-stones? Or is Chance the Savior (as so many of the characters are looking for)? Does he truly possess some special grace, given his simple innocence and simply being present to each moment without filters and ideas? In his 2001 book, The Great Movies, Roger Ebert argues for the latter interpretation. Another view is that the director (and the author) are simply asking the audience: "How much more would you have believed? We've been kidding you all along you know!"
The novel upon which the movie was based was written over thirty years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. The Obama candidacy may elevate Kosinksi to one of the most precient political authors of modern times. After all, what is more Obamesque than the sort of phrase that got Chance started? - "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."
Of course, there are differences between Obama and Chance. Obama does have a modest political record and he is intelligent where Chance was dense. But the dynamics of his unprecedented rise has painfully similarities, especially in the willingness of the public and the media to turn the corny platitudes into evidence of a Second Coming.
At a time of economic disjunction, enormous military failure, a national reputation on the skids and massive political corruption, it is not hard to see why the unwary should be attracted to one whose name in Swahili means "one who is blessed."
This illusion is aided by a media that has, to a major degree, given up covering facts in political campaigns in favor a deconstruction of images, rhetoric and sensations. One of the results is what candidates pretend to be becomes infinitely more important than what they actually are.
Thus the media has all but ignored the long list of scandals in Hillary Clinton's past in favor of such things as positive coverage of how she cynically responds to mention of her husband's impeachment.
Obama is playing this same card for all its worth. He knows full well that the presidency is not about the "audacity of hope" and that, even if it were, he has no right to control its downloads as though he was the CEO of the RIAA of optimism.
Obama is engaged in a sophisticated con with a long history in this country. We normally associated it with evangelicals - the Elmer Gantrys and the Jerry Falwells - but the scam can be used by liberals as well. Born-again liberals can turn their backs on reality as well as any conservative, finding solace in the comforting chicken soup of faith and hope. The problem, of course, is that reality just keeps truckin' along and Americans need far more than cliches to get them through the next few years.
While Obama is clearly being intellectually dishonest, this is, to be sure, a lesser sin than the congenital variety practiced by his leading opponent. The little available evidence suggests that Obama would more likely be a disappointment than a disgrace. Still in the end it's a sad choice between the venal and the vacuum.
SOME readers may have noted that this journal is not particularly impressed by the fact that Barack Obama is black and Hillary Clinton is a woman. There are several reasons for this heresy.
It's happened already
The election of either Obama or Clinton would be fully predictable confirmation of a change in American attitudes that occurred a considerable while ago. That it happened later in the White House than in tennis, the Supreme Court or the House leadership more likely reflects the biases of campaign operatives, funders and media than it does that of the public as a whole. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 94% of Americans would vote for a black for president, 92% for a Jew, 88% for a woman, and 87% for a Hispanic. If you want a real cultural shift, you would have to elect a gay or an atheist who would get the support of only 55% and 45% respectively. But, with the help of the most manipulative media coverage of a presidential campaign that I can recall, Americans are being sold the myth that virtue lies in voting for a black or a woman and you can forget about all the other stuff. Obviously some extremely powerful interests - with little concern for either blacks or women - benefit from such an illusion.
Icons and issues
At the heart of the myth is the assumption that an icon is as good as an issue. To test this, name three issues of particularly concern to blacks or women on which Obama or Clinton would demonstrate a considerably more positive position than the other candidates.
The problem is that Obama and Clinton are not Jesse Jackson or Betty Freidan; they are conventional centrist Democrats being backed by extremely wealthy individuals and interests. One reason this is not generally understood is because we have so few examples of an ethnically oriented campaign really looks like. A rare case was Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential run with a coalition that has been described as including "urban blacks and Hispanics, poor rural whites, farmers and factory workers, feminists and homosexuals, and white progressives." As Time reported, "In Iowa and New Hampshire, where blacks are less than 2% of the population, Jackson got about 10% of the vote. In . . . Minnesota, with a black population of about 1.3%, Jackson swept to an impressive second-place finish with 20%, ahead of all save Dukakis. Indeed, some whites in these states have had a remarkable experience: one of the few black men they had ever seen up close turned out to be running for President."
Obviously that was not good enough to win the White House. On the other hand it was two decades ago and the electability of blacks has improved considerably. Further, if Jackson had not abandoned the coalition he developed during that remarkable campaign, American history might be quite different.
Now we find ourselves with a black candidate who will obviously do much better than Jackson but if you care about the sort of issues he is meant to represent in the liberal mythology, you'd better go with Dennis Kucinich. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, voters will be choosing between the icon and the issues.
The downside of equality
While there is far less prejudice against blacks and women than twenty years go, the white liberal sense of noblesse oblige on matters of ethnicity and gender obscures a serious problem. True equality means that incompetence, corruption and other mortal and venal sins are just as fairly distributed by ethnicity and gender as is virtue.
This is taken for granted in some places like Washington DC where we have been electing nothing but black mayors since 1974, where two of the leading mayoral candidates in the last election were black women, and where two gays sit on the city council. History - unlike modern liberal sensibilities - suggest that in such situations choosing empirically is preferable to selecting by noble abstractions. In fact, a white city council chair was considerably more progressive than the black woman and man who followed him. Although it is obscured by legend, blacks, women and gays made their greatest headway under the drug-addicted Marion Barry. And one of our gay council members is such a prig he wants to severely limit the ability of teenagers to go to music clubs.
Race and ethnicity
One of the reasons this all becomes more complicated than it has to be is because of the myth of race, which is itself a racist idea - a definition of no scientific basis conceived in order to discriminate. It's why you will find the word 'ethnicity' above; it's a cultural rather than a scientific description.
Still the hold of race on our culture - even liberal culture - remains strong. Thus we have Obama constantly portrayed - yes, even above - as a black when, in fact, he is multicultural as is an ever increasing portion of America. We cling to definitions with which we are comfortable even when they do us harm.
Similarly, the new mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, is multi-cultural but this is not widely known even in the city. The media doesn't mention it; he doesn't talk about it much. A rare exception was an interview with CPAN in which Fenty said,
"It's been very healthy to me to see people grow and mature, and that friction evaporated over time and people realized that human beings are just human beings. And I tell people that I think kind of my tolerance and the racial tolerance I have individually, my just optimism about bringing people together, seeing my own family do that around my mother and father's marriage that has lasted, you know, some 40 years now. . . My Dad, again, born in Buffalo, New York, but his father's from Barbados and from Panama. He's the epitome of a - of a - of a person who's soft-spoken and who leads by example. My Mom was born in Buffalo, but from Italian heritage. She's the epitome of a mother who wears everything on her sleeve."
Obama, to his credit, has been quite open about all this and it may be part of his appeal to the young whose ethnic context is quite different from that of their parents. But once you define someone as multicultural, it makes it harder some people - both black and white - to vote for you. And so the myths continue.
The politics of zip codes
In the end, if you really care about the future of women, blacks, latinos and others who have come out the short side of the American dream, then finding sanctuary in a comfortable icon isn't going to do the trick. You have to ask the hard question: when it's all over, who's going to be better off?
One way to think about it is to put ethnicity and gender aside and consider the politics of zip codes. Under each candidate, which zip codes will do better and which will do worse? And who will do better: the white soccer mom or the black waitress mom? The answer doesn't necessarily lead you to the most comfortable icon.
Symbolism and rhetoric deceive easily. Toni Morrison, for example, was taken in by Bill Clinton, whom she called the first black president, even though he made life harder for those on welfare, increased economic disparities and substantially intensified the conflict against young black males, aka the war on drugs. She had forgotten Mahalia Jackson's warning that "you can't say one thing and then do another; be a saint in the church and a devil under cover. You've got to live the life you sing about in your song."
Those seeking salvation in an Obama or a Clinton are looking at the wrong end of things. It's not the color of gender of those at the top that we should be mainly considering but the state of those at the bottom. It's not as much fun and it doesn't leave you feeling quite as smug but, in the end, it's not the nature of the glass ceiling at the White House that counts as much as what goes on behind the doors that tens of millions enter each day in their struggle to survive.
Just words on just words
SAM SMITH - The assumption held by many is that Obama is exceptionally eloquent. So what happened when Hillary Clinton accused him of relying on words rather than experience? He gave a somewhat immodest speech which inferred he was up there with Martin Luther King and the Declaration of Independence - quoting some of their epic phrases and then adding sardonically, just words. The words he used to defend his eloquence, however, turned out to have been lifted (or borrowed)from his pal, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts.
This is not a criminal offense but neither should it pass unnoticed because it sheds light not only on the candidate but on the time in which we live, a time of such persistent illusions that we can easily find ourselves accepting the fake as the real and even praising it as eloquent.
I got to thinking about Obama last night as 12 men competed on American Idol. I suddenly realized why so many contemporary singers leave me uneasy or confused: their words and their facial expressions arent in sync. One singer crooned an extremely sad lyric as he grinned and flirted with the women in the audience. Another, in a typical pose of the contemporary vocalist, contorted his face as though he was being waterboarded, even while singing lyrics that were maniacally bland.
I mentioned this to a friend, who referred me to a tale by Lesley Stahl of CBS News, describing a critical interview with Ronald Reagan in 1984:
I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.
But, reported Bob Somerby in the Daily Howler, that isnt what happened. When the piece aired, [Dick] Darman called from the White House. Way to go, kiddo, he said to Stahl. What a great piece. We loved it.
Stahl replied, Didnt you hear what I said?
Nobody heard what you said.
You guys in Televisionland havent figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.
Wrote Somerby, Stahls critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darmans theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.
These are our times: when upbeat visuals contradict a critical interview, when you can sing a sad tale and flirt at the same time, and when you can be eloquent while stealing somebody elses cliches. And the participants, the media and the public hardly notice anymore and, when they do, defend it as normal.
So, in Obamas case, I adapted with the thought that if Clinton and Obama were to deadlock, perhaps Deval Patrick could be the perfect compromise candidate - of the same hue as Obama and youd get the eloquence first hand.
But then I discovered that Governor Patrick had an approval rating of only 48% so maybe these eloquent black Harvard Law grads get boring after a while.
Then I read today that some of the younger voters may be thinking of Obama as like so yesterday. Does that mean that we dont have to like consider him so you know eloquent anymore?
Isnt living in a fantasy fun?
Missing in action: the American left
IF nothing happens to change things, it looks as if Hillary Clinton will be running against Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Let's hope something happens to change things because it is hard to imagine a more depressing choice, the final triumph of money and media over democracy and sanity.
Yet, even on the left, one doesn't get much sense that we seem to be moving from frying pan to fire. Six years bitter experience has left many liberals and progressives convinced that exorcising the demon in the White House and finding a Democratic replacement is all we need for happiness.
It doesn't work like that. It is a reasonable bet that after eight years of the next administration - of whatever party - the overwhelming majority of the sins of the Bush years will remain, quietly institutionalized either because of lack of will, lack of votes or an excess of inertia.
The primary reason for this is that in politics we get the presidents we deserve and a Clinton-Giuliani race would reflect the fact that in neither party is there sufficient will to do things differently - to rebel against the corrupt, cynical anti-democratic spirit that these two power-obsessed leaders represent.
As the right has demonstrated over the past quarter century, the creation of a new popular paradigm is a complex, expensive and lengthy business. One can argue that the right had a grossly unfair advantage by controlling the hearts of corporations, mass media and evangelicals who happily and mindlessly spread its message to an unwitting electorate.
This is true, but there is another factor that hardly ever gets discussed. The left has blown it.
In fact, since the beginning of the Reagan administration there has not been a single mass movement on the part of the left that has made any significant impact on the country.
Part of this has been a matter of priorities. Under Reagan and the Bushes, the left was happy to do what it seems to like best: protest. Under Clinton it switched gears and quietly and obediently complied. In either case - dissenter or drone - the left did little to offer Americans an alternative vision, platform or movement.
Twenty years ago, as a member of the board of a national liberal organization, I found words for my concern as we discussed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Defeating Bork, I noted, was a necessity but it was not a policy. And we needed more policies.
I could tell from the room that I had said something alien. Who are we, I sensed around me, if we are not in opposition?
As recently as the last presidential campaign, I suggested a national progressive confab at which a list of major priorities would be compiled so everyone would know what we wanted, instead of leaving it to Fox News and David Broder to define for us. Again, it fell flat.
I suspect a part of the problem is that liberals behave much like many abused children; they view themselves more as victims than as survivors. This is not surprising given that two of their major constituencies - blacks and Jews - place particular emphasis on victimhood in their political rhetoric. But in the end, it is a choice that even the worst treated make in different ways, which is why some of the most impressive survivors are found in some of America's worst neighborhoods.
Rather than exhibiting the will to rewrite the story of themselves and America, too often liberals wallow in the mud pits into which their opponents have driven them and, when they can't take any more, willingly grab the hand of whatever hustler comes their way.
In this way, 2008 already reminds one of 1992 when liberals lined up for Clinton because he looked like he would win and might throw them a few bones along the way. In fact, in different ways, both Hillary Clinton and Brack Obama are modeling their efforts on Bill Clinton.
With HRC it's a quality that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in her husband: "It is not the compromises [Clinton] has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise." With Obama it's the cynical use of hope - or, as Clinton put it, Hope - treated as though it was the candidate's personal gift to provide. In fact, in the last days of his campaign, Clinton ran a television commercial filmed from the window of a moving bus. The voice-over said: "Something's happening out there. A feeling. Call it hope. That a country can move in a new direction. That the future is something to look forward to. Not fear. If that's what you're feeling, you may have noticed something else. You are not alone." Obama before his time.
In either case there is a quality that Christopher Hitchens found in early Clinton Washington as being like that in Peter Pan, in which the children are told that if they stop clapping, Tinker Belle will die.
That pretty well sums up today's liberalism: you either oppose or you clap.
There are at least three other reasons beyond the psychological why this is so.
First: Major liberal organizations function much like all lobbying groups. Not only are they too far removed from the grassroots and too close to power, they are extremely protective of their own position in among the elite. Thus the mere notion of an effective coalition is troubling.
Second: Since they don't have as much money as the right, it would seem logical that liberal groups became expert as grass root organizing. They're not. One explanation for this is that since the advent of television, everyone has played by the rules of virtual communication and part of this reduces the voter to a viewer, petition signer, or contributor. One rarely finds anymore the sort of organizing spirit of, say, Saul Alinsky or the anti-poverty era and - on the left - scarcely ever does one see the multi-faceted organizing of the Christian right. If the left only uses the tools of mass media, they will have their Move Ons to be sure, but the right will just keep moving on.
Third: Much of the power and the money in liberal organizations comes from a new liberal elite - including large numbers of successful urbanites, women, gays, blacks etc. This elite has its own agenda which - regardless of its virtues - tends to ignore or deemphasize agendas of the less powerful and less well off who, incidentally, vote in much larger numbers. This is not an incurable problem but it at least has to be faced.
One big exception to all this is the Democratic populist wing, an ill-formed amalgam that believes Democrats are here to do the most good for the most people. But it, too, has yet to find good footings for a new movement. Even the efforts of John Edwards in this regard will ultimately fail unless people rally to his cause and not just to his candidacy.
Another major exception is the Green Party which, good as its heart is, has yet to tie its platform into a small and neat enough package that the media, let alone America, can grasp.
In short, the American left has a choice. Either it remains the victim of alternative predators - the right on one hand, the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it takes charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on a clear program and then - in the manner of the abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes and civil rights activists - takes this message to every little corner of the land it is trying to change for the better.
We are once again being treated to that remarkably self-serving and hypocritical myth that there should be no religious test for high office. For one thing, it's a lie: if you aren't religious, you don't get high office. For another thing, if you are religious, you spend a good deal of your campaign convincing some voters just how faithful you are while trying to fool the rest into thinking that it doesn't make any difference. In both cases, the unusual aspect of the test is that no one is meant to think it exists.
As yet another public service, the Review proposes to bring the religious test out of the closet and into the debate in a reasonable fashion, helping the voter judge the relative worth of various candidates' Leave No Apostle Behind programs. We shall revise the exam from time to time and welcome any suggestions
RELIGIOUS TEST FOR HIGH OFFICE
1. Does the candidate belong to one of the kookier sects such as Scientology or Mormonism? What does this suggest about the candidate's ability to deal rationally with real situations and the quality of that candidate's judgment?
2. Is the candidate a saint in the church but a devil under cover? As Mahalia Jackson put it, "I can't go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday."
3. Does the candidate try to appear highly religious to one set of voters and highly broad minded to another?
4. If the candidate is a Catholic, whom does he or she most admire: the current Pope, the Berrigan Brothers or various liberation theologians?
5. If the candidate is Episcopalian, to which branch does he or she belong: the high and crazy, broad and hazy or low and lazy?
6. Which aspects of the candidate's religion or its history will that candidate openly condemn?
7. Is faith used by the candidate as a space filler for the absence of facts or is it used as a false replacement for facts?
8. Does faith primarily influence the candidate by providing positive values or by supplying wildly unsupportable information posing as truth?
9. Would the candidate support the end of discrimination against secularists? For example, would the candidate support an atheist opening sessions of the Senate and would the candidate host idea breakfasts as well as prayer breakfasts at the White House?
10. Does the candidate think God talks to him? How does one distinguish this from the heard voices that lead others to be committed to mental institutions?
11. Does the candidate believe God is responsible for improvements in poll numbers? Does the candidate agree with Mike Huckabee's assessment: "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people?"
12. If, as Mitt Romney claims, "We are a nation under God, and we do place our trust in him," and if as Barack Obama says, "What role does [religion] play? I say it plays every role." then shouldn't there be a religious test of candidates so we can tell who God trusts the most?
13. But since there supposedly isn't a religious test for high office, why does Mike Huckabee run TV ads proclaiming himself a "Christian leader?" Or tell a group of evangelicals, "God is not spelled G-O-P, and if the G-O-P ever leaves G-O-D then the G-O-P will lose m-e?"
14. Why does the media use the term "pro-family" to describe Republican policies when the divorce rate in heavily GOP states in the Mid West is higher than in God-forsaken Massachusetts?
15. If there is no religious test than why are issues like abortion and gay marriage so important, since the about the only people worried about them are religious fundamentalists?
16. Mitt Romney says, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." What section of the Constitution is that in? What if one seeks freedom from religion?
17. If there is no religious test for high office, why does a new president have to take an oath using a Bible?
PETER SLEVIN of the Washington Post deserves some sort of award in media mythmaking for his piece recreating Clinton and Obama as disciples of the great activist Saul Alinsky. They have in fact followed the teachings of Alinsky about as well as George Bush has followed those of Jesus Christ.
To be sure, they both went to the church and prayed. But life moves on and as Alinsky pointed out, "When the poor get power they'll be shits like everyone else." The same goes for Wellesley and Harvard Law School idealists.
Clinton, in fact, put her thesis on Alinsky under lock and key once her husband began running for president, something that Slevin buried in his long encomium. And it is hard to think of anything in recent years more certain to have gotten Alinsky angry than HRC's deceitful, confusing and insurance company-pandering health plan.
The Obama story is different. He actually worked for several years on Alinsky oriented projects. But that was a long time ago and to present him as a present day disciple of Alinsky is just plain false. He is today your run of the mill liberal politician who doesn't want anybody mad at him and wouldn't even be a card in the race if he didn't hold the race card.
I mentioned to a black friend that Obama reminded me a lot of the sort of black lawyers you meet at top Washington law firms. "Yeah," he replied, "the Negro at the front door."
They are fine to handle your mergers or litigation, but if you are trying to save a country going down the tubes, you're probably better off with someone who hasn't spent his whole life trying to position himself safely in a hostile white America. This is not in the slightest to his discredit personally; it's just not the job description on the table.
There can be in these glass-ceiling breakers a self-protective caution that enables them to survive but also makes them less likely to break ceilings for others.
I know something about Alinsky because I wouldn't being doing what I'm doing if it weren't for an Alinsky organizer who hit our Capitol Hill neighborhood in the 1960s and strongly urged me to start an activist neighborhood newspaper.
For the next few years I was immersed in Alinsky style populism while many of my white friends were engaged in something far closer to the classical stereotype of the 1960s. If there is one theme that has set my subsequent journalism apart from the more typical left media it has been an Alinsky-encouraged approach rooted in community, populism and suspicion of power in all its forms.
Reading Slevin's article I was tempted to assume that this was another cynical Washington Post effort to spin America's story, in this case to steal the populist thunder from John Edwards, the candidate closest to the Alinsky spirit and the man with whom Alinsky would feel most comfortable. But perhaps this is unfair, because I know how little understood the Alinsky style and values are anymore. It is not surprising that either Clinton and Obama are so removed from these; they are, in fact, typical liberals in this regard.
Still you can't have it both ways and no one should think of either as practitioners in the model of a man who once said, "Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict."
Barack Obama and Vanna White
They're among the most popular Democrats in the country and you've probably never heard of most of them.
SAM SMITH - When someone asks me who I want for president in 2008, I chase them away quickly with the answer: Rocky Anderson.
It isn't really true, but it symbolizes what I really think about the way the Democrats are once again fouling their own nest by spending more effort pleasing campaign contributors than reaching a natural constituency. The Vichy Democrats who have been wrecking the party since the early 1990s are still in control and unless there is a Dean-like revolt, Democrats will once again pay the price in 2008.
Rocky Anderson is the ACLU-card carrying Democratic mayor of the largest city in one of the most conservative states: Salt Lake City. He is a member of the ACLU. Here's how Wikipedia describes him:
"Under his mayorship, the city has purchased wind power, increased recycling, and is converting its fleet of city vehicles to alternative fuels. Anderson has supported initial measures to make the city more bicycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly while opposing "monster" home rebuilding projects in the historic Avenues and Sugar House districts. He helped manage the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and is a major proponent of downtown revitalization projects. He is an ardent opponent of tobacco use and has supported legislative measures limiting smoking; conversely, he is one of the most outspoken public critics of Utah's strict alcohol laws (state law permits the sale of alcohol only in restaurants, private clubs, and state-run liquor stores).
"Anderson opposes English-only legislation, supports gay rights and same-sex marriage, and has launched living wage initiatives. This is notable in the state that in the 2004 presidential election gave George W. Bush his greatest percentage of the vote of any state in the Union. . .
"In 2000, Anderson had Salt Lake City police officers end their participation in the DARE. program. He was characteristically blunt, telling DARE. officials: 'I think your organization has been an absolute fraud on the people of this country ... For you to continue taking precious drug-prevention dollars when we have such a serious and, in some instances, growing addiction problem is unconscionable.'.
"Anderson attracted praise and scorn in August 2005 when, after accepting an invitation from the Bush administration to participate in a visit by the President, he sent an e-mail to local advocacy leaders calling for 'the biggest demonstration [Utah] has ever seen' to protest Bush's appearance at Veterans of Foreign Wars' national convention at the Salt Palace. Speaking to a rally in Pioneer Park (in downtown Salt Lake City), Anderson justified his protest against Bush, suggesting that the 'nation was lied into a war.'". . .
"Incidentally, Anderson was raised LDS but is no longer associated with the church."
If Anderson actually did run there would be controversies over some of his management policies and his spending habits. But that's not the point. The point is that there are more where he came from, but you'll never know it if the media only covers Clinton, Edwards and Kerry.
The other politicians mentioned above are the most popular Democratic governors in the country, all with the approval of at least two-thirds of the voters, all of them from red states. There are reasons to argue with each of them, but at the same time, all of them are more far honest than Hilary Clinton and more competent than most in Washington DC - pol, pollster or pundit. Plus they actually know something about winning red state voters.
The fact that such individuals get ignored by the Washington experts merely illustrates why the Vichy Democrats do so poorly. And they have not only sold out to major corporate interests that oppose much of what real Democrats stand for, they are also wusses.
For example, they're desperately afraid of the national security issue despite. the president blowing one of the most expensive wars in history against a minor league country and despite the terrifying incompetence displayed by the Bush regime following Katrina.
If you look at the most popular Democratic governors, competence is a recurring theme. Senators don't have to be competent, they just have to know how to talk, especially on Sundays. But if you want to win in the heartland, it helps to have some usable skills.
The governors also tend to break the approved Democratic mold in some way. Manchin opposes abortion, Schweitzer is pro-gun. As long as the candidate is only a believer and not a bully, you can live with this. And the beauty is, politically, that you only need to be a single issue apostate to reach whole new constituencies.
No one in this list seems up to a presidential bout, although a couple might make useful veep candidates. But, remember, unless the Democrats find an alternative to the complacent, corrupt, and cowardly capital crowd, the party is going to lose anyway in 2008.
You are probably not a liberal anymore if:
You think the elimination or reduction of social services is a "reform."
Accept the idea that Social Security and Medicare must live within the limits of an arbitrary "trust fund," but that the Pentagon need be under no such restrictions.
Liked the Clintons' health plan and wonder whether single player health care wouldn't be too socialistic.
Consider a 5% wage increase in an industry to be inflationary but a 5% return on your stocks in that industry to be inadequate.
Think it's all right to bomb the smithereens out of Balkan, Asian, or Middle Eastern countries for humanitarian reasons.
Regard the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, PBS, and NPR as liberal media.
Know what NARAL stands for but not SEIU.
Agreed with Toni Morrison that Clinton was our first black president.
Have doubts about gays in the US military but approve of having the US military in over 130 countries.
Spend more time thinking about Hillary's chances and executive glass ceilings than you do about sweatshops, the minimum wage, or workplace safety.
Are afraid your children can't handle drugs and booze as well as you did when you were their age.
Believe that because you were robbed once, you can support mandatory sentencing and the drug war with a clear conscience.
Have an piercing alarm system on your Lexus but think gun owners are paranoid.
Haven't noticed that democracy and the Constitution aren't doing so well these days.
The front seat of your SUV is higher than the front seat of your plumbers' pickup truck.
Liberals losing it
ALTHOUGH LIBERALISM HAS been on the skids for more than two decades, it has become the new fashion in that desiccated sect to blame Greens for the problem. Liberals don't worry about the dropping memberships and dramatic aging of groups like Common Cause and Americans for Democratic Action or the irrelevance of archaic liberal journals like the Nation (kept alive in part by charter cruises aimed at those who remember meeting Eleanor Roosevelt). Nor do they concern themselves with the declining viewership of public broadcasting or the chronic ineffectualness of the congressional black and progressive caucuses.
Who needs those concerns when there is yet another target - the Greens - to join all those other Americans that liberal leaders can't stand (and then wonder why they won't vote for them) such as gun-owners, church-goers, southerners, people who still believe in local government and so forth.
For example, Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect leads with this: "Ask any liberal to identify the force in American politics most intent on destroying progressive prospects and causes and you're sure to hear that it's the Bush administration or the Republican right or some such reactionary power. Let me gently suggest, however, that a very different force has wormed its way onto this list, and may indeed be right at the top: the Green Party. There's something so very pure about the Greens' destructiveness."
This fits in well with the liberal myth that Gore lost the 2001 election because of Ralph Nader. In fact, Gore lost the election because he was a poor candidate, ran a bad campaign, and failed to separate himself morally from Clinton. Further, not only the Democratic Party, but the liberals within it, made it absolutely clear over eight years that they had no interest in, nor would respond to, the sort of politics espoused by Greens. That liberals should complain now is an example of the self-defeating arrogance that has done them so much damage. If you want people to vote with you, be nice to them. Just because you're god's gift to Manhattan or Georgetown doesn't give you an exemption from this basic political rule.
Meyerson instead takes the stance that "la gauche c'est nous" - "When the Greens run a candidate against a Democrat, however, neither their campaign nor the effect of their campaign advances their agenda one whit. Their goal is simply to defeat Democrats, even the most liberal Democrats. Especially the most liberal Democrats."
Meyerson, who gives no credit to the idea that Greens might have a few policy differences with his party, has one valid complaint: the fact that the Greens are running a candidate against Paul Wellstone. But liberal Democrats who gave blind allegiance to the most corrupt president in history who then set about dismantling a half century of liberal progress, are hardly in a position to lecture on wise tactics.
Besides, as a fully recognized party, the Greens have a legal, constitutional and moral right to run their own candidates and shouldn't have to ask the decadent liberal aristocracy for permission. And sooner or later - after Democrats like Meyerson get over their childish tantrums - liberals will realize that one way out of their problem is to support proportional representation and instant runoff voting, rather than excoriating others for participating in American democracy. As it stands, liberals rest on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.
Your editor was an early advocate of the Green strategy of finding tight races between Republicans and Democrats and then breaking up the party. While I think Minnesota was a poor choice, I have no apologies to make. After all, I didn't leave the Democratic Party voluntarily. It was made quite clear that people such as myself weren't wanted. And besides, I thought if I remained, I might be liable under the RICO statutes.
Meyerson is upset because the Greens
actually practice what they believe in: democracy, nonviolence,
decentralization, ecological sanity. They don't want to go along
with the moral charade of the Democratic Party. Myerson writes,
"Beware this party. At the heart of Green politics is a
novel - and ruthless - ethic: The means justify the end."
You're confusing your parties, Harold. That's the Democrats.
The Greens believe the means are part of the end.
Nobody left but uS
IF YOU'RE WAITING FOR SOMEONE IN POWER to do something useful about this mess, forget it. The axis of violence - Bin Laden, Sharon, and Bush - has turned this into a war of alternative terrors, the only certainty being that, by their bidding, somewhere, somehow, more innocent people will be killed or maimed. In this country, those of influence who should rebel against the madness are too cowardly, incompetent, or complicit to raise their voices. And even if they did, the media would pay them no mind, preferring instead the sociopathic festival of death and brutality in the name of nationhood and patriotism.
So it pretty much comes down to us. Just as in every great moment of moral crisis, the fatal flaw of power is to prefer position to principle and to assume that position is an outward and visible sign of inner, invisible grace. Just as in every great moment of moral crisis, it is left to the weak to speak the truth, the outsider to find resolution, and the unannointed to carry out responsibilities that our elected representatives swore to fulfill but have so carelessly jettisoned.
There is a great coalition of conscience waiting to be formed, but at the moment it consists of millions who, thanks to the effectiveness of government and media propaganda, have yet to realize that they are not alone. Once that discovery has been made - and oh how the apostles of violence seek to prevent it - then the way to sanity will start to open. If, say, those opposed to the present course represent just twenty percent of the country that's bigger than any lobbying group in America. If that twenty percent were to demand a few basic policies such as Palestinian statehood, an end to the Iraqi embargo, and the commitment to non-violent resolution, the illusionary national unanimity - so heavily based merely on fear of offending or looking foolish - would start to unravel.
Any community could help to get this rolling by bringing together concerned citizens willing to stand with others and to say in a group what they have been reluctant to express singly. Religious leaders, writers, teachers, and others not a part of the machinery of power could play a major part as could those whose reputations are not dependent on the blessing of the political and media structure. What started as a few people setting an example could spread until it becomes a national and international movement.
There could also be a non-official initiative in the form of a national or global Internet petition to those in power to cease their earth-threatening behavior and to accept a few basic principles of decency.
And finally, there could be some symbol - perhaps a revival of the peace icon of the 60s - to make visible our rejection of the ways of our leaders and our commitment to an alternative.
There are, to be sure, a wealth of other tactics - demonstrations, boycotts, civil disobedience. But it seems that nothing could do more sooner than to find a number of ways in which those who do not wish to join the axis of violence can declare their rejection and know they are not alone.
People who complain about liberal policies are like the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he's retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.
Here are a just a few of the things America would be without were it not for liberals in the White House:
- Regulation of banks and stock brokerage firms cheating their customers
- Protection of your bank account
- Social Security
- A minimum wage
- Legal alcohol
- Regulation of the stock exchanges
- Right of labor to bargain with employers
- Soil Consevation Service and other early environmental programs
- National parks and monuments such as Death Valley, Blue Ridge, Everglades, Boulder Dam, Bull Run, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, Cape Cod, Fire Island, and San Juan Islands just to name a few.
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- Rural electrification
- College educations for innumerable veterans
- Housing loans for innumerable veterans
- FHA housing loans
- The bulk of hospital beds in the country
- Unemployment insurance
- Small Business Administration
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Peace Corps
Lies of our times
YOU SOLVE PROBLEMS BY CREATING NEW CABINET DEPARTMENTS
When national politicians get stuck, they create a new cabinet department. There is little evidence to suggest that this helps whatever it is the department is meant to be doing. It does, however, greatly increase the opportunities for waste and fraud. In the post-WWII era there have been a number of new cabinet departments such as:
- In 1949, a few years after victory in World War II, the Department of Defense was created. America never again won a major conflict. Instead it fought three wars - Korea, Vietnam and Gulf - to a stalemate and was reduced to bombing and invading tertiary countries such as Granada, Panama and Afghanistan.
- In 1965, LBJ created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A few years later America's cities were ravished by riots and went into a long decline. No new major housing programs on the scale, say, of the VA or FHA programs were ever created again. Further, HUD became a center of fiscal corruption second only to the Department of Defense.
- In 1979 the Department of Education was created, following which the quality of American public education has continued to decline to the point that it is now relies on George W. Bush for ideas.
The new Department of Homeland Security [sic] will undoubtedly follow in this pattern, especially given that it will even be stripped of civil service protections. You may fairly expect it to be inefficient in its tasks and wasteful in its spending, corrupt, anti-democratic, a honey pot of political patronage, and, as a consequence, an additional danger to the homeland security of the American people.
THE PROTESTS against the war last weekend, remarkable in both their size and their precociousness, suggest that mass civic action - with no small help from the internet - may have entered a new era of what might be called viral politics. Of course, viral politics - in which ideas are aggregated in the public consciousness in a decentralized, unstructured, and unmanipulated fashion - is what democracy was supposed to be about. Thanks, however, to corruption, cynicism, cultural corporatization, and media myopia this is no longer the case. Politics is now something that happens to us, rather than by us.
At every level. I received a notice recently from our city government announcing a town meeting. And on what topic did city hall desire the public's opinion through this great traditional gathering of open debate?
Prostate cancer. The concept of a town meeting had become so contaminated that whoever wrote the notice just assumed it was the right phrase for yet another meeting at which the government told the citizens what they should be thinking about something. The deliberate illusion had become the standard definition.
As the Iraq war loomed, illusory definitions included democracy, freedom, and justice, Pearl Harbor, and patriotism. The government used the most highly developed agitprop ever, the Constitution was tossed out the window, and the corporate media was as obsequious as Monica in the Oval Office.
It should have worked. It worked before with Vietnam and Panama and Gulf War I. What happened?
One key element was missing and that was a public that had no way of testing whether what the wizards of war said was true. Now the public had a vast array of alternative sources and slowly - but quicker than during any earlier misbegotten American adventure - a meaningful opposition arose.
The internet had previously shown its value in big and small ways, but never before had it been asked to save the whole country. It is still too soon to say that it succeeded but enough has occurred to give us heart, to recognize that there is actually a way to combat even the most technologically abundant and morally bereft American leadership of our history.
As Leander Kahney wrote in Wired, "The disparity of protestors is a sign the anti-war movement has gone mainstream, observers said, and it's thanks not to the media, but to hundreds of anti-war websites and mailing lists. 'Never before in human history has an anti-war movement grown so fast and spread so quickly,' wrote historian and columnist Ruth Rosen in the San Francisco Chronicle. 'It is even more remarkable because the war has yet to begin. Publicized throughout cyberspace, the anti-war movement has left behind its sectarian roots and entered mainstream culture.'"
"Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, also believes the Internet played a defining role in bringing the movement together. 'The last time the U.S. contemplated war -- 1991 -- the Internet was still an isolated phenomenon, confined to a relatively small population of enthusiasts,' he wrote in an e-mail. 'Now, not only are most of the citizens online, but online activism has had years to mature and perfect its techniques.'"
Key to the net's success - and I decapitalize it to celebrate its ownerless ubiquity - is the collapsing of the time and space between when something bad happens and when it is revealed as bad and, subsequently, the time and space between when it is revealed as bad and when citizens find a way to do something about it.
It has long seemed to me that the major political struggle in the world was between its citizens and their governments. It is a struggle for people, their places, and the planet. On one hand are government and corporate bureaucracies, with their carefully crafted pyramids of power, their soulless and vicious grasping for power, money, or land, and their ever-expanding technologies of cruelty. On the other hand are, yes, huddled masses yearning to breathe free just as throughout human history, but with one big difference: among them are a growing number huddled over a computer screen discovering the most subversive truth of all: that we are not alone - SAM SMITH
State of the Bush Report
Patient has regressed since last visit.
Whereas previously he only sought to be sheriff of all of the
U.S. and selected countries he called "the axis of evil,"
his grandiosity now encompasses every nation that has a non-democratic
dictatorial leader. Like his psychotic desire for vengeance against
Saddam Hussein of Baghdad, Iraq, this is another indication of
his intolerance of competition in all its guises.
Patient also displayed his sadistic impulses by becoming clearly aroused whenever his talk turned to the possible death or punishment of others. This behavior has been noted previously in his public enthusiasm in condemning fellow Texans to death. But it goes back even further that that according to one of his childhood friends, Terry Throckmorton. "We were terrible to animals," Throckmorton recalled of his adventures with the patient, and offered as an example the thousands of frogs who would come out by a small lake after a good rain: "Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them. Or we'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up."
Patient is still in denial as witnessed by the fact that less than one-tenth of his discourse addressed his major domestic failure: the recession and his inability to deal with it. Other failures were mentioned in one paragraph and then ignored in favor of listing the faults of somebody else. Among these failures were the inability to locate Osama bin Ladin, the total collapse of his early ten year budget predictions, the problems with a dividend tax cut too obvious for even some Republicans to ignore, and the fallout from his disastrous education program. As far as the last is concerned, it would appear that the only child not left behind by the patient's plan so far is the one occupying the White House.
Patient does have a few scattered positive thoughts. For example he mentioned in passing a hydrogen powered car and an AIDS program, although it is not clear who will be producing the former and whether the latter will be used to subsidize Christian missionary work in Africa.
The latter is of some concern given his obsession with what he calls "faith," which - like most virtues - he feels he possesses to a greater degree than most. He proposes subsidizing "faith-based" drug treatment, i.e. using federal funds to convert patients to a form of fanatical Christianity so mind-altering that some medical experts believe it to be merely a form of drug substitution rather than actual treatment. The patient - who himself was treated in this fashion - exhibits some of the characteristics of what, in popular A.A. parlance, is known as a "dry drunk," i.e. one who no longer imbibes but still has many of the undesirable behaviors apparent when he did. For example, he appears merely to have added the subject of Jesus to the others about which he was previously incoherent.
While patient is not yet legally qualified for hospitalization, he is clearly a danger to those around him, even those such as the media that have regularly served as prime enablers of his reckless actions. Will continue to work with him, but confess the patient's constant demands that his doctor cut out the gobblygook and just turn to Jesus is beginning to wear on my nerves.
The nature of truth
The endless argument about who said what to whom about what in order to get us into the Iraq war demonstrates an illusion about honesty shared by all sides. It is yet another iteration of a phenomenon I first noticed during the Edwin Meese nomination hearings. It became clear then, and so many times since, that America - including its politicians, media and ordinary citizens, had accepted a legal definition of honesty, to wit: if a public person can not be proved to have lied by the rules of a criminal court, he or she can't be called dishonest and, in the case of a nominee, remains qualified for office. In other words, our standard for confirmation to high office had become no better than that for acquittal of a common thief.
This stunningly low bar has been implicitly invoked many times - most recently and dramatically to exonerate our two latest presidents - and it helps to explain the decline of American politics. Once you leave your judgment of politicians to a court or a prosecutor, it is far too late to do much about them.
Consider, for example, some common synonyms for honesty: sincerity, integrity, frankness, candor, openness. Is there anyone, even on the Fox Network, who would argue that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al at any point displayed such characteristics in dragging us into the Iraq disaster? And how is it that we place such a lower value on such virtues than we do on the question of whether the aforementioned told a prosecutable lie?
In 2003, I was asked by Harper's to compile a history of the beginning of the Iraq war told entirely in lies by Bush officials and advisers. As I began to work on the project, I was reminded over and over of how little lying often has to do with court-defined perjury. It more typically involves hyperbolic hoodwinking, unsubstantiated analogy, cynical incitement of fear, deceitful distortion, slippery untruths, gossamer falsehoods, disingenuous anecdote, artful agitprop, and the relentless repetition of all the foregoing in an atmosphere in which facts are trampled underfoot by a mendacious mob and their semantic weapons.
One does not have to analyze such language legally to understand its evil. One need only have enough understanding of the manner of the honest, the sincere and the candid to know almost instinctively when their opposite is in command.
Yes, some of the Bush capos may have done it so poorly from time to time that they can be successfully prosecuted. But our ultimate standard for judging their words and claims - whether as a Sunday talk show commentator or as an ordinary citizen - should be an ethical and not a legal one. If we let such con artists get away with their ultimate trick - which is having us believe that if we can not prove their swindle we must accept it - we will have fully surrendered to their treachery.
Michael Kelly's libel
THE DESPERATION OF THE HAWKS came out in a column by Michael Kelly much like something Richard Nixon or Joe McCarthy would have written in the 1950s:
Since the overwhelming majority of those marching had absolutely no connection with ANSWER, Kelly's remarks were not only tawdry and tacky, they were libelous, and bring to mind the mischievous thought of 300,000 innocent souls filing individual actions against Kelly and the Washington Post.
These are times for smears, however, because the establishment has run out of arguments, defenses, and excuses. Kelly's tantrum, and he does seem to have them, is the product of a mind that - as with, say, Communists and Christian fundamentalists - places excessive emphasis on theoretical assumptions and too little on actual facts. Like others of his ilk - such as David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens - he learned too much in college and too little since.
Shoving all of life's experiences into theory is an ultimately unsatisfactory business and one of the things that causes such phenomena as wars and bad economics.
While I wasn't as lucky as Ring Lardner Jr, who missed Marx because that segment of his economics course conflicted with the opening of the Red Sox season, I did find Marx boring, perhaps because I had already some experience with real politics, including being a gofer in a couple of campaigns that had ended 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. No one in those campaigns had ever mentioned Marx to me, or even Locke, and I quickly concluded that political science courses were perhaps not the best place to learn about politics. Besides I could never figure out who was meant to run the restaurants in Utopia.
People in real politics - even Communists - don't sit around talking about theories like Horowitz, Kelly or Hitchens. They do things, like opposing wars or trying to get someone elected. And one of the first principles of doing things, as opposed to just thinking deeply about them, is to find others who feel the same way. This can lead sometimes in surprising directions.
In the 1980s, DC elected delegates to a convention at which a constitution was drafted to be used when and if we ever became a state. Among the delegates in an 80% Democratic town were some Republicans, Statehood Party members, and at least one Communist. I was covering a session, sitting right behind one of the Republicans and enjoying how often he voted with the Commie, whose predilections he had clearly not surmised. At one point, he turned to me and said, "Now we'll see how the hard left votes on this one." I replied, "I hate to tell you this, but you've been voting with the hard left all night."
A historical rather than a ideological assessment of American communism can lead in surprising directions as well. For example, as Eric Foner has noted, about the only predominantly white group in the 1930s that made civil rights a priority was the Communist Party. Marvin Caplan, later director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, quotes an anti-civil rights activist at the time as saying, "Integration is the southern version of communism."
The Communist Party, buoyed by people with nowhere else to go, fools, ideological partisans, and FBI infiltrators, survived in no small part because the rest of the political system wasn't doing what it should. There were traitors in their midst, but the record suggests that the subversives within the party probably did less damage to the country than, say, the double agents within the CIA. For the most part, the Communist Party provided a home for idealistic but shelterless activists who in better times would have been somewhere else.
To superimpose the whole Cold War ideological conflict on top of this peculiarly American phenomenon is to miss much of the story, in particular the role played by radical socialist Jews and by blacks struggling for basic rights.
Alfred Kazin described it this way:
During the 1960s, many of the movements for change had Communists in their coalition, in part because of the organizational skills they had developed. When you're planning a march, you don't have much time for ideology. A union organizer in the early part of the last century recalled going to Arkansas and forming a coalition that drew from two remarkably disparate sources: the black church and the KKK. Why? Because these were the two groups in the state that knew how to get things organized.
If you're in the midst of action, and not just writing about it from afar, you learn to cope with the fact that the world doesn't all look like you. And what matters is what you believe, not what everyone with whom you are marching believes. Once you have this core of self-understanding you don't have to run and hide under the table just because Ramsey Clark walks into the room. And you learn, based on experience and not theory, when to work with someone and when to get the hell out.
I have known a few Communists, just as I have known a few libertarians, black nationalists, greens, creationists, single taxers, liberals, and Washington Post op ed columnists. I have found the Commies to be rhetorically redundant and sometimes tedious but on the whole less trouble in an organization than, say, police infiltrators, another subspecies you meet if you're active long enough. I have never heard a single one mention Stalin, perhaps because they know I might argue with them, but more likely because Stalin is about as relevant these days as the Free Soil Party or the Know Nothings, even though Kelly wishes it otherwise.
One of the reasons that Kelly may be upset is that nothing terrifies the establishment more than people coming together who shouldn't by all rights be together. And when you have Republicans and "Stalinists" and soccer moms and the previously apathetic all in the same march, there's plenty to be worried about.
Talking about politics
Liberals might attract a lot more voters if they would stop dissin' them so much. It used to be that the left had a relatively few bad guys, such as Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, but now not only have these become major Democratic Party campaign contributors, liberal targets have exploded to include a large percentage of the voting pool. Once you eliminate all those who smoke, are too heavy, live in the suburbs, believe in Jesus, belong to the Green Party, own a gun, or lack etiquette when discussing ethnicity, you don't have that much to work with.
In many cases, it's a matter of attitude more than policy. After all, if you go up to someone and say, "You're a big, fat pig" or "You live in a sprawling, polluting neighborhood" and then propose to reform them, the reaction is going to tend to be negative even if your ideas make sense. If, on the other hand, you talk about the need for healthier food and more exercise, people don't take it so personally. It is worth remembering, for example, that John F. Kennedy got a huge fitness craze going without calling anyone obese. Similarly, without characterizing another person's neighborhood, you can suggest ecologically sound improvements in urban design - such as accessory apartments, shopping within walking distance, and filling in the empty space around malls and along suburban strips. People support things that help them. Thus, if instead of moralizing over sprawl, one points out the energy costs savings in row housing, one is likely to find a more friendly audience.
For a group that professes so much interest in diversity and tolerance, liberals are often surprising parochial and impatient with cultural variety. Thus they have played right into the conservative gambit of reducing politics to personal values rather than being about the public good. The way out of this trap is to rephrase policies so they become non-judgmental of the voters being sought. And, most of all, to find policies that help most people live better. It's how we got a weekend, a 40-hour-week, social security and a minimum wage. And it is still good politics.
What's a bribe?
The collapse of integrity in high places calls for consideration of our language about such matters. Take, for example, the word 'bribe.' Most probably assume that to bribe someone you have to commit a crime. Not so.
Dictionary definitions of 'bribe' include both criminal and merely distasteful acts:
Oxford English Dictionary: To take dishonestly. To extort. To influence corruptly by a consideration.
On Line Ethics: Something that is given or offered to a person or organization in a position of trust to induce that agent to behave in a way that is inconsistent with that trust.
Merriam-Webster: A benefit (as money) given, promised, or offered in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust (as an official or witness)
Word Net: Payment made to a person in a position of trust to corrupt his judgment.
In fact, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.
In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.
But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time during the Clinton administration when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.
The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or "campaign contribution."
Clearly, by the aforementioned definitions, campaign contributions fall comfortably within the definition of bribes.
Unfortunately, however, words like 'bribe' are controlled by courts as well as linguists and teachers and we would be interested in some pro bono advice from lawyer-readers on whether describing a donation to the Bush inauguration as a bribe is considered libelous or not.
If so, then we once
again find ourselves in the situation where the outer limit of
our behavior is defined not by broad standards of decency but
by when it becomes criminal.
The Washington standard for confirmation
ALBERTO GONZALEZ will undoubted be approved by the Senate since he meets the current Washington standard for confirmation: he has not been found guilty of any indictable offense and doesn't have an illegal nannie.
In fact, he and his buddies should probably be prosecuted under the RICO statute for sitting around the White House plotting ways to ignore various national and international laws as they tortured people. And his evasive answers clearly put him the category of other great congressional witnesses such as the mobsters who appeared before the Kefauver committee.
Finally, it was clear that Gonzalez, like much of official Washington, considers moral values to be defined not by the Father Almighty but by the criminal code. The idea that one might want to stand further than just the other side of criminality is an alien one to your capital city.
Not even the press bothers about such concerns anymore. They are considered quaint and obsolete. One Washington correspondent patiently explained to Diane Rehm why stress positions shouldn't be considered torture and on CSPAN, an editor of City Journal, Heather MacDonald, announced that "we need these tools" and that we are "too good for our own good."
It is with the aid of such sophistry that evil flourishes, whether episodic or organized as fascism. Great wrong doesn't just come out of the barrel of the gun; it also comes from the cynical rationalizations of those who are meant to know better.
The politics of anger
If Americans voted at the same rate that they did in 1964, 17 million more voters would show up at the polls this fall. And most pollsters would not have added them to their equations. The polls would likely be badly wrong.
Poll samples are based on the assumption that people are going to behave the way they normally do and the results are usually pretty good. But what happens when that isn't the case?
In New Orleans, for example, a poll taken a few days before the runoff election found Mitch Landrieu ahead by ten points. What happened? We don't know yet but it is safe to say that the sample didn't match people's actually behavior on election day.
We recently ran a report that found nearly three-quarters of young voters saying they were planning to cast ballots this fall. In a country that barely brings out 55% of the total voter in a presidential race this would be extraordinary and would dramatically alter the results.
A Washington Post story finds latino voters turning against the Republicans: "Democrats were viewed as better able to handle immigration issues than Republicans, by nearly 3 to 1: 50 percent to 17 percent. Pitting the Democrats against Bush on immigration issues produced a 2 to 1 Democratic advantage, 45 percent to 22 percent. . .
"Even if the GOP does maintain Bush's margins among Latinos in 2008, another study found that Democrats are likely to achieve a net gain in future elections, simply because Hispanics are growing as a share of the electorate.
"Ken Strasma, a Democratic strategist who specializes in using demographic data to target potential voters, and the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University conducted a study concluding that, if past voting patterns hold, the growing Hispanic population means that Democrats will increase their 2004 vote totals by nearly half a million votes in 2008."
And what if latino voters are mad enough to vote in significantly larger numbers than normal? More room for surprise.
The Review has been exceptionally accurate on its projections based on averaging the last three polls. But we gotta say our gut tells us this year could be different.
So much for working within the system
One of the lessons that Greens, apathetics, disgruntled Democrats and others were supposed to be learning this season was the inherent value of working within the system. This virtue is so apparent, one was told, that it requires nothing more than logic. No benefits, no inducements, no reform, not even simple empathy was required on the part of those who now control the Democratic Party. It was enough to declare ex cathedra that if one disliked Bush, the only choice was whatever the Democratic Party wanted to offer.
Well, now the results are in. Not Ralph Nader, not Greens, not Jesse Jackson, but a multi-term, capable, moderate Democratic governor decided to work within the system. And what happened? He was ridiculed, dissed, lied about, and subjected to malicious spin by party insiders, the Washington establishment, and the obese media until eventually the voters believed them and swung to the approved safe, lightweight underachiever, John Kerry.
Of course, for inside the system reformers such as Kucinich or Sharpton it was even worse. The NY Times doesn't even think they should be allowed in debates and the rest of the media regularly insulted, excoriated, and scolded them.
No one can look honestly at the experience of those who tried to work within the system this season and argue that the Democratic Party can be reformed in this manner. Along with its fellow-traveling troglodytes of the media there is nothing the party leadership wants less, or is more revolted by, than even talk of reform.
This is not a matter of whether Dean won or lost, but rather the vicious, inhospitable, insulting manner in which one of the most honest, decent, and interesting political figures of recent years was treated because he dared to run without permission of the party's elite. Now, as Craig Crawford put it, "The House of Lords of the Democratic Party are getting what they want."
This is their decision. It is not Howard Dean's fault, it's not Ralph Nader's fault, it's not the fault of apathetic or angry voters. The party has chosen to go into this election with a weak candidate, no platform, no passion other than distaste for the incumbent, no grassroots party building, and no attempt to reach new constituencies.
It may just work because George Bush is so bad, or because his chickens come home to roost in some dismal fashion, but that's just dumb luck and not good politics. - SAM SMITH
Is that all there is?
IF things keep going the way they are, the Democrats will nominate for president a man who was wrong on the Iraq war, wrong on the Bush tax cuts, wrong on the Bush education disaster, and wrong on the Patriot Act. And despite intimations of immutability by the media, all this has happened with many, if not most, Democrats being unaware of the aforementioned.
In short, the Democrats are preparing to nominate someone who agreed with George Bush on many of the major issues of the day and has only lately discovered that this may not have been such a good idea and so is making gentle adjustments in both his opinions and autobiography. Not that the latter couldn't use some help, since the most interesting elements of it, according to the candidate's own repeated testimony, occurred more than three decades ago.
It may be the best that the Democrats can do, but they should realize that what they have is not so much an opponent of George Bush as a replacement should the president do himself in.
This, fortunately, looks increasingly likely. Bush is basically a bully and a con man, occupations that require a regular supply of victims and marks. The number of people either scared of or fooled by Bush has peaked and the only question is how many will have figured it all out by election day.
This, however, should not be confused with a political campaign, which requires some self-knowledge beyond that of a victim, some motive other than revenge, some policies other than repeal, and some dreams beyond a Washington free of Bush barbarians.
Such goals remain beyond the Democratic Party which has been incompetently and abusively run for the past decade, reflected in the huge loss of electoral positions at national and state levels. The present chair of the Democratic National Committee believes that the sole purpose of his organization is to put a Democrat in the White House, which leaves in the cold thousands of Democratic officeholders and seekers around the land. The DNC has become the permanent capital office of the next Democratic presidential candidate, even to having excess square footage to house such a campaign, but there is no movement, no organization, no ideas, and no true effort to extend the Democratic base into an increasingly insecure homeland. Much as the labor unions have been co-opted and betrayed by a smug, sleazy, and soporific Washington leadership, so the Democratic Party has been turned into the plaything of an elite, narcissistic coterie fixated on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A symbol of this distortion has been the front-loading of primaries, designed to concentrate control of the party in its pinnacles of purse and power. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out like that because a obstreperous governor from Vermont, and an establishment Yalie who should have known better, used the new system to his own advantage until he was bashed and ridiculed back into his place.
Democratic primaries used to involve a lengthy courtship during which the voters could decide whether they really did like the choices being foisted upon them. In the end, there was always time and California on your side. Bad stories had occasion to surface, bum candidates could peak and fade, and dark horses could, if necessary, be mounted at the last moment. Now no one even mentions California, despite it having more population than the aggregate of a score of smaller states.
Another factor has entered the picture. While American politics has always centered on the 5-10% of voters who were indecisive or indifferent, the power of this strange bloc - a kind of aristocracy of the apathetic - has gained new importance as reality in politics is increasingly replaced by media-generated myth.
This election has much more in common with 'American Idol' than it does with its electoral predecessors, a point dramatically illustrated by the number of voters who think it's their responsibility to find an electable candidate rather than one with whom they actually agree. This is a deadly trap, ultimately fatal to what remains of democracy, because it reduces the citizen to the status of a sitcom producer rather than an active political participant. If we are all trying to guess what each other thinks, we will all drown in our suppositions about each other.
How important this is can be shown by the exist polls from New Hampshire and Iowa. In each case, eliminating all voters who made up their minds in the last week - the least involved, the least thoughtful, and the least committed to anything - produces strikingly different results.
For example, counting just the people who knew what they thought at least a week before the caucuses causes Kerry to lose four points, Dean to gain eight points, and Edwards to lose 12 points. Kerry would have won, but only by eight instead of 20 points, and Dean would have beaten Edwards.
Similarly in New Hampshire, Kerry would have gotten the same total, but Dean would have gotten 7 more points to close the gap between the two to only six.
Obviously, in such instances, the subsequent media commentary would have been quite different than it was.
The point is not to bar the apathetic from the polls, but to illustrate the degree to which our politics has become a measure of temporary blood pressure and not of deep belief. And, with few exceptions, the systolic variations are directly instigated by a media far more interested in its own goals than in the welfare of the nation. We vote like patients gulping down four Dunkin' Donuts before having their blood sugar measured.
This hyped-up, hurried-up primary system seems to have produced a candidate that few Democrats know, pursuing a politics that even he can't define, and with rapidly diminishing opportunity to do anything about it. And it's not even February yet. -
Pickups for Dean
During the long years of southern segregation, the white establishment managed to convince poor whites that it was blacks rather than itself that posed the biggest threat. This was not only immoral, it was a con, and a miserably effective one.
Only occasionally was the myth challenged, as when Earl Long went after black votes while holding onto his low income white constituency. When Long was elected in 1948 there were only 7,000 black voters in Louisiana. By the time he left office a decade later, there were 110,000.
It was not that Governor Long was any moral model. His language, for example, would have shocked today's white and black liberals. What he did do, and quite well, was to put together people who many at the top didn't want together. And at a time when the likes of Lyndon Johnson and William Fulbright were carefully avoiding the race issue, Long took on the White Citizens Council.
I was reminded of this the other day when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers. He was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt but what he was doing was simply reaching out to a constituency that Democratic liberals have too long dissed, the less successful white male. Uncle Earl would have been pleased.
By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, the likes of Gephardt and Kerry don't think they qualify as Democratic voters.
In fact, the best way to change people's minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining a multicultural political coalition that works. It's change produced by shared experience rather than moral by revelation.
Martin Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior were insufficient:
"Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right."
This doesn't happen logically, it doesn't come all at once, and it doesn't come with pretty words. Tom Lowe of the Jackson Progressive voted a couple of years ago in favor of a new Mississippi flag without the confederate symbolism. But in retrospect, he wrote later, he realized that the voters' rejection of the change was a honest reflection of their state of mind: "Perhaps a time will come when we have truly put aside our nasty streak of racism. When that time arrives, maybe we will choose to replace the flag with something more representative of our ideals. On the other hand, when we reach that point, we may no longer care about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. Or perhaps we will keep it for another reason: to make those of us that are white humble by reminding us of our less than honorable past."
Or perhaps do what the whites in the Southern Student Organizing Committee did at the beginning of the civil rights movement: seize the old symbol for a new purpose. The SSOC logo showed a black and white hand firmly clasped across a confederate flag. It is, within my extensive button collection, a favorite because it illustrates how symbols can be transformed and used for better purposes. Yes, the confederate flag is still there, but firmly in the background, reminding one of how hard won were the clasped hands in front.
The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by the growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare.
We'll never know until we try. Dean, coming off some successful approaches to black voters, has now turned to another group the establishment, including its liberal branch, doesn't really give much of damn about: the struggling white male. These two groups are primarily antagonistic because they have been taught to see life that way by those who really don't want them getting along. Instead of inveighing in the best liberal fashion against all stereotypes save one's own, Dean is mixing things up a bit. A Dean bumper sticker next to a confederate flag on a pickup may not be utopia, but it would be sure sign of positive change which, these days, would be a pretty big change in itself.
Pickups for Dean cont'd
THE CONTINUED controversy over confederate flags on pickup trucks is a reminder that one of the functions of political campaigns is to take our minds off our problems. It is especially fun when we can argue about symbolism rather than reality because that way no one can actually keep score.
It does get confusing, though. After introducing a new idea about whom the Democratic Party should approach, Howard Dean was excoriated by Al Sharpton who, while entertaining and often right, falls somewhat short as a mentor of morality. Sharpton was joined by some white southerners who, in attacking Dean's stereotype, implicitly projected their own - that of a south in which all the bad stuff has passed. Funny that Trent Lott never got the word.
Then, in an act of iatrogenic politics, Dr. Dean wounded himself further by describing as 'loathsome' the symbol of his proposed new constituency. That's not the best way to reach out and touch someone.
Besides, it also raises the question of whether the Democrats' Jefferson Day dinners should be cancelled since their namesake also had some pretty loathsome view on ethnicity.
The stereotype business can be tricky. Not only did some southern pickup drivers complain, but Claude Henry Sinclair Jr., commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp in Lancaster, SC, told the Washington Post that he saw yet another kind of stereotype: "I don't have a pickup truck."
To be sure, Dean might have done better if he had used (as one of our readers suggested) the term 'NASCAR dads,' but in fact, politics uses stereotypes all the time. And a campaign meeting at which someone asks, "How do we get to the Jews?" has quite a different import than the same question asked at a KKK meeting.
From the day in the 1960s when Marion Barry walked into my apartment explicitly looking for a white press aide, I have felt more at home dealing with such matters openly rather than having them whitewashed with liberal euphemisms.
The irony is that despite crude terminology, politics is one of the few places where you actually see people working voluntarily across ethnic and class lines for a common goal. When you hear people like Edwards and Sharpton slamming Dean for using political slang in public, you are seeing bad acting and not much else.
It is also interesting to note, as William Saletan does in Slate, that Dean received quite a different reception before he was the frontrunner. Here's what he told the Democratic National Committee last February:
"I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too."
Writes Saletan: "I have that speech on videotape. I'm looking at it right now. As Dean delivers the line about Confederate flags, the whole front section of the audience stands and applauds. It's a pretty white crowd, but in slow-motion playback, I can make out three black people in the crowd and two more on the dais, including DNC Vice Chair Lottie Shackelford. Every one of them is standing and applauding. As Dean finishes his speech, a dozen more black spectators rise to join in an ovation. They show no doubt or unease about what Dean meant."
The Dean controversy is driven by several factors. One is the growing liberal preference for proper language and symbolism over proper policy. Thus confederate flags soar above such other possible issues as the drug war with its disastrous effect on young black males, discrimination in housing and public transportation, and the lack of blacks in the U.S. Senate. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.
Another factor has far deeper roots: our fear of public discussion of class issues. Although this has repeatedly been noted by both black and white observers, it has little effect on our politics or the media, both of which project the myth that ethnic conflict occurs independent of economic divisions.
One who understood otherwise was the black writer, Jean Toomer - who once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes." Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."
Dean's real sin was that he got too close to that topic
Why liberals lose elections
ONE RESULT of the Democrat's hate campaign against Nader and his supporters is a bit more sympathy for born-agains, hunters and others who have likewise been expunged from membership in humanity by hyper-righteous liberals. Here's one recent example from a sociologist at CUNY, Harry Levine: "In the year 2000, Ralph Nader strapped political dynamite onto himself and walked into one of the closest elections in American history hoping to blow it up. He wanted to punish the Clinton-Gore Democrats for having betrayed him and the causes he believes in. His primary campaign mission was defeating Al Gore, but Nader concealed this from his supporters, even as he went after votes in swing states like Florida. On the day after election day, when everyone else was grim, and many Democrats were furious at him, Ralph Nader was a happy man."
Isn't there anyone in the Democratic Party who understands that you don't win votes with that sort of nastiness?
The Democrats did not do one thing after the 2000 debacle to improve relations with Greens and other Nader supporters. Among the possibilities: adopting some Green programs, avoiding holy wars against Green local candidates such as carried out against Matt Gonzalez in San Francisco, easing ballot access laws, and allowing fusion voting. Instead, those who supported Nader were subjected to a steady stream of blame and insults based on grossly incorrect assumptions.
Now Nader is running again and this time, although he has lost considerable Green support, there are signs he may be creating a new constituency of what might be called the zapathetics: people who are so pissed off at both parties that rather than staying home, they will come to the polls to make their point.
If the two parties make such a mess that it is hard for any self-respecting citizen to support them, it is simply a further sign of their corrupt arrogance for them to blame someone else for being mad about it. What possible reason is there for someone deeply troubled by the Kerry-Bush choice to change their mind knowing that they will be joining those who hold them in such contempt?
While, as a matter of political tactics, I didn't think Nader's run was a good idea (and said so) it is grossly insulting to the principles of this county to argue he doesn't have the right to run or that his decision to do so akin to the act of a suicide bomber.
People who say things like that deserve not getting every vote they lose
Democrats: open up or shut up
For the past four years, the only thing the Democrats and their media enablers have had to say about Ralph Nader is that he was to blame for their troubles. It was an utter lie that ignored, among other things, the lack of correlation between Nader and Gore in the polls leading to the election. For example between August and September 2000 Gore's average poll results rose 7.5 points but Nader's went down only 1 point. Between September and October, Gore's average went down 5.7 points and Nader's went up .8 points. At least 85% of Gore's changes were due to something other than Nader.
The Democrat's libel is further revealed in exit polling which showed that:
34% of union members voted for Bush but only 3% for Nader 13% of self-described liberals voted for Bush but only 6% for Nader 25% of gays voted for Bush but only 4% for Nader 15% of people who voted for Clinton in 1996 voted for Bush in 2000 but only 2% for Nader. 26% of those who voted for a Democratic candidate for governor split their ticket to vote for Bush but only 2% for Nader. More significantly, and totally unmentioned by either Democrats or the media, was the role that Clinton's corruption played in the electron. Sixty percent of votes had an unfavorable opinion of Clinton and 68% said he would go down in history books for his scandals rather than his achievements.
Further the party remains in deep denial about what had happened to it during the Clinton years. It went into the 2000 race having lost under Clinton nearly 50 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, 11 governorships, over 1200 state legislative seats, 9 state legislatures, and over 400 Democratic officeholders who had become Republicans.
It also ran as a presidential candidate a loyal member of the Clinton political machine which had chalked up criminal convictions for drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion, bribery, tax evasion, kickbacks, embezzlement, fraud, conspiracy, fraudulent loans, illegal gifts, illegal campaign contributions, money laundering, perjury, and obstruction of justice yet still insisted that its only problem was about sex.
None of this mattered, however. It was, we were constantly reminded, solely Ralph Nader's fault.
And so we come to the 2004 race and guess what? Ralph Nader is pissed off and ready to try again.
For four years, while insisting that Nader and the Greens had cost it the election, the Democrats did not do one thing to insure that what they claimed was true didn't happen again. In fact, they went out of their way to insure that American progressives would feel as unwelcome in 2004 as they did in 2000.
They made no common cause with Greens on any issue.
They appointed no Greens to positions in federal, state or local government.
They took not one step to institute instant runoff voting which would have eliminated the problem they complained about.
They refused to recognize that the policy differences between conventional Democrats and Greens was greater than between such Democrats and Republicans and failed to respond to that reality.
They made it clear that any Green-Democratic unity was a one way street by sending in Clinton and Gore to help defeat a Green candidate for mayor of San Francisco and moving immediately to redistrict the first state legislative seat won by a Green.
This has not prevented a hideous whining and gratuitous nastiness upon Nader's announcement that he intends to run again. For example, Tim Russert told Nader on Meet the Press, "I've got thousands of e-mails from people over the last several weeks talking about you and your potential candidacy and many of them come down to three letters, E-G-O, ego, this is all about Ralph. He's going to be a spoiler because of his ego. How do you respond?"
A proper response might have been, "Gee, Tim, it sounds like I must be watching your show too much" for in fact there is not a scintilla of evidence that Nader's ego, robust as it may be, is any more hypertrophied than that of the major party candidates or of the host of Meet the Press.
It quickly, however, became clear that Russert's question was not accidental. It was soon echoed by others in a way that signals 'talking points' - those widely circulated, contrived clichés that pass for debate and discourse. Thus we found Bill Richardson speaking of Nader's run as "an act of total vanity and ego satisfaction," and the chair of the Florida Democratic party speaking of Nader's 'enormous ego.' In Salon, Todd Gitlin wrote, "What Nader's decision amounts to is not logic but an exercise in monomania." Robert Scheer in Alternet called Nader's run 'an act of pure egotism.'
Even the leftwing Counterpunch ran an article by Bruce Johnson who suggested, "If he were driven more by principle than ego, perhaps he'd end all this posing and weaseling and (emulating Buddhist monks in Saigon and a Quaker on the Pentagon porch during the Vietnam war) he'd go sit on the capitol steps, douse himself with gasoline and exit this world of imperfect humanity in a blaze of protesting glory."
Having followed Washington egos for a good deal longer than most of those analyzing Nader's, I would rate him a middlin' monomaniac easily outpaced today by Bush, Kerry, and 72% of the White House press corps.
Nader is not the first to undergo such an assault this season. The same technique was used effectively against Dean who, despite being clearly one of the most accomplished, decent, and best qualified candidates, was turned into a caricature of inadequacy by the Democratic machine and its servile supporters in the media. In the process, his supporters were told they weren't wanted either and the party lost its one chance at meaningful reform.
And when Dean was finally quashed, what did the victors do? Here's how Frederick Foer described it in the New Republic:
"Officially, the Kerry campaign pledges to bring the party together and move past [the] gloating. But some establishment Democrats both inside and outside the Kerry campaign still intend to punish the Dean heretics. And, while well-known politicians, such as [Al] Gore, Harkin, and Moseley-Braun, may endure the most public abuse, the people who may ultimately suffer explicit retribution for their Dean-boosting are cogs in the Democratic machine . . . As one former high-ranking Clinton administration official put it, 'Will they work again in this town again? I hope not.'"
Thus, not only are Greens and Naderites persona non gratis among those in control of the Democratic Party but also Howard Dean, Tom Harkin, Al Gore, Carol Mosely Braun and any cog who didn't pick the right candidate. Is this politics or just another version of "Survivor?" Perhaps the losers should immolate themselves as well.
With such attitudes, the Democrats don't need Nader to do them in. They're doing a fine job all by themselves, and giving plenty of voters reason to stay home on election day.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote one of Nader's top aides suggesting that Ralph not run. I had just finished an article for the Green Horizon Quarterly in which I reviewed the history of third parties in the U.S. It seemed clear that the parties with the greatest influence had achieved it far more through grass roots organizing than through presidential races.
For example the most influential forces on left of center 20th century thinking were the Populists, Progressives and Socialists. Only occasionally did their presidential candidates do well: once each for Theodore Roosevelt, LaFollete and Debs. Yet despite this weakness the parties profoundly affected how American thought about politics right up to the Reagan counter-revolution..
The Populists only got 8% when they ran for president but they gave us numerous reforms including the progressive income tax. Eugene Debs got only 11% in his best run but by World War I the Socialists had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. As late as 1992, Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election with the highest vote total in Iowa City history. Other examples were state parties such as Farmer Labor and New York's Liberals which exercised considerable power without ever running their own candidate for president.
In my letter I argued, "My own feeling is that while I share Ralph's annoyance at the arrogant twerps at the Nation magazine [who had pompously urged Nader not to try again], presidential runs are the icing on the third party cake [and] before you can have an even partly successful run you need far more beneath the icing than we have at present.
"I would only even think about another run for Ralph if I felt that he had attracted a much larger constituency than he had in 2000.
"While I understand Ralph's moral position and think he has a perfect right to run, I come out of the Quaker tradition where virtue tends to be blended with pragmatism. Besides, once you decide to enter politics you are selecting a pragmatic tool for virtue so it is a bit hard to say that you want to be political but reject the pragmatic.
"By running for president, Ralph is using the most undemocratic, perverted tool of the establishment to make his point. He is, in a sense, playing right into the hands of the establishment. I think the trick is to use your own tools, in the manner of a guerilla, rather than to play the most rigged game in town."
My letter had no impact at all, but it was written not to declare the one true route to virtue but to argue a pragmatic tactic. I'm sorry my advice wasn't taken but Nader's choice neither shocks nor angers me. I am far more disturbed by the disgusting reaction by some towards it, and to an arrogance that assumes that despite the collapse of the American republic and despite the bipartisan destruction of the Constitution, no one is meant to stand up on the table and shout, "Enough!"
It doesn't really matter because movements don't take orders - especially from those with no vested interest in their success. The Democrats will have to live with the vituperative behavior they have displayed towards those they more wisely would have been sought to attract. If some Dean voters stay home, if others join the Nader cause, and if Nader does better than expected, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. They then really will have only one choice: either to open up or to shut up - either to welcome those they now excoriate and exclude or have the decency to accept the consequences of their own greed and stupidity without whining and blaming someone else.
Of heroes in politics
We have two military heroes running for the presidency. More correctly, however, we should say that they were heroes once - for heroism, at least as commonly described, is something that is partly defined by time and place. As Joseph Conrad noted, heroes, like cowards, are people who for one brief moment do something out of the ordinary.
It takes nothing away from the honor of that moment to understand that the courage of a critical event may not be a particularly good predictor of future behavior. For one thing, as the Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder points out, "Most war heroes don't feel brave or heroic at the time, but they do their duty, despite often feeling overwhelmed and horrified, in order to protect others." Some pay for their courage with mental anguish the rest of their lives.
But many others become ordinary citizens virtually indistinguishable from their compatriots. Even in positions of power, the magic inner strength with which they were once blessed typically recedes except for campaigns and banquets. Certainly in this election, military heroics did not correlate with courage to oppose three of the worst bills ever passed by Congress: the Iraq War authorization, the Patriot Act, and the absurd Bush education plan.
It is also true that Americans tend to rank military heroism far above all other varieties and so we overlook many heroes, such as firefighters, who routinely display bravery yet are rarely honored to the same extent, let alone get to run for president. Or the grandmother raising her second generation of children admidst crime and drugs, a rotten school system, and a society that cares not one whit about any of them.
It is useless in a time of such mythological fetishism, however, to argue the point. As John Kerry has recently demonstrated, it was only after he reincarnated himself as someone he had been three decades ago that the public - desperate for honor, decency, and bravery - leapt to his side.
The myth that grants such tenure to heroism gains ascendancy when a different sort of bravery is stunningly absent from our political life, which is to say bravery marked by public lives of steady, constantly reiterated courage and integrity. With such heroes lacking, it is not surprising that so many give their support to what a candidate once was in the hope that somehow it will happen again.
The American Idol election
ONCE AGAIN, the pollsters were way off. Some of this is the fault of the trend towards what we have come to think of as American Idol elections in which superstars are selected by an audience that has only observed their talents for a few minutes with the help of dubious commentators. As we wrote shortly after Clinton's election, "Politics used to be about remembrance. The best politicians were those who remembered and were remembered the most -- the most people, the littlest favors, the smallest slights, the best anecdotes tying one's politics to the common memory of the constituency.
"Politics was also about gratitude. Politicians were always thanking people, 'without whom' whatever under discussion could not have happened. . . The politician was the creation of others, and never failed to mention it. Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted.
"Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson spoke for many contemporary politicians when he answered a question about his memories of Thanksgiving Day football games by saying, 'Memories? That's not my style.'"
According to the exit poll, 40% of Edwards voters and 29% of Kerry voters made up their minds on the last day. Thus it was not totally surprising that the polls were off. Still, these were striking errors worthy of deep looking into. And we can't help have the impression that it hasn't been an election we've been following but a reality show about one.
Why Democrats and the media should stop beating up on Ralphn Nader
I advised that Ralph Nader not run this year. It is, however, a long road from such a tactical judgment to the sort of vilification that is currently being hurled against him. Here are a few reasons why such excoriation is not only obnoxious but dumb, since it will only add to the Democrats' problems:
- Ralph Nader is not the Democrats' main problem. Their candidate and the party's policies (or lack thereof) are.
- Blaming others for problems you created is a sign of a dysfunctional, self-destructive individual badly in need of therapy. Every attack on Ralph Nader is a reminder of the Democrats' deep denial.
- Not since segregation have so many with so much power used it so badly, cruelly, corruptly, and dangerously and with so little public or media criticism. Many Democrats, including the current presidential candidate, have participated deeply in this conspiracy of silence. Nader, at least, has broken the major bipartisan rule for Americans these days: shut up.
- To expect someone not to run against the Democrats and Republicans in such a crisis is a further sign of the arrogance that has made the two major parties so unappealing. Twenty-five percent of voters are not Democrats or Republicans. Are they not allowed to have opinions of their own?
- Nader didn't cause the defeat of the Democrats in 2000. For example: 20% of all Democratic voters, 12% of all self- identified liberal voters, 39% of all women voters, 44% of all seniors, one-third of all voters earning under $20,000 per year, 42% of those earning $20-30,000 annually, and 31% of all voting union members cast their ballots for Bush. Sixty-two percent of Nader's voters were Republicans, independents, third-party voters and nonvoters. Had Nader not run, Bush would have won by more in Florida. CNN's exit poll showed Bush at 49 percent and Gore at 47 percent, with 2 percent not voting in a hypothetical Naderless Florida race.
- This time Nader - divorced from the Green Party - is going after not the left but the forgotten middle, in what may be a revival of the Perot constituency. It is not by accident that where Nader has had to create a party name for easier ballot access he has called it the Populist Party. Thus Democrats who think Nader is backed only by leftist malcontents don't understand what's going on.
- Many people who will vote for Nader or the Greens are former Democrats who were told explicitly and implicitly they were no longer welcomed in the party. They see the difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties to be slimmer than between either of these parties and their own views. The assumption that such people are only misguided Democrats annoys them mightily and further assures them not to have any truck with their former party. A little more humility and hospitality on the part of Democrats might help; treating voters you want as prodigal sons definitely won't.
- While it is not popular in decadent contemporary America, doing the right thing and letting God deal with the consequences has a long history of theological sanction. I'm personally pretty sloppy about such matters, but I recognize morally based personal witness when I see it and respect it, albeit vicariously. Democrats and the media assume that it must be egotism because they have forgotten in this age of post-modern relativism what a moral response to crisis looks like.
- Such responses are a fact of life. Therefore, politicians and the media should quietly take into account that some will make such responses and not publicly inveigh against those who refuse to be as corrupt, wrong, and pointless as they are.
- Scolding people is the worst possible way to get them to vote your way. Every time the Democrats and the liberal media scold Nader and his supporters, they solidify his support.
- The Democrats have had four years to appeal to the Nader constituency and have done absolutely nothing. It's a little late now to start, but they could at least try to be as nice to the disenchanted as they are to soccer moms and campaign contributors. Even more radical would be to actually come up with programs they might like.
- The worst damage to the Democratic Party was done during the Clinton years. Since Clinton was inaugurated, the Democrats have lost 12% of their registered voters, and lost during his administration the largest number of seats in Congress, the governorships, and state legislatures of any Democratic White House incumbency since Grover Cleveland. No Democrats even mention this, another sign of denial in dire need of treatment.
- Democratic margins have been declining in the Senate and House since the 1960s, in the governorships since the 1970s and in the state legislatures since the 1980s. This is not Ralph Nader's fault.
-I wasn't even planning to vote for Ralph Nader but you're beginning to piss me off.
Whose left is it anyway?
News that Christopher Hitchens had discovered his inner imperial self was greeted exuberantly by the Washington Post, which gave him Kissingeresque space to lash out at his former comrades on the left.
As I read Hitchens' piece, two things came to mind. The first was Elmer Davis' comment about those on the hard left who had taken a hard right turn: it never seemed to occur to them that they might be wrong both times.
The second thought was of a Sunday long ago when one of my sons was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church so he would not later, as my friend Warren Myers once said, miss the exquisite pleasure of losing one's faith. The bishop did his job perfunctorily and then turned towards the altar.
Just a moment, our minister said, "We also have one to be received." The bishop suddenly brightened because those simple words signified true triumph: he was about to grab for his church a former servant of the Pope.
It is one thing to get little boys to pretend for a morning that they understand the Apostles' Creed; quite another for a real Catholic to defect. The editor of the Post Outlook section probably felt the same joy.
I, however, was troubled by a matter that lay beyond Christopher's view on Iraq, arguable as that was.
Once again "the left" was being defined by the habits, opinions, and proclivities of a tiny minority with whom the author had some familiarity. This tendency, predominant among writers at either end of the New York shuttle, is so misleading that it brings into question the other matters being discussed.
In fact, there are a number of lefts.
There is an ideological left centered in New York City, which seems barely aware that the socialist factionalism of the 1930s and 1940s is no longer relevant. If these leftists were baseball announcers, they would spend their time debating the relative virtues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams rather than describing what was happening on the field. They tend to be tedious, trivial, and anachronistically tendentious. They are also, no matter what Hitchens and the Nation magazine say about it, largely irrelevant.
The intellectual left, in its academic variety at least, has also dried up, similarly a victim of too much discussion of archaic matters that leaves little time for today's work. It is probably not accidental that the best idea to revive black politics that some professors could come up with was the reparations issue; it is just so much more comfortable discussing slavery rather than the mass imprisonment of young black males, housing discrimination or the role of the black soldier in imperial America.
There are exceptions such as Howard Zinn and those medical professors working on national health care. But the campus has been corporatized and specialized like everything else and to the extent that there is a living left, it is one that has yet to graduate.
The institutional left, much of it headquartered in Washington, is largely engaged in sterile, ritualistic reiteration of what were once vibrant mechanisms for hope.
Then there is then what might be called iconographic left, which uses the power of images, sounds and words. It can be as useful as Rage Against the Machine and as stupid as Barbra Streisand. But it is rarely more than the semiotic quartermaster corps of a larger movement.
The most important exception is when the images, sounds, or words serve as a catalyst - a writer offering a new idea, a rock musician catching just the right lyrics, and so forth.
Even at their best, these lefts - ideological, intellectual, institutional, iconographic - represent but a final fraction of what is needed for significant social and political change.
The really important left - the idiomatic, colloquial left of people who never read the Nation, let alone have a column in it - is what really makes things happen.
And unless you happen to be Betty Friedan or Martin Luther King Jr. saying just the right words at just the right moment, the truth is that the left to which Hitchens alludes simply isn't that important.
I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties. In fact, I missed much of the conventional 60s because I was working with SNCC and running a newspaper in a community on the edge of riot, and helping to start a progressive third party that would actually elect people to office.
I have never gotten on that well with the Hitchens' former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm.
It turns out it wasn't all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad's phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary.
They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn't tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo's words, when to "stand on the piano and demand outrage action." These are the people of whom Carl Sandberg wrote:
The people who are changing the way other people think about things are found scattered around the nation. And when some of them came together in the most effective progressive political organization of modern times - the Green Party - they were not only not welcomed into the club, they were frequently excoriated.
And as for the critics of an Iraqi invasion, they are typically just ordinary citizens who have learned without the help of Ramsey Clark to be scared to death of what their leaders are about to do to them.
Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is.
Church & state the way it's supposed to be
I grew up with the deep and abiding belief that there were three branches of Judaism: your Reform, your Orthodox, and your Liberal Democratic. Of these three, the last was clearly the most important. The son of one of my neighbors, a Jew raised with similar faith, demonstrated the depths of the Liberal Democratic Judaism one day as he sat in our kitchen, head in hands, looking quite miserable. Whats the matter, I asked. I had a terrible night, the nine year old replied. I dreamt I was Jacob Javits.
Similarly I was raised with the understanding that Catholic archbishops and cardinals were put on this earth primarily to get Democratic candidates elected to office. This faith was reinforced during my college years (in the last months of James Michael Curley), when on election day, through every mass, Cambridge Mayor Eddie Sullivans Chrysler Imperial was parked in front of the Catholic Church across the street from my dorm. Church and state seemed but a sidewalk apart.
All this has now changed, and not, I fear, for the better. As Hendrik Hertzberg noted the other day, the conservative Catholic prelates fear is not that the candidate who happens to be Catholic will be defeated but that he will be elected. And as Catholic archbishops increasingly seem more concerned with taking orders from the Vatican then giving them to Democratic pols, so have Jewish leaders become distracted by the seedy, nasty politics of foreign places, leaving domestic virtues unattended.
This is not, however, a hopeless situation. Admittedly, as a Seventh Day Agnostic, Im not the best person to do anything about it, but permit me to suggest the creation of a neo-conservative movement in both religions to bring back the glorious days when Jews ran labor unions instead of AIPAC and Catholic bishops scoffed at uptight Protestants instead of trying to outdo them.
Although a largely Jewish bunch of international troublemakers have called themselves neo-cons, this is misleading as the real American Jewish tradition was one of progressive movements and deep social conscience. It was Samuel Gompers organizing the cigar workers, not Paul Wolfowitz ruining the world.
As for Catholics, Jack Beatty in his extraordinary life of James Michael Curley, The Rascal King, gives a flavor of the possibilities that await such a conservative revival. At one hearing in which he supported the leashing of dogs on the Boston Common, Curley elliptically suggests that the Protestants of Ward Ten are sexless:
And who should best Curley at such sexual innuendo? None other than the Cardinal, William Henry OConnell. Writes Beatty, OConnell construed decadence intimately, taking the same line as Curley on the frigidity of the Protestant bed next to the carnival of (procreative) sexuality to be found in the Catholic. In a review of Charles Francis Adams autobiography, he was taunting: The wonder is psychological and physiological that there were ever any children at all in Puritan homes.
It is not that such men supported abortion, its just that they had far more important things to worry about. In a footnote, Beatty tells a remarkable story from the 1960 election, quoting Cardinal Cushing talking to Hubert Humphrey in 1966:
It would be nice if the conflict between church and state were over whether a cardinal should be buying Protestant votes in the West Virginia primary for a few hundred dollars rather than dragging us into deadly conflict or nasty prohibitions and prejudices. Its time for Jewish and Catholic leaders to get back to their roots, thus blessing us with a better politics and a happier world.
ELIMINATING REAL AMERICA TO BUILD CORPORATE AMERICA
SAM SMITH, Bill Clinton told a 1995 Michigan State University commencement shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, "There's nothing patriotic about hating your government or pretending you can hate your government but love your country." And in a few years, George Bush's attorney general would imply that even criticizing government policy was unpatriotic.
How had loyalty to government come to replace loyalty to ideals, place, and people in the pantheon of patriotism? In part because the American elite had decided that nations no longer mattered all that much. It was government we needed to honor lest our parochialism interfere with corporate multi-nationalism. In 1992, Strobe Talbott had written in Time Magazine, "Within the next hundred years . . . nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority . . . All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances. No matter how permanent and even sacred they may seem at any one time, in fact they are all artificial and temporary."
Talbott was expressing a centrist consensus later confirmed by that Washington favorite, Francis Fukuyama: "Globalization will not be reversed." And by Vaclav Havel, approvingly quoted in the New York Review of Books referring to nations as "cultlike entities charged with emotion."
It was not just a matter of words. No assault on American sovereignty has been more successful than that carried out in recent years by the globalization movement, using such mechanisms as NAFTA and the WTO. That which, over the course of our history, the British, Mexicans, Confederates, Spanish, Germans and Japanese had been unable to do was now being accomplished by a handful of lawyers armed only with cell phones, fax machines and the support of politicians willing to trade their country's nationhood for another campaign contribution.
And it wasn't just happening to America. By the 1990s, about half the top economies of the world were not nations, but corporations. Trade had replaced ideology as the engine of foreign affairs. Politics, nationhood and the idea of place itself was being supplanted by a huge, amorphous international corporate culture that ruled not by force but by market share. This culture, in the words of French writer Jacques Attali, sought an "ideologically homogenous market where life will be organized around common consumer desires."
Future historians seeking to discover why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government in 2001 will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in such values. Like all aristocracies, it existed primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.
For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy because of the dominance of such constituencies as labor, recent immigrants, and ethnic minorities. By the 1960s, however, these constituencies - thanks in part to successful liberal policies - had advanced socially and economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder of what liberalism was meant to be about.
With the end of the Great Society, liberal Democrats began a steady retreat from liberalism climaxing in the Clinton's administration's systematic dismantling of liberal programs and paradigms.
The two greatest victims of this retreat were social democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats actually opposed either; it just didn't matter much to them. Liberalism was no longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for an SUV.
While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for self-defense than by its concern for others. After all, although seldom mentioned, the stereotypical boomer or yuppie was, in fact, were liberals. So were the rising elites of entertainment and journalism.
Most striking among these elites was the disappearing concern for those at the bottom. Liberal city councils went after the homeless and engaged in other forms of socio-economic cleansing; the Clinton administration attacked welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; the liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. And if you went to church or carried a gun you were a fool or worse.
The trend produced remarkable betrayals of liberal values. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW repeatedly defended a serial sexual predator in the White House. And liberal academia provided all purpose justification through the magic of postmodern rationalization.
Meanwhile, for all the talk of diversity, the percentage of blacks in colleges actually peaked in the late 1970s. The gap between the percentage of young whites and blacks in college likewise actually grew over the past thirty years. And meanwhile, the prison population - disproportionately minority - soared from under 400,000 in 1970 to about two million today.
Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn't bark. Just as Sherlock Holmes' creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America's liberal leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people beyond its own class.
When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the Clintons disassembled their own purported cause and became incensed when Ralph Nader dared to stand up for it, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not handle a real crisis.
And now it has happened - and only one liberal Democrat in the Senate opposes vast new police powers and hardly a liberal voice on TV or the op ed pages speaks for sanity. The irony is that the public will not reward the liberal aristocracy for its cowardice but will listen even more devotedly to those before whom the liberals have cowered. In the end, the liberal elite will not only have betrayed its own constituency, it won't even have saved itself.
I have recently been officially fired as a liberal, ignominiously stripped of my rank as an executive vice president of Americans for Democratic Action, keeper of the holy grail of liberalism.
When I first heard that this was going to happen -- shortly before entering the hospital for surgery -- I was stunned. For all other executive vice presidents the only apparent grounds for termination had been death. Did the leadership of ADA know something that I didn't?
No, it was just that ADA had decided to end years of populist insurgency in its ranks, simulating the Democratic Leadership Council's successful efforts at quashing dissent within the Democratic Party. I and a number of other board members who had failed to hew to the party line were to be purged. Liberalism would once again be safe from the winds of change. Included in our number was a former national treasurer, the present chair of the Chicago chapter, and the former chair of Youth for Democratic Action.
About a year and a half ago we had formed a progressive caucus within ADA. The paleoliberals in the leadership took kindly to neither the idea nor the irony of the name. To be sure, we were not openly accused of political incorrectitude. At first we weren't accused of anything. Later -- and only after the fact, when Washington's City Paper got wind of the purge -- we were charged with being "disruptive troublemakers." I was personally accused of acting like both John the Baptist and Svengali, a truly remarkable blend of virtues and vices. In fact, our troublemaking had consisted largely of writing letters and introducing resolutions the ADA leadership didn't like. Apparently in ADA, dissent is considered a political dirty trick.
I was initially quite aggravated at the development but then it occurred to me that being a certified ex-liberal had a certain appeal. I fantasized about being called before the House UnMainstream Activities Committee to testify on how cells of heavily armed liberals had undermined the first six months of the Clinton administration, how gays were planning a mass assault on the Morman Tabernacle, or about next season's secret line up of TV series aimed at perverting family values. I could only fantasize, however, because the truth is that liberals these days don't do much at all. Contrary to Rush Limbaugh's allegations and Senator Boren's anxieties, liberalism in the past decade or so has been marked by its ineffectiveness. Certainly this had been true of ADA, -the leading multi-issue liberal organization in the country. ADA's most notable achievements had been its annual rating of Congress and its Christmastide toy safety survey. Now even the toy survey is gone.
To some of us in the organization, ADA's ineffectiveness seemed unfortunate and unnecessary. We naively assumed that the group would be open to new ideas and strategic approaches. Nothing proved further than the truth. Even when an alternative drug policy was twice approved by a national convention over the almost apoplectic opposition of ADA's leadership, the matter was simply filed away so that no one outside the organization would ever hear about it. As the Texas politician said, I don't mind losing when I lose, but I hate losing when I win.
The ADA establishment - some of which goes back to the organization's founding in the late 1940s -- is as adept at internal judo as it is lethargic in political action. Thus an extraordinary amount of effort is spent on maintaining political correctness within the group while the nation drifts undisputed towards the right. Some of the organization's leaders bring to mind Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary in the early 19th century. Hodge boasted that in his fifty years of teaching he had never broached a new or original idea.
To be sure, as in a bad movie, occasional cameo scenes bring things to life. For example, ADA helped to sink the Bork nomination and has been working hard on single-payer health insurance. Many of ADA's other positions are admirable, although one often admires them somewhat in the sense that one admires a restored Studebaker.
ADA seems largely unaware of the depth of the growing revulsion against an overexpensive, overauthoritarian and overcentralized government. It ignores such major new ideological influences as the Green movement It feels threatened whenever anyone suggests a modification of the standard liberal canon. Most of all, it no longer fulfills its former role as a political catalyst. Not only is no one afraid of ADA today; many haven't even heard of it, or will tell you that "I thought that died years ago." This is sad and, given an annual budget of about $750,000, doesn't have to be.
But the organization has other priorities. What it seems to want, above all, is to retain its status as the official voice of liberals in Washington, even if this status has some of the limited elan, say, of being an alleged Russian count in Manhattan. To challenge liberal orthodoxy would risk losing caste with its orthodox liberal allies in Congress and losing funding from its orthodox labor backers. In fact, ADA is even afraid of challenging the Clinton administration. It implicitly perceives that it can not regain its former political stature without risking its social position. It is better to leave things alone. Thus this once vibrant organization rests on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said of the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.
When talking about affirmative action it is important to keep in mind which version of affirmative action we are addressing. There are a number of affirmative action programs within the government, such as those for women and minorities, those for small business (through the SBA), those for defense contractors (through the Pentagon), those for veterans (through veterans programs) those for homeowners (through mortgage interest deductions) and so forth.
If, however, one limits the topic to the controversial forms of affirmative action, that is to say those benefiting minorities and women, we are then left with the question of whether we are really arguing about goals or about the route taken to reach them. For example, conservatives have offered a detailed critique of what is wrong with the processes of affirmative action, but have shown little inclination to improve upon them. This leads one to the suspicion that their concern is more with the results of affirmation action than its methods.
These, of course, are the same people who believe -- as the Peace & Freedom Foundation recently put it so elegantly -- that "he that does not work, neither shall he eat," which presumably would mean, say, replacing the 6% unemployment rate with a 6% starvation rate. To take advice from such individuals is a little like getting directions to Wall Street from someone who really wishes you would go back to Watts.
On the other hand, liberal supporters of affirmative action have badly mingled goals and methodology, granting to mere tactics the sanctity of principles and investing boiler-plate legalisms with the virtue of basic rights.
In fact, affirmative action has been ineffective in many ways. It has failed inner city residents. It has favored middle-class women over poorer ones. Its effects on minority participation on college campuses peaked some years ago. It has been abused and manipulated by unneedy members of minorities and by white business firms. And, like other aspects of liberal politics and race relations, it has been preempted by lawyers whose policies too often lead to the courthouse rather than to resolution. Affirmative action needs to be restudied and reframed by its friends before it is destroyed by its enemies. For starters, here are some ways its goals, rather than merely its chosen tactics, might be furthered:
· Tell people who's really taking their jobs: As with the anti-immigration hysteria, the attack on affirmative action is fed by real fears caused by job loss. In fact, neither minority hiring nor immigration is a major factor in this job loss. The real cause is white guys. The white guys who run multinational corporations that have taken jobs overseas. The white guys who came up with GATT and NAFTA. The white guys who are downsizing Fortunate 500 companies. The white guys who are automating. And the white economists who say that high unemployment is necessary for the health of the country and so you folks out there will just have to decide among yourselves who's going to suffer it.
Absent a politics that clearly identifies the real sources of economic pain -- the stateless corporation, automation, the corporatist policies of both parties, and the legal emigration of business rather than the illegal immigration of persons -- many will continue to place the blame on other victims rather than where it belongs. The Democratic Party -- even its liberal wing -- has been unwilling to do this. They would be criticizing too many of their contributors.
· Include affirmative action by zip-code, census tract, economic status or some other way that adds the factor of class to those of race and gender. Every really successful social program in this country has either been universal or strongly cross-cultural -- including needy whites. Failing to follow this basic rule of American politics has hurt affirmative action badly.
· Settle more cases by mediation. Affirmative action, like other ethnic and gender issues, begs for dispute resolution rather than litigation. Unfortunately, the rules have been drawn up by litigators and not by peacemakers.
· Give protection to those hurt by affirmative action. Part of the political problem of affirmative action has been the insensitivity of its supporters to the pain it has caused in specific instances. One way to mitigate this is to provide protection for an employee who loses out in order to make room for someone else. For example, imagine a white police sergeant who qualifies for lieutenant but is not chosen in the interest of better integration at headquarters. That sergeant should automatically go to the top of the list for the next hiring round. He has already done his part for affirmative action.
· Provide incentives rather than just regulations. For example, firms that lead the pack in improving their hiring practices or in overall diversity of employment could be given a federal seal they could use in advertising. Such an icon could have increasing value as minority markets expand.
· Provide wiggle room, especially for smaller businesses. A big problem for small businesses is that government regulations are too complex and unforgiving. What if we offered these smaller firms some leeway in how they help America become a better place? For example, what if, for such businesses, we lumped affirmative action, energy conservation and recycling together in such a way that a laggard in minority hiring could partially compensate by excelling in reduced energy use or vice versa? Such a program would be based on the principle that while we all have our faults, we all can do something right as well.
· Take on the discrimination we've been ducking: The two big areas are housing and transportation. We have failed to confront these forms of discrimination, preferring to deal only with their results -- often ineffectively -- through such means as school bussing and affirmative action. We would not need to rely so much on affirmative action if we finally faced these issues.
· Shorten the work-week and move towards full employment. Nothing would so ease the tensions surrounding affirmative action as jobs for everyone. As long as we fail at this, there are going to be too many people wanting too few jobs. Someone is going to lose. And be mad about it.
Now that the quadrennial orgy of wholesale deceit known as a presidential election is over, Americans can get back to their real business, which is lying to each other retail. An extraordinary portion of the gross domestic product is currently devoted to deception in one form or another, concealed though it may be as marketing, advertising, management, leadership seminars, news, enter-tainment, politics, public relations, religion, psychic hotlines, education, ab machine infomercials, and the law.
We have become a nation of poseurs, hustlers, and charlatans, increasingly choosing attitude over action or presentation over performance or becoming unable to tell the difference. It has gotten to the point that the main difference between the stars of Melrose Place and the news stars of MSNBC is that the latter keep their clothes on.
It's not all that surprising because, whether for pleasure, profit or promotion, and in ways subtle and direct, our society encourages and rewards those who out-sell, out-argue, and out-maneuver those around them -- with decreasing concern for any harm caused along the way. As they say in Hollywood, the most important thing is sincerity. Once you've learned how to fake that, the rest is easy.
The Clintons are merely among the most prominent, egregious, and promiscuous of the breed. There's Hillary who has lived with such malice aforethought that she had her college thesis put under lock and key before launching her political career. And there's her husband who, it has been said in his home state, would quickly turn green were he to recline upon a pool table.
But while Clinton may be the Dr. Kervorkian of the right-to-lie movement, he is far from alone. One reason the media and the public is having such a hard time figuring out what the First Fraud and his wife have done wrong, is that so many Americans are no longer certain of what wrong is. Or even if there is something that can with any certainty be called wrong anymore.
A strange schizophrenia has crept into everyday life and language that, even without the help of Michael McCurry, is creating a growing disjunction between words and what was once their meaning.
For example, Geraldo Rivera came to town last month in an attempt to pacify blacks angry about his aggressive belief that O. J. Simpson is guilty. An edition of his show, Rivera Live, was broadcast from a local church. One of those on the panel, black activist Malik Shabazz, urged people not to vote in the presidential election. Responded Tavis Smiley of Black Entertainment Television: "I will never sit on stage with a black man telling people not to vote." Several dozen people stood up and applauded.
There are two interesting things about this story: First, Smiley never left the stage and second, nobody seemed to notice.
Another example comes from the congressionally-created control board that has been tearing up the city of Washington's minimal self-government. A week before the control board stripped the city's elected school board of almost all its powers, the board's executive director, John Hill, solemnly stated that "There is healthy respect for home rule on the control board. There is also a focus on trying to solve the major problems that the city faces." A year earlier, the chair of the control board, Andrew Brimmer, had just as solemnly said, "We do not plan to replace elected officials in any way."
For the Clintonistas, of course, the dispersal of misinformation, disinformation, and other forms of dissembling long ago reached the level of terminal addiction.
Like the aforementioned Mr. Hill, they are particularly adept at combining two mutually exclusive thoughts such as we believe in constitutional rights but they are conditional on our convenience, or we believe there are serious moral questions about the death penalty but we will expand its use.
They are also good at saying with a straight face things that simply are not true as, for example, the recent declaration by a Democratic National Committee representative that the firing of the increasingly dubious John Huang was merely a routine seasonal layoff.
Does the person who dreamed up this absurdity feel at all silly or embarrassed? Was she reprimanded by a superior? Or was the formulation proudly designed by George Stephanopoulos and James Carville over a beer in the Whitewater war room?
Most likely, whoever concocted this particular fib felt quite accurately confident that the phrase would disappear from the next day's news even if Mr. Huang didn't. These are people, after all, who agree with William James' view that "What's true is what works," albeit James was talking philosophy and not about saving a presidential butt..
Yet the Clinton people were something before they were Clinton people; they were not spawned by the president and his wife; they merely belong to the same affinity group: boomer America -- land of Wall Street sharks, killer litigators, spin surgeons, and semiotic predators.
And who have we entrusted to keep watch over this destructive mob of mendacious mandarins? None other than a media that shares the same values as those they observe. It is inevitable, therefore, that instead of investigation we get exculpation; and instead of revelation of wrongs, we get their expatiation.
A media that believes those seeking answers to important questions are paranoids, that can't tell the difference between a reasonable hypothesis and a conspiracy theory, which is chronically ill-informed on the subjects about which it so confidently pontificates, and which, in the end, will take a prominent person's perception over the truth any day, is hardly equipped to be the public's surrogate in such matters.
There are, of course, blessed exceptions. Such as Maureen Dowd writing on what Bill Clinton claimed to have learned while shaking hands:
Elmer Gantry would be impressed with the testimony Mr. Clinton says he gathered in ten minutes of shaking hands: a professor who, thanks to a Bill Clinton research grant, says he will cure Parkinson's disease; a man who thanks to Bill Clinton's family leave law, was able to adopt a baby without his wife losing her job; a dropout who, thanks to a Bill Clinton student loan, will study microbiology, and three breast cancer survivors who, thanks to Bill Clinton research money, hope to see the disease whipped.
A more typical member of the press, however, is E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, who recently wrote a book about how progressives were going to rise again. As the major progressive in the recent presidential race, Ralph Nader tried to contact Dionne to talk about how progressives were indeed rising with his Green Party campaign. Dionne not only never wrote a single article about Nader and the Greens, he never even returned Nader's phone calls. The lie of silence and omission.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's Tom Rosentiel was actually standing up in front of an audience and declaring that the job of media like his was to "build community" and to provide a map for citizens "to navigate themselves to the future," presumably including finding Clinton's damn bridge.
Rosentiel also attacked a favorite target of the archaic press -- the Internet -- claiming that what was lost with it was "the sacred and priestly selection of news."
Well, in the sacred and priestly selection of the news a lot gets lost as well, not the least of which is the fact that publications such as Newsweek are staring at impending irrelevancy thanks to the Net. One of the media's favorite topics -- conflict of interest -- suddenly disappears when you start dealing with issues like these.
The old media -- having lost the first battles of cyberspace -- is now engaged in a desperate effort to discredit infor-mation from sources other than its own. In a recent example, the New York Times devoted two pages to ridiculing the notion that TWA 800 was shot down by friendly fire, citing it as the sort of misinformation to which the Net is prone.
Yet buried in its own article was the admission that a missile "still hasn't been ruled out, though it's now considered the least likely possibility."
In fact, at the time the article was written, there were a variety of hypotheses floating comfortably about the Net, including the potential of a bomb, mechanical malfunction, terrorist missile, or friendly fire. There was even discussion of a stray meteorite or of Star Wars "brilliant pebbles." While some of the discussion was wildly misinformed, there was also thoughtful analysis that went far deeper than anything to be found in the conventional media. In its effort to discredit the Net, the Times told its readers none of this but rather gave a rampantly false picture of what was actually happening in cyberspace. Further, the paper never explained what was wrong with considering various hypotheses when the available evidence had produced no answer at all. Implicit in the Times' argument was the idea that the public should hold no opinion or receive no information other than that of the conventional media and the government it serves so well.
Attacks such as these are particularly hypocritical when one considers the near total lack of self-criticism by the mainstream press over its almost instantaneous willingness to blame any bomb blast or major catastrophe on Arab terrorism.
As military writer William M. Arkin wrote for Pacific News Service, "The problem is not that a computer network offers an alternative to the information aristocracy. The true crisis is that neither the news media nor the government has enough credibility to be accepted as either truthful or impartial on their own."
When a reporter does speak the truth these days, it can be risky -- even if you are David Brinkley. On election night, Brinkley expressed the view that the president didn't have "a creative bone in his body" and was a bore. The reaction was so negative that a few days later, Brinkley felt compelled to apologize to the President on the air. As Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote about the incident:
Truth is often treated oddly on those rare occasions when it manages to escape from a TV set and land in our lap. Almost always, view-ers insist on clari-fications, apologies or other verbal contor-tions in order to explain or expand upon what they've just seen or heard.
Maybe because, over the years, we have grown so used to living with lies that we find basic honesty uttered in public to be incredible. And the truth is lies -- half lies, little lies, official lies as well as a large blanket of contrivance and deception -- cover American life.
That's why David Brinkley's election night performance was so refreshing. It was simple truth unchained, a totally candid obser-vation let out of the box by a man who has probably grown tired of conducting a hoax that is often falsely labeled as analysis.
Few journalists function these days in their former role of democracy's detectives or the citizens' private investigators. Instead they have become part of a corporate-governmental sedative that keeps citizens from even suspecting, let alone demanding, the right answers.
Nor can the public expect much help from the nation's leading liberals anymore. In ideas and action, that place in politics where things used to happen has closed up shop. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out recently, "liberals spent a decade in the 1980s excoriating the culture of greed that Ronald Reagan allegedly spawned. Do they have no concern about the culture of expediency that Clinton has legitimized -- and will legitimize even further in a second term? "
Apparently not. Environment-alists settle for a few crumbs; Jesse Jackson throws in the towel in return for a cameo appearance here or there; ADA rushes to endorse Clinton for a second term; feminists decry the fate of Anita Hill but fail to say a word on behalf of Paula Jones; and Gary Ackerman defends the welfare bill by claiming that "sometimes in order to make progress and move ahead you have to stand up and do the wrong thing."
One reason the meltdown of integrity within America's mandarin class has proceeded so unimpeded is that so many members of this class have been educated to hold the very notion of truth in contempt.
To them, a single truth, universal values, and the like are all part of the baggage of modernism and the tyrannies that accompanied it.
To an extent, the view is valid and useful, although hardly a secret to anthropologists and others who had long tried to convince fellow academics that the Western canon wasn't the only show on earth.
But modernity's critics turned validity into parody. While definitions of truth indeed varied, all coherent cultures had some definition of truth. Further, those groups of humans that managed to commingle had discovered, if not a common definition of truth, at least enough common ground to avoid slaughtering each other.
Instead, the post-modernist liberals put their faith in what Andrew Sullivan describes as "the kind of moral nihilism Clinton has perfected." As Pauline Marie Rosenau writes, "For the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is indecipherable. ~ Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word. ~ Language has no direct relationship to the real world; it is, rather, only symbolic."
In a world of multiple and ever multiplying truths, the only truth that ultimately matters is one backed by power -- whether that of propaganda, repression, or the passive consent of a public no longer able to tell what is true and what is false. The ultimate fallacy of the post-modern ideology is that it leads inevitably to government based on lies and force.
The irony of the post-modern myth is that it was supposed to destroy the evils of modernism. But priests of the Western canon have yet to be deposed and it's still business as usual at the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations. Post-modernism was supposed to liberate multi-culturalsm. Instead it has left the supposedly united colors of diversity equal opportunity victims of corporatism. And thanks to the post-modern idea, the new tyrannies can flourish without even the mild restraint of internal consistency.
We may not be able to stop the government and media from lying to us, but we can at least stop lying to one another. This does not mean pretending a non-existent universality of values and truth. It does, however, mean risking the argument that despite all our differences, there is enough that we share to make a decent country out of it. In the end, it's a matter of either finding that common ground or being common victims of those who don't want us to.
We have had the misfortune to be born into a world with a virtually limitless capacity to deceive us. We can't really change that. What we can change is how we react to it, defend ourselves against it, and find -- with the help of others -- new openings for the truth to seep in. -- Sam Smith
About a half dozen years ago, I started hanging out with traditional liberals again. It wasn't that my views had changed, but I had become fascinated with a conundrum of left-of-center politics.
The old liberals, and their natural allies such as the large labor unions, had the power, visibility and ground troops, but were stunningly devoid of ideas. Myriad other progressive groups, meanwhile, were churning out exciting visions and policies, but with few missionaries to spread them, they were quickly lost in the media miasma.
American politics had developed an odd sort of time-warp. The right, of course, played its traditional role as defender of the past. But it was joined by liberals who were doing the same thing, only for a different past.
If the conservatives were opposed to the future, the liberals were just as much afraid of it. The future, meanwhile, happily continued on its way, ever increasing the gap between itself and what liberals and conservatives were talking about.
This problem has much to do with the current state of American politics. The fictional past the right wants to create is simply more appealing to many people than that of the liberals. The reasons for this are several, among them the innate attraction of a world made safe for selfishness. But there is also the fact that much of America has lived long enough only to have experienced the failures of liberalism, but not the triumphs of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society nor the Great Depression and its precursors.
This alone is enough reason for liberals to develop a new shtick. But liberals have been extraordinarily resistant to change. In a cultural sense, they have become more conservative and less adaptable than the right or the libertarians. They react to neither the new concerns and interests of their natural constituency nor to the new tactics of their opponents.
This is hardly in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson, whose administrations were marked by constant innovation and adaptation. Johnson -- who got more good domestic legislation passed in less time than any other American president -- had phenomenal adaptability. He began one year, 1965, telling civil rights leaders it was too soon for another civil rights bill, and ended that same year with hallmark voting rights legislation.
While scattered liberal lawmakers today push worthy new policies, for the most part liberal solutions are characterized by their dreary familiarity.
Today's liberals seem to lack a sense of politics as war, in which one constantly rearranges the order of battle to win one's ultimate objective. They see politics more as a secular form of religion in which success is judged not by societal change but by the rigor with which the faith is maintained. They are political fundamentalists and, like religious fundamentalists, as far removed from their liberal heritage as Pat Robertson is from Jesus.
As with the religious fundamentalists, the liberal true believers often miss the point. The canon becomes particularized and heavily a matter of style and form. They know how to speak like liberals to other liberals but not how to talk to the rest of the world.
The result is a strange distortion of liberal priorities. Gut issues of immense potential popularity such as health, housing, job creation and education are left by the wayside in favor of issues that, no matter how worthy they may be, are most likely to alienate liberalism from the largest number of Americans. From the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit to abortion, from gun control to affirmative action, contemporary liberals have developed a fetish for issues that annoy people.
Consider abortion for instance. There is no doubt that abortion is an important matter, but how did it become the most important women's issue? Why, for example, is so much liberal attention directed to the abortion question and so little to pay equity or prenatal and infant health care?
Part of the answer is that premature babies can't march in rallies and another part is that their parents are often too poor to take time off to demonstrate. Those American women whose first priority is food, health care or safe working conditions are pushed to the back of the liberal line.
These issues do not have to be mutually exclusive, yet in practice they have tended to become so. This is unfortunate, for a strategy that elevates freedom of choice to the exclusion of other aspects of women's second class status seems to aid neither freedom of choice nor that status. If the battle for choice was fought within the context of women's other political, economic and social problems, the abortion issue might become far less of a lightning rod to the right. At the very least the response of some might change from "I'm against the women's movement because I'm against abortion" to "I agree with the women's movement except for abortion." In politics that's a big difference.
A similar phenomenon has occurred in civil rights. When was the decision made that affirmative action was the sine qua non of civil rights? I don't recall that debate. As with so many aspects of the current liberal canon, it just happened.
In its first decade or so affirmative action worked very well, what with bi-partisan support and only tolerable controversy. But black student enrollment in college, as a percentage of all students, peaked in 1977 and thereafter started to decline.
There are several things to note about this. First, affirmative action, at colleges at least, apparently stopped working. Secondly, the decline began under the same laws that spurred affirmative action's growth. Thirdly, this change appears to have commenced even before the Reagan administration.
Of course, when Reagan came in and began a systematic assault on civil rights, affirmative action took repeated additional beatings. And the real blow was Reagan economics. Affirmative action, which had done so well in an expanding economy, became a dramatically new issue (and one easy to demagogue) when it was played out in a contracting job market.
But by this time, affirmative action had become, to many liberals, not merely another tactic in the civil rights struggle (or a temporary expedient as LBJ saw it) but a basic right. Thus the liberal's duty was not only to defend this right but to expand it. That the changing economic circumstances and empirical factors might suggest changing tactics, that the very success of affirmative action would almost inevitably lead to questions of specific fairness, did not occur to the liberal leadership.
Of course, it is argued, as with abortion, that it was not liberals who made affirmative action an issue. But the evidence suggests that liberals and civil rights activists were just as happy as the rightwing to use affirmative action as a major battleground. At the very least it saved the trouble of coming up with a new approach.
Rather than altering the focus of the civil rights struggle -- while holding on to affirmative action gains already made --- the liberals cheerfully played the right's game: affirmative action became civil rights just as abortion became feminism.
And what has happened -- if not as a result, then at least more than coincidentally? Incredible success by the right, defeats by minorities, the most reactionary Supreme Court in half a century, and a stunning loss of moral direction by the civil rights movement that culminated in this year's civil rights bill, legislation well described in the June 24 Nation:
This year, the keepers of the civil rights cause could come up with no slogan catchier than "The burden of proof in antidiscrimination lawsuits should be on the employer!" It probably appealed to lawyers (273 members of Congress, most of them with some legal education, voted for the proposition) but it did not start a prairie fire of enthusiasm in the country. And it is there at the grass roots that a civil rights movement must grow to change policy in Washington. . .
Democratic leaders. . . had no political foundation for their civil rights bill. They gave members no programs for economic development, for instance, to serve and mollify anxious constituents worried about minority affirmative action. . .Civil rights this year ended up as an argument between potential electoral candidates about lawsuits. It's been a long slide since the brave days.
The problem with pushing affirmative action during a tight job market was simply that the issue had become one of competing equities. One could not make the argument for it without implicitly appearing to say it is all right for some white males not to get jobs.
A similar tension of competing equities surrounded school bussing: integration of schools vs. maintenance of neighborhood. Here again, liberals and civil rights activists wanted to speak only of one equity and refused to give even token recognition to parents' well-founded attachment to their neighborhoods and community schools.
Opposition, they felt, could come from only one source: racism. The dilemma was never given credence and intense bitterness developed without, it now appears, compensatory results.
In one striking exception to the national school bussing furor, DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson -- a statistician by trade and a Marxist by inclination -- sued the local school system in the sixties not on the basis of race but on the basis of economic inequity. The result was a court ruling ordering equal per-student spending among the city's schools, a law that stands to this day. Bussing never became an issue, except for a voluntary city-suburb bussing program that was cancelled by the majority black DC school board as degrading. Now, over 20 years later, equal-spending is seen as fair and non-controversial while bussing programs are still in the courts.
When I mentioned my reservations about the emphasis given abortion and affirmative action the other day to a national activist, prominent in both civil rights and women's issues, she nodded and said, "The problem is that they are not healing issues." Here was the crux: such issues have a high potential to divide and exacerbate, and create a fertile field for the demagogue. And, just as important, their emphasis has not been politically successful.
If affirmative action and pro-choice were the only arrows in the liberal quiver, their priority might be understandable, but consider just a few of the issues that have gotten short shrift at the same time:
» The de facto segregation of Congress.
» Housing segregation that has still left 30% of black Americans living in almost complete racial isolation.
» America's massive failure in pre-natal and infant care.
» Pay equity issues for women.
» Working conditions for both women and minorities. Where is affirmative action on sweat shops and in the farm fields?
» The substantial anti-minority and anti-women effects of zoning and city planning.
» A mass of federal and local laws that create unreasonable barriers to minorities and women starting new businesses or running them at reasonable cost.
» De facto transportation segregation at both the national and local level. Nationally, air transportation is favored while rail and bus transit are allowed to languish. Locally, mass transit is tilted towards the needs of white suburbanites and is a major although consistently ignored factor in the hardening of urban ghettos.
Some of these issues lack pizzazz, some are extremely complex, but in such issues will be found real solutions, healing solutions, to the nation's problems of discrimination and inequity.
For example, is it possible to envision an America functioning with ethnic decency, while still accepting the isolation that zoning, real estate practices and transportation promote?
Is it possible to create a fair and equitable society and leave untouched the traditional urban structure that was designed for men to go to work and women to stay home?
What good will affirmative action do for the center city black or hispanic who has no way of getting to the job in the first place?
Is abortion our best answer to the poor woman who can't afford to raise a child?
Is freedom of choice really more important than freedom from disease, injury, death in the workplace?
As it stands, the unspoken assumption is that those who oppose policies like affirmative action are racists. And even when it's not assumed, it is often what is felt by those not in the liberal camp.
If liberals listened, they might find ways to recast affirmative action so that "the sons of Jamaican physicians or wealthy Cuban businessmen" (to quote one critic) did not get a free ride out of it. They might hear the inner monologue of much of the criticism -- help those who actually need help but not because of some genetic factor such as race or sex. They might be more sympathetic to the pressures felt by lower-class white Americans. They might note that nearly every successful social program in this country has been applied either universally, as with social security, or based on real economic status, such as Head Start. These are the programs that Americans support, even when -- as in the case of Head start -- over two-thirds of the beneficiaries are minorities.
Yes, there is paranoia about affirmative action; yes, there is exaggeration based on anecdotal evidence; and, yes, people ascribe the wrong causes to their social and economic suffering. But the fear, hyperbole and faulty understanding can not be erased -- nor the cause they hinder advanced -- by treating them as some sort of silly psychosomatic illness that is best ignored or impugned as just short of a hate crime. The fears may be wrong-headed, but they are just as real as if they were based on fact.
If liberals were listening, they might inject some economic criteria into affirmative action. They might couple their pro-choice efforts coupled with equally strong demands for decent child care and improved working conditions for women. And lesser issues -- gun control, speed limits and so forth -- might be put on hold or downplayed. There are, in fact, far more options than most liberal leaders realize.
Not only does the current liberal establishment skew its priorities, it actively avoids the sort of issues that once made liberalism a powerful force.
The most dramatic example is national health insurance. Even the American public is ahead of the liberals on this one. There are national politicians willing to push it (or "a single payer system" as they gingerly prefer to call it) -- including to varying degrees, Senators Bob Kerrey and Wellstone. But to date they have gotten little prodding from traditional liberal activists, the drive coming from health-oriented progressives of a more grass roots variety.
Similarly, the liberal establishment has been consistently AWOL in the War on Drugs. The most mean-spirited, corrupt, unconstitutional, anti-minority, dangerous and stupid domestic policy of recent times has been broadly condoned if not actively supported by this establishment. The liberal participation in this war has been at best a display of gross cowardice and at worst borders on ideological treason.
The liberal establishment has cooperated with, winked at or hidden from, repeated assaults of the Reagan and Bush administration on the Constitution and democratic principles.
The liberal establishment has shown virtually no interest in the decentralization of power, it has encouraged the excessive litigiousness of America, it has spawned and protected the infamous system of PACs, it has ignored the reasonable concerns of small business, it has been indifferent to government waste and corruption (most dramatically in the Congress which it controls), and it has shied away from reforms in the democratic process.
In short it has betrayed its own visionary, vigorous and pragmatic past, turning instead into a timid, shadow of itself, a political tableau rather than a political force. In many ways it has been the best friend Reagan and Bush ever had.
There is still much vigor to real liberalism. Its essence, the practical solution of real problems, is still practiced in many places. But as you move up the ladder of liberal power, the voices become more cautious, the ritual more routine, the rules more prescribed. And as this happens, the critical thinking that is at the center of liberalism at its best, gets replaced with a catechism. You find yourself no longer in politics making things happen, but in a sanctimonious church where nothing does.
AS one of the first of the new populists, I'd like to say a few words on behalf of the philosophy before it strangles on its soaring popularity. It's in danger. The Black Panthers were never the same after Lennie Bernstein found them; women's lib may not survive Gloria Steinem's publishing ambitions; and the new populism is going to have hard going if it continues to be embraced by every Democratic presidential candidate and Village Voice writer.
Now, thanks to the desperate search for self-identifying issues by the baker's dozen of Democratic presidential politics, that's all changed. Where just a couple of years ago, confessed populists in northern states were outnumbered by the pileated woodpecker population, now everyone who's anyone is a populist.
Politicians and newspapermen don't have much time to read books, about one a year is the most they can handle. And they have found that it helps if everyone reads the same one book so that conversation, debate and pontification flow smoothly. Thus the power behind the throne of American democracy has passed with the publishing seasons from southern strategist Kevin Phillips to real majoritarians Scammon and Wattenburg to manifest populists Newfield and Greenfield.
One hundred and ten years later, in an act of ingratitude towards the great American revolution, farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.
:It was the end of the nineteenth century , though . that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism and it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects. As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran. a candidate on its own.
The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which was also restrained by its racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, though, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights, civil liberties and economic welfare carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power. The Democrats emphasized the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power .
Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers the potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It bring right and left libertarians together against the totalitarianism of the American middle. It create. common ground for whites and blacks to stand upon as they fight their common predator. . It emphasizes the issue that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power .
The elitists of the center are already showing nervousness about the talk of populism... Columnists are warning that populists in the past have included racists. and demagogues. Political aristocrats fear the end of the two party system, one of the great weapons of the American establishment. against the grievances of those it controls. Others say that the people can't handle too much power and quake at the thought of the rabble reentering American politics.
In all of this, of course,
there is nothing said of the inherent racism of American liberalism
- or of the subtle invasive demagoguery of moderation that whips
people into catatonic incapacity. The most debilitating, discriminatory
and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the
middle -- with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms
of the US Congress; its slogan "Not Now;" and its goal
to maintain the temerity of the people towards their leaders.
A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of
moderation are rushing to control and blunt it. They'll play
populist, but work at old time liberalism.