Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Making Everything Right

Most people are working in the morning, so they didn't see CNN's interview with out-going President Bush.  By the time they see a bit of it tonight, they will be too tired or distracted to react.

The progressive press is full of stories about the shocking, illegal things the Bush administration has been doing for eight years, not to mention the smears that highlighted the recent presidential campaign.

But this sycophantic end-of-reign interview constitutes a much greater danger, because it embodies the overarching technique that has been used for sixty years to lead the American people from one disaster to another.

That technique is the use of the fairy-tale. Not just the false alarms over weapons of mass destruction and other threats from every corner of the globe: but the fiction that by sitting down with the worst president in American history, and allowing him to appear smiling, decent and almost humble, the nightmare that is about to end never happened.

It's like a mother smoothing a band aid onto a scraped knee saying soothingly, "It's all better now."

It's as if, instead of putting Hitler's officers on trial in Nuremburg, we'd allowed them to reminisce about their childhood, their families, and yes, even their devotion to country.

Oh, we're going to try some of the prisoners held at Guantanamo, for associating with people who hate us, and maybe even training for guerrilla warfare - or "terrorism". But President Bush and Vice-President Cheney (will there be a sit-down chat with him too, CNN?) will go back to their respective ranches to live out their days between writing a book (Bush as author), and building yet another monument to ruthless thinking (a policy institute!).

The editor of Harper's Magazine, Roger Hodge, laments the Democratic party's congenital pusillanimity (about which more in another blog). Hodge writes: "Far from being a system in which the people rule, (modern democracy) is best characterized as the rule of the politician. The role of the people is simply to accept the leadership of the most successful politicians. 'Actually existing' democracy has little in common with the ideal of Enlightenment philosophers." Citing the early twentieth century political scientist Joseph Schumpeter, Hodge notes that "in democratic politics, the most creatively destructive actors tend to prevail."

The operative word here is 'creatively', as in fairy tales.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Nationalism the Way Forward?

Watch an hour or two of morning news programs to see the irony of the world kaleidoscope:

Today, the developed world continues to remember the great nationalist war fought almost a century ago, which some hoped would be the last. CNN interviewed Buzz Aldrin, the first man to walk on the moon. Instead of pointing out that everyone on earth looks up at the same moon, Aldrin talked about service to country. Then came a young veteran who was horribly disfigured in Iraq and has undergone twenty facial operations, with more to come.  He stressed how lucky he was to be alive, saying he could have stayed in bed feeling sorry for himself, but his family's love gave him the courage to get up every morning.  In his decorated uniform he looked every bit the proud, handsome Marine.

That's one face of the world.

At noon on Democracy Now, Vincent Harding, who wrote Martin Luther King's last speech, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker both said we had to do away with war. Walker wrote an open letter to President-elect Obama that's worth reading on

The two public figures were followed by a Marine who, after serving several years in Afghanistan, refused to be deployed to Iraq, joining Veterans Against the War in Iraq instead. Sgt. Matthis Chiroux told how fifteen of those veterans had been rushed by mounted police outside Hofstra University, as they to ask the two presidential candidates who were debating, to state their plans for ending the war. Footage of the charge brought home the fact that worldwide, police and soldiers are expected to carry out the same brutal tactics, in the name of service to country. Yesterday, the veterans were charged with disorderly conduct by a Nassau County judge.

Today, stock markets across the globe continue down. Blaming the U.S. for the crisis that affects them,the Group of Twenty developing countries, led by China, announced in the New York Times their determination to impose fundamental changes in the way financial markets operate when they meet in Washington this weekend.

The time has come to ask the question: even with the best of all possible presidents, are we sure that nationalism, and "service to country" are still the way forward?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The MSM's Unbearable Downplay of Reality

Yesterday CNN indulged in an embarrassing exercise in damage control by airing "After Party", in which a Democratic and a Republican spokesperson each feigned to discuss with several panelists their opposing takes on the election. The result was a poorly scripted play in which the actors strove mightily to remember their lines. I called it damage control because it was obviously an attempt to mitigate the damage done to the national psyche by Sarah Palin's Obama baiting. The Republicans realize they've let an evil genie out of the bottle, and the wiser among them are desperate to tamp down the hate.

As if CNN weren't enough evidence of media whitewashing, on the News Hour this evening an economic expert reported that China plans to counter the effects of the global economic crisis by launching much needed health care and infrastructure projects.  The percentage of GDP devoted to the Chinese stimulus package would be equivalent to a trillion dollar stimulus in the U.S.  In another interview, two high level financial experts split hairs over how little the U.S. government should do.

I'll be curious to see if in the coming days any advisors to the present or future president suggest we should take a lesson from China - before we start taking orders from the the new economic superpower. (The interviewee's designation, not mine.) We may have to be content with knowing that China's domestic economic package will benefit our economy too, since one of our most successful exports is infrastructure machines.

Even as the Chinese president prepares to lead a hundred member delegation to the 20 nation economic summit hosted by President Bush, our governing class seems oblivious - like the 1920s flappers, or the trusting victims of the forties' Holocaust.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Genius Idea at the Checkout

This morning at Trader Joe's the checkout woman from the Caribbean noticed that I was still wearing my Obama button.  The next person in line, a black woman with a southern accent, chimed in that we should keep on wearing our Obama buttons, to remind him of what we expect.

Unlike bumper stickers that fade and fray over time, the message on a button is always readable.

Unlike lips.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Where will He, Can He, Take Us?

Obama's win has not put an end to opportunities for pundits to emit suppositions and theories.  I will do it in writing.

I believe that Obama knows as well as any progressive American that this country needs to become more like the other developed, civilized countries of the world. He knows we need universal health care, less war and more renewal at home, less consumerism and more discipline, if we want the planet to continue as a human habitat.

Although he won the election, progressives are still a minority, found mainly among the young, the minorities.  There are still a lot of older folks who'd just like corporate capitalism to be a bit more humane, and for America to be respected again. They don't want us to be seen as bullies, but they cannot really imagine a lifestyle radically different from the one their parents aspired to when they were struggling during the Great Depression.

So Obama will put Clinton figures such as Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in charge of the financial mess created by Wall Street, knowing these men are among the brightest of the old guard.

But he will side with the rest of the world's demands for a new international financial system, because he and the Clintonites know there is no alternative. Should he not obtain congressional approval, that change will be postponed until things get worse, due to the fact that the rest of the world will have implemented change without it.

Obama will push forward with health care, maybe even universal single payer health care, if the grass roots organization he has built up pushes as hard as he hopes it will. There is a better than even chance that this will happen, and that, in the face of resistance to "reasonable change" by the insurance industry, he will have a mandate to go further than what he promised on the stump. The financial crisis has already tarred the insurance industry with the feathers of the financial sector.)

Obama will prioritize a major renewable energy program that will provide green collar jobs.

Foreign affairs will at first get second tier status: the Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan region, Korea, Cuba and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.  A concerted effort will be made to hunt down Bin Laden, but at the same time, quiet diplomacy with the Taliban will continue. These three areas of concern will only be amenable to sustained, long-term efforts, in which diplomacy will be the primary tool. Obama will not scale up the military as some have predicted, because it is not necessary and because too many other things are.

China will be recognized for what it is: a major creditor, and the next great power. For all Russia's lack of democracy, obama will recognize Europe's special relationship.  If his foreign policy advisors are as astute as I hope they are, they will realize that the world is organizing, not only into regional groupings, such as ALBA in Latin America, but also cross-regional alliances, such as the one between Russia, Iran and Venezuela.  I believe Obama realizes that America is no longer primo inter pares, but is expected to be a fair player on a multi-polar playing field.

The most crucial factor in how Obama governs will be  the grass roots structure he built to make it impossible to avoid the change he knows we need.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Shadow Cabinet?

In a first indication that the United States may be starting to do things like the rest of the world, the day after the election we hear that Obama's transition team is up and running, considering various candidates for crucial posts.  This is only the third election I have witnessed from within the country since I returned from Europe, but I don't remember that in 2000, George Bush was as much in the news after the hanging chads had been hung out to dry.

I seem to remember that after a president was elected, the country just waited for it to be January 20, knowing that it was lame duck season, with things bumbling along.

This time we can't afford to wait two months for sanity to move into the White House: maybe someone will propose legislation to shorten the transition time, next time. Obama will be present at the November 15th international conference on the financial crisis that President Bush has convened.  It's likely he'll be taking over Cheney's position as the power behind the throne. More importantly, the foreign participants will be talking to him.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis must be heaving a sigh of relief: they won't have to pretend to be discussing a status of forces treaty that would rip off the sovereignty we supposedly brought them; as for Medveydev, he staked out his position on Europe: if we put missiles in Poland, he'll line up his own toys. But that's not going to be the crisis that tests Obama in the first six months.

By the way, this morning CNN, which can't seem to stop repeating the words "President elect", finally played the entire sentence uttered by Biden during the campaign.  Biden said: "It wont be six months before the international community tests this man, as they did Clinton."  They must have been keeping the complete sentence in a drawer .....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An Obama Morning

Headquarters had called to ask me to volunteer this morning. On the streets of downtown Philadelphia, strangely devoid of traffic, young black voters sported lapel stickers saying "I voted for Obama". In the elevator, a carpenter for Obama, a young female bus driver for Obama, and a woman with a wolf dog wearing an Obama poster around his body like a sweater. In the huge room there were probably two hundred people doing phone banking, or waiting to be assigned a task by the four volunteer greeters.  I was directed to a table where corrective address stickers were being placed on long cardboard door hangers to inform people where their polling place was.

Drivers were standing by to take these last door hangers to wards not yet covered. A hanging TV showed images of polling places around the country. Two tables laden with food, everything from hot soups and veggie omelettes to cream puffs and other diet shattering temptations, coffee, coke and fruit. People constantly came and went, and inevitably, as on other days, someone started jumping up and down, leading a chorus of: "Are we Ready? Ready to Go!"

The closest thing I've seen to this were the Cuban Revolution in the early sixties, and the atmosphere in Paris after the socislist Francois Mitterrand was elected, in 1981. Obama cannot fail to know that this is a people's election. It won't take a Jerimiah Wright to hold him accountable. Ominously, as I walked to a bus carrying a red and white Obama sign for my polling place, a man signaled me saying: "I hope the best person wins, but beware what you wish for."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Paradoxical Generosity of Americans

Here's a conundrum: Americans are incredibly generous when it comes to causes, whether it be save the whales or save the children. And yet, an alarming number of Americans cheer John McCain when he tells them that redistributing the wealth is bad, but generating more wealth is good.

The evidence shows that additional wealth goes to the wealthy, while Mr. and Mrs. Everyman struggle to make ends meet. Not much wealth trickles down.    The frontier ethos must have something to do with America's beliefs.

The first settlers (not the first Americans...) had to have plenty of grit to make it in a virgin land where everything had to be done from scratch. But two hundred years and two revolutions later (the industrial and the IT), waiting for the wealth to somehow miraculously trickle down is the equivalent of the frontiersman thinking the land would plough itself, and the fox wouldn't raid the chicken house.

The grit needed now is to require of government that it represent the solidarity of its people. As more and more countries evolve varying forms of social democracy, Americans are still expected to volunteer their time and efforts to help others, rather than pay more taxes so that their government, which after all represents the community at its broadest, can accomplish those tasks. Joe the Volunteer has to hope that when he is in need, "someone" will come to his aid, rather than being able to count on being helped by the broader community.

Little good it does him to have been able to buy a new car every two years, when he loses his job and his unemployment benefits run out.  Little help are the pictures he took in the Grand Canyon when his health care goes the way of his job. When he volunteers, he is in effect redistributing the wealth - his wealth, instead of the government, which benefits from economies of scale, doing it with everyone's money, taking care of the elderly, the after school kids, the addict.

McCain makes the argument that individuals can help more efficiently than government. But in a world as complicated as ours, that is open to question. Would a retiree prefer to count on a neighbor cooking him a hot meal when he/she has time, or prefer to count on meals on wheels? (If meals on wheels is staffed by volunteers, the food comes from public funds.) So when John McCain tells Joe Sixpack he wants him to keep more of his wealth, Joe should realize he has to donate a substantial part of that wealth to causes because government has "other priorities".

A Race Between Cuba and the United States

Most news and comment involving Cuba and the United States focuses on a fifty-year old standoff.  As with anything that's that old, it's bound to sooner or later become old hat.

A lengthy document posted this morning on CubaNews ( by a group of revolutionary Cubans (in Cuba), confirms what I'd intuited about Raul Castro's presidency and the relatively timid steps he has taken to loosen state control. This collective documents is a plea and a plan to steer Cuba toward "a more democratic and participatory socialism", as the next and necessary step in the revolution.

The document takes an uncompromising look at the revolution's failures, acknowledging the role played by the American blockade in creating popular dissatisfaction. But couched in language that makes unequivocal the drafters'deference to Marx, Marti and the 26th of July movement founded by Fidel and Raul Castro, this initiative has the legitimacy that has been lacking in previous efforts to modify the Cuban political landscape.

Coming in the midst of the most far-reaching economic and financial crisis the world has known since the great depression of 1929, and on the eve of a momentous American presidential election, in which the candidate favored to win is accused of socialism, this manifesto throws down the gauntlet: which country, Cuba or the United States, will make the transition to democratic socialism, putting "human beings, not the state, at the center of the national life", first.

For Cubans, it's "not the state", for Americans, it's "not the military-industrial-governmental imperium".