Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Progressives Can't Make you Act, Mr. President

Franklin Roosevelt’s injunction to progressives in 1933: “Now Make Me!” has never been so oft cited. It worked, but that was then.

'Then’ was before McCarthy, the atom bomb, ‘containment’ transformed into an arms’ race; before the Civil Rights Movement and Roe vs. Wade. Before Richard Viguerie, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. Before senators and commentators had so often repeated the words “A strict interpretation of the Constitution”, or  “a strict Constitutionalist”, that people with limited schooling began to take those words literally.

With all the things the progressive movement made Roosevelt do for the working class (social security tops the list), you chose to follow him in a direction that helped eliminate that movement for the next sixty years: in the 1930s, the famed muckraking writer Upton Sinclair decided to put his money where his mouth was and run for governor of California. He won the primary, but according to Greg Mitchell writing recently in The Nation,  FDR withheld his endorsement because, "he believed the greatest challengefor the head of a democracy was not to fend off reactionaries but to reconcile and unite progressives.”

Similarly, your priority was to cajole cooperation from a Republican Party determined, for its part, to see that you are a one-term president.  Obsessed with this goal, Republicans allowed themselves to be co-opted by a movement that takes 'strict constitutionalism" literally, naively believing the country could be run according to a document written two hundred years ago, for a different world.

In Roosevelt’s day, the progressive movement provided a vibrant foil to the designs of the country’s reactionaries. After Roosevelt dared to recognize the USSR as it tried to ‘build socialism’, fear that similar remedies would be applied to the dire situation of the American economy convinced most Americans that socialism was a dirty word, like death and taxes.

And yet, since Roosevelt’s death at the end of the Second World War, the countries that have consistently been among the top performers in health, education and general quality of life, are those that have combined entrepreneurship with government-administered education and welfare. We see French workers take to the streets when they do not agree with their government.  But few Americans know that top administrative ranks are filled by graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, as elite a school as you will find anywhere, founded by Napoleon.

By now many Americans realize that the country's options are painfully limited without the rehabilitation of government-led regulation and solidarity.  Yet since the days of the  Pilgrims they have clung to the absurd belief that government is our greatest enemy - a necessary evil.  By worshipping an eighteenth century revolt against tyranny, reformers have cut themselves off from twenty-first century solutions to the problem of equity.

The war Roosevelt took us into, craftily, some say, but necessarily, was the opening salvo of a confrontation between two philosophies of governance: corporate fascism and a no less tyrannical communism. Distracted by the extremes, Americans have never been allowed to understand that the struggle is not between government and citizens, but between the few and the many.  As a result, the most powerful country on earth has been deprived of solidarity, not from a lack of means, but from a collective failure of nerve on the part of opinion-makers. Even the most outspoken broadcasters, whether mainstream such as MSNBC or ikons of the alternative media such as Amy Goodman, have not allowed themselves to use the ‘s’ word. The entire progressive community has painted itself into a corner, whence it tries (unsuccessfully) to foil attacks by crying out: “Of course we’re not talking about socialism!”

Their pusillanimity has been as decisive to the rise of the Tea Party as Sarah Palin.  And by commandeering both the word socialism and the word fascism, the Tea Party has killed two birds with one stone: the progressive movement is barred from defending civilized govern- ment, and simultaneouly, from warning Americans that a right-wing revolution could become reality.  Whatever the outome of this election, in an eerie echo of the nineteen-thirties, the brutal few are poised to take over.

Mr President, it’s time for you to explain the eternal struggle between the few and the many to Americans, and liberate progressives so they can make you do what they made Roosevelt do: choose the civilized many over the brutal few.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Haiti has New Hotels - and Cholera

I’m glad former President Bill Clinton is going all-out to boost Democratic participation in the mid-term election, but a few weeks ago in a short interview about the reconstruction in Haiti after January’s devastating earthquake, he was pleased to announce that the rubble had finally been cleared from the streets of Port au Prince and that “I have several hotels”.

Clinton was obviously referring to his personal efforts to encourage donors to rebuild the Haitian capital, not to private possessions. The interview was cut short after those brief words, probably by a technician or jour-nalist who foresaw that more on the subject would be damaging to Clinton’s image.

What alert listener could avoid the obvious question: “Why are hotels more important than hospitals?”

Our media never mentions the 400 Cuban doctors who have worked in Haiti for years, and we don’t know how long the relief doctors remained on the island or what the overall health situation is ten months after the quake. What we do know now is that - according to a Fox News report that came up when I Googled the subject - 140 people have died and 1500 are seriously ill, in an area outside of Port au Prince. The worry is that the epidemic could spread to the thousands living in the capital’s tent cities.

What can you expect, when you build hotels instead of health-saving infrastructures?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In My Mailbox, the Government’s Wastebasket

More and more I’m wondering why we pay for a Postal Service. It started out in Ben Franklin’s time, authorized under the US Constitution. Since it was losing money, in 1983 it was reorganized as an independent organization, charged with becoming self-sufficient. Since then it has not directly received taxpayer-dollars, however it has received subsidies for costs associated with the disabled and overseas voters. Currently, it is borrowing money from the U.S. Treasury to pay its deficits.

With the increased usage of email, the postal service has had to look to other sources of revenue while cutting costs. Most mail now consists of requests for contributions from NGOs. We can assume that much other unsolicited mail, such as catalogues, result from a vigorous sales campaign on the part of the USPS.

But it’s worth mentioning that many civil organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Oxfam, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, are doing work that in other countries is done by government. Of course, government watchdog groups such as Amnesty Now, or the ACLU, are not going to be run by the government. But overall, the result is that not only do Americans pay taxes, they also make contributions to innumerable ‘causes’, AND put in time as volunteers.

If predictions for the mid-term elections are any indication of American satisfaction with government, in particular active government, or what the Republicans and Libertarians call tax and spend government, there is a fundamental disjuncture here: one can defend it by affirming that Americans want to decide for themselves what causes to defend. Many of Americans who perhaps do not support the ACLU may contribute many volunteer hours to the Rotary Club.

But having recognized that, is this not an illustration of the basic inequality that constitutes the foundation of our society. Should people choose the charities they support, or should government represent the common solidarity of all its citizens toward each other and toward the planet that is our home?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Open Letter to Bob Woodward, cc Joseph Stiglitz

As the most famous contemporary journalist, you expose the inner secrets of our government. I am wondering why you do not investigate the link between American jobs being shipped overseas, and donations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from foreign corporations.

I have a hard time believing that these two situations are unrelated. Personally, I believe Americans have to share the work that exists worldwide with workers from other countries. But I am not hearing that conviction offered as justifi-cation for shipping our jobs abroad.

Could it be that there is an understanding between the leaders of the United States and the rest of the world - whether they head capitalist regimes or not - that we agree to spread the work in return for their financial support of our economy, whose collapse would bring the rest of the world down with it?

Without a spectacular revelation that only you can provide of what may be happening, leaders will not be able to tell American workers the truth. They will continue promising to ‘fight for American jobs’, knowing full well this is not in the cards.

Please release our leaders from their captivity to a false narrative so that they can legislate true reform: job sharing. Instead of calling for an increase in the retirement age, let them promise early retirement with full benefits for those who voluntarily give their job to a younger worker. Instead of eight hours a day, allow them to explain that four hours would suffice, because there is more capital floating around in the world than profitable use for it. (Be sure to emphasize the difference between ‘profits’ and investments in schools, medical care for all, green energy, etc. And while you’re at it, suggest that we don’t need more ‘stuff’, but more time for joy.)

We’ve been deriding or condemning Europe ever since the French Revolution. As a last favor, I ask that you reveal the work of the European no-growth movement. Make sure the public and its would-be masters understand that the planet will survive no matter what we do to it, but humanity may not.

Each generation has its problems, and we must not hold future generations hostage to our fears. During the Cold War many chanted “Better Red than Dead”, and today the bogeyman is Sharia law. We need to stop worrying about who will rule the planet and make sure it remains hospitable to humans. Job sharing across the world will enable us to do that, and it will enable our children to find their own rulers and laws.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Incredible Docility of the American Left

As France takes to the streets for the nth time to protest a rise of two years in the retirement age (they currently retire at 60...), progressive Americans gathered in various cities yesterday, including Washington, to affirm their determination to put aside their disappointments, and give the Democrats another chance to prove that they represent the people.

Why do Americans rally, while Europeans demonstrate? The difference is crucial.
Americans desirous of change gather together to listen to well-known figures tell them what they already know. (This follows thousands of meetings across the country where activists do the same thing, but in smaller numbers. There may be slight points of disagreement among featured speakers as to which cause is more important, or how best to achieve the goal of a more just society, but essentially, these events consist of preaching to the choir.)

If this were Europe, which I know well, after a couple of months of choir meetings, people would be out on the streets with banners flying, megaphones blaring, and very little traffic moving across entire cities. Europe doesn’t need general strikes anymore, because the same effect can be had by just having a lot of people make a lot of public noise.

In America, union busting began as soon as unions appeared in the nineteenth century - setting the stage for muscled interventions in the Philippines and underdeveloped countries closer to home. Eventually, as technology gave up ever more of its secrets to man’s subliminal desire to dominate the Other we launched drone attacks on the civilians of a government we’re not officially at war with.

Our soldiers, ordered to carry out atrocities or risk becoming victims at the hands of their own, return home broken in body and spirit - to face a Congress that cavils over their care - until the suicides become embarrassing.

President Obama may be able to work his magic again in the mid-term elections, but until his base gets really fired up - enough tomarch from the Mall to the White House and the Congress-on-a-Hill, Americans will remain without not-for-profit, comprehensive health care (referred to in newspeak as ‘single-payer’), making war wherever the interests of its corporate masters are in danger.

How did this state of affairs come about? The opprobrium of ‘mob rule’ that attached to the bloody French Revolution has pre-vented Americans from taking literally their own Declaration of Independence which states: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of (the pursuit of life liberty and happiness), it is the citizens’ right, it is their duty, to throw off such a government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

Instead, American progressives can only murmur disapproval when Tea Party candidates threaten to resort to ‘Second Amendment rights’, which owes its existence to the need for a militia with which to defend against the Briitsh, but which they claim allows every citizen to carry a gun with which potentially to eliminate leaders they resent.

Europe is criticized for ‘instability’, governments rising and falling according to the ‘whim’ of the electorate. Ours is touted as superior because it has ‘checks and balances’ which, with the help of the Supine Court, are as mobile as European parliamentary majorities. At least in Europe, the ‘mob’ keeps governments on their toes - and able, as the charts show - to better recover from American-led financial follies than we are.