9/28/2010 5:11:26 PM
“OK, so your heart’s broken,” as the old song goes. So’s mine. But we have to get over it—now—and start taking action for the November election.
Granted, we’re far from where we thought we’d be when Barack Obama was elected and people danced in the streets. Change was on its way, spearheaded by Obama’s soaring words and by the millions of ordinary Americans who got involved as never before to help carry him to victory. We thought we’d finally created the opening for a historic transformation.
Now, too many of us watch morosely from the sidelines, feeling disappointed, spurned, and betrayed, wondering if anything we can do will matter. We’re angered by the gap between Obama’s lofty campaign rhetoric and his reality of half-steps and compromises, and by his failure to fight passionately for his policies. We’re angered that we dared to hope for more. We’re angered at scorched-earth Republican obstructionism, a Supreme Court inviting corporations to buy our democracy at will, and a public all too receptive to blatant lies. In response, we decide not to let our hearts get broken again by taking the risk of working for change, at least not in the electoral arena. We feel this way even though most of us have done little since Obama took office to create the kind of sustained grassroots movements that could have actually pressed him and a resistant Senate to take stronger stands.
So how do we act in the upcoming election despite dashed hopes? How do we do this in a way that builds for the future?
Granted, it’s far easier to take a stand in those moments when, in the words of poet Seamus Haney, “the longed-for tidal wave of justice” seems to rise up, and “hope and history rhyme.” Yet unless we decide that our democracy and the planet are all simply doomed, we can’t afford to succumb to cynical retreat.
We might start by acknowledging our disappointments. We don’t have to be delighted about Obama’s Presidency to get involved in the fall elections. We can talk honestly about areas where he and the Democrats have fallen short, while still making clear the major differences between their positions and those of the Republicans. In fact, people may respond even more positively if we admit our mixed feelings, some of which will reflect their own. This approach may not be quite as time-efficient as simply repeating whatever standard talking points we’re given, but it lets our conversations do justice to reality.
When I’ve tried this approach with disenchanted friends, they’ve confirmed that they’d be much more likely to volunteer in the election if they could voice the full complexity of their feelings. They don’t want to be spectators. But they want to acknowledge critical areas where they’re angered and frustrated. They don’t want to surrender their voice. We’d do well to be honest both with those who we need to recruit as fellow volunteers, and with the ordinary citizens who we need to convince to show up at the polls.
If we’re going to be honest about our disappointments, we should be equally clear that opting out of this election portends disaster. For all our frustrations with the Democrats, at least we’ve been fighting about how to move the country forward, out of the hole of the disastrous Bush years. Productive change will be far more difficult if our inaction helps hand the Senate over to those who deny climate change, scapegoat immigrants, blame the unemployed for their fate, and strive to privatize Social Security, make permanent Bush’s regressive tax cuts, and block every conceivable environmental and consumer protection regulation. Equally troubling, they seem to have no shame in campaigning on gross distortions and lies, from talk of health care “death panels” to claiming to stand up against Wall Street while blocking everything they could in the financial reform bill to doing nothing to challenge the belief in Obama as Kenyan-born closeted Muslim. Though we may want to deny the possibility, the polls threaten major Republican gains, the right-wing base smells blood, and even once-safe states like Illinois, Washington, and maybe even California are in play. The important legislation from green energy funding to the valuable parts of the health care Democrats are equally at risk in the House, where Nancy Pelosi has led in passing and financial regulation bills to the strongest student financial aid program since the Pell Grants got started. Were it not for Senate intransigence, Pelosi would also have passed a climate change bill, a far larger stimulus package, and a health care public option. But if we don’t get engaged in the next couple months, we risk electing enough Republicans to replace her with hard-right Republican John Boehner, who’s already talked of reviving Gingrich-style investigative crusades against every conceivable Obama agency and program. Despite the frustration that many of us have with Obama, we might also remember some of his under-appreciated actions, like appointing a labor secretary and National Labor Relations Board strongly supportive of workers’ rights, an EPA head who’s begun to regulate greenhouse gasses and pretty much ended destructive mountain-top removal, and an attorney general who by accepting state medical marijuana laws, has opened space to question our costly and futile prohibition policies. It matters that Obama has saved America’s auto industry, appointed two decent Supreme Court justices, and begun to reshape our international image from one of reckless belligerence. For all the Democrats’ failure to adequately reverse their inherited crises, their flaws don’t compare to those of a party determined to turn everything over to the most predatory forces in America.
Making all this clear is essential when we’re trying to bring people out of demoralized retreat. Obama had 13 million people on his email list. If we can reengage enough of them, including those who’ve pulled back from active political involvement, we can help our fellow citizens reject the corporate-funded lies. In the wake of the ghastly Supreme Court decision gutting campaign finance laws, groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and the US Chamber of Commerce are spending four hundred million dollars to try to buy the election, and the impact of their spending will be everywhere. For the moment, we can’t stop it, although it would take only one honorable Republican to require financial transparency by helping pass the Disclose Act. But even without this, if people knock on enough doors, make enough phone calls, talk to enough neighbors and coworkers, donate enough money and engage in enough real dialogue, we have a chance to make the lies backfire. Massive citizen-to-citizen outreach will be critical for engaging the young and minority voters who carried the Democrats to victory in 2006 and 2008, but largely stayed home during subsequent Democratic defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts and threaten to do so once again. Americans do mistrust the powerful economic interests that have strip-mined our country. But they’re also scared, overloaded, distracted, cynical about government, and insulated from perspectives that could help them separate truth from lie, or give them reasons to vote. So we need to get as many volunteers as possible to help them sort through the political arguments and to convince them to go to the polls. We do that best by reaching out as directly as possible and honoring whatever mixed feelings people have.
We might remind those we approach to volunteer or to vote that they’ll never know when their participation will make a crucial difference. On Election Day in 2004, I was knocking on doors in Washington State and turned out three additional voters. One had forgotten about the election. Another needed a ride. A third didn’t know how to submit his absentee ballot. My candidate won the governor’s race by 133 votes, over a right-wing Republican who’s now running neck and neck with the once seemingly unbeatable Senator Patty Murray. Had just 50 of us stayed home that day, we’d have lost. Our outreach made a similarly critical difference two years ago in Minnesota when Al Franken won his Senate seat by 225 votes. In an example of why involvement can’t wait until the election, I once interviewed a young woman who registered 300 voters on her Connecticut campus, helping her strongly progressive Congressman win by 27 votes.
In 1994 we paid the price for not having these volunteers. Infuriated by Bill Clinton’s support for the NAFTA trade agreement, core Democratic activists stopped knocking on doors and making phone calls. Because there was no one to get out the vote, the Democrats lost race after critical race, often by the narrowest of margins. According to CNN and Gallup surveys, the forty-two percent of America’s registered voters who stayed home leaned Democratic widely enough that they would have reversed the electoral outcome, had they only showed up at the polls. NAFTA helped destroy America’s industrial base, and I shared the anger of those who opposed it. But even a modest effort could have prevented the Republican sweep.
We now risk heading down a similar path, one we might have avoided entirely had we built stronger grassroots movements to pressure Obama from the start. Two years into Roosevelt’s first term, with one in six Americans still out of work, the Democrats swept the 1934 elections, winning nine more seats in both the Senate and House. But they had a president who overtly challenged the “money changers” of Wall Street, and a Senate and House that did far more to address the economic crisis. Most important, they had organized citizen movements that actively pressed Roosevelt from day one. We haven’t created these movements, or engaged enough people to give them clout. Instead, most of us have spent far more time griping about the real shortcomings of the Democrats than we have engaging our neighbors, rallying in the streets, showing up at Town Halls and community meetings, or doing anything else that could have actually changed America’s politics in the directions we wanted. This trend started early, during the summer of the “death panel” rallies (much as those who’d supported Clinton failed to adequately organize to pressure him once he took office), and it’s continued ever since. Other than the useful but limited activities of signing petitions and automated letters, we’ve mostly ceded the field to Exxon, Goldman Sachs, United Health, and the tea partiers.
We can still push Obama to deal with the massive crisis of the unemployed, (for instance by joining the October 2nd national rally for jobs and justice). If he challenged the Republicans strongly enough on this it would help, whether or not he can pass the necessary bills before November. But whatever Obama does between now and then, and he needs to do far more, much of what happens is still in our hands. If we don’t want corporations, billionaires, and the religious right running our country even more than they do already, we owe it to ourselves to do all we can to prevent their power from increasing further through this election. We’re going to lose some battles. That’s inevitable. But the path of purist retreat prevents even the chance of our efforts succeeding, whether for now or down the line.
Imagine if each of us did as much between now and November 2nd as we did in the election of two years ago. If enough of those who’ve pulled back from political involvement can become reengaged, and if we can find ways to keep them involved, we can begin rebuilding the grassroots momentum that we should have been creating from day one of Obama’s term. So we have to act and keep on acting. Think of the civil rights movement and its relationship to Kennedy and Johnson. Both were personally sympathetic but initially held the movement at arm’s length for fear of driving southern segregationist whites from the Democratic Party. Civil rights activists then created a political and moral force so strong that it expanded the horizon of the possible. In the wake of the March on Washington, and marches like those at Selma, Johnson put all his political skill and capital on the line to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills. He did this while accurately predicting that the Democrats would, as a result, lose the South for a generation or more. But he did the right thing because ordinary people took a leap of faith, convinced that their actions could make a difference.
There’s no guarantee that our efforts will work, whether in November or long term. But the stakes—whether regarding climate change, the economy, or every other major issue we face—remain as high as they’ve ever been. Most of us have mixed feelings, but rather than waiting forever for the perfect candidates or ideal political context, or riding an endless emotional roller coaster between elation and despair, we can instead do our best to plunge into the messy and contradictory now. If we can do that well enough, we can once again begin to recreate the base for the kind of change we hoped for just two years ago.
Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of
Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times
(St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback, April 2010). Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful...rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.” Loeb also wrote
The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear
, the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see
Paul Loeb is a guest blogger at utne.com. The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of utne.com or the Utne Reader.
9/27/2010 3:57:23 PM
When the FBI raided the homes of antiwar activists in Minneapolis and Chicago last week, the ensuing public reaction was notable for its stereophonic quality: The loudest cries of skepticism and outrage came from both left and right. Apparently, coffeehouse radicals and Tea Party supporters can agree that government agents breaking down doors at 7 a.m. to seize notes, computers and other potential tools of “terrorism” from a bunch of peace and justice activists seems like a serious case of state overreach.
“Government goons,” the Conservative Heritage Times called the door-kickers, while a lawyer for one of the accused told Antiwar.com, “This case is really scary.”
Of course, it’s impossible to shout “travesty of justice” with absolute righteousness until we find out exactly what the government’s case is, which will come after a grand jury assesses the evidence and decides whether to indict anyone. FBI officials have only said they’re seeking information related to support of “foreign terrorist organizations,” including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
But it’s worth noting that the FBI conducted similar raids on the eve on the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, only to downgrade the initial charges of “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism” against the “RNC 8,” as they’ve become known, and to dismiss three cases entirely. (The remaining five go on trial October 25.) And earlier this week, the FBI’s Inspector General criticized the FBI for some of its conduct in raids and surveillance of peace groups after the September 11 attacks, points out Twin Cities Indymedia.
In this clip by the video muckrakers at Minnesota’s Uptake, watch alleged terrorist—and unapologetic antiwar activist—Mick Kelly explain why he thinks the FBI came after him:
Sources: Conservative Heritage Times, Antiwar.com, The Atlantic, Twin Cities Indymedia, The Uptake
9/24/2010 1:08:08 PM
It’s easy, almost commonplace, to see racial segregation on a small scale. Hispanics shop at this grocery store, white people shop at that one. Blacks live in this neighborhood, Asians in the neighborhood down the street. But a broader, city-wide picture of racial segregation is harder to discern.
Using data from the 2000 U.S. census, Eric Fischer made infographics of the 40 largest metropolitan areas that map the density of racial groups with vivid colors. Each dot represents 25 people, and each color represents a different racial group. Red dots signify white people, blue dots signify black people, green dots are Asians, etc. From Fischer’s graphics it’s clear that measures to encourage racial integration have, in most cities, not been effective.
Above: a map of New York City broken down by racial groups.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, home of Utne Reader, is moderately integrated in the two urban cores, but lacks diversity in its sprawling suburbs.
What Long Beach, California lacks in density, it makes up in integration.
Detroit is rigidly segregated.
(Thanks, Fast Co. Design.)
, licensed under
9/23/2010 11:21:22 AM
Much of the coverage of the Haitian earthquake earlier this year has focused on the devastation it caused the country and its people, and rightly so. The plight of both should be continuously well-documented to try to figure out how to fix the current problems and avoid such dire results of future catastrophes.
Learning how to do those things, however, will not be possible without first gaining a clear and complete understanding of the historical factors that put places like Haiti in a position to be so completely devastated by these disasters, writes Anthony Oliver-Smith in NACLA Report on Americas.
In short, disasters are not accidents or acts of God. They are deeply rooted in the social, economic, and environmental history of the societies where they occur. Moreover, disasters are far more than catastrophic events; they are processes that unfold through time, and their causes are deeply embedded in societal history.… In effect, a disaster is made inevitable by the historically produced pattern of vulnerability, evidenced in the location, infrastructure, sociopolitical structure, production patterns, and ideology that characterizes a society.
Nowhere is this perspective more validated than in Haiti, which on January 12 in some respects experienced the culmination of its own more than 500-year earthquake.
Oliver-Smith goes on to explain how slavery, reparations, an embargo, and massive debt put Haiti in a vulnerable state from its earliest stages of existence. And while other Latin American countries, such as Chile, have instituted safeguards—like building codes—against natural disasters, Haiti has fallen short in terms of protecting itself, whether due to the lack of such safeguards or the government’s inability to respond properly to disaster.
As with most things, an understanding of what got us here is needed in order to craft an appropriate response.
Source: NACLA Report on Americas (article not available online)
Image by United Nations Development Programme , licensed under Creative Commons.
9/21/2010 2:15:14 PM
There’s nothing like another round of elections in the U.S. to rekindle one’s nostalgia for the rough wisdom of Henry Louis Mencken.
Last night, after reading The New Republic’s “Year of the Nutjob,” which would be funny if it weren’t so appalling, I pulled a copy of Mencken’s Prejudices from the shelf and opened it to a random page. I long ago learned that this exercise—and it really doesn’t matter which Mencken collection you choose—virtually never fails to provide both uncannily up-to-date perspective and a queasy reminder of how little has changed in American politics in the last ninety or so years.
There are, of course, a lot of Mad Hatters at our current national Tea Party, but The New Republic spotlights nine especially brain-boggling candidates (including Minnesota’s own procreative gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer) for the Maddest Hatter crown.
As you peruse that scary bit of business, I’d encourage you to keep in mind these random observations on “the normal Americano” from Mencken’s 1922 essay “On Being An American”:
The mob-man cannot grasp ideas in their native nakedness. They must be dramatized and personalized for him, and provided with either white wings or forked tails.
He is a violent nationalist and a patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beats the tax collector if he can.
He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are virtually identical.
He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow’s.
All of which can be boiled down to this: that the United States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men.
Extra credit: Here’s a typically strange, rambling portrait of Tom Emmer from The Awl.
Source: The New Republic
Image by brownpau, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/16/2010 1:21:06 PM
If you’re not friends with the U.S. you’re more likely to be held accountable for your international misdeeds. Or so thinks Edward S. Herman who, writing for Z Magazine, says, “One of the major fallacies of our time is the idea that we have entered a new era in which human rights are being attended to more than in the past.” In fact, Herman claims, the only ones being attended to are the rights of the U.S. and others in the “white North.”
Herman finds it alarming that all 14 indictees of the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been black Africans and that the ICC does not include as a crime cross-border attacks on other countries under its jurisdiction, “that is, aggression, the ‘supreme international crime’ in the judgment of the Nuremberg court, but a bit awkward for the United States, as that crime is part of its standard modus operandi.”
There’s a double standard, Herman claims, when it comes to the likes of the U.S. and its allies. In the case of the bombing of Pan Am 103—recently brought back into the news by the release of AbdelBasset Ali Al-Megrahi—for example, he questions why Al-Mergrahi, whom some believe was falsely accused, is seen as an international villain—and his case seen as a success story of international justice—while the naval commander, who in the aftermath of the Pan Am bombing carried out the shooting down of Iranian Air Flight 655, which resulted in the loss of 290 civilian lives, is praised as a hero. This isn’t all the fault of the global justice system, though; Herman is quick to point out that stories like the Pan Am 103 bombing are not suitably covered in the mainstream media and therefore the version that does get reported is cemented into the memories of people across the world.
So, are the entities set up to uphold international law serving justice, or are they, as Herman claims, “political instruments serving political ends”?
Source: Z Magazine (article not available online)
Image by Alkan Chaglar, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/14/2010 1:44:44 PM
As a starfish blindly ambles across the sea floor, its five arms grope independently of each other. Instead of being controlled by a central brain, each limb has its own compartmentalized nervous system that can communicate with the others. Capturing food, escaping from predators, and locating a mate are processes that rely on a fine balance of collaboration and independence. On account of its decentralized biology, argues National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch, a starfish is a fitting analogy for the Tea Party.
What Rauch is alluding to is a political tack called radical decentralization. He contends:
In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on so large a scale. Tea party activists believe that their hivelike, ‘organized but not organized’ (as one calls it) structure is their signal innovation and secret weapon, the key to outlasting and outmaneuvering traditional political organizations and interest groups. They intend to rewrite the rule book for political organizing, turning decades of established practice upside down. If they succeed, or even half succeed, the tea party's most important legacy may be organizational, not political.
One of the Tea Party’s greatest strengths is that it lacks a central figure who calls the shots for the entire movement. “The network is impervious to decapitation,” Rauch writes.
No foolish or self-serving boss can wreck it, because it has no boss. Fragmentation, the bane of traditional organizations, actually makes the network stronger. It is like a starfish: Cut off an arm, and it grows (in some species) into a new starfish. Result: two starfish, where before there was just one.
In the following video, Rauch elaborates on the starfish analogy—including how the Tea Party’s decentralized tactics may clash with the Republican Party’s traditional command structure.
Source: National Journal
Image by Ed Bierman, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/7/2010 3:12:10 PM
Last week President Obama gave a speech from the Oval Office announcing the end of “the seven-year American combat mission in Iraq.” Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy, sees this speech not as a platform to boast of reduced U.S. militancy around the world, but one to promote a policy of perpetual war.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, “the war on terror” served as a rationale for establishing warfare as a perennial necessity. The Obama administration may have shelved the phrase, but the basic underlying rationales are firmly in place. With American troop levels in Afghanistan near one hundred thousand, top U.S. officials are ramping up rhetoric about “taking the fight to” the evildoers.
In addition to the state of endless war Solomon believes the U.S. finds itself in, he was also disturbed by the president’s praise of the Iraq war effort, seeing that praise as vindication for every U.S. war (since Obama originally called that effort “dumb”), writing that “the Oval Office speech declared that every U.S. war—no matter how mendacious or horrific—is worthy of veneration.”
While watching the president talk about the U.S. economy and getting Americans back to work—another key point of the speech—Solomon checked the monetary cost of the war in Afghanistan—more than $329 billion—and wondered what has changed in 40 years since George Wald, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, said, “Our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed.” “If, nine years after 9/11, we are supposed to believe that U.S. forces can now ‘start’ taking the fight to ‘the terrorists,’” Solomon writes, “this is truly war without end.”
Image by Poldavo (Alex), licensed under Creative Commons.
9/7/2010 1:54:13 PM
In a letter to his incoming students, Michael O'Hare, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, apologizes for the fact that his (their parent’s) generation did not hold up their end of a deal made long ago by Californians: invest in California, rather than only in yourself.
Beginning about 30 years ago Californians decided to walk away from this deal, O'Hare writes, because although they had done well and prospered on the whole from the agreement, they realized they could do even better individually if they focused their spending on themselves.
An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.
Now, your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are responsible for crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters.
While we often hear that states simply can’t afford things like art and music in schools or more police on the force, O’Hare argues otherwise:
The budget deficit that’s paralyzing Sacramento is about $500 per person; add another $500 to get back to a public sector we don’t have to be ashamed of, and our average income is almost forty times that. Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.
O’Hare’s letter is not only an apology, though. It’s a call to action. O’Hare pleads with his students to do better than his generation and actually work toward making a better world for the generations to come. A novel thought.
(Thanks, Obsidian Wings.)
Source: The Reality-Based Community
Image by IAN RANSLEY DESIGN + ILLUSTRATION
, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/7/2010 11:24:21 AM
The 1950s might look like the golden years to some Tea Partiers. It was back before the Kennedys, the Clintons, and Obama ruined this great country, always looking to tax the rich, ignoring the guiding principles of capitalism. That view of the world ignores the actual history, argues author Toby Barlow in the Huffington Post.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 until 1961, passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, a massive public works project that today would be the equivalent of $197 billion, reports Barlow. Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure proposal clocks in at a fraction of the price. And the Federal Aid Highway Act wasn’t paid for by some grand Republican—or Tea Party—plan that all at once lowered taxes and the deficit; it was paid for by a lot of new taxes. The richest among the U.S. population during the tenure of that celebrated Army general were taxed a staggering 91 percent, compared to today’s 35 percent, and Barlow writes,
They still golfed, drove around in shiny automobiles, and ate caviar in fancy dining cars, but they paid a lot more back to society. Instead of fleeing en masse to Cuba they stayed in Connecticut and sent their kids to boarding schools and private colleges. America rewarded them by becoming a stronger nation, allowing the wealthy in turn to become even wealthier. America rocked.
We have been trained to believe that taxation is the worst ill that can strike a society, and yet for decades our nation prospered while asking those who profited from our strength to give significantly more. Ike understood this and protected our nation's prosperity.
Barlow suggests that we all start wearing “I like Ike” buttons again to show that there is a way to work together, a way beyond the hysterical rhetoric that now injects itself into most of our political debates. And, Barlow suggests, we should start asking Tea Party candidates what they think about Ike.
(Side note: Barlow writes regularly for the Huffington Post and other places, but if you’re in the mood for a highly entertaining read, pick up his book Sharp Teeth. Set in L.A., the book is about gangs of werewolves and is written completely in verse. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s great.)
Source: Huffington Post
Image by John Munsch, licensed under Creative Commons.
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