October 28, 2008

Let the Victors come after us

Let the Victors come after us.

Walt Whitman

Losing is an experience we are all advised to get past. Success requires the will and intelligence to not just “seize” opportunities but play the dirty game of maneuver, compromise, and deceit. And so we play – some of us more whole-heartedly than others. But what is at stake when the dowdy shards of previous convictions and beliefs get ransacked by the sick and shameless, the petty and petulance, of temporal parochialism – and ultimately discarded by powerful forces beyond our control? Will it be the nature of the defeated to continually reappear in their impotence and dwindling irrelevance and eccentricity? Posed a little differently, how much reinvention is feasible for self-styled "progressives" in the coming age of Obama without simultaneously accepting our immolation?

The scoop on Ralph Nader is that he is too old and too infuriatingly stubborn to be running for President in 2008. The country is not only rife in economic and political crisis – even undergoing “paradigm shifts” we’re sometimes told – but ready to elect its first African-American President. Yet Nader’s core fight-the-power delivery still hasn’t changed since when I first heard him speak in the mid 1990s. As William Greider recently put it in a piece for The Nation, Nader “pierces the fog of propaganda with hard facts and reason, but the smoke rolls over him and he disappears from public view.” The few exceptions to Nader's otherwise systematic and expected erasure from the established medias are typically spiked with contempt.

And while the enthusiasm at rallies and events have varied over the years one thing has remained fairly constant. They have always remained gatherings of ordinary people who are usually very well-informed, who enjoy political debate, and who love sticking it to The Interests – even to Nader himself now and then. They can be astute but also sloppy; persistent yet disorganized and homespun. “Is the mic on?” Simply put, Nader and ordinary people because Nader gives ordinary people hope. You can ask him questions, even shake his hand and take your picture with him, have him read your fortune. In attendance lately is not a mob of the faithful marching in step with lapel pins but an exceedingly casual, at times even inherently disagreeable, motley bunch. It is so sooo democratic. Even the truly exciting and remarkably propitious Super-Rallies held back in 2000 in sporting arenas across the country were still improvisatory enough, (from the celebrity speakers to the attendees,) to fall well short of being choreographed into mass spectacles.

And these are the assets – meager as they may be – that are inherently at odds with the advancing plans of the corporate green Godzilla. Nader has led the good fight for decades. So call it sabotage, call it resistance. It is all worth preserving, all worth fighting for, and that’s why I’m voting Nader!

October 22, 2008

The Issue of Impeachment

Someone asked today after class why the Democrats have given up on impeachment proceedings of Bush & Co. (I felt my ears twitch a little.) When someone in the back of the room quickly replied that it was because “the Democrats want to win the election, and they can't turn off the moderates...it’s as simple as that - that's why!” there was a precipitous silence over everyone in the room – a room filled mostly, may I add, with those of the argumentative Poli Sci Type-A genotype. This tactic, of course, has been used by centrist Democrats for decades. Yet it must be queried how the hell this ultra-pragmatic affectation has been able to so successfully shut everyone up and get us in line? I mean, it was incredible! No one could even muster a peep about the recidivist “high crime and misdemeanor” violations and blatant disregard for the law! I mean, absolutely powerless!

So how has it come to this? Have we all gone out of our fucking heads?

The silence was too deafening, at least for me, (7 seconds, I swear!) so I politely asked whether the response was actually a reason at all, or “perhaps” an excuse, “presuming of course,” that it was highly unlikely that any political party would ever take up the issue after the election, you know, after all the votes are counted. I also managed to work in a final tweaker: that the new administration “may very easily want to take advantage of the unprecedented growth in executive power.” And so the student smirked and took the last word, “well, then it will be irrelevant.”

Unfortunately many Democrats are blind to the fact that if Obama “has to do” such and such “to get elected” he will probably have to do the same – and a whole lot worse – to be able to govern because voting season will be over. No more speeches, no more interviews, no more horserace, no more elections. What will people think then? What will the crowd do?

October 14, 2008

Louis Hartz and McCain-Palin Rallies


In 1955 Louis Hartz argued in his very influential The Liberal Tradition in America that since Americans have never experienced a feudal past to tie them down to hardened class conflicts, they have been able to successfully adhere to Lockean liberalism, i.e., "the liberal faith," and, in effect, neutralize more ideologically extreme movements from both the left and the right, including the possibility for a genuinely revolutionary politics. Even Southern slaveholders were guided by the Liberty, Reason, and Truth of the Enlightenment. For the governing principle in the United States, or, as Hartz put it, "the triumph of the liberal idea," has been that "interests" and individual enterprise would not be possible without a settled order based in the principles of fairness and equality. It was an argument played especially well by bow-tied liberals who sat to the left of William F. Buckley during the cold-war.
Consider this passage as well,
“This then is the mood of America's absolutism: the somber faith that its norms are self-evident. It is one of the most powerful absolutisms in the world....It was so sure of itself that it hardly needed to become articulate, so secure that it could actually support a pragmatism which seemed on the face to belie it. American pragmatism has always been deceptive because, glacier like, it has rested on miles of submerged conviction, and the conformitarian ethos which that conviction generates has always been infuriating because it has refused to pay its critics the compliment of an argument."
Hartz's "glacier" metaphor is an apt portrayal of the somnambulism of Americans the last few decades. "Look where 'business-as-usual' is getting us!," Hartz's neo-Tocquevillian voice seems to declaim, as the American Dream drifts further away. Indeed Hartz also issued the warning which alloyed American middle-class enthusiasms to the dangerous "conformitarian ethos" generated by the promise of social mobility, the principle of equality, and, material well-being.
People at McCain-Palin rallies calling for Barack Obama's head, and referencing him to "well, you know....an arab," should remind us that populism - which both political parties have been conveniently been able to leave to various surrogates and media spokespersons to abuse and exploit every day, (a la "culture wars,") - is alive and kicking. There is lots of anger out there. And yet we should wonder whether today's good ol' red-state resentment also calls into question Hartz’s notion that American democracy has indeed been able to successfully sever itself from a feudal past. What was it that George W. Bush was able to tap into? What was Hillary Clinton going for that one week in Pennsylvania? Or, more historically, was not the populist appeal of, say, William Jennings Bryan back in the late nineteenth century – or even Andrew Jackson earlier – the vestiges of a feudal inheritance which at brief moments has been able to push back against the forces of Lockean liberalism and American Whiggishness? What of the early agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, or the populist movements that later appeared after the Civil War, which sought to preserve small-scale production through cooperative trade and enlist the hopes of ordinary people about ordinary human things, such as families, Churches, small businesses, and, above all, in the capacity of small landed collectivities to make decisions for themselves responsibly?
Rest assured I am NOT at all advocating some romantic turn to the good ‘ol days of hoedowns, Jim Crow, and vigilante justice but instead reconsidering how the diverse efforts of plainsfolk, meek as they may be – warts and all – have contested the notion that the state and the metro poles of financial capital are the only sites of political activity. The issue is therefore less political restoration than political renewal. So, yes, anachronism abounds – rest assured – especially in today’s world of blogs and “networking,” and especially in light of the recent collapse of the “ownership society.”
Hartz claimed that the American democrat, the genuine "progressive," is at bottom a middle-class concoction, part Horatio Alger, part John Calhoun, but always and ultimately a “‘petit-bourgeois’ giant… a pushover for its democratic capitalism, its pot of gold.” It all reflected the “self-made” individual and the promise of procuring wealth presented by the American founding. No wonder Americans would become known for chasing treasure with a single mindedness that struck most foreigners as daring and adventurous yet utterly uncouth - and all while simultaneously looking at themselves as morally upright, God-fearing people. Thinking of a remark made by Tocqueville the aristocrat in the second volume to Democracy in America makes it difficult not think of the rabid fawning of those attending political rallies these days. “Their vanity, “he wrote, “is not only greedy but restless and jealous; it will grant nothing while it demands everything, but is ready to beg and quarrel at the same time….It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.”
Nonetheless if the Founding Fathers were revolutionary with respect to gaining independence from the British crown they were also completely smitten with the propertied class, quite appreciative of the alignments between plutocrats and the federal government, and deeply fearful, suppressive, and even loathsome, of the demos. Not even Jefferson had the stomach to question King George, much less other Southern slaveholders or wealthy merchants, for keeping rich above poor. Indeed democracy implied the breakdown or loss of power – a takeover of institutions and resources, as well as the radical reinterpretation of priorities and agendas which were to otherwise belong to persons of wealth, an elite class. Democracy signified the political not so much in terms of “leadership” and acquiescence as with equalizing the context within which ordinary people would attempt to effectively coordinate.

October 10, 2008

Fixing 2008?

Watch this comically laconic preview of BBC Newsnight episode "Set Up to Steal it Again" with Greg Palast, scheduled for tonight 6pm and 10pm Eastern Time, and repeat at 8AM on Sunday. Then take a look at John Nichols's piece in The Nation, "No More Stolen Elections!" for some brief backround to the suspicions surrounding the elections of 2000 and 2004.

October 3, 2008

Who Won the Debate Based on What

And from whose point of view?

The pseudo-scientific posturing of commentators and pundits is sheer political spin, i.e., just the show of “politics.” Of particular note was the live meter measuring audience reactions during the McCain-Obama debate appearing at the bottom of CNN's screen, just the latest in political mind contraption techniques courtesy of mass marketing. This “objectivity” works to preclude any possibility of independent thought through generic mass measurements of the “American voter.” And its appeal is to provide viewers with what Baudrillard once referred to as "reality energy" which is to operate in contrast to all the staged posturing of candidates. (Something similar happens when centrist Democrats tell progressives they should abandon, for example, talk of Bush's impeachment in order to make Obama more appealing to “moderates,” as if Obama would ever take up the issue after the election...but I digress.) For articles on CNN's live meter read this and this.

But realpolischtick is nothing new. Military experience is obviously important for a Presidential candidate, just as his or her beliefs as a Christian, or views on lipstick on a pig. The question we should ask however is how the course of these “news cycles” get determined? Do Mark Halpern, Charlie Rose, and Roger Ailes simply get up one day and say enough is enough?

Those with an obsession for horserace analysis and polling de jour are not only averse to substance, ( e.g., candidates voting records, who works on their campaign staff, or what voters have to know about policy issues to base their decision on) but irresponsible for their lack of any self-reflection on how their supposedly “neutral” commentary shapes the perceptions of the electorate. This is the open secret. This is the pathology.