Monday, June 9, 2014

Larry Summers misses another important point

He's clueless about the consequences of inequality

From time to time, Larry Summers gets things very wrong. He hypothesized that women were largely underrepresented in the sciences at least partially because of innate gender differences.

He championed bank deregulation during the Clinton years ("...it would take a Republican Congress and the Clinton administration’s Robert Rubin and Larry Summers at Treasury to repeal Glass-Steagall."), a deregulatory step that others, including Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, suggest had much to do with the economic collapse of 2008.

And, following that collapse, from which he seemed to have learned the wrong lessons, Summers, along with Tim Geithner, was one of the leading actors pushing bank and corporate bailouts and downplaying stimulus spending and infrastructure investment within the Obama administration.

As Dean Baker put it in "How Larry Summers' memo hobbled Obama's stimulus plan," posted on common dreams.org, "In short, while the data was crying out for more stimulus, the Obama administration openly embraced the need for deficit reduction, effectively slamming the door on the prospect of further stimulus. The basis for this original sin can be found in [Summers'] December memo, which, unfortunately, provided the administration's game plan long after it should have been clear that it had been superseded by events."

Susskind makes it clear that Summers' policy recommendations suffer, in part, from his high opinion of himself. "Instead of looking at [Summers'] record pockmarked with bad decisions, people see his extemporaneous brilliance and let themselves be dazzled. Summers' career has come to look, more and more, like one long demonstration of the difference between wisdom and smarts," Suskind wrote in Confidence Men.

But no matter the various judgments of history, Summers isn't going to go away. He blogs on economic and political issues for Reuters, gives lots of interviews and writes a lot of op-ed pieces. His latest piece, "American inequality goes beyond dollars and cents," ran in today's (June 9) Washington Post.

Summers' op-ed begins with a nod to Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which examines the growing inequality in income and wealth in the United States and around the world. "This is indeed a critical issue," Summers writes.

Later he observes that increasing "tax productivity" would not do "any noticeable damage to the prospects for economic growth," but quickly moves on from serious consideration of policy changes that might reduce inequality. Instead, he considers unequal outcomes in life expectancy and educational achievement, two areas in which Summers has never previously demonstrated much interest.

Nevertheless, he's happy to point out that differences in life expectancy for older people "more likely have to do with lifestyle and variations in diet and stress..." Summers also cites figures that make it clear that children from affluent families are exposed to many more "enrichment" experiences than are children from poor families, but, he concludes, that to address unequal outcomes we should not merely focus on inequality. "...it is crucial to recognize that measures to support the rest of the population in other ways are at least equally important," Summers writes, though he does not specify what those other "measures" might be.

In any case, what seems mightily important here is a point missed by Summers, but noted elsewhere by others, notably Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in "The Widening Gyre: Inequality, Polarization and the Crisis," which they wrote for inclusion in The Occupy Handbook, edited and compiled by Janet Byrne. Citing the work of political scientists Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty, Krugman and Wells argue that there's no separating inequality from the political polarization and gridlock of our time.

"Soaring inequality is at the root of our polarized politics," they wrote. That polarization has "made us unable to act together in the face of crisis. And because rising incomes at the top have brought rising power to the wealthiest, our nation's intellectual life has been warped, with too many economists co-opted into defending economic doctrines that were convenient for the wealthy despite being indefensible on logical and empirical grounds."

Krugman and Wells may not have been including Summers in their list of "co-opted economists," but given his demonstrated preference for bank deregulation and bailouts over significant stimulus spending, we should be forgiven for assuming Summers belongs on the list. Krugman and Wells see many of Obama's policy compromises with his intractable opponents in Congress as a direct result of inequality-linked political polarization.

In 2009, they wrote, "we arrived at a Keynesian crisis demanding a Keynesian solution--but Keynesian ideas had been driven out of the national discourse, in large part because they were politically inconvenient for the increasingly empowered 1 percent."

Summers would probably prefer not to be reminded that the policies he has advocated in the past have done little to protect ordinary Americans from economic hardship. His Post op-ed actually includes a shout-out to progressive economist Dean Baker, suggesting that Summers would like us to forget his track record. But we ought not forget--if we want to reduce income inequality (and political polarization), and if Hillary Clinton follows Obama to the presidency, we want to do our best to make sure that Larry Summers finds employment somewhere other than the federal government.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life and memory, a continuing story

Today, Bernie lives

I will be 67 years old in a couple of months. I am not feeling particularly morbid at the moment, but it gets easier and easier to count the number of my days. It’s reasonable to assume that I could live another 20 years—unless something unexpected comes up—and also reasonable to assume that I will be in decent health most of those 20 years. Beyond that point, all bets are off, and both disability and death will loom much larger.

But it occurs to me, in this moment, that the true span of an individual life includes the years in which others will remember the otherwise departed. My father, Bernie Epton, died in 1987. But today he is alive in memory. Mine.

Today is not a special day. It’s not an anniversary of anything that happened to Dad. But I have been reflecting on my own life, and on my children, and how we have lived, separately and together. One thought triggered another, and Dad was suddenly present.

Today, Dad is a young boy in Chicago, living through the Depression and writing his father in Atlanta. Not to worry, Dad, he writes. Do what you have to do in Atlanta. I will take care of everything here.

Today, Dad will drop out of school at the University of Chicago and enlist in the Army Air Force. Today, Dad will leave for an Air Force base in England, where he will begin leading bombing runs over Germany and Eastern Europe.

Today, Dad will meet Audrey Issett, a private in the British army assigned as a plane spotter with an anti-aircraft unit on the coast of England. Today, Audrey is a combatant in the Battle of Britain. Today, Audrey and Bernie will fall in love.

Today, the war in Europe has come to an end and Dad will be rotated back to the states for the invasion of Japan, which will never happen. Today, Audrey, pregnant with Teri, will finally make it to the States and meet the maniac in-laws who will be her family for the next 65 years.

Today, Dad will pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. Today, Bernie Epton will lose his first race for Congress.

Today, Audrey and Bernie and their four children will stop at Rosenbloom’s after going to a movie together at the Hamilton on 71st Street. We will order five hot fudge sundaes and one strawberry sundae to go. (“Teri, Jeffrey, Mark and Dale, they are simply full of schwale,” Dad will sing endlessly throughout our childhood, or at least until his oldest two become teenagers, and things stop being so much fun).

Today, Dad and I, divided by all the things that divide fathers and sons, will argue about the war in Vietnam. I will tell him that the war is evil and so are the war makers. I will not support the war or acquiesce to the domination of the war machine, I will tell him. And he will show me his multiple medals and insist that we owe service to our country.

Today, after being drafted, I will leave for Canada. Dad will be deeply grieved by my decision, but he will give me money to help me on my way. He will pretend the money was actually left to me by my grandfather, but I will know better.

Today, Dad and brother Mark will board a plane for Memphis, where they will join in solidarity with the Memphis sanitation workers marching in a memorial parade for Martin Luther King.

Today, on a visit home, I will knock on the door of my parent’s apartment. Home alone, Dad will shout “what’s the password?” the first phrase of a great Marx Brothers routine.

Today, Dad will pay for a naming ceremony at his synagogue for Nathan Nightrain Epton, my first child. Nate won’t be there. Neither will I. Nor will Nate’s mom be there. Dad will have Nate named Adam Nathan Epton because he doesn’t approve of the name I gave Nate, and Adam begins with A, the first letter of Dad’s father’s name. In the Jewish tradition, this is the way to name a child after an ancestor. Nate won’t care, at all. Over time, I will learn not to mind, either.

Today, Dad will retire from the Illinois State Legislature after 16 good years during which he only screamed in frustration at his legislative colleagues maybe a dozen times, okay, maybe a couple dozen. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the smartest guy in the legislature. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the richest guy in the legislature.

Today, Governor Thompson will call Dad and ask him to be the Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago, and run against whoever wins the Democratic primary, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley or Harold Washington, an old friend from the state legislature.

Today, Washington will win the Democratic primary and because racism will motivate many white Chicagoans to cross party lines in the general election, Dad will become the first truly competitive Republican candidate for mayor in decades. Today, Dad will try to explain to the media that his campaign slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” is not a coded racial message. Almost nobody will believe him, but he will insist that he’s right, they’re wrong and the slogan will remain in use.

Late tonight, after a long day of campaigning, Harold Washington will say to a campaign worker who has come to hate Bernie that the man they are campaigning against is “not the Bernie Epton I know.” She will be surprised by the depth of Harold’s compassion and his obvious affection for Bernie.

Today, finally, the race will end. Washington will win, becoming the first African American mayor in Chicago history. Dad will lose and begin lamenting the damage the campaign has done to his reputation.

Today, I will talk to Dad, who has woken up, as he does every day, feeling humiliated by his defeat and horrified by the belief that he is a pariah. I will try to tell him that the reality is not so awful as he imagines, but nothing I say will seem to help and the smiles seem few and far between.

Today, four and a half years after the 1983 election, and less than a month after Harold Washington died, Dad will die. Today, Dad will be buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the south side, where Washington is also buried, and where generations of Chicagoans, mostly African American and Jewish, are buried.

Today, more than 26 years after Dad died, I remember him. Today, Bernie Epton is alive.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations: Ta-Nehesei Coates tells it like it is.

But plenty of folks will want to argue the point.

As the cover of the June issue of Atlantic Magazine advancing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for African Americans puts it: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debris of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”

I’m with Coates. I believe that 450 years of oppression and expropriation of wealth requires compensation. Making the effort strikes me as both a moral obligation and a fantastic investment in our collective future.

Coates lays out the argument for reparations with at length. His piece is concise, but also a marvel of detailed reporting and history I won’t try to match. But I still want to set up some of the arguments against reparations that one is likely to hear, to try and wrestle those arguments to the ground.  I can’t help but think that there can be only a limited number of explanations for those that oppose reparations for African Americans. Included among them:

1.     Having grown up in a society that normalized that theft, opponents of reparations may believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, that they are inferior, and that they do not deserve relief.

2.     Opponents of reparations might claim that compensating for the generations-long theft of labor and wealth from African Americans will come at a direct cost to them, or that we as a society cannot afford reparations.

3.     Some opponents may believe that others have suffered systemic oppression and have not been compensated for their losses.

4.     Some people might argue that they (or their family) just got to the United States; they are not part of the problem.

5.     Some people may not oppose reparations, but they don’t believe it will ever happen.

6.     Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans or benefit in some other way from the continuing humiliation of the African American community. They will fight against reparations as hard and as long as they think necessary.

7.     Some politicians, who would lead the fight against reparations represent the interests of those who entertain one or more of the above beliefs.

8.     And then there’s Clarence Thomas (who arguably fits into more than one of the above categories), who even opposes affirmative action and claims to feel stigmatized by the policy, and who apparently believes that he has not been properly celebrated for his accomplishments.


African Americans’ problems are of their own making

If you are simply one of those who believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, or that they don’t deserve relief, or that they are in some way inferior, the problem may be that you simply don’t know enough black people. This would not be a surprise in a country as segregated as ours.

You are probably white, but you could still free yourself from that apparently limiting condition by expanding the same sort of empathetic response that you presently feel on behalf of battered women, say, or Syrians, or Rwandans or dolphins or puppies.

Or you could free yourself from the zeitgeist with the same act of political will and forethought that has already persuaded you that the 2008 stimulus package wasn’t big enough or that climate change needs to be addressed now. Regardless, if you even remotely agree that the wealth rightfully earned by generations of African Americans has been plundered, ask yourself who has benefitted from that theft.

Maybe, it doesn’t feel like you are one of the beneficiaries, but a lot of great fortunes were built on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers and convict laborers, and job competition between white workers and black workers that held down wages for all workers to the almost exclusive benefit of the owning class. Reparations are a way to begin repairing all those problems.


It will be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses.

Perhaps, it could be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses, but in general we should think of the cost as a legitimate liability, the settlement as a negotiated agreement that acknowledges responsibility, as a good-conscience effort to compensate the recipient without causing unbearable harm to the party wishing to make good, and as an investment in an egalitarian society that prioritizes equality, peace and harmony.

Besides, think about how much the lack of compensation for unrewarded effort, for theft, injury and harm, has already cost us. Reparations could hardly cost us more.


Others have suffered systemic losses and have not been compensated.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who would argue against paying reparations to African Americans just because some other group ought to get paid—though there are certainly a fair number of groups who have suffered losses. But it would be hard historically to identify a group that suffered more harm for longer. Working people come to mind. So do women. Central and South Americans. Africans. Asians. Lesbians, gay men and bi- and transsexuals.

There are certainly important considerations raised by this point of view, but, well…everything in its own time, I guess. Moreover, a society operating under an elevated understanding of justice that would come into being after reparations to African Americans would be a different world, which would be more prosperous and egalitarian. Under such transformed conditions some injustices would feel like they mattered less. And other legitimate claims would be more easily addressed.


Paying reparations would make recent immigrants to the United States responsible for the suffering of African Americans.

Well, we are collectively responsible. It’s our country. And you’re here now. What kind of society do you want to build? If we work together to restore equity, recent immigrants likely will prosper along with the rest of us.


Reparations will never happen.

Well, yes, in a country in which no-nothingism seems to define our politics, our African American president is the target of unreasoning hatred and right-wing billionaires spend whatever it takes to elect uncritical henchman, it’s easy to understand such pessimism.

But it took 250 years to end slavery in the United States. Addressing the damage that has continued to accumulate since that time, might take another 250 years. But it will happen faster if we don’t indulge in such pessimism and choose to take action instead. In the meantime, in the pursuit of such a great good, our collective health would probably improve. And we’d make new friends.


Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans and other people serve the political interests of constituents who get some benefit, real or imagined, from the continuing oppression of African Americans.

It’s certainly true that some people receive such valuable benefits from ripping off others, but we need to be able to distinguish which ones receive a material benefit from race-based exploitation and which ones receive less tangible benefit, like the relief associated with the knowledge that some people are worse off or more despised than you are. That second group should not be a priority, but they should be labored with if the resources or inclination are there.

Forget about the first group and their retainers and close beneficiaries. They are the enemy. They probably won’t completely disappear, even after the rest of us have moved on.


And then, finally, you might oppose reparations because you are Clarence Thomas.

Well, never mind, Justice Thomas, you may be the most lost of all lost causes. It’s nearly impossible to guess what it’s like to be you and what you’ve given up to get where you are now.


But let’s give Ta-Neheisi Coates the last word:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Through Audrey's eyes

The 1983 Mayoral Campaign in Chicago

Audrey Epton wrote this piece, recalling the tumultuous 1983 mayoral campaign in Chicago. She wrote it while Bernie/Dad was still alive--in 1985 or '86, I'm guessing. She gave it to me sometime during the summer of 2010, I think, just months before she died. I put it in a to-read pile in my office and later buried it beneath other less important papers (my bad). But I unearthed it this week and decided to post it.

It is, after all, a first-person account of the 1983 campaign by someone who was there and who loved Bernie Epton. I wish it was longer and more detailed, but to my knowledge it is still the longest thing Mom ever wrote. I also wish it was more emotionally forthcoming, but Mom was an emotionally reticent person to the end--she does not, for instance, even try to describe how deeply depressed Dad was in the last four years of his life. Even so, it's clear that the '83 campaign and its ramifications for her family caused her a lot of anguish.

She certainly wasn't a neutral observer--she was all-in for Bernie, but her perspective matters, nevertheless. And she's right about a few important things. Dad wasn't a racist, she wrote, just really, really stubborn. But his refusal to retract the "Epton, before it's too late" campaign slogan conveyed that unfortunate impression to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, something Mom doesn't really acknowledge here.

But I find her summary statement here, about Black Pride, both awkward and somehow right on. The Washington campaign was an important moment for African-Americans and Chicago, itself. Had Dad not been Washington's opponent, he and Mom would have had no trouble recognizing how important Washington's victory would be.

I was there at the moment the phone rang on Thanksgiving Day, 1982. When I picked up the phone, it was Governor James Thompson on the other end. He had called to ask my husband to run for mayor of Chicago in the 1983 election.

After some discussion and a promise to get back to the governor, Bernie hung up the phone—and said to me, guess what, Jim Thompson just asked me to run for mayor.

I said, I know. I was listening on the other phone.

Bernie asked me what I thought about the idea and after talking back and forth for some time, I said to him I think you should go for it. You’ve been in politics in one way or another all your life and besides, you would make a great mayor.

Bernie was completely taken aback because he was sure I would say no. He was finishing his last term after 14 years as a state rep and he knew I was very happy about that.

I was tired of our separations. I could not always be in Springfield when the legislature was in session for varying reasons. And it seemed as though each year the sessions started earlier and ended later. Besides that, Bernie is a loner and if I wasn’t down there, he would tend to go from the floor of the House to his apartment after the day’s session, eat improperly and generally not be too happy.

He had a distinguished career as a state representative from his freshman term on. He was always chairman of a committee of one kind or another—he had many feathers in his cap, but never felt he had done enough and was rarely satisfied with his accomplishments.

I remember one bill that was a tremendous plus to the general public—the insurance bill that he initiated and passed... if your insurance company went broke and became insolvent for whatever reasons, the public never had to be the loser. If one had a claim, by law the other insurance companies had to pick up your claim. A tremendous factor, for instance if your house burned you would always have a place to turn.

Bernie was also in the leadership for many years before he retired in 1983. He has been a practicing lawyer from 1947 and also has been in big business and has been active in community affairs for the 42 years I have known him. That’s a lot of time spent away from home, but we also went to a lot of affairs together. You might say for a little girl born in England, Bernie made me a political animal. In our home, what was going on in the community was always of vital importance to us.

So that is first a very [short story] of Bernie’s life and some of the reasons I told him to go for it. I said at least you will be in the city, no further than City Hall, except on occasion.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder if I should have said, “no, Bern, don’t do it.” There is no doubt about it that that campaign changed our lives. Whenever Bernie [had] entered a campaign [previously], he got extremely good press. He was always endorsed by all the newspapers, as was the case [early] in this campaign. All of the newspapers gave him glowing editorials, saying in part that Republicans were lucky to have such a fine candidate—one glowing description after another.

He also had never taken a dime politically for any of his previous campaigns, sending back any contributions that came in (not that he was so wealthy) but he did not want to be beholden to any one group. Once you take somebody’s money, they expect you to do their bidding, vote their way. Bernie always wanted to be free to vote his conscience.

On the floor of the House, he would declare if he had a conflict of interest—his colleagues respected him enough to [clear him to] vote. There were times he would not attend a party caucus because he would not want to be bound by them. A rebel perhaps—but we could do with more like him.

Going back to the campaign of ’83, it was such a larger scale that he had to accept contributions, but even these were different. They were smaller amounts from people on the street that just wanted to see him elected. One old man of 90 came to his [headquarters] with a $5.00 contribution and said when he gave it, I just want to see a Republican mayor of Chicago before I die.

When I say I think I did our family a disservice by encouraging Bernie to run, it is because of what happened after the primary when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee.

Up until the primary we had a small staff and a small army of volunteers. We campaigned together, we went into the neighborhoods. Because the fight was on the Democratic side and Bernie had no opposition, the press sort of left us alone, which irritated me. I didn’t think it fair that Bernie got so little coverage.

A funny thing happened one night because of that. Bernie had two meetings to go to and I went with him. The meetings were in opposite directions and we were on a tight schedule. It was a cold, snowy night. We had made the first meeting okay, but got lost going to the second one. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city.

Frantically, as we drove, we looked for a policeman or a telephone or a person to tell us where we were, but it was such a miserable night, nobody was out. Finally Bernie said to me, I think we’re going in the wrong direction—there being no traffic, he made a u-turn, and, guess what, we found a policeman. All of a sudden a blue light appeared and pulled us over. We were delighted to see him. Bernie said, “Officer, I’m Bernard Epton. I’m running for mayor and we’re lost on our way to a meeting. Will you tell me where so and so is?”

“Certainly, sir, after I give you this ticket,” he said.

We finally got to the meeting a little chagrined and bedraggled.

Bernard Epton was a victim of the bias of the press. Before the primary, Bernie was treated with a measure of respect by the media. After the primary, when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee, Bernie was portrayed as a racist immediately—if Bernie criticized Harold for anything, at all, it was because he was a racist.

The media, both print and electronic, could not have done a worse thing to a man who his whole life had worked for civil rights and racial equality. We are both still bruised and bleeding from that treatment.

Small comfort when I think it would have [happened to] anybody white once Harold was the nominee. Bernie and Harold had know each other and been on a friendly basis for years, but the press took exception to the fact that Bernie would refer to Washington by his first name, inferring that Bernie was treating Washington with no respect. Harold Washington immediately worked on that sore, always referring to Bernie as Mr. Epton. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over, it was back to “Bernie.”

How could the media be so blind? The media was manipulated and they in turn manipulated the voters, which of course is nothing new. I think, too, that one of the problems the press had with Bernard Epton was the fact that they were dealing with a totally honest man and they couldn’t cope with that. My husband, also being a rather stubborn man, would not change an ad that had been planned before the primary that [what] was needed [was] fiscal responsibility as Chicago was financially in bad shape. But the press decided that the slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” was racist.

Bernie refused to change it knowing in his heart that it was not racist. He was also blamed for an ugly incident at St. Pascal’s Church when Washington and Mondale visited there one Sunday afternoon. There were people picketing with racist slogans. The press indicated they were Epton supporters, which was a tremendous blow to Bernie. He immediately called Harold Washington to tell him how upset he was and that of course he condemned the incident.

Harold, of course, knowing Bernie, so well believed him. But the damage was done to the Epton campaign by that incident—it is hard to erase something like that from one’s mind. I like to think that in time more of the 1983 campaign will come out and it will be found that Bernard Epton is not a racist—but rather somebody that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was steamrollered by black pride.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Leadership on race

A new generation must take us where we need to go

In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Two months earlier, I had graduated from a large urban high school that was more than 90 percent African American. Most of the white graduates went on to college. Most of the black graduates did not. I've been thinking about race, and especially about the position of African Americans in the United States, ever since.

Race and racism, and what the United States has done to African Americans and continues to do--the reality of slavery, the race-based evil present at the founding of the country, the promises Americans have broken to themselves and their neighbors since, the history and present and future that we refuse to confront, the lies that we tell ourselves--is our original and continuing sin, is democracy and fairness unrealized, is lives tossed away, is the disability we have been unable to overcome. Or so it seems to me.

Next month, my son Brendan and about 25 E.L. Haynes high school classmates will be taking a week-long trip to Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma, where they will learn more about the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. Student preparation for the trip includes watching parts of three different movies that illuminate various aspects of slavery, of Jim Crow and of the continuing oppression of African Americans.

The first of the three films, "Slavery by Another Name," documents the post-Reconstruction criminalization of joblessness, vagrancy and debt, which made blackness the face of crime for the first time, and allowed Southerners to continue the exploitation and treatment of former slaves under virtually the same conditions that had existed before emancipation. The biggest single difference lay, perhaps, in the fact that the ex-slaves were no longer owned as assets by plantation owners. They became more disposable than they had been on the plantations.

And just as slaves had been used to create a good portion of the infrastructure and great wealth that would put the United States on the path to becoming the wealthiest country in the world, sharecropper and convict labor would continue to be a means to build more wealth utilized by those in a position to benefit. U.S. Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, is only one example of a corporate expropriater of the labor of African Americans, who were used to break strikes in Pittsburgh area steel mills, and to mine coal, build factories and operate the steel mills of Birmingham, Ala.; in reality, de facto slave labor after Reconstruction built the industrial center of the deep South.

"The Loving Story" the second in the series of films, screened at Haynes last week. The documentary tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple convicted in 1959 for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. The Lovings were not activists by any understanding of the term. After their conviction, and a suspended sentence of one-year in prison, they moved with their children to Washington, DC, motivated exclusively by a desire to avoid continued persecution.

But Washington was too urban and distressing for the couple. For years after their conviction, the Lovings continued to sneak back into Virginia to visit family. Eventually, Mildred wrote Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, seeking his help. Kennedy recommended that she contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an appeal of their conviction. The appeal reached the Supreme Court, and in 1967 the court struck down the Virginia law under which the Lovings had been convicted and explicitly struck down the other anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 16 states from Texas to Delaware (though it took until 2000 for Alabama to formally repeal the last remaining law).

The small-group discussions that followed the screening were guided by a series of questions, one of which asked participants to note the ways in which "whiteness" continues to be a protected condition today. The responses noted, in particular, the differential enforcement of drug laws and sentencing that send a disproportionate number of African Americans, young black men, especially, to prison. Other examples included failing public schools, particularly in urban areas where minorities live in significant numbers.

Watching the films, sitting down with teachers and parents and children, discussing what we watched and what we think, has made me, by turns, weepy and sad and angry. But listening to 15- and 16-year old Haynes kids express their feelings about the film, about the legacy of slavery and about the persistence of social conflict and problems that have their origins in race-based oppression and bigotry, also made me hopeful.

At about the same time as the Haynes discussion, I encountered this reflection, posted by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

"I'm sitting here in the Toronto airport, after giving a lecture here last night. Every time I visit Canada I'm reminded what Canadians -- who look and sound almost exactly like us Americans south of the border -- don't have that we do (guns, the National Rifle Association, huge piles of money corrupting their democracy, withering poverty, strident and vitriolic politics), and what they do have that we don't (single-payer health care, affordable public universities, civil discourse, conservatives that would be called moderate Democrats in the States). Can any of you from Canada please explain why?"

I'm not Canadian, but to me, the single most important distinction between the United States and Canada, accounting for a good bit of our political polarization and contested social terrain, is rooted in our race-based history and culture.

It's the kidnapping and murder of Africans. It's slavery. It's a constitution that made African Americans less than Euro Americans. It's a constitution that declared African Americans less than human.

It's the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise. It's the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule. It's the fatigue that ended our national willingness after the Civil War to undo what we had done, and brought the end of Reconstruction and of black empowerment in the South for the next 100 years.

It's the near-century in American history after the Civil War when no white person, anywhere, was prosecuted for the murder of a black person. It's the post-Reconstruction decisions that made blackness criminal and lynching endemic. It's slavery by another name.

It's separate but equal. It's Jim Crow. It's Selma. It's the murder of black children. It's the Supreme Court decision in 2013 striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act.

It's the terrible disproportion between the percentage of African Americans in the population (about 12 percent) and their percentage in the prison population (approximately 40 percent). It's the collapse of public education in African American communities.

Race and the history of race in the United States, all of it, is the biggest single difference between the United States and Canada and explains, better than any other factor, why we are an angry and ungenerous people. But were we to confront that history, and look at how it has led us to where we are today, we could free ourselves, and make amends, and move forward. We would end up a different country and the future might find Canadians asking how come they don't have what we have.

During the discussion following "The Loving Story" Te, a sophomore at Haynes, asked how come it took so long (33 years) after the Loving decision for Alabama to formally repeal the state's anti-miscegenation laws. I'm going to presume to answer that question, too.

For the biggest problems, there are no easy fixes, Te. We should all be mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.'s formulation: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Yes, two hundred fifty years of slavery and another 150+ years of segregation and a continuing war, not on poverty, but on the poor, is edging toward a long time, a very long time, by human standards. Twenty generations, maybe.

But getting to where we are now, getting from the Middle Passage and the establishment of slavery in the British colonies in the 17th Century and getting through a civil war and to the passage one hundred years later of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, is no small accomplishment. And, in the process, the list of movements and heroes who have pursued and fulfilled some dreams, but nowhere near all of them, is no small accomplishment. New voter ID laws passed in many of the states of the Old South creating new obstacles for African American and other minority voters, the continuing impoverishment of historically black communities, the generation-after-generation imprisonment of young black men, and the daily murder of black children on the streets of some of America's richest cities, are all measures of how far we still must go to achieve the dream of a just society.

That will take more than the 33 years you asked about, Te. And it will take new heroes, perhaps you and Brendan and your classmates, to lead us, lead us with the kind of love for each other that kept the Lovings going when the odds were stacked against them. Pleased be assured that I will help.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I’m Going To Be A Writer When I Grow Up


I wrote this awhile ago, but delayed posting it because I don't quite understand what I'm getting at here. I'm already a writer and already reasonably grown up, so the sort of provisional future I'm outlining here depends on something else. What that something might be is not entirely clear, but it certainly depends on me spending more time writing. Like long hours every day, which seems almost unimaginable. Maybe short hours, but consistently reliable ones. In any case, we're never done wrestling with ourselves about the things that we need to do more and do more diligently.

Still, there is line or two here that I'm happy to have written. I can't see the harm in sharing.


If I were to sit down and take a test designed to measure interests and skills and personal characteristics and vocational choice, I’m pretty sure it would peg me for a creative type and recommend writing or some other form of artistic expression as the right career path for me. And I do so want to be an “artist” that if I were at all worried that it wouldn’t produce the outcome that I desired, I would game it. I would manage my answers to the test in such a way that—assuming I am sufficiently cunning—the results would reflect my desire.

But the same test would not necessarily measure my ability to produce artistically, or to do it well. I might be, in reality, a square peg of sorts, forcing myself into a creatively round hole and discovering I have none of the true grease that it takes to revolve productively in that hole, or to slide in and out as my art might require.

I might be a lousy writer. Or a long-winded one. But, based on my own compulsively repetitive navel-gazing, I am persuaded of the sincerity of the tune that vibrates my heartstrings. I am lost in here and out there in my desire to produce something that moves others. I want to write. And sing. And dance. Sketch and stretch and paint and perform.

But wanting to do any of these is not the same as doing them well. Which is the real point. I want to produce something that moves others, but how will they be moved if the appeal is not moving, or, even, coherent?

I would dance, but not if you would laugh at me. I would sing, but I’ve tried that—and people told me to stop. I would draw, and might someday, when I move beyond remedial cave-painting.

Writing becomes almost the default choice. And I’ve done it. Quite a lot, really. Nothing like the millions of words that, say, Dickens or Faulkner or Morrison have written. But a million, maybe.


That’s a start.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Contested Terrain of the 1960s

Who are we together? How much better can we do?

Lingering by a CVS pharmacy desk, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I read a column in Time magazine the other day. The piece, "Boomers can't let go of the '60s," by P.J. O’Rourke, recalled the 1960s, and, in most ways, trivialized the decade. O’Rourke clearly believes that the ‘60s deserve little credit for driving cultural and political change.

The ‘60s, he wrote, loom particularly large in the rearview mirror mostly because baby boomers are strategically placed to produce and circulate the myths that make the era appear to be more important than it was (and is) in reality. In O’Rourke’s version, the decade is stripped of all its drama and significance.

Without researching the question, I’d guess that O’Rourke subscribes to the notion that the generation which begat the boomers, a mix of World War II vets and prosperity builders, is the “greatest generation,” while their children, the boomers, are smug, spoiled and over entitled. I believe something entirely different.

I believe the ‘60s (a decade, more or less, that neither began or ended precisely by the clock and ran slightly longer than most decades since) were a time of true political ferment, of hotly contested political terrain, of dramatic cultural change, of revolutionary promise. And I believe that the young activists of the period devoutly wished to do good. Of course, the specifics of that good, and how much good was achieved, are eminently debatable details.

The angry reaction the column provoked in me did not outlast the walk home on a cold winter afternoon. But later that day, comfortably situated in the living room, a fire burning in the hearth, we watched “The Butler,” a movie that adroitly contrasts the personal and tactical accommodations with which many Blacks negotiated the mid- to late-20th century with the urgent passion for change generated by the Civil Rights movement and injected into most Black households by both their children who entered adulthood during the ‘60s (or thereabouts) and by the Black media of the time.

At one point in the movie, Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of a man who served as a White House butler for 30 years) calls the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the most important governmental human rights action since the Emancipation Proclamation. This observation put me in mind of O’Rourke all over again. After all, his essay omits mention of the 1964 law, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

These omissions would be a major flaw in any summary of the ‘60s, except one with little purpose other than ridicule. One can’t help wondering just how well it might pay to be one of those rewarded for peddling a diminished version of the 1960s. And speculating about what ideological purpose might be served by such diminution.

Remunerative or otherwise, O’Rourke’s 600-word column included, by my rough count, at least a half-dozen trivializations of the period, with barely a nod to its most important achievements. In his telling, there is much to minimize:

“Then it all went so wrong. Shooting and killing and troops in combat gear, not only in Watts and Detroit but all the way over in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Feminists were angry for some, as far as men could tell, feminine reason. I had to maintain a C average to avoid the draft. Turns out you can’t fly after you take LSD. There was a war on poverty. We lost. And it rained at Woodstock,” O’Rourke wrote.

His shooting-and-killing-and-troops-oh-my attitude may arise from a lack of interest in the events that immediately followed Dr. King’s assassination, the enraged and desperate rioting that occurred in the immediate aftermath and that preceded the entry of National Guard troops into the ghettos of northern and western cities. There is no serious mention of the Vietnam War here, either; only a single Vietnamese city meant to stand in for a decade of war that devastated a sub-continent and left tens of thousands of dead and wounded warriors in its wake.

Accumulated unfunded debt from that war also crippled the Great Society, President Johnson’s ambitious assault on poverty and its most important causes. But O’Rourke spares only a derisive nod to the War on Poverty (which would come under attack from Republican politicians for the next 50 years, and some Democrats, as well).

He moves on then, dismissing feminism and inverting the distinctly feminist notion that “the personal is the political.” In O’Rourke’s telling, the political becomes the personal, becomes the C-average he was forced to maintain to stay in college and stay out of the military draft. With the observation that it rained at Woodstock, O’Rourke completed his reactionary rendition of ‘60s events.

“Perhaps 1960 to 1969 keeps bothering us because it was an unsuccessful tragedy,” he conjectured. “Aristotle’s Poetics explains the failure. First, says Aristotle, the subject of tragedy must be serious. Almost any adjective can be applied to the ‘60s except that one.”

I read this stuff and wondered what O’Rourke was really doing during that time. Something other than assuming a vanguard position in the fight for progressive social change, I’m sure.

It’s not like I consider myself an exemplar of right-thinking and right-doing at the time, or later, but I was witness to quite a lot and participant in some of the action, and though there were often little victories to celebrate, there was tragedy, too. Some of that tragedy was the desperate suffering from war and injustice that popular movements of the time set out to change. And some of it was the kind of tragedy that befalls efforts that fall short of their goal.

I knew plenty of committed people, too, some of them conscientious, some of them desperate. And some of them living lives so roiled by personal tragedy that just getting up in the morning and out the door was an achievement.

But O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have stepped up himself or to have known people who did. In hindsight, he sees farce where I see compassion and solidarity and magnificent striving. His essay doesn’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr., except indirectly:

“We had heroes in the ‘60s. They had flaws. But their flaws didn’t lead to their destruction. They were killed by deranged fools.” Though O’Rourke is no doubt referencing King here (and John and Bobby Kennedy), I’m far from certain that King was ever a hero to him except in retrospect.

I don’t really care to argue whether King’s death was a tragedy in some Aristotelian sense; it seemed tragic enough to me and to millions of other Americans. I was a draft resister at the time, living in Toronto briefly when I heard the news report about King’s assassination.

It was the morning after his killing and cities across the U.S. had already begun to burn as enraged Blacks took to the streets in an orgy of destruction that led primarily to the torching of their own neighborhoods. The first report I heard focused on rioting in Chicago, my hometown. I called my father, an Illinois state legislator, from a pay phone on a Toronto street corner.

I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was ever more emotional than I was during that call, which lasted almost half an hour. “What have they done, Dad?” I cried. “What’s happening? What did they do to King?”

I couldn’t stop sobbing. I’m sure much of what I said during that call was incoherent. My father was relentlessly patient and sympathetic. Our relationship since I had left home at 18 to go off to college had not been a good one. On the question of the Vietnam War, which had become an obsession to me, we differed dramatically.

My path to Toronto had developed out of my opposition to the war. Away at college, I hadn’t done well academically. But in Ann Arbor, on the University of Michigan campus, I had discovered intellectual challenge and true political passion.

I wanted, more than anything else, to understand the historical roots of our involvement in Vietnam. How did we come to wage all-out war against a tiny, Southeast Asian country with no strategic importance to the United States and a history of resistance to foreign invaders and domestic tyrants? How could the United States conduct this brutal war overseas while Americans lived at home as though nothing was happening?

Dad had been a navigator in the Army Air Force during World War II, a much-decorated airman, proud of his contribution to that war and secure in his patriotism. He was part of that cohort that would later come to be known as the “greatest generation.” But he was also among a wealthier elite, one of the influential people who supported the war even after it was obvious to most everyone else that it was a mistake, an enterprise that had decimated Southeast Asia and a good part of a generation of Americans who served in or who opposed that war.

My father and others, heroes of the World War II victories, were also the decision-makers who launched the witch-hunts of the 1950s and the foreign interventions of the next 30 years. They were the architects and, in many cases, the most direct beneficiaries of the massive military build-up of the last half of 20th Century and the distortions of the American economy that led to economic stagnation in the ‘70s and the continuing economic devastation of the American working class.

I didn’t (and don’t) claim that Dad supported all of the policies that I objected to then and now. But he, like many of his influential contemporaries, rejected the critical analysis of governance and policy that were central to the popular movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Despite our political disagreements, Dad was there for me that day in Toronto when it felt like the world was coming apart. Perhaps that description, of a world falling to ruin, was a little overwrought, especially for a white, middle-class child of the ‘60s who would survive his occasionally alienated and disillusioned experience of his country with relative ease. To be sure, others have struggled, politically, socially and economically, with much worse, their personal difficulties unfolding in the context of widespread social disruption, like, say, New Orleans after Katrina.

But that, to me, was the whole point of the ‘60s. The Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, the Peace Movement, Feminism, Black Power, Environmentalism, the Farmworkers’ Union, the uprisings of Native Americans, left insurgencies within labor unions, militant demands for gay power and rights—all of these featured the agitation and activism of young people moved in their hearts and minds by the great promises of U.S. history.

We were rebelling against what the country was and did; we were moved by a belief that the greatness of the American promise—the self-evident truths, the inalienable rights, the huddled masses yearning to be free, a nation that might truly be dedicated one day to the proposition that all men and women are created equal—could be realized if we were passionate and committed and relentless. These beliefs, all of them, were resident and rooted in our minds and in our hearts.

That we would mostly fail to be true to our sense of our best selves may be the source of the angst that bubbles up as O’Rourke’s ridicule, or the source of the angst that has bathed my own brain in delusional memories of our collective heroism. Perhaps, that is my challenge. Not so much to persuade others that I am right and that the O’Rourkes and Limbaughs and Reagans and Palins of this world are wrong. But to satisfy myself that what I believed then, and mostly believe now, is not a strangely persistent naïveté, or the remnants of an altered state that merely soothes and comforts me. A half century after the yet-to-be-precisely-determined end of the ‘60s, what can I continue to reasonably believe about who I am, who we are together, and how much better we can do?


Monday, November 4, 2013

Strategically speaking, it's time to rise up

The Left ought to aspire to relevance

With some awareness of the grandiosity of my ambition, I recently assigned myself the task of describing the way the U.S. Left has wandered through the wilderness these last 40 years or so and what, exactly, the Left ought to start doing about it besides acknowledging its own existence and finding ways to build unity. One critical requirement for writing about such topics is a bit of clarity about where the country is now, how it got that way, and what writers on the Left think about such things.

In "Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six Party System," socialist and veteran peace and justice activist Carl Davidson puts it this way:

"Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particularly gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time (Heaven). It's not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised," Davidson wrote.

Davidson's "Heaven and Earth" metaphor might seem gimmicky, but it grows out of the very useful understanding that strategic thinking requires the broadest possible look at the variables affecting the universe under consideration and that universe is always changing. Davidson's piece wants to take a hard look at that part of the universe conventionally understood as the two-party system; in reality, he argues, "that we live under a six-party system with two labels [Democrat and Republican]."

In the process, Davidson also notes that many would argue "...that the US has only one party, a capitalist party, with two wings, the bad and the worse."

That is, more or less, the position that Chris Hedges, a journalist widely respected by many on the Left, takes in "Our Invisible Revolution." Hedges doesn't even deign to mention Republicans in his piece, but Democrats of all descriptions "are effective masks for corporate power," he writes.

I prefer Davidson's take: The notion that we are actually living under one-party rule "is reductionist to a fault," he writes, "and doesn't tell you much other than that we live in a capitalist society, which is rather trivial." Of course, the point isn't trivial, at all, but Davidson is focussed on describing a complex reality here that includes the Tea Party, the Republican Multinationalists, the Blue Dogs, the 'Third Way' New Democrats, the Old New Dealers and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (and the Progressive Democrats of America). The last grouping, PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus, lies at the heart of Davidson's assertion that it is reductionist and misleading to claim that Republicans and Democrats are simply two wings of one party fronting for and managing on behalf of corporations and capitalism.

The PDA/CPC's "...policy views are Keynesian and, in some cases, social-democratic as well. Its recent 'Back-to-Work Budget' [would serve] as an excellent economic platform for a popular front against finance capital...it has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Davidson writes, using such slogans as "'Healthcare Not Warfare' and 'Windmills Not Weapons'." That congressional progressives haven't gotten very far with their agenda doesn't seem to be a function of their alleged role in one-party rule, but the result of political weakness on the Left, the absence of a movement of any sort that could force Congress to take such policy positions seriously.

And speaking of "a movement of any sort," a recent Nation article, by Greg Kaufmann warned about impending food stamp cuts that would adversely affect 48 million people receiving benefits. The piece, titled "This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement," argued that "...when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way."

This is true, of course, but the problem here is that there wasn't anything that the Left could do about the cuts when Congress passed them and the President agreed to them, and there wasn't anything anybody could do to stop them last week, either. On Friday, the budgeted cuts became reality in the lives of millions of households around the country. But as a title for the piece, "No time to wait for a movement" is misleading. We can't just "wait" for a movement to come along, of course, but until we build one, we're going to see more safety net cuts, more government shutdowns and more healthcare debacles.

Hedges seems to feel that a movement is already on the way. "...once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion. No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt [against the corporate state] is coming." Hedges has more to say, but most of it raises a single set of questions in my head: How does he know this? And, where is the evidence?

As a journalist, Hedges has great skill, courage and instincts for the kind of news that the rest of us need to hear and read. But when he's merely sharing his opinion, he's rather like a lot of the rest of us on the Left, full of stories about how we're gathering strength, about how we stopped an American attack on Syria, about how we prevented the appointment of Larry Summers as head of the Fed, or about how Occupy was "...ruthlessly crushed by the corporate state."

But if anybody or anything stopped a Summers appointment, it was the Congressional Progressive Caucus' ability to swing at least a little weight against a possible Obama appointment before it became a certainty. There was a popular outcry on the Left against armed intervention in Syria, to be sure, but ordinary Republican resistance to anything Obama, as we have witnessed repeatedly for the last five years, would have been (and was) more than sufficient to force Obama into a different course of action. Further, if taking away Occupy's tents was, overall, about what it took to crush that movement, then, yes, the corporate state behaved ruthlessly.

It might be past time for a movement, but it ain't gonna happen in advance of a strategy to build it. At the end of his piece, Carl Davidson quotes Alvin Toffler: "If you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."

For a long time now, what has happened to the Left in the U.S. has been part of someone else's strategy.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Time To End the Left's Long Losing Streak

It's going to take a while and it's going to take a strategy

The shutdown and debt ceiling fight had me thinking hard about exactly where in the wilderness the American Left might be and what the map back to relevance might look like. I blogged about that a bit in "A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy." In the process, I started outlining a blogging/writing challenge for myself that goes something like this: Outline the elements of a comprehensive strategy and make the case for a Left unified around that strategy.

Ridiculous pipe dream, right? Still, I really do think the Left has been wandering through a desert of political irrelevance for almost 40 years now and it is past time for settling down and committing to something different.

Coming up with that strategy and some sort of stirring call to action must cover a range of important considerations. Among them:

Describe the wilderness. What has the Left devoutly wished for these last four decades and failed to accomplish? What has been lost? Who is it, exactly, who has been doing all that wandering? What were the Left's achievements during that period and why weren't they the path to larger political success? Other than its appeal as part of a metaphor, why make 40 years the period of concern?

Compare the Left's decades-long failure to the political success of the extreme right-wing, which never should have achieved the influence it has, given both the cruelty and the lunacy of most extreme-right policy positions.

The list goes on, of course. What are the main causes of the Left's failure? What are the strategic perspectives that ought to shape the development of a new Left strategy? Who should be a part of a newer, bigger Left and why should they bother? What should be the goals and objectives of that strategy? What tools, resources and institutional structures are necessary to support a struggle for political relevance?

There are other important questions, I know. Every time I sit down to think about the whole idea (or get up to wander and noodle the idea), I come up with a different list. But I'm pretty certain that I'm not going to reach any kind of clarity about the project until I start it.

So that's what I'm going to do. And I'm hoping this blog will help me move the project along. This post isn't really the beginning of that discussion--it's more like the introduction, but the discussion, maybe, starts here, if others will weigh in. I don't really care if I end up with any ownership of the idea, what I care about is that all of us who have been wandering in the alleged wilderness come out of it together, more aware of what we need to do and how we must work together to do it.

I'm rereading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland right now. The book focuses on the years 1964-1972, a period bookended at the start by Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater and, at the other end, by Richard Nixon's smashing defeat of George McGovern. Perlstein writes that between 1964 and 1972, "...the battle lines that [currently] define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire."

What struck me most in the early parts of Nixonland is the sense of how close the country came in 1964 and '65 to establishing a policy and politics that would serve the best interests of the vast majority of Americans.

As Perlstein puts it:

"Johnson kept on rolling out his Great Society: preschool for poor children. college prep for poor teenagers, legal services for indigent defendants, economic redevelopment funds for lagging regions, landmark immigration reform, a Department of Housing and Urban Development, national endowments for the humanities and arts--even a whole new category for the liberal agenda, environmentalism: a Highway Beautification Act, a Water Quality Act, a Clean Air Act..."

There was also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, but then Watts burned, and LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam, and the wheels came off the Great Society. It all seemed to run into a wall almost at the moment the ride began. The losses and compromises litter the road since and now, from exile, we watch the Tea Party, the mother-ef'n Tea Party, for gosh sakes, exercise a power that eludes the rest of us. That's why we need a strategy.




Saturday, October 19, 2013

A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy


Not raising the debt ceiling would be like a rather simple-minded declaration of bankruptcy, but the big question is how to turn a Republican setback into a long-term political rout

1. John Boehner is right; the Republicans did fight "the good fight" and they lost it, but the debt ceiling was never a real issue. It was only a viable tactic for Republicans because Democrats had given in before, e.g., the sequester. The Republicans' maneuver was an inspired procedural action, but they won't weaponize it again. Democrats have shown that they have an effective defense against that weapon.

2. It was, in any case, always a dumb idea. Not raising the debt ceiling is like declaring bankruptcy without any legal protections. Imagine a decision to stop paying bills without filing for bankruptcy. One would be entirely at the mercy of creditors free to proceed against you as they wished. It would be like leaving your front door unlocked and posting a sign out front inviting all comers: "Take what you want, I am without hope."

3. Meanwhile, there were an awful lot of people relegated to bystander status or worse during the federal shutdown. Federal employees watched the fight from the sidelines. So did most voters in Blue states, though those who insisted that their elected representatives hold the line on the debt ceiling and shutdown may have helped to strengthen Democratic spines. Working people and poor families across the country had no political options while they suffered through layoffs, lost work time, closure of Head Start programs and food stamp cuts. The list could go on and on, but the point is that working folks in huge numbers found they could do little or nothing that would affect the standoff.

4. The fight was at least a temporary disaster for Republicans. But absent a political strategy to attack the House majority in red-state congressional districts, the Tea Party will live to fight another day and the Republican House will continue to be the tail that wags the dog.

5. In the week or two before the shutdown, plenty of people on the Left were busy celebrating so-called "populist victories" over the elite. A friend of mine, apparently in the full belief that popular resistance to intervention in Syria and opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers as Fed chief were attributable to some long-awaited resurgence of the Left in the United States, declared his belief that we have reached "the end of nearly four decades of rightward drift in the United States." In view of the fact that the Left was another of the groups watching helplessly from the sidelines while the Tea Party celebrated obstruction and shutdown, it's hard to take that claim seriously.

6. But the assertion that we have lived through "... four decades of rightward drift ..." does resonate. Right to work laws, stagnating wages, growing wealth inequality, record levels of incarceration, new and higher barriers to voting, prohibitively high college costs, virtually unregulated campaign spending by corporations and the wealthy, and more are features of the rightward drift that sometimes feels like a stampede.

7. Arguably, the last really sustained and effective progressive movement in this country was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that resulted in the Civil Rights Act(s) of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The liberalization of national politics that grew out of that movement also helped to assure the creation of Medicare in 1965. That liberalization also created cultural space for feminism and new employment protections for women and minorities.

8. The celebrated anti-war movement of the '60s and early '70s raised important questions about the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism, in general, and the military-industrial complex, and raised important questions about mainstream politics and media, but petered out with no strategic accomplishments to show for a great deal of political engagement.

9. One of the great strategic actions of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement that followed were that they took political action in the South and the great cities of the North. Those movements empowered people who might otherwise be victims of an oppressive political environment to take action on their own behalf. They also attracted supporters to the fight, often getting those supporters to establish roots for the long-term in places where the struggle was centered.

10. From where I stand, the challenge now is to articulate a political strategy that takes the fight to where success, measured in a variety of ways, will make the most difference:

--to the red states, for example, to engage in sustained electoral action aimed at replacing Republican representatives with Democrats, where possible, and aimed at making uncompetitive state legislative and congressional districts competitive,

--to do this for the long haul, not merely for 2014, or 2016, but through 2020 and the opportunity to redistrict in the red states,

--to build district-based networks capable of maintaining a permanent educational and organizing presence.

There is more to suggest, of course, but the point is that even if the brief bright flare of Occupy, the resistance to intervention in Syria and to the appointment of Larry Summers to the Fed mean more than I think they do, they will mean little without a commitment by the Left to organize electorally and to take that effort to where the fight is. It has been many years since the Left has made any political difference one way or the other in the United States. Even the Tea Party makes more difference than we do. Are we ready to change?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Errata or

What might be the intro to the 2nd printing,
were such a thing to happen

                  It turns out I owe Jill Littlewood an apology, whether she thinks so or not. On the way to publishing Wild Once and Captured, I wrote a preface, an author’s introduction to the terrible, terrible deeds recently committed by the writer, soon to be shared with the reader. It was not actually a very confessional piece; it was instead a justification of sorts for publishing my own damn self without good reasons, beyond vainglory, for the action and the product that resulted.

                  I remain, by the way, quite proud of the work that Ella Epton, the book’s designer and my sister-in-law, and Stacee Kalmanovsky, the book’s illustrator and my niece, did in making Wild Once a reality. Happily, I have also grown fonder of some of the poems within.

                  In that preface, I sought to frame myself as a poet, coyly beginning the whole thing with the phrase “if I am a poet” so that I might maintain deniability . “Oh, no,” I would claim, “I didn’t mean to say I was a poet, only that if there were readers out there who considered the contents to be poems, and if any of them were to wonder, in a general way, how I came to write some of them or all, then here, in a general way, is how that came to pass.”

                  The truth, of course, is that I would like for you to consider me a poet, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That was the argument beneath the apology in the preface that begins by crediting Geoffrey Chaucer, Mr. Rast and Jill Littlewood for their continuing influence on me, up to and including the point where I thanked them for instigating in me a love of writing in short phrases and forms.

                  Jill and I were in all the same English classes throughout high school. We were never really friends, but she seemed to be a good student. Knowing myself to be anything but studious, I respected that apparent characteristic in Jill. In the original preface I attributed a line from a poem, “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” to something she wrote.

                  This turns out to be a sort of recovered memory of mine. The phrase is actually from an e.e. cummings poem, one that I likely encountered later in life, but somehow conflated with a memory of Jill.

                  When I tracked Jill down (after nearly 50 years of no contact) and sent her a copy of Wild Once and Captured, she responded quickly, noting with regret that she had plagiarized e.e. cummings in her youth. She also said very nice things about the book. Unfortunately, I can’t track down that message, which raises the possibility that sometime in the future I will misrepresent her, again.

                  In any case, the fact that I misattributed a line from cummings to Jill needs to be clear. It was my bad, notwithstanding her willingness to take the rap.

                  The follow-up lesson here is that one can create facts out of memories regardless of their accuracy, making fraudulent history in the process. This also suggests to me that writing is almost by definition a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland experience in which words always mean either more or less than they were supposed to mean and never define, describe or depict exactly what I intended them to mean.

I also have no difficulty imagining myself picking up a pencil and writing a piece that borrows the words of another writer. Obviously, I’ve done it already—in the event, stealing words and then framing Jill for the theft.

One of my poems, The Unfolding, references my relaxed position on plagiarizing:

I set out line by line
to steal a poem from others
and piece by piece
to build my own.

Nevertheless, writing, sometimes a burdensome process, is often great fun for me. Sometimes, it is the most liberating thing I do. After all, humans can imagine just about anything.

This is a capacity that most of us, myself included, underutilize. Still, I try. I’ve attached another poem here, perhaps one day also to be included in a reprint of Wild Once and Captured. The poem, titled “The Transgressive Acts of Men,” may need a little explaining, which I’m not actually going to do.

But let me say, regarding the title, that the poem has little to do with multiple transgressions and wrongdoing by men of whatever description. This may be disappointing to some readers, but then Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, only mentioned that country once and provoked numerous discussions about whether the book had actually answered the question it raised. So it might be with “The Transgressive Acts of Men.”

The transgressions in question here are in reality singular and limited to me imagining myself to be an earth mother of sorts. Hubris and delusion, yes?

The Transgressive Acts of Men

Excluded from the matrilineal ascent,
I intrude.
I am before and beyond
all my mothers,

all my daughters,
mothering the clan;
in my DNA,
the Amazonian last daughter

staring in wonder
at the brink,
holding the hand
of all my sisters,

mindful of our brothers,
among whom I once was counted;
all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward.