Thursday, January 28, 2010

Organization - You Get Nothing Without It


It’s Time for the

Left to Get Serious

By Bill Fletcher Jr.

Democratic Left – Winter 2009

Shortly after last November’s presidential election, I spoke at a forum discussing its implications. There I mentioned that we should anticipate a right-wing populist trend emerging, one that I would describe as “revanchist” – a term meaning “revenge-seeking.” Interestingly enough, a member of the International Socialist Organization dismissed my concerns as pessimistic and unwarranted. She emphasized the energy and dynamism coming out of the campaign. While, of course, I could see the same thing, I suggested to her that she was underestimating the toxic filth that exists in the bilges of the U.S. Unfortunately, we can see what has been unfolding over the last year.

Right-wing populism has a long history in the U.S. and, much like various chronic illnesses, becomes a part of the system and seems to emerge when the body is weakened. In our case, the body is the economy. When the economy is in crisis, and particularly when there is a financial crisis, right-wing populism emerges and can become a potent political force. Right-wing populism is not well understood by the Left. Fascism, for instance, which is often our description of anything we do not like that comes out of the Right, is one variant of right-wing populism, but they are not identical. Right-wing populism is a political force that sometimes sounds like a Left critique, but is anything but such a critique. It is – and this is why it is so dangerous – a phenomenon that draws from the myth of U.S. history, so elements of it are easily picked up by segments of the population that are susceptible to the draw of the dominant U.S. narrative.

Let me lay out the basic right-wing populist narrative: We once lived in a society of rugged individuals. If you – generally speaking, a white person – worked hard, you would succeed. If you put in a good day’s work, you would be rewarded. But, you see, we – white people – were betrayed. “Our” lives are falling apart. It was one thing for blacks to fall deeper into poverty, or Latinos to be on the margins, but it was not supposed to happen to us. And so, we must find out and identify who betrayed us. Jews are one group; racial minorities are another… And so the story goes…

The virulent racism inherent in right-wing populism is evident today in the anti-Obama madness that has been unfolding. Now there is much to be critical of when it comes to the Obama administration, but the nature of the right-wing assault speaks to the irrationalism of right-wing populism. Whether it is the so-called Birthers, or the healthcare debate, we see it again and again. No concern regarding the truth or facts, but instead playing to fears.

The election of Obama completely unsettled large segments of white America. While their lives were collapsing, how was it possible that a black American would be elected president of the USA? It was not supposed to happen that way.

Right-wing populism plays on fears but it also plays on real concerns. Obama’s main focus has been on securing capitalism. The bailouts of Wall Street, begun under Bush, continued. Yet with these bailouts there were precious few controls on the greed and avarice of Wall Street. The sickening efforts by Wall Street to continue its huge salaries and bonuses flaunted the bailouts and made many people, quite justifiably, furious. On top of that, of course, the wars continue, with resources that should be used to rebuild the U.S. (and save the planet) being devoted to aggression.

But there is something else that has been happening that particularly unsettles right-wing populists. While Obama is concerned about changing the image of the U.S. empire, he altered U.S. foreign policy in some ways that drives the political Right crazy. Take, for instance, his speech to the Muslim world and the apology he offered regarding the 1953 coup in Iran. The president openly acknowledged the U.S. role in that coup, i.e., in the overthrow of a democratic, sovereign government. The problem, however, is that Obama broke the cardinal rule: the U.S. does not apologize for anything, irrespective of whether it is wrong.  One of the challenges that we on the Left face is how to respond to right-wing populism while at the same time taking on Obama. Too many progressives believe that we either have to denounce Obama or we have to embrace Obama. The lack of any sort of tactical nuance is pathetic.

Let us be clear about our situation. We live at a moment of the convergence of three crises: economic, environmental and state legitimacy. While we are increasingly clear about the dangers brought about by the economic and environmental crises, few of us, including on the Left, pay attention to the crisis of state legitimacy. The impact of neoliberal globalization has, among other things, reshaped the role of the state. In general, the capitalist state cannot operate strictly on repression;therefore there must be some level of consensus. That consensus, at least among significant portions of the population, rests on the notion that the state will distribute resources and will help to sustain the population, particularly during rough periods. But what happens when the state stops fulfilling its distributionist role? What happens when people come to believe that they cannot count on the state? Neoliberal globalization has led to a shifting of the role of the State in that it is now more highly repressive but also much less distributionist. Given the polarization of wealth and overall inequality, there are fewer resources that can be devoted to distributionist activities, but always plenty of resources to devote toward wars, prisons and police. In that situation, people start looking out for themselves and this is when things can become dangerous. While the Left’s response to such a situation is to, among other things, demand a progressive role for the state and, for socialists, to look for a transformation beyond the capitalist state, the political Right can either move in the direction of greater authoritarianism or toward militiatype movements. An extreme version of this can be openly genocidal, e.g., Rwanda, 1994: people murdering one another over increasingly scarce resources.

Obama emerged in the midst of these crises bringing hope and inspiration, and, while I sincerely believe that he had the intention of introducing certain significant changes, the objectives of his administration are focused on reforming neoliberal capitalism and, as such, are not qualitatively different from either Bill or Hillary Clinton. Look, I was not anticipating an anti-capitalist president, but what is striking is that his administration does not even seek to introduce a different form of capitalist accumulation in light of the crisis of neoliberal globalization – at least not yet. And that, I would argue, will depend to a great degree on what the Left and progressive social movements are prepared to do.

Obama’s efforts to preserve neoliberal capitalism actually fuel the fires of rightwing populism. Of course right-wing populism is not anti-capitalist, but in opportunistic fashion, plays on the fears and grievances that people face as a result of the reality of neoliberal capitalism. Insofar as Obama places attention on protecting capital, right-wing populism plays upon this because there is very little left-wing challenge that speaks to the grievances felt by so many.

Prior to the Obama election I feared that progressives and leftists would do, essentially, what many subsequently have done: either write off the election results or fall into demobilization. I will leave aside those who simply write off the administration. They are of little consequence. What is more dangerous are those who have decided to restrain their critiques of the administration; those who have decided that it is better to follow an inside track of playing up to the administration, hoping that by muting their criticisms and differences that they will at least have a seat at the table. In fact, there is a national labor leader who said just that, i.e., that it was better to be at the table and get nothing than to be standing on the outside.

For the Left, in the midst of the convergence of these three crises I would suggest the following:

• Offer a different explanation of U.S. history and of what

is happening right now.

• Respond to the crises with theory and action. We cannot destroy myths with facts alone but must instead link those facts to a counter-analysis or framework.

• Build real organizations that are prepared to fight back. This is what makes the ACORN disaster so troubling. We need organizations like ACORN that are rooted among the poor and are prepared to resist. The recent demonstrations in Chicago that involved SEIU and National People’s Action are a good example of the sorts of activities that we need, but we must go much further, ranging from eviction resistance to the need for a resurgence of the anti-war movement. What about unemployed councils?

• Force the Obama administration to do what needs to be done, both domestically and internationally. We cannot afford to sit back and soft-pedal our criticisms of Obama.

• Get serious about mounting progressive electoral challenges, which will not only take on Republicans but also conservative Democrats.

And then there are the tasks of socialists. I must say that I am sick of our failure to think through what needs to be done to rebuild a visible and viable radical Left. Yes, radical! Yes, one that is completely unapologetic in pointing out that capitalism is a criminal system driving this planet to the brink of disaster. The Left must be at the core of those who voice their outrage as to what is not only happening to the Palestinians, but also to people in Paterson, New Jersey. We must be the ones who continue to point out that every time we hear about this damned deficit, people should remember what could be saved were we not in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must be the ones who point out that this administration was absolutely wrong in its approach to the Honduran coup; i.e., that the U.S. should have done everything in its power to force the coup people from power. We must be the ones who speak to the misery in Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; and Oakland, California.

But we cannot do that without organization. We cannot do that by relying on Facebook, Web sites and e-mails. We cannot do that by relying on speaking to and with those people that we like and who agree with us. It means organization and it means that we have to operate very differently than most of us are comfortable operating. Yes, comrades of DSA, while your younger members are going great guns, a fact about which you should be very proud, we need a different DSA. We need tighter organization that educates and activates. We need DSA to reach out to others on the Left, particularly the radical Left, and engage in both joint work but also discussions regarding what steps need to be taken to create a significant formation on the political Left.

We ultimately need a party of the Left, a formation that while not focused on running candidates for office in the near future, becomes a vehicle to unite activists from various progressive social movements; a party that is overtly anti-capitalist; a party that tells the people of the U.S. a different story, a story about possibilities, but also a story about our real history as a country; a party that pushes for the U.S. to rejoin the people of planet Earth, repairing the damage that the U.S. helped to bring about, as we struggle and fight to save what Jacques Cousteau always called the “Water Planet.”

In this sense, comrades, I am here to not only speak to you about the subject of this panel, but to put before you a challenge. Too many of us on the Left act as if we have all the time in the world to make changes. If it does not happen in our lifetimes, too many of us think, it will inevitably happen in the next. No! History demonstrates exactly the opposite. There are no guarantees. Right-wing populism, whether in the form of the Birthers, Aryan Nation-types, Minutemen, the Front National in France, the Northern Leagues in Italy or in the form of clerical fascists such as Al Qaeda – yes, Al Qaeda – seek to take us into a mythical world that never existed; a world of fear, of horror, of hopelessness, of endless repression.

DSA is needed as a major force to transform the Left and compel the entire Left to recognize that ours must be a struggle for power; a struggle for a progressive politics; a struggle to create a national-popular bloc capable of truly altering the priorities of this country…and this necessitates theory and it necessitates organization. Remember the words of A. Philip Randolph that I think are so applicable to this moment:

“At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything; and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

What more needs to be said?

[Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of and a senior scholar with the ‘Institute for Policy Studies’. The immediate past president of ‘TransAfrica Forum’, he is co-author of ‘Solidarity Divided’, which analyzes the crisis in organized labor in the U.S. He can be reached at ]


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Three Evils of Anti-Democracy

The Biggest Roadblocks

to True Democracy

Excerpted from "First Steps on a Long Road"

By William Rivers Pitt


January 23, 2009 - Confronting every American citizen is the existence of three dominant factors which have become part of the nation's DNA over the course of the last century and a half. Each of these factors holds muscular sway over the doings of government and has a direct effect upon all our lives. None of them are going away any time soon, and that is fact.


One of these three is the existence of something called "corporate personhood," the legal theory established by a number of Supreme Court cases, including the 1886 Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which grants 14th Amendment rights to corporations. In essence, it is a legal shield that grants the same rights and privileges of citizenry enjoyed by you and me to faceless, on-paper corporate constructs. This has given rise to what can only be described as corporate super-citizens, entities with our rights but with the enormous financial ability to press, and indeed distort, those rights for their own purposes.


Another factor we currently endure is the lingering existence and aftereffect of the establishment of legalized political bribery, best represented by the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo. In short, due to decisions like the one in Buckley, the payment of millions of dollars to political parties and candidates amounts to "free speech." Combined with the existence of corporate personhood, the result was corporate super-citizens pressing their "rights" by purchasing politics wholesale. Corporations seeking the dismantling of media ownership rules, the deregulation of banking and financial strictures, and the denuding of environmental protections merely purchased enough politicians via "free speech" contributions, and they got what they wanted.



The third factor takes us all the way back to World War II, and is where the confluence of those first two factors truly came together to form a juggernaut that marks every part of our national landscape. In order to gear up for the kind of colossal manufacturing output required to defeat two massive military powers on opposite ends of the globe, President Roosevelt placed our national economy on a wartime footing. With the establishment of the Truman Doctrine to confront Soviet communism, and the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, America's wartime economic footing became a permanent thing that remains at the nucleus of our national economy to this day.

Put plainly, much of the health of the American economy today requires the permanent preparation for and fighting of wars. The corporate persons who profit from defense spending have made sure, by way of their "free speech" spending on pet politicians and acquirement of major media outlets, that nothing interferes with the financial processes of this arrangement. Their politicians and media spokesmen terrify the people with the golems of imminent national doom, the money rolls in, and the world gets more dangerous by the day.

These three legs are the tripod upon which our national reality currently stands, and not to put too fine a point on it, but President Barack Hussein Obama isn't going to put even a tiny dent in the way things are. No president can, not completely, and certainly not now. Fixing this self-destructive arrangement cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop, but will require the slow, steady, patient dedication of a lifetime ... along with victories in many more elections to come, of course.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Jobs, Team Obama and the Banksters

Main Street?

by Bill Fletcher, Jr.

January 21, 2010

(NNPA) - In the midst of the 2008 financial collapse the public was told that Wall Street needed to be saved otherwise we faced total economic disaster. We were also told that so-called Main Street, that is our communities, would also receive badly needed assistance. In fact, the Obama stimulus package was to be aimed at speaking to the needs of Main Street.

The drawbridge between the two ''streets'' seems to be stuck in the up position. While Wall Street has largely been saved from total catastrophe, and many financial institutions have actually grown as a result of the crisis, the plight of regular working people has stagnated or worsened. Yes, it is true that the economy is shedding fewer jobs than a year ago, but the point is that the economy continues to shed jobs rather than add jobs. Thus, once again we face the prospect of what has come to be known as a ''jobless recovery.''

The depths of the current economic crisis go beyond what most of us that have grown up since the Depression are familiar with. Yet what we are experiencing did not just start to happen in the fall of 2008 or the end of 2007 (when the recession officially came about). There has been a slow-moving decline in living standards going on since the mid-1970s and some communities, particularly communities of color, have suffered badly.

When the discussion of the stimulus package was raised this seemed to be the right direction to go. Tax cuts and other Republican magical devices would not work. Yet, true to form, the Obama administration chose to proceed cautiously rather than put the funds into the stimulus that were truly needed. The second problem is that it has taken a long time for the stimulus funds to get where they are needed. The third problem is that too much of the thinking around the stimulus focuses on the immediate victims of this current recession rather than thinking about the long-term victims of our brave new economy.

Ironically, the political Right is attacking the Obama administration for paying too much attention to Wall Street. Certainly if the Republicans were in power they would have done even less for Main Street, but who bothers with the facts? The political Right is playing off of increasing anger among white victims of the economic crisis in order to focus them on looking for scapegoats, whether those scapegoats are Jews, immigrants, gays/lesbians or, yes, Black folks. If the Obama administration does not move quickly to preempt this right-wing demagoguery huge sections of the population will not only be drawn into irrationalism, but people will not bother to pay attention to any efforts by the Administration to address Main Street.

Significant effort must go into jobs and economic development, but it is an effort that must be linked to local initiatives at rebuilding. Not only should funds go to those who have recently lost their jobs, but there must be attention to sites of chronic unemployment, such as the Camden, New Jerseys or Flint, Michigans. That means that it is more than just sending in funds, but funds must also be accompanied by the creation of local economic development boards that work to plan how the funds can be used in order to build a sustainable local economy. Anything less and it will only result in pouring water into a draining bathtub.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the co-author of ''Solidarity Divided.''


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Big Bucks in the Right's Radicalization


Uneasy Marriage

Between Tea Partiers

and the GOP

By Ed Kilgore
January 14, 2010

Recent polls show their movement is thought of more favorably [1] by Americans than either the Democratic or Republican Parties. Political independents are said to be attracted more each day. Progressive dissenters against the “pro-corporate” policies of the Obama administration pine for alliances [2] with them.

But at the same time, Republican politicians constantly ape their rhetoric and seek to deploy them against their Democratic, and sometimes intraparty, enemies.

So the question persists: Is the Tea Party Movement an independent “third force” in American politics? Or is it essentially a right-wing faction aimed at the conquest of the Republican Party?

There are no snap answers to these questions. Tea Party activists unsurprisingly stress their independence [3] from both parties, and their hostility towards the “Republican establishment.” The grassroots and citizen-based nature [4] of the movement is constantly promoted as a bedrock principle. And even when tea-partiers operate in the conventional electoral setting of Republican primaries, their candidates are billed as insurgents, not as intraparty warriors.

But the fact remains that these candidates are almost invariably self-identified Republicans, campaigning on traditional conservative Republican themes, and cooperating with Republican politicians tactically and strategically on major issues. There is zero visible outreach to Democrats of any stripe. And to the extent there is a consensus Tea Party ideology, it is indistinguishable in any significant way from the longstanding agenda of the right wing of the GOP—particular the agenda of the most recent past, when conservatives have sought conspicuously to disassociate themselves from the record of the Bush administration.

Republican politicians are already very active in the movement itself. Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who appears to have a better than even chance of toppling popular Republican governor Charlie Crist in a Senate primary this year, is a major figure [5] in both the Tea Party Movement and more traditional conservative GOP circles. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, generally known as the most conservative Republican U.S. senator, has said [6]: “We need to stop looking at the tea parties as separate from the Republican Party.” (For a look at the rise of Tea Partiers in the House, read Lydia DePillis’s excellent piece [7].)

What makes this sort of talk especially relevant politically is that it serves a very deep psychological need among contemporary conservative Republicans. They’ve largely succeeded in subduing those few voices in the GOP urging a old-fashioned “big tent” party that’s tolerant of ideological moderates. Now the Tea Party phenomenon offers conservative Republicans a talking point they badly need: evidence that there is a previously hidden conservative majority in the country that only a more sharply consistent conservative message can reach. In other words, electoral gold is to be found on the right, not in the center, of the ideological spectrum. But aside from a shared antipathy towards Barack Obama, “liberals,” taxes, and various other bugaboos, sealing the deal between a “reformed” GOP and Tea Party activists is a complicated proposition.

This much has been made clear by the calling of a National Tea Party Convention [8] in Nashville next month, by a for-profit group called Tea Party Nation. Aside from the questionable right of anyone in particular to “convene” this highly decentralized movement, a $549 registration fee has raised hackles in many circles, and it’s not clear how legitimate the Nashville gathering—denounced this week [9] by the highly influential RedState founder Erick Erickson as “scammy”—will turn out to be.

But interestingly enough, no one seems to be complaining about the speakers list put together for the National Tea Party Convention. The big keynote speaker is Sarah Palin [10]; other featured speakers include Republican House members Michelle Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn (the latter a member of the House GOP leadership). Aside from illustrating an unusual and admirable commitment to gender equity in speaking gigs, this lineup does not exactly show uneasiness about alliances with Republican pols.

The Nashville linup also would appear to rebut another commonly held argument that the Tea Party Movement’s independence is guaranteed by its fundamentally libertarian character, so incompatible with the GOP’s heavy reliance on cultural conservatives and foreign-policy neocons. Palin is, of course, the maximum heroine of cultural conservatives. Bachmann is famous for questioning the patriotism of any and all Democrats. Beyond that, Tea Party Convention panelists include the Christian Right warhorse Rick Scarborough of Vision America (notable, among other things, for his advocacy of global conflict with Muslims) and Judge Roy Moore, the famous “Ten Commandments Judge” who’s a favorite of theocrats everywhere. No genuine libertarian would embrace this crew.

Indeed, for all the talk about the Tea Party Movement as a potential “third force” in American politics, it’s just as easy to argue that it’s mainly composed of right-wing Republican activists who have been radicalized by the political and economic events of the last couple of years, and particularly by the election of Barack Obama.

The usefulness of the Tea Party Movement in a full right-wing takeover of the Republican Party is obvious. What’s less obvious is why a close relationship with Republican politicians serves the purposes of truly independent citizen-activists disgusted by the political status quo. Republicans have swallowed a lot of Tea Party rhetoric, but they may be in the process of swallowing up the Tea Party Movement.

Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist [11] and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

For more TNR, become a fan [12] on Facebook and follow us [13] on Twitter.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Obama in Context - One Take on the First Year

Bigger Than Obama:

Blaming the President

for the Slow Pace of Reform

is too Simplistic.



Progressives for Obama

People on the left make a serious mistake by blaming Obama for the slow pace of reform, and becoming disillusioned. Disillusionment leads to demoralization, not action. The one-year anniversary of the presidential election provides a hook for all kinds of venting.

“Now, today, the Big Hope president has virtually nothing of import to show for nearly a year in office,” David Michael Green, a Hofstra University professor, writes on his website, The Regressive Antidote. He then offers a stream of vituperation about Obama’s failure to lead, capitulation to the right, and lack of political sense and vision. Green doesn’t analyze these alleged failures; he simply savages the president’s personal qualities.

Ironically, Green’s attack came as the House of Representatives made history by passing national health insurance reform legislation. Of course, the House bill doesn’t live up to everything the president promised, and the final version that gets through the Senate and reconciliation and then lands on his desk is likely to be even further from ideal. But we have been waiting 70 years to witness any movement toward universal healthcare and are now on the cusp of seeing it.

Many critics correctly question Obama’s reliance on Wall Street enablers for key economic advice, and doubt the Obama team can reverse the rising tide of unemployment and underemployment. There is deep anxiety about the president’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, despite growing evidence that this war is as foolish, futile and feckless as any military adventure the United States has previously undertaken. And Obama has not consistently taken the high road on global warming, workers’ rights, gay rights and civil liberties.

Blaming Obama, however, is simplistic. Yes, he has to be held to the promises he articulated and the hope he inspired. But the first question we must ask is why those hopes and promises are so elusive.

Is it really because Obama and his administration have betrayed us, or demonstrated their weakness or cowardice, or were tricksters from the start? A more accurate diagnosis would start instead with the fact that all of the major reforms promised have been fiercely resisted by the main centers of power in society—the corporate elite and the military industrial complex.

People on the left typically use a power structure analysis to explain the limits of democracy in the United States. Yet, for some reason, many people seem to have hoped that Obama would override all that, and do so in less than a year.

Obama, however, knew from the start that his stated goals would be powerfully resisted. Accordingly, he has spent his first year in office devising compromises to help overcome some of that resistance, so that a semblance of reform might happen.

To understand this, consider the positions of the corporate and bureaucratic power centers:

•Key representatives and senators are financed by the very corporate interests that need to be reformed. If a piece of proposed legislation would harm those corporate interests, those legislators can be counted on to block it and propose more lenient rules. Corporate lobbyists actually write many of the laws that are supposed to regulate their clients.

•Corporate and military interests have access and influence in the mass media. Any progressive change the president proposes can trigger charges that his administration is weak on national security matters. When JFK contemplated aborting the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he was warned that former President Dwight Eisenhower would publicly campaign against him. Today, we hear rumors in the press that if Obama fails to follow the demands of General McChrystal for a troop buildup in Afghanistan, General Petraeus will resign and run for president against him.

•Corporate and financial decision-makers—the “investment class”—have a huge influence over markets and the economy as a whole, precisely because they control the flow and pace of investment. Because the most rational healthcare reform, a type of ‘Medicare for all,’ would wipe out the giant health insurance corporations and shift power away from the pharmaceutical industry, fears of an investor revolt make single payer “politically impossible.” If the president were to push for true health reform, he would risk the wrath of the investment class.

In the face of resistance, President Obama formulated a strategy to deliver needed reforms. He reassured Wall Street by appointing Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to run economic policy and financial reform; he forced key congresspersons to “own” healthcare reform by giving them responsibility for shaping the legislation, and he compromised with drug and hospital lobbies; he moved slowly with reforms affecting the CIA and Pentagon; and he backed a “cap and trade” approach to carbon emission control.

We remember FDR, JFK and LBJ as bold reformist presidents, forgetting their actual records. FDR made major and harmful compromises on social security, the Wagner Act and civil rights. Kennedy tried mightily to contain the civil rights movement and ordered FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King. He launched a huge arms race with the USSR, was afraid to recognize Communist China and invaded Cuba. Johnson could not figure out how to end the Vietnam War, even though he believed it would destroy his legacy. And his great healthcare reform, Medicare, was itself a compromise, covering only those over 65.

The entire history of successful reform emanating from the White House is replete with corporate and political compromises. Always ingrained in the thought process of successful politicians is the mantra we now hear channeled through Rahm Emanuel, who says, in effect: ‘We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to pass something even if it is quite flawed. We can work to improve it down the line.’ Such maxims summarize the limits of presidential power in the face of power elite resistance.

People on the left make a serious mistake by blaming the president for the slow pace of reform, and becoming disillusioned. Disillusionment leads to demoralization, not action. On the other hand, the leaders of progressive organizations on the national level have so far been making an even bigger mistake: spending their resources on mobilizing support for the White House agenda. What we need from here on in is a national coalition aimed at mobilizing grassroots support for “keeping the promises”—a coalition that aims beyond what is immediately possible, and makes strategic demands that challenge the agenda of the president and his party.

Right now, such demands could include:

•a real jobs program that builds in the green economy but seeks more rapid expansion of employment opportunity than anything now on the agenda;

•carbon control targets more far-reaching than current legislation contemplates;

•a binding timetable for ending U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, emphasizing that the massive war budget endangers any hope for change.

These goals are interrelated. A massive investment in renewable energy, conservation and alternative transportation will create jobs. Investment funding can come from reducing the war budgets. Energy alternatives will reduce the obsession with Middle East oil that drives our international policy.

A revitalized progressive coalition at the national level, independent of the Obama administration but embracing its original goals, would be a counterweight to the corporate, financial and military sectors that currently hold sway. Indeed, such a coalition should aim to encourage divisions in the power elite—a vibrant, green economy would benefit businesses, and relief from the wars would be welcomed by many in the military.

During the campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly said that change was up to us. He can be a great president, if and when we make him one.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

From the Indian Wars to Avatar - Tom Hayden's Take on the Movie and Our Culture

Tom Hayden


January 6, 2010

On Avatar

Dear Patrick Goldstein,

I was very interested in your political analysis of the movie Avatar in the LA Times. My left-wing background tells me that culture doesn't change material conditions, but it sure changes consciousness and that's the cradle of new activism. Conservatives are right to be profoundly disturbed about James Cameron's movie. And the media sometimes has difficulty discerning when public attitudes move beyond narrow electoral noise.

Like other people I know, I was profoundly moved by two revelations in my life: the first came when reading Dee  Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee about 1970 in Berkeley, a time when the Vietnam war was raging and my conventional assumptions had been shaken to the root. I intuited in a flash that Vietnam was a continuation of the counter-insurgency wars on our Great Plains of the century before, and would be repeated over and over again.

Even the US instruments of war were named after the native tribes [Tomahawk missiles for example], the term "Vietcong" was a pejorative like "Sioux" and "Apache", which meant enemy]. The photos from My Lai were identical in an eerie way with those from Wounded Knee. Gold [and later, uranium] in the Black Hills was the equivalent of oil in Iraq. And of course the treaties all were unkept as Manifest Destiny expanded.

This sensibility underlies James Cameron's spectacle of the Nav'I facing extinction. The triumphant fighting back is therapeutic on many levels, and reveals the emergence of a new American national narrative that recognizes the shame of what happened to the native Americans at the very historical moment we celebrate as the birth of democracy. That both liberal and conservative narratives of the nation are in denial about this original sin is deeply troubling to many Americans who want to save democracy from the perpetuation of its past.

My second revelation came when I first read Thomas Berry's The Dream of the Earth in the 1980s, a theological work that strived to reveal the sacred nature of all creation, not simply the sacredness of human beings. A scholar, scientist and Catholic priest, Father Berry influenced the thought and lives of many people disillusioned with the arrogant utilitarianism that said the universe was created only for human use, a kind of storehouse of resources for exploitation and consumption. Thomas Berry called on his followers to explore the divine mode of the universe as long understood and practiced by many native people. He added that modern scientific inquiry itself pointed toward an unfathomable mystery at the origin of the universe, a mystery that he sometimes called God, though he believed that the mystery was beyond language.

I do not believe that these revelatory experiences were isolated or marginal, though they were rebuffed by the institutions they threatened. Millions of Americans, without leaving their mainstream roles and religions, became aware of a kinship with the natural world, and the debt we have to native traditions.

For example, according to a 1995 MIT survey, 78 percent believed that "because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it," and "before Columbus came to this continent, the Indians were completely in balance with their environment."

I believe James Cameron simply has brought this pre-existing consciousness to the mainstream of orthodox life through a brilliant exercise of film-making.


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