No Respect for the Poor, Working or Not

22/05/15 0 COMMENTS
ZNet, May 21, 2015

We all make mistakes. In 1996, I ventured a silly notion at the end of a grant-funded project study that criticized the over-optimistic labor market assumptions behind U.S. “welfare reform.”  Welfare “reform” was a euphemism for the elimination of poor families’ entitlement to basic family cash assistance in the name of “welfare-to-work” and “work first.” My fellow researchers and I (working under the rubric of the Midwest Job Gap project) showed that the U.S. economy was generating far too few decent-paying low-skilled jobs to absorb the millions of poor mothers being pushed into the job market by the bipartisan “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.”  There wasn’t enough employment “opportunity” out there for welfare “reform” to meaningfully reduce poverty in the U.S., we argued.

Nonetheless, I found it necessary for some reason to hint that there might be a “silver lining” to the vicious policy in question. Maybe, I suggested, poor people would be treated with more respect in the U.S. since it would now be clearer than ever that most of the nation’s worst-off citizens were employed. I was thinking of opinion surveys I’d seen showing that the working poor were held in much higher regard than “the welfare poor” by the public and by policy makers.

Surrendering Basic Rights

Who was I trying to kid? In the late 1990s, at the peak of the “Clinton boom,” the brilliant left author Barbara Ehrenreich began the participant-observatory research for what became her bestselling 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America – a harrowing account of her attempts to pay her bills and maintain her dignity while working at the bottom of the American occupational structure. Ehrenreich wanted to know how anyone could make it on $6 an hour without benefits as a hotel maid, house cleaner, waitress, and Wal-Mart sales “associate,” working in the precarious region between fading public benefits eligibility and good jobs?  She found that the nation’s lowest-status jobs were both physically and mentally exhausting and that one such job was not enough to pay for decent food, clothing, and shelter.

But what most particularly struck Ehrenreich about life at the low-wage end of the “Fabulous Nineties” was the remarkable extent to which working people were “required to surrender…basic civil rights…and self-respect” thanks to employer practices that helped “mak[e] ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality.”  The humiliations she witnessed and experienced included routine mandatory drug testing, intrusive pre-employment tests full of demeaning questions, rules against “talking” and “gossip” (against organizing, often enough), restrictions on trips to the bathroom, abusive rants by over-bearing supervisors, petty disciplinary measures, stolen labor time, and the constant threat of being fired for “stepping out of line.”  She learned as a waitress that management had the right to search her purse at any time.

So much for the notion that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s welfare “reform” (elimination) might restore some dignity and honor to the poor by moving more of them off the dole and into the paid workplace.

Two Cruel Jokes: The Minimum Wage and Poverty Level

Things have gotten worse for low-wage U.S. workers since Nickeled and Dimed hit the bookshelves. Real hourly wages for those at the middle of the wage distribution have stagnated since 2000, consistent with deeper trends across the long neoliberal era. But no group of workers has suffered more than those at the very bottom. Americans with only a high school degree or less have actually seen their wages fall since the turn of the millennium.

One part of the problem is that the U.S. minimum wage is a bad joke. If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $18 an hour today.  Instead it sits at a pathetic $7.25, which translates (assuming full-time year round work) into $14,500 per year, well below the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level for a three-person family ($19,790).

The most that “liberal” Democrats in Washington seem ready to pretend to fight for is an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour, that is, to a mere $20,000 a year for low-wage workers fortunate enough to work 40 hours a week 50 weeks in a year.

Which brings us to another bad joke: the U.S. poverty level. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s heroically researched Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa, is $48,235.  That sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($853), food ($369), child care ($684), transportation ($459), health care ($891), other necessities ($313), and taxes ($450), for a total monthly outlay of $4,020. Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $70,929. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,168. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City and the cost is $66,667.

It is absurd not only that the US federal poverty level (based on a hopelessly antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times) is so low but also that it is not adjusted for significant geographic variations in the cost of living across US metro areas.

The EPI’s figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear the Chamber of Commerce or the American Enterprise Institute express horror at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically” high as $15 an hour.  Even such a dramatically increased minimum wage translates into just $30,000 a year for a full time worker fortunate to stay employed full time.

With most Americans’ wages stagnating for more than a decade and with the lowest paid workers’ wages shrinking, it is no wonder that half of the more than 24 million Americans who rely on food banks for basic nutrition are employed.  The cost of living just keeps going up.

“Put a Bullet Through Your Head”

Psychological abuse from employers remains very much a problem for the working poor. As the working class activist and journalist Bob Simpson reported from Chicago last year, a McDonald’s worker named Carmen Navarrette was “told that she ‘should put a bullet through her head,’ because she had requested permission to go home after becoming very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.”  The daughter of a different Chicago fast food worker spoke “about how her mom comes home crying because ‘the manager would scream at her and yell mean things. And right now she is pregnant and he makes her carry more than she is supposed to and that’s not good for her. But he says he doesn’t care.’….On top of …[the] economic burden” that goes with working poverty in the U.S.,  Simpson noted, “comes the stress of cruel verbal abuse and the threat of arbitrary discipline without fair hearing.”

Dickensian Facts

Back to “welfare reform.” How’s that forgotten experiment in neoliberal “tough love” doing these days? As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported to Congress three weeks ago, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the program that replaced AFDC, Aid for Families with Dependent Children under the 1996 welfare “reform”) provides cash assistance to very few needy families and lifts far few children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half the federal poverty line) than did its predecessor, AFDC – this while poverty has risen in the current century. CBPP Vice President Ladonna Pavetti’s testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee reads like something out of Charles Dickens:

“The national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.7 million families in 1996 to 1.7 million families in 2013 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. The number of families with children in poverty hit a low of 5.2 million in 2000, but has since increased to more than 7 million. Similarly, the number of families with children in deep poverty hit a low of about 2 million in 2000, but is now above 3 million. These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that TANF reaches a much smaller share of poor families than AFDC did. When TANF was enacted, nationally, 68 families received assistance for every 100 families in poverty; that number has since fallen to just 26 families receiving assistance for every 100 families in poverty…In ten states, fewer than 10 families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.”

On the eve of its elimination in 1995, AFDC raised 62% of children who would have otherwise been in deep poverty.  It saved 2,210,000 children from life at less than half the poverty level.  Fifteen years later, TANF did the same for a mere 629,000 children, lifting just 24% of children who would have otherwise been deeply poor. U.S. welfare payments were in fact never high enough to permit poor mothers to escape the necessity of participation in the job market, but, as the Public Broadcasting System recently reported, “welfare checks have shrunk so much that the very poorest single-parent families [now] receive…35 percent less than they did before welfare-to-work began.”

That is disgraceful in and of itself.  It is doubly shameful in a time when poverty has expanded while wealth and income have concentrated in ever fewer hands (the top 1% garnered 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s first administration), bringing the nation to an openly acknowledged New Gilded Age of savage inequality and transparent plutocracy.

Welfare to Work?

Welfare to work? As Pavetti told Congress, most of the early employment gains among single mothers that were seen after TANF’s creation in 1997 have vanished thanks to the disappearance (after 2000) of the briefly favorable labor market for lesser skilled workers that emerged in the late 1990s.  The success of “work first” programs, which emphasize getting participants into the labor market quickly during the late 1990s, is vastly overstated. Although employment increased, the vast majority of former welfare recipients pushed into the job market did not attain stable employment even at the height of the unsustainable, debt-leveraged Clinton expansion. And today, after two predictable (and predicted) capitalist recessions (one epic in nature) and with another recession looming, U.S. states “spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.”  TANF recipients report that TANF “welfare to work” programs typically involve little more than direction to short-lived, commonly seasonal low-wage jobs and that serious training and placement programs are unavailable and without funds.

“Welfare to work” is a scam to cover the slashing of government’s responsibility for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens in a society whose “free market” system offers ever fewer real opportunities for stability and upward mobility through employment while conferring vast government subsidies and protections and on the wealthy corporate and financial Few.

Fight for 15 and for Dignity

The U.S. working class struggle for a Living Wage that has emerged in recent years in connection with the Fight for Fifteen – for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (still below basic family budgets in all U.S. metropolitan areas) – is more than an economic struggle. It is also a political and moral struggle for basic decency, for self-respect, and for dignity.

Connecting economic oppression to psychological mistreatment in her widely read book, Barbara Ehrenreich guessed in Nickeled and Dimed “that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers – the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers – are part of what keep wages low.  If you’re made to feel unworthy enough,” Ehrenreich wrote, “you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re worth.”  It was an important point. Debilitating shame and the related psychological battering of working people in the all-too unprotected, de-unionized, and hidden abode of the workplace is part of how the employer class rules over low-wage workers in “the land of freedom.”

Inspiringly enough, however, tens of thousands of those workers in the U.S. have in the last two years stood up to tell their bosses and the nation that they not only need but also deserve more than miserable wages and denigration on the job.  “The [workers] of the Fight for 15 campaign,” Simpson noted last year, “want a world where a decent standard of living and respect for all is the norm.”

The fight for 15 is also a fight for dignity. Respect for workers, the struggle’s participants know, will only be won from the bottom up, through collective and militant action.  It will never granted from the top-down by elites who have little more respect for a Walmart or McDonald’s worker than they do for a TANF recipient or for one of the nation’s more than 2 million prisoners.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

The Liberal Apologies for Obama’s Ugly Reign

19/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, May 15-17, 2015

“Fact and Scrutiny”

So this is how Barack Obama is moving into the final 20 months of his dismal neoliberal presidency, which he once (proudly) described as ideologically akin to the Eisenhower White House. He is nauseating much of his own Wall Street-captive party’s electoral base by trying to push through the absurdly regressive, secretive, eco-cidal, and global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership treaty – a massive investor rights measure that promises to reduce wages, deepen inequality, undermine popular sovereignty, and assault already endangered livable ecology in the name of (what else?) “free trade” and “growth.”

The treaty is so toxically capitalist and transparently authoritarian that even the leading right-wing corporate Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton – champions of the arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – have to keep their distance from it in accord with Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

After going on television to childishly claim that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s elementarily logical and evidence-based “arguments [against TPP] don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny” (harsh if inept words for a top party colleague and ally), Obama was at first unable to persuade all but one U.S. Senate Democrat not to block his bid for “fast-track” legislation, which would grant the president to bring the TPP to an up-or-down floor vote with no amendments. A subsequent re-do secured enough sold-out Democratic votes to combine with unanimous Republican support to succeed in the upper Congressional body.

“A Striking Piece of This President’s Environmental Legacy”

Speaking of ecological ruin, the Obama administration has just cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch/Shell to begin drilling for fossile fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a paulstreetdecent future.” Environmental groups have long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The decision comes just four months after Obama opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling, the Times notes. The national newspaper of record might have added that it comes five and half years after Obama, elected on a promise (among other things) to reduce climate change, almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the eco-cidal skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence.

According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “P”BS Newshour last Monday, the Chukchi Sea announcement “is still a very striking piece of this president’s environmental legacy,” one that has “environmental groups…surprised.”

“Every Four Years”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to these latest corporatist White House policies, but surprise is not one of them. This is precisely the capitalist Obama that a good cadre of Left activists and writers tried (none more voluminously than this writer) to warn liberals and progressives about from the beginning of the Obama phenomenon and then presidency. Like the Bill Clinton presidency but with considerable less success to a far less favorable economic and global context and to Obama’s comparative political ineptitude, the Obama administration has been (as predicted) a monument to faux-progressive corporate and Wall Street rule and to the wisdom of left historian Lawrence Shoup’s judgement in early 2008:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

“The Republicans Made Him Do It”

Faced with a relentless onslaught of evidence in favor of Shoup’s judgment over the Age of Obama (a subset of the Age of Bipartisan Neoliberal Oligarchy), liberal and progressive Obama defenders have brandished two justifications for their president’s depressingly Big Business-friendly record. The first rationalization claims that Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good. Alas, the excuse runs, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party and its big money and big media (FOX News et al.) backers.

But this is a weak defense. Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things he promised on the campaign trail – things that were well within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.” As the onetime Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit, the financial crisis “worked out the way it did”—with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever—“in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way…When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”

Never mind that the privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president Frank described this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists (myself included) futilely tried to warn Frank and other liberals about from the very beginning

“To Quell the Mob”

My favorite story indicating the depth and degree of Obama’s loyalty to the wealthy Few comes from the spring of 2009. In his important book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Barack Obama’s supposedly progressive, left-leaning presidency, popular anger at Wall Street was intense and the nation’s leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive in the wake of the financial collapse and recession they had created. The new president called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread. As Suskind noted:

“They were the CEOs of the thirteen largest banking institutions in the United States… And they were nervous in ways that these men are never nervous. Many would have had to reach back to their college days, or even grade school, to remember a moment when they felt this sort of lump-in-the-throat tension…As some of the most successful men in the country, they weren’t used to being pariahs… [and] they were indeed pariahs. The populist backlash against the financial sector—building steadily since September—was finally beginning to cause grave discomfort on Wall Street. As unemployment ballooned and credit tightened, the country began to look inward, toward the origins of the panic and its disastrous consequences.”

In the end, however, the anxious captains of high finance left the meeting pleased to learn that Obama was totally in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite who destroyed millions of jobs in their lust for profit, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” When “the bankers arrived in the State Dining Room,” Suskind notes, “Obama had them scared and ready to do almost anything he said…. An hour later, they were upbeat, ready to fly home and commence business as usual” (Confidence Men).

This remarkable episode happened in the White House in a time when, to repeat, the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress along with an angry populace ready with good reason for Wall Street and 1% blood. And what did the populace get from this seemingly progressive alignment of the stars? The venerable left liberal journalist William Grieder put it very well in a March 2009 Washington Post Op-Ed: “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

“Inside the 40 Yards Lines”

They also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by his 2012 Republican opponent Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people had watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis of 2011

Republican “Obstruction” as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It has all unfolded pretty much as I predicted (easily and with no particular claim to originality or clairvoyance) in my spring 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. It’s gone ways that are consistent with my account of Obama’s first year in the White House in my follow-up volume The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm Publishers, June 2010).

I was apprehensive about writing the second book when my publisher first suggested it. Did I really want another volume on my resume with the noxious neoliberal Obama’s name in the title? And wasn’t it to too early to write a relevant account of Obama in power? In retrospect, however, I’m glad I followed through on The Empire’s New Clothes – a detailed account of Obama’s predicted betrayals of his progressive “base,” imagery, and campaign promises in different and interrelated realms: race, labor, environment, immigrant rights, civil liberties, war, and empire during his initial eleven months as U.S. president. The book is useful as a record of Obama’s allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, institutional racism, nationalism, and eco-cide in a time when his party held Congress and the citizenry was angrily primed for progressive and even populist policy – in the time when it was most transparently ridiculous to say that “the Republicans made him” be neo-Hooverian business conservative.

There’s also Thomas Frank’s important point, something I warned about in both my 2008 book and its spring 2010 sequel: the Republicans wouldn’t have had their great Tea Party movement takeover of Congress in 2010 if Obama had actually governed in accord with the progressive and populist sentiments of the mere citizenry (as I predicted he would not in my 2008 book) instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters.

“We Didn’t Make Him Be the Progressive He Wanted to Be”

A second liberal and “progressive” apology for Obama’s corporatism, imperialism, militarism, and eco-cidalism places the blame on the rest of us. It’s our failure, this second storyline goes. The citizenry and activists are at fault for not making Obama be the progressive, populist, environmentalist, and peace-dividend president he really wanted to be. We didn’t compel him to advance the decent, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable policies he sincerely desired to enact by organizing and protesting from the bottom up.

This justification for Obama’s power-serving presidency is barely less idiotic than “the Republicans blocked him” excuse. It is certainly true that the U.S. “progressive movement” – if such a thing even exists now or existed in 2009 – has failed badly on numerous levels. Any such movement ought to seek to be powerful enough that it has to be taken into consideration by whoever sits in the White House and other top public offices, elected and otherwise. There isn’t much to say for progressive efforts along those lines in the Age of Obama, with some partial exceptions.

Still, there are two critical flaws in this rationalization. The first problem, shared with the “blame the Republicans” narrative, is the silly idea (revealingly shared with the Teapublican “insurgency”) of Obama as a left-leaning politician who wanted to do good progressive, populist, social-democratic, and peaceful things. Any remotely serious investigation of the real Obama and his career (what I undertook in my 2008 volume) would have revealed someone very different: a “deeply conservative” agent and servant of American Empire and Inequality, Inc. masquerading (like fellow arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton in 1992) as a man of the people – an old and deadly character (with a tantalizing racial twist fit for the post-Civil Rights era in Obama’s case) at the long duplicitous heart of U.S. political culture.

The second flaw is that the Obama administration and Democratic Party operatives and elective officials across the country have worked diligently precisely to destroy left progressive movements through a combination of repression and co-optation. Take the Occupy Movement, a populist uprising against the bipartisan corporate and financial oligarchy in the late summer and fall of 2011. It was crushed by a coordinated federal campaign of surveillance, infiltration, and violent assault, with the lion’s share of the repression carried out by Democrat-run city governments across the country. At the same time, Obama and other corporate Democrats did everything they could to steal and incorporate Occupy’s populist message in their fake-progressive campaign against the former “equity capitalist” Mitt Romney and other “1 percenter Republicans” in the 2012 elections.

Hillary Picks Up the Hitchensian Ball

It was nothing new. The “essence of American politics,” a still left Christopher Hitchens noted in his 1999 book on the Clintons (No One Left to Lie To) “is the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The swindle continues. As I demonstrated in a recent essay, Mrs. Clinton is providing an almost picture-perfect illustration of Hitchens’ thesis in her belatedly announced bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. If she’s elected (a distinct possibility given the Republican Party’s devolution into what Norman Ornstein calls “an apocalyptic cult”), we can expect bamboozled liberals and progressives to blame the Republicans for her militantly corporatist, imperialist, and eco-cidal policies. There will also be the charge that the people and the Left bear responsibility for the predictable White House ugliness because we didn’t roll up our sleeves to make her be the progressive president she really wants to be. The double-fanged idiotic liberal apology will be passed on from Clinton41 to Obama43 to Clinton44. Never mind that few things could be more preposterous than to dream that a White House ruled by the militantly pro-Big Business and hawkish Hillary Clinton (who last year praised the blood-soaked arch-imperialist coup-manager Henry Kissinger as a great champion of participatory democracy) could be pushed to the progressive and populist left by U.S. citizens and social movements. Few things except perhaps the belief that Bernie Sanders is going to achieve anything more than help his “good friend” Hillary Clinton campaign in accord with Hitchens’ dictum.

Learn Something

“Read a book,” an old Marxist history professor of mine used to tell students: “you might learn something.” U.S. liberals and progressives might want to read up on recent American political history. They might learn something about how they’ve been manipulated by Democratic politicians and presidents again and again and decide to invest their hopes and energies in a different kind of more genuinely progressive and democratic politics beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed-candidate-centered presidential “electoral extravaganzas” that are staged as “yet another method for marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 27, 2004) once every four years.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

A Racially Blind Night in the Life of the “P”BS Newshour

18/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Black Agenda Report, May 13, 2015

The reluctance of “mainstream” United States media to deal forthrightly and seriously with U.S. racism deeply understood can be quite pronounced.  Consider the “Public” Broadcasting System’s nightly Newshour episode for Thursday, April 30, 2015. It aired one day after Baltimore’s Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the Orioles took the unprecedented, MLB-approved step of banning fans from a game.

The Orioles determined that protests and riots sparked by the Baltimore police’s murder of the young Black man Freddie Gray threatened the safety of the Orioles’ mostly white fans. And so the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an eerily “closed” game at Baltimore’s showcase Camden Yards.

“When the Jobs No Longer Exist”
The Newshour featured a remarkable interview with Orioles Vice President John Angelos, son of team’s owner. Reflecting on the unrest that brought the National Guard into Baltimore, Angelos spoke to Newshour host Gwen Ifill about how “the system has failed Baltimore.” Angelos’ comments were not the sort of thing you commonly hear from members of the U.S. economic elite:

“…the system is failing…the diminution of manufacturing jobs and good, high-paying quality jobs in cities like Baltimore and regions throughout the country….the massive loss, the exportation of good, high-paying jobs for working-class people has been a tremendous source — in fact, the most significant source – of civil unrest, civil misery …Having grown up here as a native and seeing the difficulties of factories moving from Baltimore, the shipyard areas, the manufacturing areas, relocating to foreign parts of the globe, [I think] it’s difficult to ask people to work hard and pull themselves up when the jobs that used to be here for prior generations no longer exist.”

There’s no small and welcome distance between Angelos’ rueful reflections on capital’s abandonment of the urban working class and the standard elite charge that inner city-poverty is primarily the result of poor folks’ own culture, values, and “bad choices.” Angelos placed the real and underlying blame on the investor class’s globetrotting thirst for cheap labor.  Interestingly enough, his father, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, grew up working class and made his treasure in labor law.

Rich Ironies
Beyond John Angelos’s candor on capitalist failure, three other remarkable things stood out in the Newshour’s Angelos interview. The first such aspect was the skepticism towards the younger Angelos’s analysis displayed by Gwen Ifill.  A longtime hack who can barely contain her love for the United States’ corrupt major party electoral politics, Ms. Ifill seemed taken aback by the elementary observation that mass structural unemployment might have anything to do with urban protest and violence.  She also suggested that Angelos’s comments might be seen as “politicizing a tragedy” – as if the murder of Freddie Gray and the riots and marches that followed were not already a thoroughly political and politicized news story.

The second remarkable thing about the Ifill-Angelos dialogue was the opportunity it provided for a top Orioles executive to shed what many Baltimore residents might understandably see as crocodile tears over the terrible consequences of neoliberal capitalism for working people. As the Left sports and politics commentator David Zirin noted in an incisive commentary at The Nation, Camden Yards and other shiny and largely publicly financed ballparks built in major U.S. cities in recent decades are monuments to post-industrial “sports-driven apartheid.” As Zirin explains, these stadiums were sold to metropolitan citizens and authorities with the misleading assurance that they would anchor a robust “service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centers” to help make up for the disappearance of manufacturing employment. In reality, “this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure. It’s been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement. They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those [predominantly white and affluent and largely suburban fans] who go to the game looking for low-income work.” And nine years ago, Zirin added, the Orioles waged a vicious struggle against Camden Yards employees (“some of whom lived in area homeless shelters”) when those workers organized to demand a living wage.

Deleting Racial Oppression

The third remarkable feature of the Ifill-Angelos exchange was its total avoidance of race and racism and their central relevance to the disorder in Baltimore. The protests and riots in the city were sparked, after all, by a recent and gruesome episode in a long and ongoing record of “law enforcement’s” use of deadly force against U.S. minorities and most particularly against young Black men. The Freddie Gray murder is just the latest in a seemingly endless string of such police killings to receive national media attention and to spawn mass protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Four decades of cross-racial job loss resulting from capitalist “deindustrialization” and (more accurately) globalization certainly has naturally created relevant structural and historical context for any “civil misery and unrest” that emerges in contemporary Baltimore or in any other major U.S. metropolis. But let’s keep it real about who the system is most particularly failing and subjugating in not-so “post-racial” America.  White working class people are up against terrible odds, thanks primarily to the amoral depredations of big capital and its corporate-financial Deep State. It’s silly to call such folks “privileged” just because they are Caucasian. Still, working class whites do not remotely face the same level of oppression, bias, and inequality as what the Black working class experiences in the U.S. today. The long, deadly, and newly publicized record of police violence against Black Americans takes place in a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure – compared to just more than 1 in 18 white, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black even though Blacks make up less than 12 percent of the nation’s population. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a lethal barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.”  It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Separate, Unequal

Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The Baltimore metropolitan era is the nineteenth most segregated metropolitan area in the US. It has a Black-white residential “segregation indice” of 65.4, meaning that two-thirds of the region’s Blacks would have to move to a different neighborhood be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices.  It reflects class and racial bias in the operation of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”

By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, American de factoapartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

The prevailing pattern of harsh racial de facto apartheid predates the relative disappearance of manufacturing and shipping jobs that John Angelos bemoans.  It also postdates that deindustrialization, exacerbating the impact of “good job” loss on Blacks, who have far less access to such viable job networks as can still be found in urban America is the new neoliberal/global era.

“All of Your Questions”

In a chillingly Orwellian commercial that “P”BS has run for years, Gwen Ifill declares that she loves her Newshour job because it allows her to “ask not only all of my questions but also and more importantly all of your questions.” Really, Gwen? I would have followed up John Angelos’ reflections on the terrible impact of capital disinvestment and job “exportation” by asking him to elaborate on the distinctive barriers to opportunity and equality faced by Black people in urban America. This is what Ms. Ifill (herself Black) asked Angelos instead: “That said, when will the Orioles be back at Camden Yards?”

The New Jim Crow Minus Race

The Newshour was not through doing somersaults to avoid race and racism after the Angelos-Ifill interview last April 30th.  The show’s next segment presented viewers with a curious display of “left-right unity” regarding the problems of over-incarceration and felony marking in the U.S.  Representing “the right” was Mark Holden, a policy staffer from Koch Industries, owned by the arch-reactionary Koch brothers. Standing in for “the left” was Neera Tanden from the centrist Center for American Progress (CAP), corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton’s favorite think-tank. Here was the Newshour’s set-up for the segment:

“The figures are staggering…While the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses more than 20 percent of its prisoners. In a significant shift, groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum, that often find themselves at odds – like Koch Industries from the right, and the Center for American progress from the left  – are coming together with a common goal — to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system.  Together they’ve launched the ‘Coalition for Public Safety.’”

The Coalition is dedicated to reducing the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders and to cutting barriers to employment and re-entry for people with prison histories and felony records.  As Ms. Tanden explained, “we’re concerned with the challenges of rising inequality and how the criminal justice system is actually increasing poverty…when you have a young person who goes into the prison system, that affects…their ability to get a good-paying job the rest of their lives. So you’re not just burdening that person, you’re burdening their families. You’re burdening the communities.”

That’s no joke. Ms. Tanden is quite correct, as a significant body of research (including material I have produced) demonstrates. And it is arguably a good thing to see arch-Republicans and corporate Democrats agree on the need to lessen the burden placed on poor Americans by mass incarceration and criminal marking.

Still, there was something very odd about this Newshour piece, something stranger even than calling the Center for American Progress “left”: a breathtakingly total deletion and avoidance of race in connection with the problems of mass imprisonment and the difficulties faced by “ex-offenders” in the U.S. It was an extraordinary omission. Race and (more to the point) racism are highly pertinent factors across the broad spectrum of socioeconomic disparity in the savagely unequal U.S. inequality, but nowhere are they more overwhelmingly and (one would think) inescapably relevant than in the nation’s “New Jim Crow” criminal justice system – from surveillance and arrest through jail, bail, trial, conviction, sentencing, probation, imprisonment, parole, felony marking, and execution both within prison walls and on the streets.

It might seem bizarre to see race and racism omitted from discussions of urban poverty and the New Jim Crow criminal justice system on the supposedly liberal “public” broadcasting network. In reality, the omissions are consistent both with the deep, privilege-friendly conservatism of “P”BS and with the post-racial mythology of reigning “neoliberal racism” in the Age of Obama. Still, for someone with some basic working knowledge on contemporary U.S. racial oppression, watching such racially blind discussions feels almost as surreal as watching a Major League Baseball game broadcast from a big city ballpark without a fan in the stands.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA.  His publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois, and the United States (Chicago Urban League, October 2002).

Hillary Clinton and the Manipulation of Populism

17/05/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, May 12, 2015

“The Essence of American Politics”

Fifteen years ago, the then still left Christopher Hitchens published a short and pungent study of Bill and Hillary Clinton titled No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999, 2000). The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the duplicitous “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted:

“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’  of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”

Later in the same chapter, Hitchens noted that “At all times,” the Clinton administration’s “retreat from egalitarian and even ‘progressive’ positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.”

Hitchens provided a useful take on the militantly corporatist, Wall Street-friendly core of the Clintons’ first two terms in the White House.  The “co-presidents” served the “bankrollers and backers” with such Big Business-pleasing policies as the regressive and anti-worker North American “Free Trade” (investor rights) Agreement (NAFTA), repeal of the New Deal’s separation of commercial and investment banking, sponsorship of oligopolistic hyper-conglomeration in the mass media (the 1996 Telecommunications Act), and the non- and de-regulation of Wall Street’s growing financial derivatives sector.  Bill Clinton apologized to corporations for the high U.S. taxes they supposedly endured.  He warmed CEO hearts by proclaiming that “the era of big government is over” and pursuing a “balanced budget” even while tens of millions of Americans were still mired in poverty and economic inequality climbed towards “Second Gilded Age” levels.  Clinton kept the gigantic Pentagon system of corporate welfare fully intact despite the disappearance of the Soviet nemesis that had provided the critical Cold War pretext for massive “defense” (Empire) spending. The Clintons did all this and more to satisfy the elite “donor class” that put them in power while claiming to speak and act on behalf of everyday working people and wrapping themselves in the outwardly progressive clothes of politically correct multicultural tolerance and diversity. Never mind the Clinton administration’s vicious liquidation of the disproportionately Black, Latino/a, and Native American poor’s entitlement to basic family cash assistance and its promotion and signing of legislation that accelerated the nation’s epic mass hyper-incarceration of Blacks.

A Blunt Lesson About Power and Money

For what it’s worth, the Obama administration has been an epitome of the same basic formula: fake-populist service to the wealthy few wrapped also in the false rebels’ clothes of identity-politicized diversity and tolerance. With the technically Black Obama in the White House, the corporate Democrats have dampened protest from multiculturalist liberals and “progressives” reluctant to question and challenge an actually “first Black president” (Black comedian Chris Rock’s amusing description of Bill Clinton). (Anticipation of such a “politically correct” windfall was always part of Obama’s special appeal to the donor class.) Beneath the surface spectacle of “change” (a black family in the White House, with a Muslim-sounding name to boot) lay more of the plutocratic same, consistent with the elite liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page’s (Northwestern) finding that the U.S. has become “an oligarchy” in which wealthy elites and their corporations “rule” regardless of technically irrelevant public opinion and of which party holds nominal power in Washington. The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” (emphasis added). And little to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” left to ask “where’s my bailout?”  During Obama’s first term, 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the nation’s top 1 percent – a shocking statistic that provides some interesting context for right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin’s question: “how’s that hopey-changey thing working out?”

“Tell Me Something Interesting”

A technically female Hillary Clinton presidency promises a similar dividend and disguise for the nation’s corporate and financial oligarchy, this time with gender rather than race providing the main identity-politicized sheen of historic correction and change. Hitchens’ volume contained a chapter documenting Mrs. Clinton’s richly triangulation-ist history along with much to suggest that she (like her husband) is a power-mad sociopath.  Especially memorable was Hillary’s response, in her role as head of the White House’s health reform initiative, to Harvard medical professor David Himmelstein, head of Physicians for a National Health Program.  Himmelstein told her about the remarkable possibilities of a comprehensive, single payer “Canadian style” health plan, supported by more than two-third of the U.S. public.  Beyond backing by a U.S. citizen super-majority, Himmelstein noted, single-payer would provide comprehensive coverage to the nation’s 40 million uninsured while retaining free choice in doctor selection and being certified by the Congressional Budget Office as “the most cost-effective plan on offer.”

“David,” Hillary commented with fading patience before sending him away in 1993, “tell me something interesting.” Along with the big insurance companies the Clintons deceptively railed against, the co-presidents decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” (Obama would of course do the same exact same thing in 2009.)  What she advanced instead of the Canadian system that bored her was a hopelessly complex and secretly developed system called “managed competition.” Mrs. Clinton’s plan went down in flames, thanks in no small part to her inflexible arrogance.

New Democrat Pioneers

No One Left to Lie To and other left critiques of the Clintons did little to dissuade liberal and “progressive” New Yorkers from backing Hillary’s successful, cynical, and carpet-bagging 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate – a body wherein she would offer “liberal” support for George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq. What about 2015-16, with the Clintons poised for a return White House engagement? Will truthful, hard-hitting reporting and commentary make any differences her chances? An excellent article by the incisive Left commentator Doug Henwood in Harper’s last fall bears the title “Stop Hillary!” Henwood provides a clever and concise catalogue of Mrs. Clinton’s conservative, corrupt, corporate-neoliberal, and imperial record from her years at Yale Law and the Arkansas governor’s office (held by Bill for all but one 2-year term between 1978 and 1992) through her stints in the U.S. Senate (2001-2009) and atop the Department of State (2010-2013). Henwood’s essay is particularly valuable on how the Clintons during their tenure in Arkansas helped “lay…the groundwork for what would eventually hit the national stage as the New Democrat movement, which took institutional form as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).”

The essence of the DLC was dismal, dollar-drenched “neoliberal” abandonment of the Democratic Party’s last, lingering commitments to labor unions, social justice, civil rights, racial equality, the poor, and environmental protection in abject service to the “competitive” bottom-line concerns of Big Business. The Clintons helped launch the New Democrat/DLC juggernaut by assaulting Arkansas’ teacher unions (Hillary led the attack) and refusing to back the repeal of the state’s anti-union “right to work” law – this while Hillary began working for the Rose Law firm, which “represented the moneyed interests of Arkansas” (Henwood). Connection with one of the sleazier players among those interests, a Savings and Loan charlatan named Jim McDougal, got them involved in the Whitewater scandal, which involved the Arkansas Governor’s spouse (Hillary) doing legal work at Rose (work about which Hillary lied upon outside investigation) for a shady land speculator (McDougal) who had enticed the governor and his wife (the Clintons) to foolishly invest in a badly leveraged development project.

When the Arkansas-based community-organizing group ACORN passed a ballot measure lowering electrical rates residential users and raising them for commercial businesses in Little Rock, Rose sent Hillary into court to argue a business-backed challenge. As Henwood notes, Hillary “helped to craft the underlying legal strategy, which was that the new rate schedule amounted to an unconstitutional ‘taking of property’…now a common right-wing argument against regulation…” (Harper’s, November 2014)

“The Gold Standard in Trade Agreements”

There’s plenty more to say about Hillary’s intimate links and service to the economic elite – connections that could yield a bumper crop of reports on “conflicts of interest” between her claim to stand for everyday working folks and her real-life proximity and allegiance to the super-rich. In 2001, Mrs. Clinton was one of 36 Democratic U.S, Senators to do the bidding of the financial industry by voting for a bill designed to make it more difficult for consumers to use bankruptcy laws to get out from crushing debt. As Secretary of State, she repeatedly voiced strong support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The TPP is a secretive, richly corporatist 12-nation Pacific “free trade” (investor rights) agreement that promises to badly undermine wages, job security, environmental protections, and popular governance at home and abroad.  It would be the largest “trade agreement” in history, potentially affecting 40 percent of the world’s gross product. Obama’s championing of this regressive, authoritarian, eco-cidal, and anti-worker treaty has “set off perhaps the biggest fight of his presidency within his own party, with trade unions, environmentalists, and liberal activists lining up in opposition to the White House.  There is a strong possibility,” the New York Times reports, “that Mr. Obama could lose the battle.” (NYT, April 18, 2015). In Australia in November of 2012, Secretary of State Clinton declared that “we need to keep upping our game both bilaterally and with partners across the region through agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. … This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

“The Choice is Clear: There is None”

In the years since she resigned as Secretary of State to prepare – mainly to raise godawful piles of cash – for her next presidential run, Mrs. Clinton has faced criticism for giving speeches to leading Wall Street firms and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income. Hillary depends heavily on the elite financial sector and big corporate interests to pay for her campaign, which is expected to spend at least $2.5 billion. “Hillary, Inc.’s” preemptive “money machine” will smash previous fundraising records and prevent rivals from mounting serious opposition in the caucuses and primaries.  “It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully told The Hill, “The numbers will be astounding.”

The “numbers” are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Mrs. Clinton is running.  Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:

“[The United States is] a nation of more than 300 million people in which politics has become the sole property and domain of the rich. The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. The 48 percent of Americans that express an affinity with the Democratic Party have not yet chosen Clinton. There has been no primary election in any state. But, that does not matter because the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose – because they have no candidate in the major parties.”

Ford’s summary provides context for a Hillary-mocking bumper sticker that is starting to circulate as the presidential caucus and primary campaign begins to heat up in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Ready for Oligarchy. The Choice,” the sticker reads, “is Clear: There is None.”

“A World Awash in Money and Connections”

There’s more than a few plutocratic skeletons rattling around in Hillary Clinton’s campaign closet. According to a New York Times report last April 23rd, the owners of a uranium company that donated $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation (Bill Clinton’s giant global “nonprofit” organization) sought approval from the U.S. government during the time of Hillary’s tenure at the State Department to sell the company to Russia’s atomic energy agency. Mrs. Clinton’s agency signed off on the deal. The Clintons failed to report the donations as they had agreed to in the agreement they made with the Obama White House when Hillary became Secretary of State. On the same day, Reuters reported the Clinton Foundation and another family charity were refiling at least five annual tax forms “due to errors.” The foundation failed to include tens of millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments. According to New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan, speaking on the Public Broadcasting System’s Newshour, “the timing [of the Times’ and Reuters’ revelations] is not great [for the Hillary Clinton campaign], because… she’s really trying to present herself in a way to blunt the Elizabeth Warrens of her party as a sincere messenger for the message of economic mobility, economic inequality….these stories…have a way of underscoring the international orbit that the Clintons operate in…a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” (PBS, 4/23/2015, emphasis added).

 “Inclusive Capitalism”

Hillary and her handlers, including long-time top Monsanto lobbyist Jerry Crawford (recently tapped to run the “Ready for Hillary” Political Action Committee), are conscious that Mrs. Clinton has a public relations problem with the working class and middle class Americans. She enjoys a net worth of $13 million and “a high flying lifestyle” (Politico, 4/15/2015) while seeking popular support in a savagely unequal New Gilded Age U.S. where (thanks in part to the neoliberal policies advanced by the first Clinton administration) the top 1 percent now dangerously owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.   A Gallup poll taken last January found that 67 percent of the US population is dissatisfied with the nation’s top-heavy distribution of wealth and income.

Consistent with the Hitchens’ dictum on “the essence of American politics,” Times reporter Amy Chozick aptly describes Hillary’s central campaign “quandary” as “how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.” As Chozick ads, “She must convince a middle class that feels frustrated and left behind that she understands its struggle, even as she relies heavily on the financial industry and corporate interests to fund her candidacy” (NYT, 2/7/2015).” Stated more fully, the dilemma is how to sound populist enough to win tens of millions of working class votes without sounding so populist as to alienate the privileged financial elite that pays for viable presidential campaigns and owns the corporate media that confers or denies legitimacy to candidates. The job, as usual, is to seem “in touch with popular concerns” while keeping “the bankrollers and backers” assured that the candidate will honor the capitalist “reserve tag” she will (if successful) carry into office.

In a sloppy effort along those lines last year, Mrs. Clinton preposterously told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the Clintons were “dead broke” after leaving the White House in 2001. It was a transparently preposterous and widely mocked claim that only highlighted Hillary’s huge distance from the real lives of “everyday Americans.”

But now the real populism-manipulating game is on. Last February, the New York Times dutifully related the claim of “Mrs. Clinton’s closest economic advisors” to embrace  a “philosophy” of “inclusive capitalism” that “calls for corporations to put less emphasis on short-term profits that increase shareholder value and to invest more in employees, the environment, and communities.” (The democratic socialist George Orwell would smile at this oxymoronic formulation in a time when the profits system poses an ever more apparent danger not merely to democracy, justice, and economic stability but to life itself). Hillary’s spokesman Nick Merrill told the Times that Hillary’s “economic plan” is “more populist and reliant on government than the centrist approach of trade agreements, welfare reform and deficit reduction associated with her husband, former president Bill Clinton” (NYT, 2/7/2015).

To Steal “a Footnote’s” Populist Thunder

Behind the claim of a left-leaning “populist” Hillary lay the shadow of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a former financial regulator whose “blistering critique of Wall Street” (in the word of the Times) was a big hit at the last Democratic National Convention.  Many liberals and progressives in Iowa and New Hampshire wish that the more genuinely progressive Sen. Warren was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sensing Warren’s popularity and vulnerability on her left flank, Hillary Clinton went to the pages of Time magazine last April to praise Warren as someone who became one of “the world’s 100 most influential people” because “She never hesitates to the hold powerful people’s feet to the fire.”

In the outwardly folksy and progressive, politically correct, multicultural, and admirably  gay-friendly online video that announced her candidacy last April, Hillary claimed to be upset that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich and powerful.  “My job,” Mrs. Clinton said, “is to reshuffle the cards.”  (Here she was clearly channeling Warren, who regularly says that “The game is rigged to work for those who have money and power.”)  As Chozick, the leading Times reporter on the Hillary beat, noted last April 21st:

“For anyone who wondered what kind of an economic message Mrs. Clinton would deliver in her campaign, the first few days made it clear: She is embracing the ideas trumpeted by Ms. Warren and the populist movement – that the wealthy have been benefiting disproportionately from the economy while the middle class and the poor have been left behind… Mrs. Clinton was the original Elizabeth Warren, her advisers say, a populist fighter who for decades has been advocate for families and children; only now have the party and primary voters caught up….A 16-page dosser, titled ‘Hillary Clinton: A Lifetime Champion of Income Opportunity,’ and assembled by a close friend and adviser to Mrs. Clinton, calls Ms. Warren a ‘footnote.’  The document, provided to The New York Times, presents 40 instances in which Mrs. Clinton took the same stance as Ms. Warren on issues….”

Perhaps Mrs. Clinton should revise her assessment of Elizabeth Warren and call her one of “the world’s 100 most influential footnotes.”

Consistent with her latest populist campaign makeover (her last one was in 2007 and 2008), Mrs. Clinton is now somewhat “skeptical” about the TPP (Bill was similarly skeptical towards NAFTA on the campaign trail in 1991 and 1992). “Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” Hillary has said since leaving the State Department.  Candidate Hillary is now openly bothered that Wall Street financers profit from the “carried interest” loophole, which allows them to pay a capital gains tax, lower than the ordinary tax rate, on large portions of their incomes. She rode in a modest van to the automotive shop of an Iowa community college to say that “There is something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here over the last two days.”  Mrs. Clinton also claimed to be upset that “the average CEO makes 300 times what the average worker makes” and empathized with students bemoaning the extreme costs of a college education. “People are struggling,” Clinton said, adding that she “want[s] to stand up and fight for people so they can not just get by, but they can get ahead and stay ahead.”

If this all sounds a bit like what Obama promised in 2008, only to deliver a “blunt lesson” about oligarchy, Mrs. Clinton’s liberal promoters want us to know that the current president had a noble “progressive vision” but lacks Hillary’s hands-on experience and practical political skills to “get [progressive] things done.” She will carry the mere vision of progressive transformation out of the “hopey-changey” mist and into the real world of politics and policy.

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”

How is Mrs. Clinton’s latest leap into Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” working? It’s too early to tell in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the “progressive” sorts who tend to become most intensely involved in the nation’s first presidential caucus and primary campaigns are still pining for Warren.  The good news for Hillary is that there’s nothing remotely around like the big dollar Obama phenomenon (which began accumulating large amounts of corporate and financial money four years before the 2007-2008 campaign) to de-rail her ascendancy to the Democratic nomination this time around.

It’s time for serious progressives to undertake a quadrennial reality check. Given her long power-serving past, her considerable personal wealth, the Democratic Party’s long record of serving the rich and powerful (from the Andrew Jackson7 through the Clinton42 and Obama44 administrations), the ever more openly plutocratic nature of U.S. politics, and the deep structural captivity of both of the nation’s dominant political organization to the corporate and financial donor class and to the corporate media, two things seem clear. First, a voter or activist has to be pretty naïve to fall for Hillary Clinton’s effort to recast herself as a dedicated and lifelong populist – as someone who seriously cares that “the deck is stacked” on behalf of the wealthy few. Second, it’s just as naïve to think it would make all that much difference if Mrs. Clinton really was the “fighting populist” her campaign claims she is. As Laurence Shoup noted in Z Magazine in early 2008:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

Nobody understands this harsh reality better, perhaps, than Hillary’s Wall Street backers.  A recent report in the widely read insider online Washington political journal Politico bears a perfectly Hitchensian title and theme: “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explains:

“Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president…’The question is not going to be whether or not hedge fund managers or CEOs make too much money,’ said a separate Clinton supporter who manages a hedge fund. …Nobody takes it like she is going after them personally’…Indeed, many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay — right down to the complaints from critics that such arguments are rich coming from someone who recently made north of $200,000 per speech and who has been close to Wall Street since her days representing it as a senator from New York.”

“ ‘As a CEO and former Wall Street executive, I applaud Secretary Clinton’s remarks, and I do not view them  as populist nor far left,’ said Robert Wolf, former CEO of UBS Americas and a major Democratic fundraiser who now runs his own firm….In the words of Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor: ‘The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.’”

One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm even told Politico that Hillary’s politically unavoidable populist rhetoric “is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. The fact is, if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later.” (Politico. 4/15/2015)

These reflections from “liberal” elites atop what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have called the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” speak volumes about the nation’s descent into abject plutocracy and the limits of progressive change permitted under elections and through parties subject to “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” They are also a monument to the continuing relevance of Hitchens’ properly cynical take on the manipulative “essence of U.S. [electoral and major party] politics.”

Why Hillary Welcomes Bernie

What about the entrance of progressive Democrat and nominal “socialist,” the former “independent” U.S. Bernie Sanders, into the Democratic presidential primary?  Does the “Sanders challenge” complicate or complement the Clinton’s populism-manipulating game?  Clearly it’s the latter (complementation).  It’s not for nothing that, as the New York Times reported two Saturdays ago, “Mrs. Clinton cheerily welcomed Mr. Sanders into the race.”  Of course she did. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Sanders’ “good friend Hillary Clinton” (that’s how Sanders described Mrs. Clinton in Iowa City last February 19th) is pleased to hear that Bernie is throwing his hat in the ring.  The Clintons are very smart and calculating political actors. They know that the only real threat to de-rail Hillary (as Obama did in 2007 and 2008) on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination this time was Warren. But with Warren appearing to mean it when she says she’s not up for a presidential run (not ready for fighting Hillary’s daunting money machine, perhaps) and with little else to contest her ascendancy on “the left” (Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb…seriously?), Hillary now faces a rather different political and public relations problem.  She is in danger of enjoying an all-too obviously Wall Street-funded dynastic coronation as the Democratic nominee.  She probably sees it as useful to face a progressive challenge from a progressive candidate like Sanders who could never receive the funding or corporate media approval required to make a serious bid for the nomination. That way her pre-selected nomination can look less transparently plutocratic and more like a passably “democratic” outcome of “a real debate.” Ashley Smith puts things very well in a trenchant analysis on SocialistWorker.org:

“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat. She knows that the election business follows the golden rule: Whoever has more gold, wins. Clinton is expected to amass a war chest of more than $1 billion, mostly from Wall Street and Corporate America, to pay for advertising, an army of paid staff and Astroturf support. This will overwhelm Sanders’ fundraising goal of $50 million and his underdeveloped volunteer infrastructure….In fact, Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lackluster at best. He will also help her frame the election in populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it….No wonder Clinton celebrated Sander’s entry into the race.”

Anyone who doubts that Sanders will hand over his voters, delegates, and money to Hillary once he’s through in the primaries hasn’t been paying attention. “No matter what I do,” Sanders said last January, “I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as president of the United States.”[1]

Of course Sanders could have avoided the “spoiler” charge by running for and very likely winning Vermont’s Governorship as the standard-bearer of that state’s Progressive Party.  There Sanders could likely succeed in pushing through single-payer health insurance, recently and shamefully abandoned by Vermont’s Democratic governor Peter Shumlin. That would be a very significant progressive victory with very real social-democratic substance.  But Vermont working peoples’ loss is Hillary Clinton’s gain. A very strange choice for an independent “socialist.”

Paul Street lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he “enjoys” a front row seat for the latest quadrennial electoral extravaganza.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

[1] For further critical reflections on Sanders’ decision to run in the Democratic presidential primary race, see my most recent previous essay on ZNet: “Bernie Sanders Enlists in the Hillary Clinton Campaign.”

Bernie Sanders Enlists in the Hillary Clinton Campaign

11/05/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, May 8, 2015.  A shorter and earlier version of this essay appeared today on TeleSur English

Last February 19th, Vermont’s “socialist” U.S. Senator, the nominally independent Democrat Bernie Sanders, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in a downtown Iowa City bookstore.  He had come to explore his potential prospects in Iowa’s upcoming “first-in-the-nation” Democratic Party presidential caucus-primary campaign.
Sanders began by denouncing U.S. economic inequality and plutocracy and expressing concerns about anthropogenic global warming in terms that any serious, environmentally astute leftist could welcome.  He decried the horrific facts that six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of the U.S. population and that 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the top 1% during President Obama’s first term. Sanders cited and bemoaned terrible statistics on U.S. poverty.  He condemned the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision for furthering the “corporate takeover of our democracy.” He deplored climate change and its deniers.

Deleting the Dollar Dems
I applauded politely along with everyone else after these statements. Then things went downhill. After complimenting Iowa City for helping elect a first Black president by supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and suggesting that the nation’s drift toward the embrace of gay marriage meant that it was ready to overcome economic inequality, Sanders repeatedly attacked the dastardly right-wing pro-business Republicans.  As far I could tell, he seemed to think that the GOP and its big money backers alone were responsible for the hot plutocratic mess in Washington.

Unlike his purported hero Eugene Debs, he had nothing to say against the other great capitalist party. It was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his adoring Iowa City audience that the national corporate and financial oligarchy is a richly bipartisan affair in which dastardly pro-Big Business Democrats – including powerful people like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – are (to say the least) deeply complicit.

It struck me that here the “socialist” Sanders stood oddly to the right of the position taken in Iowa in 2007 by the former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards.  Edwards denounced “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” in his call for “an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power.” He clearly and correctly included Hillary and Obama in the “corporate Democrat” category and mocked Obama’s promise to “get things done” by “reaching across the table” to business elites as well as the Republican Party.

Surely, I thought, an old Brooklyn “socialist” like Sanders knew that much of the nation’s disproportionately Caucasian ruling class loved the empty, identity-politicized, and fake-progressive illusion of change that the deeply conservative Obama’s election represented.

“My Friend Hillary”
Another warning sign came when Sanders said that he “liked Hillary” and considered her “a good friend.”  Why, I thought to myself, would a “socialist” and “independent” politician and “activist” be “good friends” in a supposedly adversarial political culture with a fabulously wealthy and notoriously mendacious arch-corporatist and militarist major party politico like Hillary Clinton, who:

* Forcefully backed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

* Applauded her husband’s elimination of public family cash assistance for poor families through a vicious welfare “reform” (elimination) that has had disastrous consequence for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

* Helped lead the development of the neoliberal “New Democrat” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to abandon its last lingering commitments to labor unions, racial and social justice, and environmental protection.

* Voted (as a US Senator) for legislation advanced by Wall Street to make it more difficult for poor families to use bankruptcy laws to get out from under crushing debt.

* Said the following – in her role as the head of the Clinton administration’s failed corporatist health reform initiative – to a leading national physician and health care activist when he told her in 1993 that “Canadian-style” single-payer health insurance was supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace and was certified by the Congressional Budget Office as the most cost-effective plan on offer: “tell me something interesting.” (Along with the big insurance companies that the Clintons deceptively railed against, the “co-presidents” Bill and Hillary Clinton decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” [Obama would do the same exact same thing in 2009])

* Called (in her role as Secretary of State) the richly corporatist, regressive, anti-worker, secretive, authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “the gold standard in trade agreements” for “open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

* “Operates,” in the words of New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan, in “a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” – this while deceptively posing as a “populist” who is “in touch” with the concerns of everyday working Americans and is bothered that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich and powerful.

* Gives speeches to leading Wall Street firms (and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income – as part of her effort to build a preemptive  “money machine” meant to block rivals from making serious primary and caucus challenges.

“It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully recently told The Hill about “Hillary, Inc.’s” campaign finance war chest. “The numbers will be astounding.”  The dollar “numbers” are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Mrs. Clinton is running.  Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:

“The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party…the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose…”

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”
Hillary’s big Wall Street backers recently told the leading insider political journal Politico how they understand that their candidate’s “populist” comments are politically unavoidable, unsurprising, and even advisable. The language is merely a pose Hillary has to take to get elected; it presents no serious threat to wealth and privilege. “Populist rhetoric, many [of these elites] say,” Politico reported, “is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich.”

I almost wondered if any of the big Clinton donors interviewed by Politico had read the still left Christopher Hitchens’ book No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999, 2000) – a study of the Clintons. The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted:

“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’  of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”

Later in the same chapter, Hitchens noted that “at all times,” the Clinton administration’s “retreat from egalitarian and even ‘progressive’ positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.” Kind of like Sanders moving back fully into the corporatized Democratic Party while saying nice things about gay marriage and praising liberals for supporting a Black presidential candidate.

Why Hillary Welcomes Bernie
I thought back to Sanders’ talk in Iowa City last February and reflected on Politico’s report when Bernie announced last week his decision to run in the Iowa Democratic Party presidential caucus. It is not a worthy endeavor. Both of two dominant U.S. political organizations stand well to the right of the citizenry on numerous key issues. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. (Bill and Hillary Clinton helped see to that during the last quarter of the last century.) With its last positive links to its long New Deal interlude pretty much swept into the dustbin of history (thanks in part to the Clintons and other “New Democrats” since the 1970s), its leadership and funders will never allow a candidate who is sincerely committed (as I think Sanders is) to socially progressive domestic policy goals – much less one who has called himself a “socialist” – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or (in the odd event of her departure) some other fully corporatized Democrat in the summer of 2016.

All of which raises the question: why help these dismal dollar Democrats disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had “a full and open debate” over the issues that concern ordinary Americans in the nation’s caucuses and primaries? Why help the Democrats seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to Hillary’s effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism”? Why help the Clinton machine deny that it is anything other than the pre-selected choice of what “the hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup, 2008)? Why help the dollar Dems put fake-populist lipstick on the nation’s plutocratic pig of a party and elections system?

But that, I suspect is the point. It’s not for nothing that, as the New York Times reported last Saturday, “Mrs. Clinton cheerily welcomed Mr. Sanders into the race.”  Of course she did. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Sanders’ “good friend” Hillary Clinton is pleased to hear that Bernie is throwing his hat in the ring.  The Clintons are very smart and calculating political actors. They know that the only real threat to de-rail Hillary (as Obama did in 2007 and 2008) on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination this time is (perhaps I should say “was”) U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose “populist thunder” Mrs. Clinton has been working to steal in a very systematic way in recent weeks. But with Warren appearing to mean it when she says she’s not up for a presidential run (not ready for fighting Hillary’s daunting money machine, perhaps) and with little else to contest her ascendancy on “the left” (Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb…seriously?), Hillary now faces a rather different political and public relations problem.  She is in danger of enjoying an all-too obviously Wall Street-funded dynastic coronation as the Democratic nominee.  She probably sees it as useful to face a progressive challenge from a progressive candidate like Sanders who could never receive the funding or corporate media approval required to make a serious bid for the nomination. That way her pre-selected nomination can look less transparently plutocratic and more like a passably “democratic” outcome of “a real debate.” Ashley Smith puts things very well in a trenchant analysis on SocialistWorker.org:

“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat. She knows that the election business follows the golden rule: Whoever has more gold, wins. Clinton is expected to amass a war chest of more than $1 billion, mostly from Wall Street and Corporate America, to pay for advertising, an army of paid staff and Astroturf support. This will overwhelm Sanders’ fundraising goal of $50 million and his underdeveloped volunteer infrastructure….In fact, Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lackluster at best. He will also help her frame the election in populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it….No wonder Clinton celebrated Sander’s entry into the race.”

Bernie Will Not “Push Hillary to the Left”
I am hearing hopeful statements from Iowa progressives who claim that Sanders will “help pull Hillary to the left.” That’s a very naïve thing to believe. Hillary Clinton is a dedicated corporatist and hawkish imperialist (last summer she praised her “friend” Henry Kissinger for his supposed grand commitment to democracy) who will never go left beyond the Machiavellian requirements of campaign oratory (what her Wall Street backers call “good politics”). At the same time, as the liberal commentator Paul Woldman noted in the Washington Post last week, “Sanders isn’t going to pull her to the left because she was already moving that way” – at the level of rhetoric, that is.  The specter of Elizabeth Warren and an angry, progressive-majority populace already did the job.

At the same time, we should note that Sanders shows no interest in attempting to pull Hillary or anyone else leftward on the problem of the U.S. military Empire, which accounts for 57% of federal discretionary spending and nearly half the world’s military spending while functioning as a massive system of corporate welfare for leading high-tech U.S. corporations like Boeing and Raytheon. As TeleSur English commentator and U.S. military veteran Vinny Emmanuelle recently noted, “whether we’re talking about Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, any serious discussion of the US Empire is still off the table.” Sanders agrees with other “liberals like…Obama” that “the US Empire is essential, yet should operate differently. In some ways, they view the Pentagon the same way Donald Rumsfeld did: as an entity to be reformed, modernized and streamlined” (But Sanders is not sufficiently committed to “defense” reform to reject the Pentagon’s decision to base a fleet of highly wasteful F-35 fighter jets in Vermont – a move Sanders endorsed in the name of  jobs.)

Sheep Dog
One Iowa left-liberal recently wrote me to say the following: “The third party approach has proven to be futile. Why condemn Sanders for trying something different?”  Something different?  Forget that Sanders essentially abandoned his (Eugene) Debsian third party roots and became a de facto Democrat (despite his nominal “independent” status) once he entered the U.S. Congress in 1991. As the veteran campaign manager, Black Left political commentator, and Georgia Green Party co-chair Bruce Dixon explained during a conference on independent Left electoral action in Chicago last weekend, Bernie is getting ready to play an old “sheep dog” role. It’s nothing new: progressives understandably stray from the dismal dollar Democrats (the Clintons being perhaps the ultimate historical example of such) from one election cycle to the next thanks to the party’s underlying captivity to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. In the primaries the Democrats send out some “sheep dogs” to corral such folks back into the fold. The “sheep dogs” lose in the primaries and then give their voters and resources over to the officially nominated major party corporate candidate. Think Dennis Kucinich and Obama in 2008, Jesse Jackson and Mondale in the 1980s.

Anyone who doubts that Sanders will hand over his voters, delegates, and money to Hillary once he’s through in the primaries hasn’t been paying attention. “No matter what I do,” Sanders said last January, “I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as president of the United States.”

Wasted Energy, Deepened Futility
Leftists should consider two additional forms of harm that could be inflicted on the progressive cause by Sanders’ “run for the White House.” First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to soak up most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic change beneath and beyond the great “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” that are staged “as yet another method of marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 2004). This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa (and New Hampshire) eighteen months prior to the actual election date.

Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness likely to be engendered when Sanders is defeated. The fact that Sanders will be the only candidate to run seriously on behalf of populist, social-democratic domestic policies that most U.S. citizens support but will be badly creamed threatens to help the “mainstream” (corporate) U.S. media and politics culture obscure the fact that most of those citizens are actually left-leaning progressives in their policy preferences. It may further the deadly illusion that those social-democratic policies lack popular support (“we just don’t have the numbers”) and thereby deepen progressive activists’ sense of futility and isolation.

Blowing Off Vermont and Single Payer
If Bernie really wanted to impact policy on behalf of working people through electoral action, he had a much better option than enlisting as a populism-manipulating sheep dog for his “good friend” Hillary Clinton in the national presidential electoral racket.  As Ashley Smith explains, he could have made a likely successful bid to win single-payer health insurance for the people of Vermont by running as the Progressive Party candidate for governor of that state:

“He could have set a very different example, with a far greater chance of success, if he ran for governor in Vermont against the Democratic Party’s incumbent Peter Shumlin, who has betrayed promises to implement a single-payer health care system, create green, union jobs and much more…Sanders is Vermont’s most popular politician. With the backing of the Progressive Party, he could have run for governor as an independent and easily defeated both the Democratic and Republican nominees, and never faced the accusation of being a spoiler that is inevitably thrown at any third-party challenger.  A victory for a truly independent campaign by Sanders would have been even bigger than Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council as an open socialist. In so doing, Sanders could have built momentum for a national third party alternative to represent workers and the oppressed.”

Eugene Debs would not be pleased by Bernie’s choice.

Postscript: Sanders declared his candidacy on April 30, 2015. Wouldn’t a genuine socialist have waited just one more day to announce on May First, May Day – the day of the international working class dating back at least to the workers’ Left-led Eight Hour struggle in Chicago 1886?

Paul Street is an author and political commentator in Iowa City, IA, where he “enjoys” a front row seat for the latest “quadrennial extravaganza.”  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

May Day: Four Interrelated Meanings

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 30, 2015. May First, or May Day, is, as leftists know, the real Labor Day.  It marks the struggle of the international working class against the selfish capitalist rulers, who enjoy unimaginable opulence on a planet where nearly 3 billion struggle to survive on less two dollars a day.

But let me suggest here four separate but intimately interrelated meanings of “May Day.” The first is the more traditionally understood radical and proletarian meaning of the term, dating by most accounts from the Marxist- and left-anarchist-led struggle for an Eight Hour Day in Chicago in the spring of 1886 – the conflict that led to the infamous Haymarket bomb, the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs, and a terrible wave of anti-union and anti-Left repression across the United States.

A second meaning has pre-industrial and pre-capitalist origins. It is to celebrate the beauty and bounty of Nature as it blooms each spring across the northern hemisphere. Think dancing around the Maypole, not marching in the streets.

A third and 20th century meaning comes from the airplane pilot whose plane is going down: “Mayday! Mayday!” he or she says into his or her radio. The term applied this way comes from French: “m’aidez, m’aidez,” that is “help me, help me.”

A fourth meaning is the embrace of leisure, free time, time for doing what one wants beyond the demands of necessity, bosses, and other authorities. The modern laborite May 1st is a day for “what we will.”  Recall that it was born as part of a struggle for shorter working hours.

Pieces of a Poison Pie

These four meanings are inextricably interwoven with each other. Take the first and second meanings.  The first connotation – the struggle between the working class majority on one hand and the capitalist elite on other – still holds relevance. It is true that the class struggle has been most aggressively fought and fairly consistently won by the wealthy few over the last “four decades of greed and deceit” (Noam Chomsky), so that, in the US for example, the top 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and has garnered 99 percent of all income gains since the economic “recovery” in 2009. “There’s class warfare, all right,” the multi-billionaire U.S. financier Warren Buffett noted nearly a decade ago, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Still, things like the 2011 Wisconsin and Occupy rebellions, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, the election of an openly Marxist activist (Kshama Sawant) to the Seattle City Council, and the ongoing Fight for Fifteen (the struggle for a decent minimum living wage) show that there is popular and even class struggle being waged from the bottom up as well as the top down in the United States as in other countries.

At the same time, it has become sharply apparent over the same four decades that the full pathology of the capitalists and their profit system is hardly limited to the struggle over how the pie of wealth and income is distributed. It’s about the relentless expansion and poisoning of the pie by economic and technological practices that undermine the capacity of human beings and other species to live in sustainable harmony with Nature. We must of course support the demand that McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, and other workers be paid a reasonable livable wage (even $15 an hour falls short by that measure in most major U.S. metropolitan areas).  At the same time, we must also now call for the massive redirection of labor and other resource from environmentally toxic sectors like fast “food” and other mass-consumer industries (which tend to be very dangerously invested in waste, pollution, and disease) to socially useful and ecologically necessary activities like the building and maintenance of a clean and renewable energy system.

Rising Tide and Common Ruin

Homo sapiens can’t kill the Earth. The planet will outlive us.  What’s at stake is our ability – and that of other sentient beings and livings things – to live on it decently for much longer unless we simultaneously transform our relations with each other and with the natural environment. Livable ecology has been pushed to the edge of catastrophe (yes, catastrophe) by capitalism’s relentless drive for expansion and accumulation, by capitalism’s inherently chaotic  pattern of destructive “development,” by capitalism’s unyielding pressure to turn everything (including basic elements and requirements of life) into a commodity, by capitalism’s unremitting war on democratic governance and planning for the common good, and by capitalism’s ideological commitment to the notion that growth is the answer to those who criticize and fight against the poverty and joblessness it generates. As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without – and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] – any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

In reality, growth on the capitalist model mocks and betrays hope by undermining the material conditions of a decent existence. The great capitalist metaphorical promise of “the rising tide” that “lifts all boats” is literally raising sea levels, melting ice caps, leveling forests, shrinking glaciers, setting off the planet’s ticking permafrost methane bombs, killing off a record number of species, and poisoning the air, water, and soil to a degree that makes past dystopian visions of a dark future look tepid. I will not overwhelm readers with the latest terrifying data on the ever-deepening “ecological rift” (John Bellamy Foster) created by the profit system’s war on the environment. The rift is led by but hardly limited to the anthropogenic (capital-o-genic) climate change that results from the over-saturation of the atmosphere with Greenhouse Gasses produced by the massive extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Other critical and related ecological boundaries being blown through by rapacious global capitalism include the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the soil’s capacity to absorb inorganic phosphorous and host agriculture, the planet’s supply of freshwater, the number and diversity of living species, and the planet’s ability to process various chemical pollutants. Problems in these and other environmental areas raise the very real specter of human extinction in the not so distant future.  A failure to address them through eco-socialist and anti-extractivist transformation will bring us face to face with the unpleasant alternative to proletarian revolution that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels posed in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “the common ruin of the contending classes.”

Hence the relevance of the third meaning: “Help! we’re going down!”  (The airplane metaphor is appropriate in another sense: the carbon footprint of humanity’s manic, globetrotting air travel is shockingly high.)

If we want to avoid this third May Day meaning we are going to have to combine the first two –class struggle and love of nature – in a great popular movement informed by a deeply Ecology-informed version of what Marx and Engels in 1848 considered the only alternative to “common ruin”: the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.”

The Ecocidally Overworked American

Which brings me to the fourth related May Day meaning: free time. Full-time U.S. workers, it is all too rarely noted, have the longest working hours in the advanced capitalist world.  According to the International Labor Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” Eighty-six percent of employed U.S. males and 66 percent of employed U.S. females work more than 40 hours per week. In many professional sectors, work weeks of 60 to 70 hours and more are not uncommon in the U.S. Add in brutal (and high carbon-footprint) commutes and extensive car travel related to the nation’s sprawled-out residential and shopping patterns and it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens face a critical shortage of free time.

What’s it all about? As the economist Juliet Schor noted nearly fifteen years ago, the long hours experienced by “the overworked American” (the title of her widely read first book) reflect U.S. employers’ preference for compensating workers (however imperfectly and unfairly) for productivity gains with money instead of with free time.  Public opinion polls have long showed that most Americans would choose more leisure time over more consumer goods.  They would, that is, if the choice was given to any significant degree.  It isn’t. There’s a remarkable difference in the respective “markets” for goods and services on the one hand and for free time on the other.  An environmentally cancerous super-abundance of consumer goods, far beyond real human and social “use-value” needs, is widely available in the U.S. But free time is a relatively scarce “commodity” in “the land of the free.”

Schor attributed this “market disparity” largely to the capitalist dictates of the employer class.  preference for slack in the labor market – that is, to capitalist bosses’ longstanding reluctance to face the enhanced collective marketplace bargaining power that the working class enjoys when employment is more widely shared out (as it would be if hours for individual workers were reduced to a more reasonable level). U.S. capitalist employers’ ongoing class war on unions – so fierce that U.S. union density (the percentage of U.S. workers enrolled in unions) has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 20 percent in 1983 to less than 12 percent today – is a strong related contributing factor.  Organized labor has always been the leading and most effective historical force pushing for reduced working hours, as in Chicago during the 1880s, when workers demanded “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, and Eight Hours for What We Will.”

Their actual preferences for leisure aside, U.S. workers who receive any extra rewards from their employers generally receive more money, not more free time.  This encourages them to buy more stuff to more “efficiently” enjoy the comparably slight leisure time they do get, something that feeds “a vicious circle of work and spend” (and borrowing) whereby people constantly work (and borrow) to “keep up with the Jones” – that is, to maintain social status as defined by the purchase of ever bigger and higher quality suburban homes, SUVs, refrigerators, televisions, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, and the like.

Time as a Democracy and Survival Issue

In her books The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) and The Overspent American (1998), Schor rightly noted the devastating impacts of this rat-wheel of work and spend on personal, family, and social health and livable ecology (impacts that have survived the collapse of the long “Clinton boom” at the end of the last century, along with the problem of over-work for many and joblessness for others).  But she left out something critical for the problem of how to solve (or at least now ameliorate) the environmental crisis created by capitalism: the devastating impact of overwork and the waning of leisure on peoples’ capacity for self-rule.  Free time is among other things but perhaps above all a democracy issue.  In my experience, social movements in the US founder again and again on the shoals of time-shortage and exhaustion: people simply lack the leisure and vigor required for meaningful grass roots activism and resistance. Without a reasonable abundance of free time off the capitalist treadmill and “for what we will,” popular movements of the kind required to rollback capitalist and extractivist ecocide cannot hope to emerge, much less to thrive and succeed. For what it’s worth, the 19th century pioneers of the US labor movement talked and wrote about the demand for shorter hours – early American unions’ top issue by far – largely in terms of how overwork stole from citizen workers the time and energy essential for meaningful participation in the great experiment in popular governance that had supposedly been launched by the American Revolution. Two centuries later, the struggle for free time remains very much a democracy issue and has also become a matter of ecological survival.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm-Routledge, 2014).

Left Radicals, Radical Republicans, and Dismal Dollar Dems

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, May 2015. Like other radical Left writers and activists who have spent considerable energy criticizing Barack Obama and his corporate-imperial Democratic Party, I am sometimes accused of downplaying the danger posed by the U.S. Republican Party (GOP). As an author of two books and countless essays that have strongly disparaged and denounced the George W. Bush administration and the Republicans more broadly, I find the charge unfair. In both of those volumes and in numerous shorter print and online commentaries, I (along with numerous others from the radical Left) have consistently portrayed the GOP as a vicious, sociopathic, radically regressive, racist, sexist, imperialist, chauvinistic, repressive, arch-capitalist, ultra-reactionary, and even evil organization that endangers democracy, justice, and life itself at home and abroad.

For what it’s worth, I (like most Leftists) have always detested the Republican Party. It’s how I was raised during my 1960s grade-school years on the South Side of Chicago: to root for the White Sox and hate the Cubs and the Republicans. And that was when the GOP was moderate and reasonable—actually “conservative”—compared to its current radical incarnation.

At this point, the organization has degenerated into sheer classist, racist, nationalist, ecocidal, and patriarchal savagery. With its opposition to the expansion of health insurance coverage to some of the poor (under a Republican-inspired, Big Business-friendly program called “Obamacare,” absurdly condemned as “socialist”), its repeated opposition to the provision of unemployment other elementary benefits to the poor, its open jihad against unions and collective bargaining rights, its dreadful efforts to roll back the voting rights of minorities, and its diehard opposition to the findings and urgent recommendations of climate scientists, the GOP is an arch-authoritarian atrocity.

Even some elite Republicans are horrified at what the organization has become. By the judgment of former top Republican intellectual Norman Ornstein (a longstanding political analyst and commentator at the American Enterprise Institute), the GOP isn’t a functioning or conservative party any more. Ornstein thinks it is now more like a paranoid and “apocalyptic cult,” a radical right-wing insurgency.

A Long Record of Perfidy

Given the ferocious institutional monster that the Republican Party has become, why do so many Left radicals (this writer included) still feel no less, and often even more, revulsion towards the GOP’s official sole partisan rival the Democrats as they do for the Republicans? Part of it is that it’s the entire U.S. “two party” system—including the Democrats as well as the Republicans—that has shifted well to the corporate and imperial right over the last four decades. Currently no further to the portside than the Eisenhower and Nixon Republicans of the post-World War II era (Obama himself has suggested that he is an “Eisenhower Republican”), the Democratic Party has richly earned radical Leftists’ enmity over the decades with a long series of actions that affront our core values of peace, social justice and equality, popular and participatory democracy, and environmental sustainability. I do not have time or space here to do justice to the long record of Democratic Party and Democratic policymakers’ hideous record of capitalist and imperial perfidy, but some highlights include:

  • The Kennedy administration’s nuclear deceptions and saber-rattling, which brought the world to the literal edge of annihilation.
  • The Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administration’s criminal and mass-murderous, imperial War against Vietnam, butcher also of the stillborn domestic “War on Poverty.
  • The Carter administration’s decision to arm, train, and fund fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and its neoliberal turn to corporate deregulation.
  • The Clinton administration’s vicious elimination of the poor families’ prior entitlement to federal cash assistance.
  • The Clinton administration’s championing and passage of the radically regressive, arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement.
  • The Clinton administration’s deregulation of financial derivatives and tearing up of the previously existing New Deal firewall between commercial and invesment banking.
  • The Clinton administration’s decision to launch a New Cold War with Russia, including the criminal bombing of Serbia on fake “humanitarian” pretexts.
  • The Clinton administration’s enforcement of economic sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqis.
  • The Obama administration’s bailout and protection of the Wall Street financial institutions and chieftains who collapsed the S. and global economy.
  • The Obama administration’s passage of a Republican-inspired version of health insurance reform (the absurdly named “Affordable Care Act”) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love.
  • The Obama administration’s undermining of urgent global efforts to impose binding limits on world carbon emissions and its related approval and encouragement of the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading producer of gas and oil.
  • Obama’s embrace of the expanding U.S.-totalitarian national security and surveillance state and his related and unprecedented repression of leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists.
  • Obama’s relentless and reckless military imperialism within and beyond the Muslim world, that has fueled the expansion of extremist Islamic jihad and sparked a new confrontation with Russia.

street-teaA major part of Left radicals’ animosity for the Democrats has to do with the fake-progressive deception that has gone along with this perfidy. The late and formerly Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

The Democrats have no monopoly on such manipulation in the two-party system. The Republicans have long practiced their own noxious version. Still, the division of labor between the two dominant corporate and imperial political entities in the U.S. party system assigns the greater role to the Democrats when it comes to posing as the political arm of the working class majority, the poor, women, and minorities at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. For the system- serving task of shutting down, containing, and co-opting popular social movements and channeling popular energies into the nation’s corporate-managed, narrow- spectrum, major-party, big money, and candidate centered electoral system, the Democrats are far and away “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford’s phrase). For the last century, the Marxist political analyst Lance Selfa notes, it has been their job to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive segments of the electorate” by masquerading as “the party of the people.”

The Democratic Party has been most adept at ruling in accord with what David Rothkopf (a former Clinton administration official) in November 2008 called (commenting on then President Elect Obama’s  corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments) “the violin model.” Under the “violin model,” Rothkopf said, “you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, “you” gain and hold office with populace- pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric even as you govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions and class hierarchies.

Making little secret of their commitment to radical capitalist ideals and “free market” doctrine and barely cloaking a policy agenda that is transparently cruel towards working people and the poor, the Republicans are more honest about—and less able to hide—their allegiance to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s phrase).

Another part of radical Leftists’ aversion to Democrats has to do with social and institutional proximity, authority, and control. Leftists commonly work under the control and discipline of coordinator class Democrats and “liberals,” not Republicans. It has long been Democrats’ job to police and define the (not so) “left-most” parameters of acceptable debate, especially within institutions where radical Left intellectuals and activists most commonly work and apply pressure: labor unions, non-profit advocacy and service organizations, schools (from K through “higher education”), media organiza- tions, “progressive” foundations, and think-tanks. As a radical Leftist who has spent years trying (with very limited success) to work effectively in such organizations, I’ve never had to contend with Republican authorities. It’s always Democrats in charge, setting the narrow boundaries on what can and can’t be said, written, advocated, and done—and on how far a radical Leftist can go in terms of professional advancement. It is Democrats who determine the permissible limits of progressive action and discourse, who tell radicals most directly: “This far and no further.”

Liberal-Left rancor in such organizations is a two way street. Working under the supervision of Democrats, radical Leftists often incur remarkable, vituperative hostility and mistreatment from their “liberal” and “progressive” superiors. It’s not surprising. Effective Leftists threaten more than just Democrats’ and liberals’ institutional and ideological power and authority. They also endanger Democrats and liberals’ own sense of themselves as the noble, courageous, and enlightened guardians of the common good. How dare Leftists discuss and treat them as friends of privilege, inequality, injustice, and empire? Left radicals offer no such outflanking challenge to the institutional position and self-esteem of Republicans.

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Presidents Obama, Carter, and Clinton with Michelle Obama

Another reason many radical Leftists abhor Democrats, curiously enough, has to do with our abhorrence of the Republicans. Again and again, Democrats tell us to keep our mouths shut and get in line behind their painfully constricted definition of how far (not very) to the portside “progressives” can go so as to stay united against the Republican enemy. “Be quiet,” Democrats’ and liberals’ repeated and often heated admonitions to Left radicals runs, “or you’ll only help the Republicans win. You don’t want that, do you?”

 Giving the Game Away

The irony of the command is that by closing off and shutting down the possibility of serious popular confrontation with the elite corporate and financial interests that have been running the nation into the ground and pushing the concentration of wealth and power ever further upward—bringing us to an openly plutocratic New Gilded Age—the dismal dollar Democrats help the Republicans win elections again and again. Curiously enough given its remarkable unpopularity in the U.S., the “apocalyptic cult” (the GOP) stands a good chance of completing its takeover of all three branches of the U.S. government next year. It’s not really that a giant mass of Americans has been converted to the arch-reactionary aims of the GOP. The Republican Party is broadly disliked in the U.S., consistent with the fact that its agenda falls well to the right of majority progressive policy opinion in the nation. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last January found that just 25 percent of the U.S. populace hold a “favorable” view of the Republican Party, compared to 46 percent with an “unfavorable” view. The deeper problem is that Democrats repeatedly fail, by design, to act on their deeply dishonest claims of commitment to progressive change, leaving millions to give up on it and/or on voting altogether and many to vote by default for the only viable alternative party under the U.S. “two party” system: the Republicans, whose politicians and media talking heads have the virtue of sounding furious.

Look at Obama. He rode a wave of popular and progressive hope and the promise of universal health care into the White House as the nation fell into the Great Recession, itself caused to no small extent by the nation’s leading giant and arch-parasitic financial institutions. He had Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. He had a majority working class U.S. population that was deeply angry at the nation’s wealthy elite, which, understood as the literal top 1 percent, owned more wealth than almost all of the rest of the nation.

The Liberal Myth of the Powerless President

What did Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress deliver? Obama has been no less solicitous of the nation’s corporate and financial ruling class and has done little more for the nation’s working class majority than his more ham-fisted predecessor. The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend—when the right people want it.” And little to spend on the rest of us, the wretched rabble, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” who were left to ask “Where’s my bailout?” According to a standard liberal apology, Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good. Alas, the excuse runs, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party, big political money, a gerrymandered Congress, the deadening handing of American federalism, and racism. The deeper truth, however, is that Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things they said and say on the campaign trail—things that were fully within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the  economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.”

street-frankThe financial crisis, Frank wrote, worked out the way it did—with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever—“in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way….When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.” At the same time, Frank proposes “a bit of blunt class analysis” suggesting that that big money exercises huge influence over Democrats as well as Republicans (imagine) and that the Democratic Party has been “transform[ed] in recent decades into a dutiful servant of the professional class” with “a generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people” and an “amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism” (Thomas Frank, “It’s Not Just FOX News,” Salon, January 11, 2015).

What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?

The dismal Dems typically point the finger of blame all over the place but rarely at themselves, who bear no small responsibility for the nation’s ever more chillingly rightward and oligarchic drift—in abject defiance of ever more technically irrelevant public opinion. Frank’s widely read book What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has been generally cited by liberals as a brilliant reflection on how clever, dastardly, and plutocratic Republicans succeeded in seducing working class whites over to their side by exploiting divisive “social issues” like gun rights and abortion. Rarely if ever noted by those same liberals is the significant extent to which Frank in the Epilogue to that book blamed the Democrats for leaving those whites open to such reactionary manipulation by abandoning the party’s past greater commitment to the economic concerns of labor and the working class majority in the quest for corporate money and elite approval. But the disappointed Democrat Frank might also take an honest and unflattering look in the historical mirror. The privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president he describes this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists tried to warn liberals and progressives about from the very beginning. The populace-demobilizing and dollar- drenched Democratic Party has continued to act in accord with its cringing captivity to elite interests in ways that radical Left writers and activists and others have been documenting and denouncing for decades. In defiance or ignorance of those warnings, Frank fell (by his own admission to Bill Moyers in January of 2009) into foolish “love” with the Obama presidential candidacy.

Dreams of Bernie v. Hillary’s Money Machine

In recent months, “Progressive Democrats” have been hoping to breathe new life into the nation’s hopelessly 1%-dominated “two party system” by running the nominally socialist, technically Independent, and genuinely populist and domestically progressive U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Iowa 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus and the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary. It is not a worthy endeavor—and not just because of Sanders’s terrible record on Israel-Palestine and other matters of U.S. imperial foreign policy. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals—much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a “socialist”—become its standard-bearer. It will nominate Hillary Clinton or—in the unlikely event of her withdrawal or defeat—some other Wall Street-financed corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair once accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] bird of prey” seem more progressive than they really are? Both organizations now stand well to the right of majority public opinion and in accord with the views of the elite political “donor class” on numerous key policy issues. Why lend a hand to corporate Democrats’ effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism?

Thankfully, perhaps, the ever-escalating cost of presidential campaigning seems to be turning Sanders against making a presidential run either outside or inside the Democratic Party. Sanders has become increasingly reticent about the effort. It’s not because he thinks that Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidates are likely to advance anything remotely like a progressive agenda to tackle the issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change (issues that Sanders sincerely holds dear).

It’s because the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship” has already selected Hillary, Inc. as the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer even before the electoral formalities get underway in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada. As Sanders’s adviser Tad Devine told Salon’s Luke Brinker last March, “We have not really raised money…. He [Sanders] has absolutely no rapport with the people giving him money…. As a matter of fact, he’s spending most of his time trashing them.” By Brinker’s calculation, Sanders’s Senate campaign committee possessed a modest $4.5 million while his political action committee (“Progres sive Voters of America”) raised just over $535,000. “Meanwhile,” Blinker noted: “Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each aim to raise well north of a cool billion for their campaigns; Bush’s financial juggernaut is already on track to collect $50 million to $100 million for the first three months of this year, and while his party’s base is decidedly skeptical of him, his cash cow of a campaign may ultimately be too much for his rivals to overcome. As for Clinton, there’s no doubt that much of her strength in early polls reflects goodwill among Democratic voters—of course, 2008 attests that such sentiment can be fickle—but is that what’s  really behind the recent spate of headlines that for all her flaws, Democrats have no other alternative?  Hardly.

Above all else, the party apparatus is loyal to Clinton because, in the unlikely event that she doesn’t run, they don’t see any other candidate who could build anything like her money machine, and in the near-certain case that she does enter the race, strategists don’t see how any potential rival would compete against it. So why alienate a potential president by backing someone else.” (L. Brinker, “Bernie Sanders is Increasingly Iffy on Running for President—and the Reason is Thoroughly Depressing,” Salon, March 13, 2015.)

Also significant, the corporate media is highly unlikely to treat Sanders as a remotely “serious” and “viable” candidate—an additional and related death blow to his chances. Never mind that much of what Sanders advocates—genuinely progressive taxation, restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, single- payer health insurance, strong financial regulation, public financing of elections, large-scale green jobs programs to put millions to decently paid work on socially and ecologically necessary tasks and more—is popular with the U.S. working class majority. That’s technically irrelevant. As Brinker bemoans, “the question of who counts as [a] ‘serious’ [presidential candidate] cannot be separated from the question of money. What we’re witnessing is a vicious circle whereby candidates struggle to raise money and therefore struggle to get their messages out and rise in the polls, and because said candidates’ polling numbers are nothing to write home about, it’s difficult to get donors to pay up…. The implications of such an order are nothing if not pernicious. Economic inequality and political inequality, it turns out, are indelibly linked…. Call it what you will—a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a corporatocracy —but this state of affairs is not emblematic of a democracy.”

A saving grace for a Sanders run perhaps would be if he were to drop all pretense of trying to win and used the campaign stage as an educational platform. He could exploit the process to relentlessly expose the dollar- drenched absurdity of the nation’s 1% elections and party system. He could advocate for a powerful new popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed candidate- centered quadrennial electoral spectacles that are staged as yet another method for marginalizing and containing the populace. The movement would include in its list of demands the creation of a party and elections system worthy of passionate citizen engagement.

Imagine a Democratic Society

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Jon Stuart speculates comedically

Sanders or other supposed potential electoral “saviors” aside, backing a “progressive” candidate in Demo- cratic presidential caucus and primary race is not the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate- imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party and the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the U.S. elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire—the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states). Alternately, and more positively, they could do something along the lines of what Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011—hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage: “We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire?…. The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what we want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you.” “What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people vote for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

With the first $5 billion presidential campaign contest coming around the corner, an “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky) very possibly pitting 2 dynastic families (the Clintons and the Bushes have together have held the White House for 20 of the last 26 years) against one another in an ever more openly plutocratic New Gilded Age, now seems as good a time as ever to embrace a different, genuinely popular politics from the bottom up. The top-down method has failed miserably and not incidentally threatens to wipe out life on Earth in the not so distant future.

Z

 

Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

The U.S., Iran, and the Saudi Bombing of Yemen

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Fars News Agency TEHRAN (FNA), April 27, 2015  – Dr. Paul Street, an American journalist, historian and political commentator, says the Saudi kingdom is following the lead of its US-Zionist masters in attacking Yemen, describing Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh as three war criminals totally unaware of the calamities that lie ahead of the poor nation as a result of their warmongering.

“The Obama administration is providing critical technical and other military assistance assisting its leading client state Saudi Arabia in the bombing of Yemen. Along with the Saudi embargo, this attack is generating a humanitarian calamity. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East, a country that faces deadly water and agricultural crises and the threat of takeover by barbarous Salafist extremists. Civilians are dying, including hundreds of women and children. What little infrastructure Yemen has is being devastated. The US-Saudi attack (backed by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain) is highly criminal and threatens to tip Yemen into utter catastrophe,” Paul Street said in an exclusive interview with FNA.

He further said that the Saudi monarchy’s claim that it is bombing Yemen in order to preserve its national security is not surprising at all, and noted, “That’s standard war propaganda. Aggressor regimes typically say that their criminal wars of aggression are really about ‘self-defense,’ ‘national security,’ and the like. That’s what Washington always does when it invades and otherwise attacks other countries. It wouldn’t make much ‘public relations’ sense for Riyadh to tell the truth about its real geopolitical ambitions, allied with those of the US and Israel.”

Paul Street is the author of numerous books including “Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11″, “Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era”, and “Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History”.

Street’s essays, articles, reviews, interviews, and commentaries have appeared in numerous outlets, including ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, Truthout, the Chicago Tribune, Capital City Times, In These Times, and Chicago History.

Street’s writings, research findings, and commentary have been featured in a large number and wide variety of media venues, including The New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, the Chicago Tribune, WGN (Chicago/national), WLS (ABC-Chicago), Fox News, and the Chicago Sun Times.

What follows is the text of Fars News Agency’s (FNA) interview with Paul Street, conducted on April 17, 2015.

FNA: Saudi Arabia began its aerial bombardments on Yemen on March 26 in an attempt to restore power to fugitive president Mansour Hadi. The monarchy declared end to Yemen airstrikes after four weeks of bombing and killing around 2900 innocent people. Meanwhile, the attacks continued despite the fact that Riyadh declared an end to them on Tuesday. Certain regional and western countries supplied Riyadh with critical support in air refueling, surveillance and logistics. What lies behind attacking another Middle-Eastern country?

Street: Let’s be clear about which among “certain Western countries” matters most. That would be the United States, whose “defense” (Empire) budget accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and pays for more than 1000 US military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. The Obama administration is providing critical technical and other military assistance assisting its leading client state Saudi Arabia in the bombing of Yemen. Along with the Saudi embargo, this attack is generating a humanitarian calamity. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East, a country that faces deadly water and agricultural crises and the threat of takeover by barbarous Salafist extremists. Civilians are dying, including hundreds of women and children. What little infrastructure Yemen has is being devastated. The US-Saudi attack (backed by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain) is highly criminal and threatens to tip Yemen into utter catastrophe.

The absurdities of Washington’s Yemen policy here are striking. For US Secretary of State John F. Kerry to say that the US supports the bombing because Washington “won’t stand by while the region is destabilized” is ridiculous. Bombing is a well-known means of destabilization (look at the record of the US war on Indochina, 1962-1975). US drone attacks and bombings conducted in Yemen in the name of the so-called Global War on Terror (really a global war of terror) bear significant responsibility for the unraveling of Saleh’s and Hadi’s pro-US/pro-Saudi regimes. At the same time, the Ansarullah fighters have been effectively combatting the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemeni affiliate of the ISIL.

What’s it all about? It’s revealing that Kerry said “region” instead of “Yemen.” According to the official narrative in Riyadh, Washington, and Western media, Yemen is “under siege by agents of Iran,” the “Houthis” (the Ansarullah fighters). The claim is exaggerated, to say the least. The Houthis may practice a kind of Shiite Islam, Zaidi, but their version differs significantly from Iranian Shiism. In fact, the Houthis are merely the latest manifestation of a long-oppressed Yemeni religious minority seeking autonomy from the central government. After years of being deceived and stymied by pro-US dictators and puppets in Sana’a, they finally overthrew the government, with assistance from government forces formerly loyal to Saleh. Calling the Houthis “agents of Iran” is misleading. As the regional analyst Emma Ashford noted two weeks ago in the New York Times:

“Yemen’s volatile civil war has been depicted as merely a battleground between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite Iran for dominance in the Middle East… But in fact, the conflict in Yemen is local, not regional. Washington and Riyadh have pushed the narrative of an Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen. This is an oversimplification at best…. While the Houthis are Shiites, their Zaydi faith is theologically distinct from the Shiite practices of most Iranians. Historically, this has limited ties between them and Tehran. And although Iran has given the Houthis some financial support, it has not been directly involved in the conflict. In fact, many of the Houthis’ recent gains are a result of their alliance with Sunni supporters of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power in 2012.”

Still, Saudi Arabia unshakably views Iran as a grave threat and sees Tehran’s hand behind almost every regional development it doesn’t like. Now that Washington has the outlines of a nuclear deal with Iran – with whom it must make some rapprochement if the barbarian ISIL (which frightens even its Saudi sponsors) is going to be rolled back (the same is true for Syria), the Obama administration in Yemen is placating the Saudi royal family, who sits atop a giant pile of oil and money that Washington does not take lightly.

Meanwhile the ISIL and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can be expected to find rich, blood-soaked ground in which to grow in more devastated Yemen. As Emma Ashford rightly notes, “Yemen has the potential to become the next Syria, spiraling into sectarian violence, with money and arms from abroad fueling the conflict. If Arab airstrikes continue, Yemen is likely to become a failed state. Tragically, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would be the one beneficiary, as the terrorist group enjoys a respite from drone strikes, counterterrorism campaigns… A bombing campaign won’t stabilize Yemen…Instead, it could lead to a prolonged and bloody civil war and provide fertile ground for extremist groups.” And of course, historically no government has done more than Saudi Arabia more to spread the extremist Wahhabi ideology that fuels the Salafist groups in Yemen and across the region.

FNA: The Saudi-led air campaign on Yemen is a blatant violation of international regulations and the rights of a sovereign state as a member of the United Nations. However, the UNSC adopted a resolution earlier and imposed sanctions on the revolutionaries and didn’t condemn the Saudi aggression which has so far killed thousands of people. What’s your perspective on that?

Street: Clearly, it is absurd. Russia at least abstained, I believe. I do not pretend to understand the internal politics of the UNSC, but clearly it functioned here as the de facto agent of Washington, Riyadh, and Israel. The Yemeni branch of ISIL and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula must have been pleased for the Ansarullah Houthi fighters are their blood enemies in Yemen. Finally, let’s be candid about an unpleasant truth: history shows that the United States and its clients never take international law or “regulations” seriously when those laws and regulations violate their perceived “national interests.”

FNA: The Saudi monarchy claims its air campaign against Yemen is an issue of national security. What do you think?

Street: The claim is unsurprising. That’s standard war propaganda. Aggressor regimes typically say that their criminal wars of aggression are really about “self-defense,” “national security,” and the like. That’s what Washington always does when it invades and otherwise attacks other countries. It wouldn’t make much “public relations” sense for Riyadh to tell the truth about its real geopolitical ambitions, allied with those of the US and Israel. In meantime, it is worth bearing in mind that the greatest threat to the security of the Saudi people is Saudi Arabia’s vicious regime, very possibly the most reactionary and oppressive government on Earth. “If ‘totalitarianism’ has any meaning,” the leading Middle Eastern expert Gilbert Achcar noted seven years ago, “that’s totalitarianism there (in Saudi Arabia).” As Sarah Flounders observes at Fight Back! News:
“Saudi Arabia is an absolute and brutal dictatorship. The country is named after the royal Saud family that has expropriated the country’s fabulous oil wealth, and treats it as a wholly owned family asset. Their control is maintained by massive state-organized repression. All forms of political dissent and social organization, from political parties to trade unions, are banned under pain of death….Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include …political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.”

“Government departments are treated as fiefdoms … Personal and state funds are completely commingled. All (royal) family members are guaranteed astronomical monthly allowances from birth … 60 percent of the population live(s) below the poverty line… More than 1.5 million migrant women work in domestic slavery (and)… the International Trade Union Confederation … report(s) alarming levels of child labor, discrimination and forced labor … women have no rights to employment, property or education.”

The Saudi regime’s victims include its own Shiite minority, which makes up 10-15% of Saudi Arabia. Shiite Saudis are heavily concentrated in the nation’s Eastern province, where most of the kingdom’s oil is produced. That is no small context for understanding the Saudi regime’s hostility to any examples of Shiite self-rule and power in the region.

Interview by Javad Arab Shirazi

Boston, Blowback, and Barack Obama

23/04/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 18, 2015

I am personally opposed to the death penalty.  Still, I’d be lying if I said I cared a great deal about the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Tsarnaev and his brother committed a hideous crime that cost three innocent people their lives, blew limbs off of seventeen others, and wounded two hundred and forty more. Please don’t ask me to shed a tear for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose death penalty trial begins on April 21st.

What does bother me quite a bit is not so much the possibility that Tsarnaev may be sentenced to death (I hope he is not) as the utter failure of United States political and media culture to grant remotely serious moral attention to the important fact that Tsarnaev and his older brother decided to kill Americans in what they perceived as, in the words of The New York Times last week, “retaliation for American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Times’ word choices were too mild. It would be much more accurate to say “retaliation for criminal, mass-murderous, and imperial US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Boston v. Bola Boluk

The Tsarnaev brothers’ crime was despicable. But let’s compare their transgression with another crime that occurred early in the presidency of Barack Obama. Before Boston, there was Bola Boluk. In the first week of May 2009, a U.S. air-strike killed more than ten dozen civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported: “In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to…the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi…. The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…. Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including…many women and children” (NYT, May 6, 2009).

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident—one among many mass U.S. aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001—was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the Administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11 (New York Daily News, April 28, 2009;  Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009).

The disparity was remarkable: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians perished—stories that were taken seriously by corporate media. The U.S. subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that slashed the civilian body count and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of U.S. bombs.

“Really Good at Killing People”

“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” So said a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. “The man,” the reporter wrote, “spoke from the village of Armal, where a large crowd gathered around the bodies of twelve people, one family from a single home, all killed by U.S. Special Forces during a late-night raid. ”

Nearly three years later, the peace prize hero agreed with the young Muslim from Armal. “Turns out,” Obama said to White House aides while reflecting on the CIA drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, “I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a U.S. citizen, was killed in a separate U.S. drone strike two weeks after his father.

Overseeing the expansion of the CIA’s targeted killing program, the peace prize idol has long personally managed the agency’s Kill List, which designates secretly selected “bad guys” for liquidation without the irksome obstructions of law.  Call it same day imperial assassination.

Obama is a skilled murderer in a wide range of places. While his “cowboy” predecessor George W. Bush has him beat by far on total body count (thanks to “the American-led war in Iraq”), Obama takes the prize when it comes to geographical scope.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last January, “At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones [Iraq and Afghanistan] since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago.” The Nobel champion’s drones, bombs, missiles, and Special Forces have wreaked havoc in many more Muslim nations than were invaded by Bush’s troops, something that has helped Washington spread and intensify Salafist jihad across a much broader territory (including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria) in the Age of Obama

Who Cares?

Bola Boluk, Armal, and the Awlakis are just drops in the giant river of blood that the United States has created across the Muslim world since the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks on “the homeland.”  In his important 2011 book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press), John Tirman, the Principal Research Scientist and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, determined that the US invasion of Afghanistan led to as many as 35,000 civilian deaths, “including nonviolent ‘excess’ deaths, with about 9000 from direct U.S. military action, through the first half of 2010.” That’s the noncombatant death toll in what Obama considered Bush’s “good war,” actually no less illegal than the invasion of Iraq.

As for Bush’s “bad war” (occasionally criticized as a “blunder” and “mistake” but never as an imperial or murderous crime in “mainstream” US media-politics culture), Tirman conservatively estimates that the orgy of violence conducted and unleashed by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” produced “hundreds of thousands of [Iraqis] deaths, perhaps close to a million” along with four million displaced and “a society in shambles.” It’s true that the US lost thousands of troops in Iraq but the US body count was tiny in comparison to the Iraqi one: the US to Iraqi death ratio was 1 to 200.

Who cares? Not the American people, at least not by Tirman’s account. The “casualty aversion” that tends to repeatedly undermine US public support for Washington’s global wars is always mainly about the deaths of U.S. military personnel, Tirman notes.  It has little to do with the much bigger swath of humanity the US kills abroad (more than two million people in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and probably as many as 2 million in Iraq from 1990 through 2011).  The West’s shocking “absence of concern,…absence of sympathy” and “collective autism” regarding civilian suffering in the Muslim world is shaped by a dominant “homeland” political discourse that refuses to seriously discuss “the deaths of others” at US hands and makes “even the scattered attempts to account for the [foreign] dead [i.e., Iraq Body Count]… [into] a highly charged endeavor” (Tirman)

Numb About Unreported Crimes

In Tirman’s view, this indifference is rooted in mass evolutionary-psychological responses of “denial,” “withdrawal,” “psychic numbing,” victim-blaming (“they brought it on themselves”) and other mental and emotional means (“it all turned for the best in the end”).  These defense mechanisms function to “mitigate the horror of the outcomes we’re witnessing” and to reduce our perception that “the world is perhaps unjust, threatening, and random.”

Tirman may be on to something, but there’s a problem with his argument.  Thanks to the imperial and nationalist ideological and related informational biases and deletions of reigning US corporate-state “mainstream” media, US citizens for the most part simply do not have much opportunity to witness the horror that the US Empire inflicts on others around the world. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky demonstrated in their classic text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), one way that US “mainstream” reporters, editors, and commentators prove their “balanced” safety to those who wield power and keep their careers afloat is by respecting and enforcing a great doctrinal distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.” Under dominant mass media rules, people killed and maimed by official enemies of the U.S. and its allies in the world geopolitical order are worthy victims. Their fates deserve serious investigation, empathy, mourning, and solemn efforts to identify and punish those who harmed and killed them.  The vastly greater number of people the U.S. and its clients and allies have killed and maimed abroad receive no such heartfelt acknowledgement and grave concern. They are unworthy, largely uncounted, and anonymous victims in reigning U.S. media and politics culture. They are at best faceless and unquantified “collateral damage” in Washington’s inherently noble efforts to do “good” around the world, as far as the leading U.S. communications authorities are concerned. They do not merit serious attention.  Their fate is generally ignored, their stories untold in US media.

It’s hard to respond with indifference and withdrawal to deaths you don’t even know about thanks to the propagandistic nature of the media on which you rely for accurate information about a vast and complex world.

“Blowback”

Whatever the explanation, few Americans lose any sleep over the million or so Iraqis the US has killed since March 2003 – or over the 6 to 7 million mostly civilian people that Tirman estimates the US has killed in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq since 1950, (The rest of the humanity notices this unconcern and/or ignorance and much of the Muslim world would probably and understandably agree with Tsarnaev’s mother’s recent statement that “The terrorists are the Americans and everyone knows it.”) But what about the loss of innocent US lives to the terrorism that is provoked by US military actions abroad? Well before the 9/11 terror attacks, the late US historian Chalmers Johnson noted, CIA officers invented the term “blowback” to connote the dangers posed to Americans by “their” nation’s vastly over-extended Empire, “which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth.”  The September 11 jetliner assaults were the ultimate example of such “blowback,” a clear and forewarned (in all but technical and logistic specifics) response to Washington’s heavy and blood-soaked imperial footprint in the Middle East and the Muslim world. There have been many smaller examples since, including the Boston Marathon bombing, fed by the also predictable (and predicted) U.S. response to 9/11:  by Washington’s decision to double down on the very imperial presence and aggression that provoked the al Qaeda attacks in the first place.  The US escalation has brought into being the hideous Islamic State, among other terrible developments.

US policymakers undertake provocative and mass-murderous military adventures abroad with full knowledge that their actions are certain to generate “blowback,” including terrorist attacks killing innocent U.S. citizens on “homeland” soil. The policymakers don’t care.  If anything, it seems that many in the US imperial establishment welcome such attacks because of their “Pearl Harbor” and “Remember the Maine” role – 9/11 was a classic example – of convincing millions of US citizens to rally around the flag, cower under the umbrella of the so-called national security state, and support further U.S. aggression in the name of revenge and the false promise of security. The aggression only fuels more “blowback,” which in turn only deepens the nation’s commitment to a permanent global war of (“on”) terror that guarantees super-profitable cost-plus contracts for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other blood-drenched corporate masters of war.  That everyday U.S. citizens confront a world more dangerous than ever even in the “homeland” is at most a minor concern for the US imperial establishment.

Paul Street (paul.street99@gmail.com ) is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Indian Logos, and the U.S. Empire

22/04/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, March 2015

Imagine the outrage that would arise within and beyond Germany if one of that nation’s professional soccer clubs named itself “The Fighting Jews,” “The Rabbis,” or “The Battling Hebrews,” and placed an exaggerated, cartoon-like image of an old Jewish man from 1930s Berlin on its players’ jerseys and jackets. Such an action would be unthinkable given the potent historical memory of the Nazi Holocaust inside and outside Germany.  So would the application by the German military of names like “Jew” or “Gypsy” to any of its military aircraft, missiles, or operations.

In the United States, however, American Indian names and logos—appropriated from indigenous people the U.S. military and white settlers largely exterminated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—persist in professional, collegiate, and high school athletics and also in the military. Some of the team names and logos have elicited considerable criticism, leading to changes in team imagery and ceremony.  The names and many of the logos persist, however.

“Delivering My County of Those Merciless Savages”

The worst Indian team name by far in professional U.S. sports is the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, which is just openly racist. Next came Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, whose home uniform and cap include a picture of a maniacally grinning and red-skinned “Indian Chief” with a strangely shaped head and a feather sticking up from the back of his skull. These two franchises—neither of which is particularly successful—top the Professional Sports Indian Team Name and Logo Hall of Shame. They have caught no small well-deserved flak for their names and logos from Indian rights activists over the years. A comparatively quiet third place (formerly held by baseball’s Atlanta Braves, who have softened their racist Indian imagery in recent years) in major professional U.S. sports goes to the NHL hockey team the Chicago Blackhawks, a recently successful franchise (winner of two Stanley Cup championships over the last five years) that is named after Black Hawk, a once famous early 19th century Sauk Nation warrior from northern Illinois. For reasons indicated later in this essay, the Blackhawks have largely escaped critical scrutiny for its Native American appellation and imagery.

If you go to a Blackhawks game at the United Center in Chicago (as I do once every few years), you will find yourself surrounded by at least 15,000 mostly white middle-class people wearing the team’s bright red jersey with the logo representing the onetime Sauk Indian warrior Black Hawk covering their bellies.

What do the masses of the very predominantly white Black Hawks enthusiasts who proudly don the jersey (also ubiquitous at Blackhawks away games) know—or care to know—about the history of the individual represented in the logo?   Nothing, or next to it.  Just ask one.

street braves 1One indication of this historical ignorance is the fans’ habitual reference to the individual depicted in the logo as “Chief Blackhawk.” Neither word in that designation is technically accurate. The Native American who is rather badly depicted in the logo was not a chief. Black Hawk, called Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak by his people, a band of the Algonquin-speaking Sauk Indians, was born in 1767 in the village of Saukenuk in the northwestern section of what later became the state of Illinois. He grew up to become a famous and influential Sauk warrior, but never a “chief.”  In 1829, Black Hawk’s band returned home from a winter hunt to find white American imperial settlers living in their Saukenuk lodges. “Indian unrest” ensued. Two years later, U.S. forces summarily ordered the expulsion of the Sauk from the richly fertile forests and plains of western Illinois. The U.S. General Land Office put the Sauks’ property (including Black Hawk’s lodge) up for sale. The Sauk were told to move west of the Mississippi River. Over the winter of 1831-1832, white settlers moved into Saukenuk.

The following spring, the 65-year-old-Black Hawk returned with 300 warriors and their families from the winter hunt to reclaim their home village, which they saw as the “center of the world.” U.S. General Edmund P. Gaines arrived with a large force of U.S. soldiers and Illinois militia. At first, Black Hawk led his large band of warriors, women, and children in retreat, to the west side of the Mississippi. On April 5, 1832, however, he brought them back, mistakenly convinced that other Indian forces and the British to the north would support him in a struggle with the white invaders. A 15-week conflict ensued, concluding with the near annihilation of Black Hawk’s band as it attempted to escape.

Battle of Bad Axe

street3

The “Black Hawk War” was incredibly one-sided. The Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people, including hundreds of woman and children. Just 70 soldiers and settlers were killed. The conflict culminated in the so-called Battle of Bad Axe, on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, near the present-day community of Victory in southwest Wisconsin. Better described as a massacre than a “battle,” this American military triumph involved U.S. General Henry Atkinson killing every Indian who tried to run for cover or to flee across the Mississippi River. On August 1, 1832, Black Hawk’s band reached the Mississippi at its confluence with the Bad Axe River. What followed was an atrocity, committed despite the Indians’ repeated attempts at surrender. As the Sauk refugees readied canoes and rafts, the U.S. steamboat Warrior arrived.  Black Hawk attempted to negotiate under truce. The Americans unleashed their weapons, killing two dozen Sauk warriors. “As we neared them,” one U.S. officer who “served” in the U.S. assault recalled, “they raised a white flag and endeavored to decoy us, but we were a little too old for them.” Hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women and children were shot, clubbed, and bayoneted to death at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers on August 2. U.S. soldiers scalped most of the dead. They cut long strips of flesh from dead and wounded Indians for use as razor strops. The slaughter was supported by cannon and rifle fire from the aptly named U.S. military ship Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives. The United States suffered 5 dead and 19 wounded in the “Battle of Bad Axe” (see Kerry Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, New York, 2007; Ian Barnes, The Historical Atlas of Native Americans, New York, 2009; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, New York, 2003).

In a popular account of the “battle” published two years later, U.S. Major John Allen Wakefield offered some interesting reflections: “It was a horrid sight to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country…It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth to ache.” But, Wakefield wrote, “I must confess, that it filled my heart with gratitude and joy, to think that I had been instrumental, with many others, in delivering my country of those merciless savages, and restoring those [invading white] people again to their peaceful homes and firesides.”

Such sentiments were common among American army and militia members, who reveled in the mass murder of indigenous people. As a government agent told the Sauk Indians: “Our Great Father…will forbear no longer. He has tried to reclaim [Native Americans] and they grow worse. He is resolved to sweep them from the face of the earth…. If they cannot be made good they must be killed.” By Wakefield’s account, the U.S. troops at Bad Axe “shrank not from their duty. They all joined in the work of death for death it was. We were by this time fast getting rid of those demons in human shape…the Ruler of the Universe, He who takes vengeance on the guilty, did not design those guilty wretches to escape His vengeance” (Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War, Calvin Goudy Press, 1834).

Andrew Jackson Indian Killer

street-jacksonThe top “demon in human shape”—“chief” Black Hawk—escaped death and lived six years beyond the “war” (slaughter) that bore his name.  He was sent to a U.S. reservation in Iowa after President Andrew Jackson (a famous and prolific Indian-killer) had Black Hawk paraded as a celebrity freak and war booty as an exotic and sub-human savage and as proof of the United States’ military’s alleged great prowess in defeating such barbarian brutes—before gawking crowds in eastern U.S. cities. None of this history, sad to say, holds the slightest bit of interest for any but a minuscule percentage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ fervent and highly caucasian fan base.

A Military Connection

street-1According to the Chicago Blackhawks’ public relations office, their teams’ name and logo is a tribute to the bravery and fighting spirit of the great Sauk warrior—a spirit its players seek to epitomize on NHL ice rinks. Similar claims are made by other teams with Indian names and logos. The Redskins, the Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles, and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and all the rest say the same thing: their Indian names and logos honor the Native Americans who courageously and skillfully defended their own ill-fated lands and ways of life.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. military says the same thing about the considerable amount of military hardware—helicopters especially—and military operations it has given Native American names. The military helicopters include the Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and the Black Hawk Attack chopper. There is also the Tomahawk, a low-altitude U.S. cruise missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle.  The operation that killed Osama bin Laden was given the title Geronimo.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the only sports Indian team name in the country that has a direct connection to the military’s use of Indian names.  The team’s name was selected in 1926 by its founding owner Frederic McLaughlin, who decided on the label because he had commanded a machine gun battalion in the U.S. Army’s “86th Blackhawk Division” during World War 1.

It is better, perhaps, to claim to celebrate and uphold liquidated Native Americans of the past than it is to engage in the liquidation of Native Americans in the present.  But, as the former New Republic editor Franklin Foer noted eight years ago, “there’s a sizeable flaw” in the reasoning behind the claim that Indian team names and logos pay respectful homage to the skill and courage of past Indian people and fighters. As Foer argued: “Americans can only pay this kind of obeisance because they have slaughtered the Indians.  Nobody is around to object to turning them into cartoon images…. The cartoon images of mascots freeze the Indians in time, portraying them as they lived in the 19th century at the time of the west’s conquest, wearing leather suits and feather headdresses. It becomes impossible to imagine the remaining Indians ever transcending their primitivism, ever leaving their reservations and assimilating into society.  The same sort of cartoon image has afflicted the European Jews [in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust]. No matter how hard they try, they’re stuck as outsiders and ‘others’ in the continental mind [consistent with]…an old aphorism…‘a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews’” (Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization).

street-oldindians logo

There are flaws in Foer’s own logic. It seems misplaced to describe 19th century North American indigenous people with the phrase “primitivism” when those people related to each other and to the Earth in egalitarian and sustainable ways that put contemporary capitalism’s savagely unequal social relations and related eco-cidal environmental practices to shame. While the European Jewish Holocaust has been strongly acknowledged and honored both within and beyond Europe, the American Indian Holocaust (see Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present) continues to face denial and disinterest in the U.S. Europeans enjoy significant socioeconomic security and privilege on the whole while Native Americans are mired at the bottom of the United States’ steep economic pyramid. Many Indian reservations more than just rival the nation’s worst-off Black ghettoes for social and economic misery.

Imagine “the Chicago Fredericks” or “the Chicago Bad Axes”

Still, Foer is right to note how the team names and logos function to portray Native Americans as unchanging and backwards inferiors who are justly excluded from mainstream society and its benefits. Equally germane is his observation that the tribes the U.S. military crushed in the 19th century are no longer around to object to the appropriation of their onetime images as fighting mascots for contemporary sports teams. Imagine if the Chicago Blackhawks wanted to change their name to, say, “The Pancho Villas,” replacing “chief” Black Hawk’s picture with a portrait of the Mexican revolutionary or to the “The Fredericks,” with a fierce-looking profile of the great 19th century escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass on the front of the team’s jersey. My examples are absurd, of course, but the point is that neither move would ever be remotely considered because—among other things—Blackhawks management would rightly anticipate protest from living Latina/o and Black communities within and beyond Chicago.

In the Sauks’ case, as with numerous other Native American tribes wiped out by U.S. troops, their white- skinned and blue-coated killers had of course little respectful to say about “the savages” they lustily butchered. The killers didn’t praise the Indians as commendable opponents.  They thanked God for helping them complete the one-sided slaughter of the “red-skinned” “demons in human shape,” including defenseless indigenous children and their mothers. This suggests something deeper and darker than mere insensitivity.

Tstreet-clevejpghe notion of the vanquished indigenous as fearsome and worthy adversaries serves to delete the real history of one-sided racist and imperial genocide—a savagely unequal conquest—that lay behind the “winning of the [U.S.] west.”  It helps contemporary white Americans think that the North American continent was obtained in an evenhanded contest, not through massively superior murderous force and bloody criminality. At the same time, it has long boosted the nation’s sense of military power by selling the myth that rugged white U.S. soldiers prevailed over truly threatening and potent “homeland” enemies. As Simon Waxman, editor of the Boston Review, noted in a brilliant reflection last summer: “Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves, because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality—the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated, and impossibly outgunned. The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.

“It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority….” Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy’ (Simon Waxman, “The U.S. Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans” Washington Post, June 26, 2014).

The leading historian of the Black Hawk War, Kerry Trask, puts it very well. “In the American experience it has most often been the shedding of Indian blood that has transformed the profane wilderness—the land where white people were aliens who did not belong—into the sacred space of the Republic.  Through the killing of the native people, white men came to believe in their own power and superiority and their right to possess a land that was not their own” (Trask, Black Hawk, 306).

Keeping Waxman and Trask’s reflection and Chomsky’s analogy in mind, consider another name change and logo the Blackhawks would never consider: “The Chicago Bad Axes,” with a picture of a manically grinning and bearded white U.S. soldier scalping a bloody, murdered Sauk child.  Never mind the painful historical accuracy of the image and name.

Why the Blackhawks Get a Pass 

The Blackhawks’ name and logo has received relatively little criticism compared to the more fully provocative names and logos of the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, along with (to mention some collegiate examples), the Florida State Seminoles, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the Illinois Fighting Illini. Part of the explanation is that hockey is not as big a deal in the U.S. as either football (which passed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport by far years ago) or baseball in the U.S. It also runs well behind basketball. Another part of why the Blackhawks seem to get a pass is that, as CBS Chicago sports commentator Tim Baffoe noted during the team’s 2013 championship run, “the Hawks don’t use a caricature or slur that other teams have come under fire for. In fact, there is almost zero Native American ‘stuff’ used by the organization other than just their very famous logo.”

Like the Indian head on the Washington Redskins’ helmet, Black Hawk’s head and face is not distorted: it’s just a sort of “badass” (Baffoe’s term) profile of a fierce looking 19th century Native American warrior. The Blackhawks have nothing like the mass Tomahawk chop and chant that have long been central parts of the fan experience at the home games of the Seminoles and the Braves (the second team also used to feature a mock Indian called “Chief Noc a homa” who would come out of a “teepee” to dance whenever the Braves hit a home run).

That’s all to the Chicago Blackhawks’ credit, I suppose, but none of it really softens the deeper, time-freezing, and power-appropriating offense inherent in the use of Indian names and logos.

New Logo?

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One of the curious things about the Chicago Blackhawks’ version of the problem is that—unlike the Redskins, the Indians, the Braves, the Fighting Sioux, and the Illini—they don’t have to change their name to correct the situation. All they need do is change their logo to the beautiful predatory bird that Black Hawk was named after. As anyone who has watched a fair bit of ice hockey knows, this logo is a perfect image for the sport, suggesting a swiftly skating forward swooping down on a loose puck to shoot past an enemy goalie.  Chicago has the Bears, the Cubs (baby bears), and the Bulls (perhaps a perverse tribute to the animals that used to be slaughtered en masse in the city’s once great meatpacking and slaughtering plants—Upton Sinclair’s Jungle) along with the White Sox (the “pale hose”) and the Fire (the city’s soccer team, named after Chicago’s famous 1871 conflagration). Why not become the city’s fourth professional sports team to take its name from the animal kingdom?

Hockey Yes, Empire No

The related problem of Indian slurs (names and logos) in the U.S. military is a much tougher matter. For better or worse, city- and school-specific hockey, basketball, soccer, baseball, and (I reluctantly imagine) football teams will likely continue in the United States after we make our overdue transition to democratic and participatory socialism—after the popular revolution. Not so the weapons of global conquest and the U.S. “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and more than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending. They must be dismantled. Here re-branding and apologies for offense will not suffice. The resources devoted to the manufacture and maintenance of Black Hawk Attack Helicopters, Tomahawk Missiles, and numerous other deadly and highly expensive tools of U.S.-American Empire must be redirected to addressing a vast ocean of unmet human needs abroad and in the “homeland,” where 16.4 million children, 22 percent of all U.S. minors—including 36 percent of Native American children—live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (this while the U.S. top 1 percent possesses more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the population).

A good place to start meeting those needs is in the nation’s Native American reservations, where the legacy of past U.S. ethnic cleansing and asymmetric conquest is evident in deep poverty and despair that is shamefully mocked by the “proud” Indian names and logos deployed by sports teams and the military at home and abroad.

Z

 

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). 

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