THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE

14 05 2017

The word “Resistance,” with a capital “R” and a hashtag, has become rather fashionable in America these days. Thousands of people are marching in the streets, turning out for town meetings, and generally letting it be known they are not pleased with our new administration’s presumption that its narrow technical victory in last November’s election constitutes a mandate for sweeping changes in the way our government is run and in the every-day lives of millions of people.

I’d like to take this opportunity to look at some popular movements around the world that have, to one degree or another, challenged the professional political class and returned government to the people, and examine how they were able to succeed, as well as ways in which they have failed. By learning from other peoples’ experiences, we can do a better job here in America.

My main examples will be Korea, Taiwan, Spain, Greece, and, to bring it down to the local level, the city of Montreal, in Quebec. That provides a spectrum. The Korean movement is just now in the process of achieving its initial aim. In Taiwan, the citizen’s movement has won its initial objectives and established mechanisms that, it hopes, will keep things from slipping backwards. In Spain, the “Podemos” movement is rising into power. Greece’s Syriza Party has won elections, but run smack into forces it cannot change, and is learning how to keep focused on its long-term goals while encountering short-term failures.  In Montreal, the political wing of the movement seems to have been absorbed into the mainstream, but has left significant changes in its wake.

As I write this, Koreans are celebrating the impeachment of President Park Geyun-he, who roused the ire of lawmakers and citizens alike by being too cozy with the country’s financial elite and by going along with US policies that have escalated tensions with North Korea. Her replacement, Moon Jae-in, the son of a North Korean refugee, was a student radical in the 70’s, and was jailed for his role in protesting the dictatorship of Ms. Park’s father. He went on to become a prominent human rights lawyer. On the basis of that, he was hired as Chief of Staff by the Korean Democratic Party’s previous elected President,  Roh Moo-hyun. He was the KDP’s candidate for President in 2012, when he narrowly lost to Ms. Park.

This is what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like!

So, how did the Koreans do it? Massive street demonstrations were a major contributor. Some demonstrations turned out nearly two million people on the same day. Korea’s population is fifty million, so the equivalent in the US would be about thirteen million people all demonstrating against the government at the same time. The real key, though, was that Ms. Park’s party did not have a majority in the legislature (in which four political parties are represented, along with some independent members). Mr. Moon’s party had a plurality, but not a majority, and as the country became ungovernable due to the force of protest against Ms. Park, it was not that difficult to round up a majority to support impeaching her for her very real crimes. The Korean constitution calls for new elections when a President is impeached, and that created an opening for change. Read the rest of this entry »

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CAN WE TALK?

9 02 2013

opening music:

Richard and Mimi Farina, “Sell-out Agitation Waltz

Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Robbie Basho, “Dravidian Sunday

The Beatles, “Within You/Without You”

Pity Tennessee’s “progressive Democrats.”  They just can’t get no respect, nor satisfaction either.  The old guard, the “blue dogs,” just won’t stand for it.  The progressives reached their high water mark with the election of Chip Forrester as TNDP chairman in 2009, but Forrester’s tenure was undermined by two factors:  the old guard conservative Dems withheld funding, and the Democrat-dominated State Legislature had ignored activists’ concerns and agreed to go along with the Republicans’ request to defer implementation of the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act until after the 2008 election.  2008 was supposed to be the last year Tennesseans voted on easily hackable electronic voting machines; but, mirabile dictu, the Republicans scored upset victory after upset victory, and the first thing the newly Republican state legislature did was repeal the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, which had passed nearly unanimously.  Yeah, they were for it before they were against it.  While the cover story that has been floated to explain this is that Barack Obama’s candidacy cast a pall over the electability of Democrats in this state, the circumstances are highly suspicious.  As Joe Stalin is said to have said, “It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes that counts.”  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about tonight.

In spite of a concerted effort by the state’s urban Democrats, the good-old-boy network prevailed, and the urbanists’ candidate, Dave Garrison, who was thought to be a shoe-in, was defeated by Roy Herron, an anti-abortion, anti-union, A+ NRA-rated member of the “West Tennessee Mafia.”  Tennessee’s liberals and progressives have been relegated to the back of the bus again.  The blue dogs may not be electable, but they still know how to hog the manger.

I would like to offer the state’s progressive Democrats a creative solution to their dilemma: Let the blue dogs have their party.  Go Green.  Read the rest of this entry »





TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES…GOLDEN OLDIES DIVISION

9 05 2010

Our “Truth in Strange Places” award this month is a bit of a golden oldie, as it was uttered as part of a college commencement address in 1969.   According to my source, the speaker

repudiated an “acquisitive and competitive corporate life” in her class address at Wellesley College. She called for “a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”

The speaker was Wellesley’s valedictorian that year, Hillary Rodham, our future first lady.  Damn it, woman, you should have inhaled and ingested a whole lot more than whatever you did!  Maybe it would have helped…not that it seems to have helped our current President all that much, but… How far we have fallen!

We, not just she, not just Hillary Rodham-Clinton.  We, the children of “The Greatest Generation,” the Americans who overcame the Great Depression AND the Nazi-Japanese attempt at world domination, we saw our calling as we came out of the starting gate with a clear, acid-etched understanding of our parents’ failings and a strong determination to take America and the world to the next level.

At first it all seemed to go so well.  We stopped the war on Vietnam, toppled a corrupt President and replaced him with a guy who cheerfully posed for pictures with Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band.  (I’m sorry, that photo seems to have vanished from the archives!)  We started a nationwide network of radical newspapers, alternative radio stations, food co-ops, head shops, communes, ashrams for dozens of Eastern spiritual teachers.  We delivered our own babies and nursed each others’ babies, shared childcare among husbands, wives, and family friends, started our own schools based on the philosophies of A.S. Neill or Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessori.  We blew the lid off the idea that marriage meant one man, one woman, their children, forever, by experimenting with open marriages and multiple marriages, and by accepting same-sex relationships, which ought to be marriages, already!.  We lived simply, sharing cars, homes, gardens, tools and televisions.  We produced shelves of books touting our way of life–Small is Beautiful, Diet for a Small Planet, Foxfire, Voluntary Simplicity, the Whole Earth Catalogues, just to name a few.  We started “Earth Day,” and got Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a national  holiday.

That’s the tip of another of the icebergs of my generation’s early accomplishments.  We declined to accept the tacit segregation of our parents’ generation.  Not only did we date and marry across racial lines, many of us ignored ghetto lines in cities and created racially mixed inner city neighborhoods.

We raised hell about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and the cold war and Israeli repression of the Palestinians, white repression of native South Africans and Native Americans.  We pushed Richard Nixon, one of our creepiest Presidents, to create an Environmental Protection Agency, a Council on Environmental Quality, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a Federal Products Safety Commission,  and to pass a Clean Air Act, a National Environmental Policy Act, and a Water Pollution Control Act.

We were on a roll…then, somehow, it all started falling apart.  Perhaps blackmailed by Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter granted asylum to  the newly deposed Shah of Iran, the enraged Iranians took over the US embassy, our secret rescue mission failed.  The President who had called energy conservation and independence “the moral equivalent of war” lost his bully pulpit in a reactionary landslide and Ronald Reagan, the great miscommunicator, steered America into a trance.  Our movement melted away, as former radicals sought the apparent safety of professional careers, suburban homes, and safe investments for retirement.  Many of us traded bulk foods for fast foods, community engagement  for televised distraction, political passion for sports fandom, LSD for CGI, and pot for prozac.

How did this happen?  As far as I can tell, there was a lot of pressure from a lot of directions.  Early on, the record companies whose ads were a major source of finance for the “underground press,” withdrew their support and started the papers’ slide into “entertainment weeklies.”  Somewhere in her voluminous output, Barbara Ehrenreich reports that a cabal of network executives and advertising agencies determined that hippiedom and communal living would never be shown in a positive light on national television, because the ideal of sharing was bad for business.

There was financial pressure.  In 1974, median income peaked; although the average has gone up since, this has been due to the rich getting richer while the poor and middle class get poorer.  This has resulted in people having less time for leisure and non-income producing pursuits like social change.  College education became much more expensive, saddling students with debt and giving them a strong disincentive to rock the boat.  Did the barons of finance put the squeeze on us because they didn’t like what we were doing with our leisure time, or was our loss of leisure, AKA time to think and dream.  just an unintended consequence of being wrung dry?  We may never know

I believe there were internal pressures, as well.  The ideals that we held and shared were, for many of us, largely intellectual constructs that were not deeply anchored in our psyches.  What lurked in the depths  of all too many of us was the unreconstructed insecure materialist conditioning our parents had burned into us, and all it took was stress–whether from financial pressure, interpersonal turmoil, or the shocks that came as our cute little kids turned into sexual, independent-minded teenagers–to unleash that conservative parental programming and turn legions of once airy hippies into mainstream American zombies who would just die if their kids ever found out what they had done in their foolish youth–and who would completely go postal if those kids ever dared try any such stunts themselves.

That’s what I saw going on around me, anyway.  I’m not sure what I (and the mother who raised me) did right, but somehow I seemed immune to the pressure that was causing people all around me to cave in.  Not that I (and my kids) didn’t have some baggage to deal with–but somehow I seem to have ended up one of the last hippies standing.

I’m tooting my own horn way too much here.  I may be alive and more or less well and idealistically intact, still pumping for local food, local industry, and local control, but the Hillary Clinton I once saw eye to eye with about the dangers of,  as she put it ,”acquisitive and competitive corporate life” is now one of the lead spokespeople for corporate life.  I’m not picking on Hillary personally–she’s just a symbol for millions of members of my generation who sold out for what I’m sure they thought were all the right reasons.

Meanwhile, the promises of corporate America ring hollower and hollower to more and more people, and we’re not just talking furriners here.  As George Carlin famously said, “They call it ‘the American dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Formerly middle-class Americans are falling out of their cocoons and waking up with a bang on the sidewalk in front of what used to be their homes, their dream derailed by job losses, medical bills, and sucker mortgages among other things.  Maybe it’s not too late for a national reawakening.

music:  James McMurtry, “Jaws of Life”  (actually played “Paris“–two different songs on the same subject, different points of view..





THAT MAYTOWN OBSESSION

12 03 2010

If Bell’s Bend were a woman, by now she would have gotten a court order to keep Jack May from stalking her, and Jack’s latest move in this apparently never-ending story would have landed him in jail rather than before the Davidson County Commission, where I and a lot of other people went early this month to watch Lonnell Matthews abruptly withdraw his, or rather Jack May’s, motion to overrule the Planning Commission (not to mention common sense) and allow Mr. May to go ahead and rape the tip of Bell’s Bend.  Hey, he brought her flowers, and he’s promised not to penetrate as deeply as he originally said he wanted to go….what’s the problem, sweetie?  Relax and enjoy it!

Hmm…that’s about as far as I think I’d better go with that metaphor!

Just the facts, m’am…Councilman Matthews withdrew his motion to allow May to proceed on the technical grounds that, since May has scaled the proposal back quite a bit in order to meet complaints about the strain that Maytown would put on Nashville’s infrastructure, it is essentially a new proposal that has to go through the whole Planning Commission process again.

That brings up another metaphor–the story of the Bedouin, his tent, and his camel.

One cold night in the desert, a Bedouin made camp, taking shelter in his tent and leaving his camel outside to fend for herself.  Now, it just so happens that this was a talking camel, and as the desert night grew colder, the camel said to her master, “Oh, it is so cold out here!  Might I just stick my poor, hairless nose in your tent so that I can keep it warm?”

The Bedouin, being a kind man, assented, and so the camel stuck her nose in the tent.  The night grew colder, and the camel said to the Bedouin, “My ears are freezing!  May I stick the rest of my head in your tent?”

And so, the Bedouin let the camel a little further into his tent…and soon enough, she asked if she could keep her neck warm, and then her whole body, and lo and behold, there was no more room in the tent for the poor, indulgent Bedouin, and he passed a very cold night, and never again was he so kind to his camel.

I think you can see the point I’m making with that story:  approving an initially smaller Maytown Center is just a way to get a foot in the door, which starts to get back to the stalker metaphor I started with…but, of course, it presumes that the development will be successful, and that, I think, is quite another question.

We are having a sort-of recovery, a “job loss” recovery, as many wags and pundits are terming it.   What this means is, the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are still getting poorer.  If Jack May’s target demographic is the middle class, Maytown Center will flounder even worse than Metro Center.  If, on the other hand, he’s wooing the über rich, he’s offering them a much more secure hangout than any other location in Nashville:  with only one bridge for access, it will be easy to keep out the homeless and other riffraff.  Should things get really crazy, like,rioting and looting, that one bridge, which could easily be guarded and gated, becomes a great selling point.

“Condo in Maytown Center?  $1500 a month.  Ability to walk the streets without being mugged?  Priceless!”

Of course, you can’t talk about things like that to Metro Planning Commission or Metro Council.   The future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades, and our new Nashville Convention Center will attract thousands of free-spending tourists, and pigs will fly.  O, Megan Barry, how you let me down!

Back to that Metro Council meeting…as I walked in the door, I passed a circle of smartly dressed young black women, all wearing “support Maytown Center” buttons, and I felt the irony.  Consider:  the once-iconoclastic womens’ movement has somehow been twisted to mean that most women should work outside their homes and give their children over to so-called professional daycare at the expense of real family life, not to mention “freedom” for women to serve in the military. Uh, wasn’t one of the original goals of the womens’ movement an end to militarism and corporate domination?

Similarly, the black power/equal rights/anti-discrimination movement has largely turned into a demand for people of color to be included in the corporate world.  Turns out, the corporate masters are only too happy to include people of color in their hierarchies.  It helps legitimize them.  Just ask Michael Steele, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, or…Barack Obama.  But don’t ask Stokely Carmichael or Rev. Martin Luther King.  For all their differences, they would be united in spitting nails about what the movement they once led has come to.

Both these movements, womens’ liberation and black power, have lost their original thread, which was a critique of the corporate capitalist state and its dehumanizing effects on society.  Similarly, the labor movement, which started out as a socialist/communist/anarchist assault on the status quo, ended up trading its radicalism for a bigger pile of crumbs from the capitalist table.  Indeed, now we see the Green movement encountering the same temptations–for instance, if you go to the Maytown website, you will see it pitched as “green,” anti-sprawl,” “walkable,” “preserving nature,” LEED certified,” and many other bits of window dressing from our deep critique of Western culture.

But the line between window dressing and the real deal is a very blurry one.  Suppose Jack May steps back from his determination to subjugate the wilds of Bell’s Bend with new urbanism, and instead cuts his 1500 acres up into several small farms, each carefully planned to be a reasonable size for a couple of families to support themselves on.  What if Jack May used his extraordinary wealth to help these new farmers with “seed money” for the buildings, livestock, and equipment they would need, and what if Mr. May further provided a fruit and vegetable packing house, and infrastructure for local dairy, egg, and meat production?  He could probably do all of that for less than the amount he is prepared to spend for a bridge across the Cumberland, and would actually get the money back directly, albeit over time, instead of having to charge insanely high prices for commercial property at Maytown Center.

OK, there’s one problem with this idea–the May family paid $14,000 an acre for that property, and there’s no legal way a farmer can make enough money to buy land at that price…since our cultural religion is profit, this could be an insurmountable objection.  Or maybe the Mays (and where is Elaine May when we need her?) could decide that this is a way to cut their losses, sell this rural land for less than the crazily inflated price they paid for it, get a big tax deduction, and maybe leave everybody happy  Is that a “green solution”?  Or a grey area?  Life’s like that, ain’t it?

music:  Buffy St. Marie, “No No Keshagesh





LINGERING QUESTIONS

8 06 2008

I recently finished reading Edward Jay Epstein’s The Assassination Chroncles, subtitled Inquest, Counterplot, and Legend, and found the now-forty-some-year-old tale of Lee Harvey Oswald’s journey to the Texas Book Depository an interesting lesson.

One of the things that impressed me was Epstein’s level-headed, “just the facts, m’am” approach to this highly controversial subject.  I read a lot of speculative material about current events, and my warning lights tend to go on when a writer makes a string of increasingly less documented assertions and then jumps to conclusions about the international Zionist Conspiracy or the Heartless Lizards from Outer Space or whatever his (and it’s usually a “he”) pet bete noir may be.

Epstein does not engage in speculation, and is strongly critical of those who do, such as New Orleans DA Jim Garrison and film maker Oliver Stone, both of whom, he charges, have muddied up the waters by presenting sensationalized versions of the assassination, for no reason other than to benefit themselves.  The truth, as Epstein presents it, is strange enough, even if it’s not sufficiently spectacular and clear-cut enough to sell movies or get convictions.

The first ambiguity Epstein delineates is the question of who Lee Harvey Oswald–and his wife Marina–really were.  Epstein tells us the story of Oswald’s time in the Marine Corps, and his proximity to the U-2 spy plane program.  He points out the circumstances that indicate that Oswald may have given the Russians the information that enabled them to shoot down Gary Powers and effectively end the U-2 spying program–but he doesn’t come out and scream “OSWALD WAS A RUSSIAN SPY!!!”  He also points out inconsistencies in Marina Oswald’s story of how she grew up and how she met Lee, as well as troubling inconsistencies about her command of the English language, but again, he doesn’t get sensational about this.  “Just the facts, m’am.”

And, in a similar, level-headed tone he points out that the mission of the Warren Commission was not so much to find out the truth as it was to settle the public’s mind.  Was Oswald on the FBI’s payroll?  The Warren Commission didn’t investigate that–nor, lacking information, does Epstein spend much time on it, except to note that Oswald’s expenditures consistently did not match up with his apparent income–never by very much, but always just a little.  Was that because he was on the FBI’s payroll?  Or the KGB’s?  Or both?  We may never know.

The question of Oswald’s KGB connection raises another interesting ambiguity.  At the time of the Kennedy assassination, the CIA was holding a Soviet defector named Nosenko, trying to figure out if he was genuine or a Russian mole.  Nosenko said Oswald had no connection with the KGB, but there were so many inconsistencies in Nosenko’s overall presentation of himself that the CIA agents who spent nearly a year interrogating him were pretty well convinced that he was lying about that and a lot of other things.  They said as much in their report to their superiors….and were all reassigned and replaced by a crew of interrogators who quickly gave Nosenko a clean bill of health and helped him transition into American society.  The practice of changing the facts to fit the policy did not originate with the Bush administration.

About the ultimate questions–did Oswald do it, and was he alone?–Epstein remains level-headed.  He rejects the “gunmen on the grassy knoll” theory, but does point out that Oswald’s marksmanship record in the Marines was poor, while the shots that killed Kennedy and wounded John Connally were tricky ones to make.  Oswald had failed to hit Major General Edwin Walker, a far easier target, just a few months previously, and the Warren Commission never investigated the allegation of some witnesses that they saw two figures in the window of the Texas Book Depository at the time of the shooting.

Epstein’s analysis is an excellent example of clear thinking.  He concludes that it is possible that there were two gunmen, if one gunman, using Oswald’s rifle, shot Kennedy in the head and  wounded Connally, while the other gunman shot first and missed, then shot again and hit Kennedy in the back, and the investigation failed to recover that bullet.  On the other hand, it is also possible that just two shots were fired, and the shot that hit Kennedy in the back ricocheted and hit Connally.  The expert witnesses do not agree, and that’s all there is to it.  Ambiguity.

Ambiguity is also a key word in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.  Shane O’Sullivan has recently produced a documentary movie that attempts to prove that Bobby was killed by CIA agents in retaliation for the US’s failure to fully back up the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  Of course there are people challenging his evidence, and people challenging their evidence, and so on.  To his credit, O’Sullivan is modifying his stance as the evidence shifts–but the central, unanswered questions still remain.

Another questionable assassination account from the sixties is the death of Martin Luther King.  Again, there is strong evidence that King was set up–removal of his usual security detail from the Memphis Police Department, a mysterious call asking to change his accommodations from a more secure room to the exposed balcony where he was shot–and an “official story” of a crazed lone gunman.  In either case, J. Edgar Hoover’s dislike for Rev. King is real, and a black mark on the government that allowed him to remain in such an influential position.

What, for me, ties these together, is the peculiar circumstance of three relatively progressive figureheads being taken out by “lone gunmen” in a short space of time–resulting in the decapitation of a movement that seemed poised to take America in a more open and liberal direction.  There was no wave of assassinations of conservative figures.  The CIA has a known track record of surreptitious interference with the internal politics of other countries…throw a dart at a map of Central and South America and you’ll probably come up with one.  So there is a certain logic in presuming that things in this country are not quite as they seem.

So, have the right wing and/or the CIA, etc. cooked up quite a menu of vendettas against progressives, or have they just fostered an atmosphere of violence that encourages unstable individuals to go do their wet work for them?  “Just the facts, m’am,” and the fact is that there is a long list of assasinations, each with a “perfectly logical” explanation of why it was not the work of a conspiracy.

Can you say, “9-11,” boys and girls?

music: Mike Scott and the Waterboys, “The Wind In the Wires





Remembering Maximum Leader King

5 04 2008

As a teenager, I was a hanger-on with a small civil rights group in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio…the rest of the group was black folks in their twenties and thirties.  I helped them canvass neighborhoods and gather signatures for petitions, scaring the bejesus out of everybody when I vanished for a while in a particularly scary (even for them) part of town…but I’d knocked on the door of somebody who was listening to some very tasty jazz, and when I showed some appreciation, the guy had invited me in, offered me a beer and a cigarette (both of which I declined) and we were just grooving on the music together, and I lost track of time….but I digress….

“Maximum Leader King” was one of the names that members of the group (called Dayton Alliance for Racial Equality) had for Rev. King.  All that took place back in 1965-6, before Rev. King started talking about the wider context in which racism in America occurs.  Here’s Jeff Cohen’s appreciation of Rev. King’s true legacy:

King’s sermons on Vietnam could get as angry as those of Barack Obama’s ex-pastor: “God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war … We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world.” In 1967, King was also criticizing the economic underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy, railing against “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” Today, capitalists of the West reap huge profits from their domination of media — in the U.S. and abroad.

Thankfully, we now have the Internet and independent media outlets where King’s later speeches are available for the ages.

If King had survived to hear the war drums beating for the invasion and occupation of Iraq — amplified by TV networks and the New York Times front page and Washington Post editorial page — there’s little doubt where he’d stand. Or how loudly he’d be speaking out.

And there’s little doubt how big media would have reacted. On Fox News and talk radio, King would have been Dixie Chicked … or Rev. Wrighted. In corporate centrist outlets, he’d have been marginalized faster than you can say Noam Chomsky.

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