Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mugwumps And Other Parties That Go Bump In The Night

Once upon a time, third parties gave their associations some truly entertaining and descriptive names. As with the Tea Party, such names had nothing to do with the efforts associated with the mayfly groups.

In New York, the names of the parties have been quite entertaining up until recently when more pedestrian monickers have taken over, such as Liberal, Conservative, Working Families, and Right To Life. Zzzzzz.

Back in the day, as they say, party names such as Locofoco were the vogue. Locofoco? The Locofocos were a radical workingman's party in New York City in the 1830s whose slogan was "Bread, Meat, Rent, And Fuel! Their prices must come down!" Their actual name was the Equal Rights Party, and they attempted a kind of sit-in at the Democrats' Tammany Hall, upon which the main-streamer Democrats turned off the gas lights to clear the building. In turn, the radicals lit the newly-invented safety matches whose brand name was - Loco Foco. The Whig press in the city slapped the Locofoco label on them, which the splinter group eventually embraced.

The Soft Shells-Hard Shells - yes, as in crabs - denoted a rapprochement between two separate branches of the Democratic Party in New York. The Soft Shells were pro-slavery nationally in the 1850s and the Hard Shells anti. (New York State had abolished slavery in 1825.) Fernando wood won the city mayoralty in 1854 under the Soft Shell-Hard Shell banner, uniting the factions over local issues.

Wood, who had come to loggerheads with Tammany, won again in 1859, this time running on the Mozart Hall ticket, Mozart Hall being the rival clubhouse within the Democratic Party positioned against Tammany.

From the Civil War onward for about 60 years or so, the party name game slowed down. The Fusion Party, a nice musical, we-are-the-world party popped up, sure.

But nothing much happened until Fiorello LaGuardia, a hybrid Italian-Jewish Congessman, ran for re-election in 1937 on the City Fusion-Progressive-American Labor-Republican ticket. He ran against Jeremiah Mahoney who ran on the Democrat-Trades Union-Anti-Communist ticket.

In 1945, Newbold Morris, descended from the famous colonial Morrises and husband to the daughter of Judge Learned Hand, ran on the No Deal Party ticket and garnered almost one-quarter of the vote. And in 1950, Vincent Impelliteri won the mayor's office running for the Experience Party.

In 1961, Louis Lefkowitz lost while running on, among other party lines, the Non-Partisan ticket.

Perhaps the most entertaining and famous third party with New York roots is Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party, really the Progressive Party. Sad to say, though, the over-the-top name was taken from T.R.'s running mate in 1912, California governor, Hiram Johnson who said, "I'm as strong as a bull moose!"

I have a letter in to the Tea Party leaders suggesting that, in New York State anyway, they strongly consider changing their name to the Crackpot Party. Truth in advertising, my friends. Truth in advertising.

Monday, September 27, 2010

They Call Them The Squanderers

What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
- William Blake

There is a fearful symmetry when one compares the Bush presidency with the Obama presidency, regardless of where on the political spectrum you place yourself.

Bush first came into office amidst acrimony over Florida's hanging chads and the recounts. He and his coterie of right wing advisers were soon handed an unsought but nevertheless welcomed political gift in the form of the 9/11 attacks. Taking a righteous first step in Afghanistan, Bush was, just a few years later so far off course courtesy of the invasion of Iraq that he could never recover. Falling prey to a combination of blind anger, some sort of oedipal hangover, and shoddy or invented intelligence, his administration went on a war spending spree that was compounded by exhilaratingly unfair tax cuts for the wealthy.

The result? Trillions of dollars in public debt that a healthy financial system would have had trouble digesting, and which, as we know, an overheated, corrupt system simply could not cope with.

The lingering image of George W. Bush will be his look of surprised consternation as things began crumbling around him in 2006. He looked like someone who had just had a wet towel snapped at him in the boys' locker room. Everyone, including himself, knew he was out of his depth.

Very few people have doubted Obama's innate intelligence, his mental toughness or his high level of education. Yet, the President is turning out to be one of the most curious cases in American political history.

He, too, felt the sting of acid tongues during his campaign and immediately after. The gift-wrapped political present he and the Democrats received was, of course, the Great Recession.

He also received another present, sort of a cherry bomb in the mailbox - that is, the virulent, racist antipathy of the everyday right wing and that of the radical, shadowy Tea Party backers and its rank and file.

That kind of vitriol certainly has been of no help in helping the country recover economically. The Republicans have insulted while Rome burns.

But Obama missed a number of golden moments in the first year of his administration, as well. Instead of creating a seemingly technical "package" of health care reform measures, more urgently he needed to sell it to the nation as a way for individuals and small businesses to save money, save money, save money and be safe from the predations of big health and pharma.

The altruism of the bill is clear to clear-thinking people. But altruism wasn't a big sell to the middle and upper middle classes as they watched their home equity and savings erode before their eyes, and as they suddenly become horrified at the prospects looking their children in the eye.

For a person who was almost too absorbed in image building in 2008, Obama became absurdly aloof from such concerns once he was sworn in.

Piled on that has been a perceived lack of focus, occasionally in policy choices, and almost always in presentation of some excellent legislation and its benefits. A whistle stop tour of 50 stimulus projects in 50 states would have been a good common touch. Maybe he should have ruled from the road one week a month to personally oversee the reconstruction efforts. That goes double for the oil calamity in the Gulf.

In the cowardly new world of avalanches of web site info and solitary interaction with those data and images on a hyper-privatized screen, the political "consumer" was left on his and her own to make sense of what in god's name was happening. Imagine FDR only relying on fireside chats on radio to keep the American public's morale up in the 1930s.

Completely mystifying is what appears, to an average consumer of television news, a complete abandonment of the "youth market." While the President was on his tour of 50 projects in 50 states, he could have stopped at 50 college campuses to speak, not about our current travails, but about education and tomorrow's leaders and the Future as an American idea, which is sunnier than anyone can imagine right now.

18 to 23 year-olds would not have hammered him on his birth certificate, his faith, his family vacation choices. They would have been thirsty to have heard news about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Youth is innately narcissistic - tell them about their coming days. If nothing else, he could have shown a hearty thanks to one of the constituencies that put him in the White House.

Bush came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with little political capital and when he accidentally found the entire world behind him ready to seek a multinational way to eradicate terrorism, he reverted to 19th century jingoism and go-it-alone policies that have killed hundreds of thousands and cost a trillion dollars. It's jaw dropping how much Bush and his cronies squandered.

Obama, who came into the White House with the whole country and most of the world ready to follow us into recovery, has stumbled not so much in a material way, but in what, in the final analysis, counts the most: leadership. He has squandered time and his substantial personal appeal as he has failed to take on the right wing in a consistently tough way. (Where's Joe Biden when you need him?)

Perhaps we are in a new country, like Alice Through The Looking Glass. We find ourselves, thanks to almost ten years of mis-management and wasted money and spirit, Americans in Squanderland.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Contract On America 2.0 - The Radical Right's Plan For Completing The Destruction Of America

Leave it to the morally and intellectually bankrupt Republicans to come up with a plan that proposes our country take a number of giant leaps backward. Meanwhile, they assert with a straight face that these proposals show they are not The Party of No. Interesting concept... NOT The Party of NO.

It reminds me of a lyric from the 1956 Broadway show, L'il Abner, whose song Jubilation T. Cornpone, mockingly portrayed a cowardly, incompetent Confederate General:

When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near,
Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone...

The first thing that these inhumane monsters on the right want to do is say NO to, to repeal, or at least hamstring health care reform enough so it limps along accomplishing nothing. So, people with pre-existing conditions, poorer children, marginal wage-earners, the almost-old and a host of others will find themselves tossed off the gurney and into the unknown. 

The second thing the radicals want to do is to say NO to spending the rest of the stimulus package. This at the very time when the funds yet to be spent will be pumped into infrastructure, education, and towards mitigating the housing crisis. 

The radicals are also saying NO to Social Security and Medicare at a time when millions and millions of Baby Boomers are reaching age 65. In the jolly spirit of their Know-Nothingism, though, Republicans have not made clear the specifics of how cuts would be carried out. 

They also are saying NO to federal funding of abortions. NO to non-traditional marriage. NO to the rescission of the odious "Don't ask don't tell" policy in our armed forces. NO to a pathway to citizenship for aliens who serve in the armed forces. NO to a tax rise for the rich who are the only group to have achieved any personal economic growth in the last 15 years. NO to any legislation that the radicals believe is "unconstitutional," meaning anything they disagree with. NO to any sort of deficit spending, one of the pillars of modern state-interventionist economics. 

What is absent from the New And Unimproved Contract On America? 
  • Any mention of education funding whether for Head Start, English-As-A-Second-Language Programs, Anti-Drop-Out funding, or higher education funding. In other words, NO.
  • A mention, even in passing, of a coherent energy policy. Not even one that is pro-oil, which we might understandably expect. So, NO again.
  • Some sort of viewpoint on the continuing degradation of the environment? NO.
  • Proposals on how to deal with our increasingly at-risk food supply? NO.
  • Thoughts on how to deal with the continuing off-shoring of American jobs? NO.
  • Cutting out-of-control defense spending? NO.
The impulse to blame government for every ill in society is a strong one, and it occurs in equal measure on the left and right. 

The chief difference is that the left generally believes in the perfectability of government, really an optimistic position that is about our own personal perfectability, and one that reflects the positive or "YES" nature of leftist politics through the centuries. 

The right simply wants to burn the social contract and scatter its ashes, believing deep down that government per se is evil, that the individual is all that matters, that the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of the commonweal is the preferable condition of society. In spasms of atavism, they wish to return to an existence in the "state of nature" that Hobbes so famously described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Let's see how they're doing.

Solitary - play each of us off against the other politically. Fear thy neighbor, especially if he or she has a different-color skin or religion. Check.

Poor - the decline of the middle and lower middle class over the last 30 years. Destroy unions, import cheap illegal labor, ship well-paying jobs overseas, allow under-priced imports into country. Check.

Nasty - prevent people of the same sex from choosing their marriage partners. Check.

Brutish - shouting down opponents at town hall meetings, toting guns to political rallies, portraying a President as a (take your pick) monkey, a dictator, a terrorist. Don't exactly wear a Brown Shirt, but, you know, like, um, act like you're a Brown Shirt. Check.

Short - those without health insurance die almost 6 years earlier than those with it. Check.

Friday, September 17, 2010

100 Million Poor - And Continuing Tax Cuts For The Rich

Anyone who came of age in the 1960s remembers, if not from direct reading than from media coverage and informal discussion, Michael Harrington's landmark work on poverty, The Other America.

In painstaking detail, Harrington detailed the effects of race, ethnicity, gender, education, vocation and geography upon the material well-being of 1/3rd of our population. There were, and are, two Americas.

As Barron Laycock said in a reconsideration and review of The Other America earlier this decade:
It is a sad truth that Harrington's book is as timely and as shocking today as it was some forty years ago. His account of the fate of millions of impoverished people of color and ethnicity remains as cogent and as relevant as it was then. Despite the long and tortured history of the social legislation that attempted to rework this problem in the decades since, the reality of the situation seems to be that nothing much has changed in terms of the life-chances and hopes of the members of the underclass.

The government announced yesterday that there are 44 million people living below the poverty line. Although the census data from which that number was drawn has yet to tease out the rest of the story, one can be reasonably certain that there is an equal number of people living in the next tier up from abject poverty. Further, we can add in the individuals and families who are struggling from the effects of the Great Recession and who, while perhaps not definitionally poverty-stricken, have found themselves staring into an abyss heretofore only populated by men, women and children very different from themselves.

So we can safely say that 100 million people in the United States live in poverty or are so close that for all intents and purposes they live in a psychological impoverishment that intensively affects their quality of life.

That's 1/3rd of our population, 40 million of whom are children under 18, few of whom will ever escape the poverty cycle if past history is any sign post.

The entire shadow hoard of poor, near poor and the poor-in-waiting is the bitter fruit of not only slavery, ethnic hate, and sexism, but today is also the product of the most despicably disingenuous government policies that favor the wealthy to an obscene extent.

Even more crazily, the most hopeless of the poor live but a few minutes or miles from the insatiable rich, like serfs prostrate at the gates of the barons' castles.

A perfect illustration of the two Americas exists in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a mostly suburban county outside New York City. Its largest city is Bridgeport.

Twenty-one per cent of Bridgeport's population lives below the poverty line; another 41% live in the next level just above the poverty line. Sixty-two per cent of a city of roughly 135,000 souls - or 84,000 - people live in poverty. Meanwhile in the town of Fairfield, 4 miles away from Bridgeport meaured downtown to downtown, a mere 4% of the population hovers in the two zones below or just above the poverty line.

In 2006 Fairfield was ranked as the ninth best place to live in America, and the second safest by Money Magazine. Its murder rate is less than one per year.

On the other hand, Bridgeport's violent crime rate is 1.6 times the national average.

"Coincidentally," Bridgeport is 30% African-American and 33% Hispanic while Fairfield town is more than 95% white.

Now the struggle rages in Congress about whether to allow the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire.

The argument for keeping those cuts in place is that those earning over $200,000 create jobs with the money that otherwise would be going to taxes. In Bridgeport proper, the unemployment rate is 19%. The percentage of people who have never worked (and thus are unaccounted for in such statistics) is 12%.

The Bush tax cuts have been in effect for the better part of 10 years. So much for the job creation theory.

To circle back to Michael Harrington and The Other America: deepening the travesty is the virtual blackout imposed upon this story by the (dreaded) mainstream media.

Where are the special segments, the documentaries, the 5 part articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc.?

The frivolous media - right and left leaning - collectively turns its head. Instead, they luxuriate inside their silly echo chamber whose compass points are The Beltway, Wall Street, angry white America, and Lindsay Lohan (or other suitably fashionable proxy). Unjust, immoral and irresponsible. The Fourth Estate not only doesn't mitigate the problem, but helps perpetuate it by turning the blind eye.

Thomas Carlyle wrote in his Heroes and Hero Worship in History (1841) that Edmund Burke once said: 

"...There were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all."

But that was one upon a time, very long ago.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Saudi Arms Deal And Burning The Koran

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
         - T.S Eliot (The Wasteland)
About two weeks ago a mutton-chopped nobody claiming to be a pastor - a perversion of the word and an abomination to all good people of the cloth - announced the now infamous Koran burning.
Never mind that the promised bonfires evoked the eternally painful Nazi book burnings of the 30s and 40s. Never mind that Brecht, Hemingway, Gide, Freud, Gorki, Kafka, Einstein, Helen Keller, Proust and a host of other cultural standard-bearers' works were burnt in town squares and in country fields all over Germany and the rest of the Reich. Never mind that many, probably most, of us have fathers or grandfathers who fought, were wounded and died in the war to stop such savage acts. Never mind we Americans are a people who pose and perch on the high diving board of tolerance and freedom. 

All Islam is the enemy, said "Pastor" Terry Jones. All Islam is represented by the acts of a few hundred terrorists - so much so that an Islamic community center near Ground Zero faces bitter opposition. 
So what happened just the other day? The State Department announced that the sale of $60 billion in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia was approved. 

Where is the caterwauling by Pastor Mutton Chops now? Where is the righteous indignation of the aggrieved families of the 9/11 victims? Where is the outpouring from the right wing radicals who so roundly denounced the Islamic center and stood silent as tombstones in the face of the threatened Koran burning?

Just to be clear, the reason we are arming the Saudis is to serve as a counterweight to Iran's Islamo-fascist regime. Makes sense, right? Take one Islamic absolute monarchy and play it off against the demagogue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his merry band of nuke-makers. (Of course we are, now that our former comrade-in-arms, Saddam Hussein, is a footnote in history, and Iraq is an unholy mess. Beef up the Saudis and let them do the dirty work.)

The other reason the deal is going through is that the arms industry here and abroad has been reeling during the recession and, well, we all know who has the big bucks to spend on weapons. And why - our addiction to oil.

So, not only is there the unbearable hypocrisy of the home front spitting on American Muslims as we sell arms to the epicenter of anti-Western Islamic fervor, but we also get the chance to support a regime that is backwards, repressive, maltreats women and gays, and squashes any and all opposition. 

Crown Prince Abdullah has often defended Saudi Arabia's position on human rights, going as far as to say in front of a human rights conference at the United Nations that, "It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles."
He sounds like the kind of guy out of whose hands I would keep most advanced weapons, let alone weapons that make his country one of the most modern military presences in the world.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Must Read, Speaking Loudly - The St. Louis Dispatch

It's rare that we read anything radical in a mainstream newspaper anymore. Indeed, it is like seeing a pterodactyl perched on the local church steeple, so accustomed are we to reading the bland protests on the editorial pages of the New York Times or listening to the sweaty, drug-induced rages on FOX.  

Radicalism from the left? A sighting:

Here is a link to a piece in the St. Louis Dispatch on September 3rd that hearkens back to the radicalism of the 1930s and other angry eras when the people who really make this country work last got riled up over economic issues.  

Click: Labor Day 2010: Puppets of the plutocrats

There are echoes of another, long-ago America in the piece, one where the majority of people worked physically rather than at a desk. So, there is a bit of a disconnect between the exhausted worker at the metal speed press or on the railroad on one hand and the counter person at Wendy's or the "tech rep" on the other end of your call to your cell phone provider on the other hand.

But the spirit and the goals of labor today ought to be the same today.

Make no mistake, business is exploiting the latter today just as business exploited the industrial worker of the past. And the only way for those workers to get their just desserts is to organize themselves. (If you think that a disruption by labor in steel manufacturing had dire consequences 80 years ago, just imagine what a stoppage in wireless service today would do.) 

Not only is labor not organized and not protesting, but their sinister nemeses - the Tea Partyers and the radical right wing marching in the name of some cryptic populist urge - are being financed by the very billionaires who want to further drive down wages and ruin the country. There is class warfare and those of us who are preparing to walk off the stage of our working life should not be leaving such a world to our children.

Workers of the new millennium, unite... you have nothing to lose because you've already lost most of it: your well-paying jobs, your homes, your dignity. What else would you like to turn over to your new masters?

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Ghost Of Barack Obama

As we've witnessed in the last two years plus, politics is one very dirty game. Depressingly dirtier than most of the games the rest of us play to earn our daily bread.

Barack Obama is one of the more elegant, almost regal Presidents we've ever had. His high style and rhetorical mastery begs on bended knee comparison with John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer." 

The President has mysteriously become a leader more in the mold of a Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge, and to many eyes and ears, appears cold, aloof, slightly supercilious and often tone deaf. The wisp of shallowness that appeared during the presidential campaign is now a full blown smoking stack.

Where are the ringing speeches, the great aspirations, the appeals to hope over fear? Gone, as far as we can tell. What happened?

There is no other place to lay the blame but to a kind of moral cowardice.

It seems Obama doesn't really believe in the Progressive vision. Was embracing it merely an election strategy? Either government is a constructive, positive force in our common life or it's a bystander.

No other developed country (and very few developing or so-called emerging countries) argue over this point. For instance, France is rated by the World Health Organization as having the best health care system in the entire world. Japan and even Brazil rank above us in the quality of their national mass transit systems. Our real literacy rate, which one approached 99% is now hovering around 85%.

Obama seems to forget that there are tangible problems that need government intervention and financing regardless of what any of the dangerous right wing fanatics shout. While he should be nailing his own 95 Theses to the door of Congress, he appears content to fiddle and adjust and essentially cower. Remember - he is the most powerful single person in the world, and even if a Progressive agenda doesn't pass legislative muster, simply using the bully pulpit will serve as a countervailing force against the reactionaries.

Presidents like FDR, Ronald Reagan, and the sadly sidetracked Lyndon Johnson had strong beliefs in a core set of values. Whether you agreed with them or not, one can easily summarize the three president's major stands, and we admire them for their courage if not the ultimate effects their beliefs had upon us.

So, advisory number one to the President: "Define your core principles, your ultimate philosophies, and sell them. Hard and often."

Another side of the President that is lacking is quite a bit more concrete.

He seems to consider himself above the ribbon cutting, baby kissing, the complimenting of the mayor's wife's new hat, walking the streets with a state senator who feels her district is slipping backward, or showing appreciation for the small business owner's dedication to achievement and her/his family. God is in the details, Mr. President. As the pundits put it, he gets an F in "the stagecraft of the Presidency."

His bumbling, half-baked touch was most evident during the oil catastrophe in the Gulf. He could not have plugged the leak himself, but he could have sent Joe Biden or a couple of Rear Admirals to set up a permanent base camp in New Orleans in order to "show the flag."

There have been literally thousands of stimulus bill projects around the country, yet we seem not to sense the President's, and therefore the Democrats', stamp on them. Everything seems theoretical under Obama's leadership. It keeps smelling as if he doesn't believe in his own actions. 

But it goes beyond that. One of the most important accomplishments of his 20-month tenure thus far is the winding down of the war in Iraq. It will save lives and save trainloads of money. Yet the initial announcement and his nationally-televised speech seemed lethargic, lacking ardor. We should be dancing in the streets and the President should have been leading the band music. But we saw a ghost of passionate, intense candidate Obama.

As Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming," The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

Second advisory to Mr. Obama, coming from the left, for now a still-friendly if disquieted quarter: "Learn how to get your hands dirty." You can't glide above it all for much longer without completely losing the gains of the last few years.