Category Archives: Uncategorized

On the Exploitation of Outrage

Over the past few years, the following sequence has occurred often enough to have become a familiar pattern.

1) Professor X, a relatively obscure academic (as most academics are), shares an incendiary statement on social or broadcast media. While recognizable as a left position on racial justice, Palestinian rights or the Trump administration, it is conspicuous for implicitly or explicitly condoning violence. Furthermore, its tone is incendiary, overheated and hectoring. Few regard it as a highly effective as it is more likely to antagonize rather than convince those not already inclined to agree.

2) The right seizes on the most extreme interpretation of the statement, calling for X’s firing, sometimes being able to recruit elected officials in their support (particularly if X is at a public university). Whatever the subsequent outcome, it is mostly irrelevant as the main purpose is to fan the flames of right wing vitriol. The story is invariably entered into wide circulation at Breitbart, Fox and talk radio, likely (though this can’t proven) advancing both the right agenda and the range and intensity of its influence .

3) The left responds (reasonably) by strongly defending X’s first amendment rights. Letters are circulated with hundreds of signatures, including from those who have serious reservations about the original statement. For so-called free speech absolutists, the content of the statement is irrelevant as the right to free expression should always be defended. These and other statements of support are widely reported on left wing media such as Democracy Now, the Real News, Jacobin, etc. X is a frequent guest on these and other outlets.

4) As a result of 3), X is no longer obscure, rather the opposite: having made the rounds of left wing media X is now a bona fide left celebrity, a status which is maintained after the commotion resulting from 1) has subsided. They go on to become go to sources for a left perspective on their own areas of expertise, race relations, Middle East politics or Central American liberation movements and sometimes even outside of these.

As should be obvious, 4) should be a matter of some concern. That’s because those who should be speaking for us are those who can be counted on not only to represent a left consensus viewpoint but to do so effectively. The paradox here is that they are being promoted to this status is for exactly the opposite reason: Having put the left on the defensive and provided the right with an issue to exploit for their own advantage is an indiction not of successfully communicating our message but of failing to do so.

At this point, it might seem required to mention some of the values for X applicable to the above but I’m not going to. More useful is to note that the most skilled rhetoricians on the left are aware of the potential for their words or actions to function as weapons in the hands of the right.  One of these was Malcolm X who understood the neccessity to “be peaceful, be courteous . . . and  respect everyone.” If we do, the right will be able to fan the flames of hatred only by lying shamelessly and transparently.   Ultimately, their smears will backfire as their base recognizes them for what they are. The tenuous unity of their alliance will begin to fracture, as was apparent when the right turned its guns against Bernie Sanders.

Conversely, by capitulating to the understandable tendency to lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies only makes the job of the right much easier.

Those who have not learned this lesson should not be speaking for us.

(1) Thanks to Will Shetterly for reminding me of the relevance of this remark.

“Our Long National Nightmare is Over!”/Truman’s Law

When President Pence is inaugurated will Chuck Schumer wipe a tear from his eye and announce in a trembling voice that “our long national nightmare is over?”

That’s a joke of course, but there’s a serious point and it is the obvious one. When Pence takes office following Trump’s eventual impeachment or resignation he will be supported by congressional majorities in both houses, not to mention Republican dominance of all levels of the judiciary as well as the great majority of states where, under Obama, Democrats have lost over 900 offices.  The nightmare, rather than coming to an end, will be just beginning. That’s the reality which no amount of triumphalism from Democratic Party operatives celebrating Trump’s demise should be allowed to obscure.

For what they will be celebrating will be a revitalized Republican brand setting the stage for subsequent victories in 2018 and 2020 and beyond.

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Truman’s Law

If this scenario is not going to materialize the Democrats will need to show that they understand what should be known as Truman’s Law, one which the (admittedly problematic) Kansas City New Dealer formulated during an address to the national convention of the Americans for Democratic Action  in 1952:

The record the Democratic Party has made in the last 20 years is the greatest political asset any party ever had in the history of the world. We would be foolish to throw it away. There is nothing our enemies would like better and nothing that would do more to help them win an election.

I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.

But when a Democratic candidate goes out and explains what the New Deal and fair Deal really are–when he stands up like a man and puts the issues before the people–then Democrats can win, even in places where they have never won before. It has been proven time and again.

Truman’s Law is really a special case of the more general principle which is usually formulated as “you can’t beat something with nothing.”  And nothing is the only word to describe the techno-meritocratic neoliberals the Democrats have marketed and sold to an unwilling and increasingly restive party base for three political generations.  Most indications provided by the preparations for 2018, most crucially in the form of the candidates they are fielding (including in my own swing district in the Hudson Valley-more on this later) are, unfortunately, that they continue to need to learn this lesson.

It is our job to teach it to them.

A Tale of Three Towers

While I have yet to see anyone making the exact comparison,  it’s pretty hard to ignore that the #grenfell and World Trade Center infernos are similar, if not not identical in many respects. The most crucial one seems to me that both were products of ideologies with a network of supporters. Our immediate response to 9/11, as we all remember, was to directly attack this network-in locations where we understood it to be. It follows therefore, that insofar as neoliberalism was the direct inspiration for the catastrophe we have just witnessed, bombs should be falling on the University of Chicago economics department very soon.  Or at least a Navy Seal hit squad assembling at the offices of The Economist.

That’s a joke of course. But in a figurative sense, it would be a wonderful thing if we could finally view this despicable philosophy of life-one which has been dominant throughout almost the entirety of my adulthood-as rubble in the rearview mirror of history.

 

Sanders and Corbyn: Two Coalitions Compared

The remarkable campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders were supported by certain left constituencies while being rejected by others.  Itemizing what some of these were provides important information about where the left’s strengths and weaknesses lie and how we should direct our energies in the future.

1) Organized Labor

British unions almost unanimously endorsed Corbyn while over here, with a few honorable exceptions,  they just as unanimously rejected Sanders. As I pointed out previously, the latter was a gigantic fuck-up which was almost certainly decisive in Sanders’s defeat.

2) Party Establishments

Both the institutional Democratic and Labor parties were deeply hostile, though in the case of Labor the hostility was slightly mitigated by the traditional left maintaining a presence within the LP “back bench”. In the DP, New Deal liberals had been almost entirely purged by the neoliberal juggernaut of the 1980s and 1990s.  This brings up the observation that the absence of a Sanderite “bench” is a serious obstacle to the chances of it moving forward.  Our Revolution, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, all of which I strongly support, have been conspicuously unsuccessful so far in rectifying what may be a fatal liability.

3) Liberal/Moderate Left Media

The British press’s slanders of Corbyn were truly stunning in their relentlessness and dishonesty and extended across the political spectrum.  In contrast, the contempt for Sanders while dominant, and which sometimes included the liberal left, didn’t always do so. One example is sufficient to give an idea of the difference: the vicious rejection of Corbyn by the Guardian compared to The Nation which combined Clintonite talking points and approved smears form Katha Pollitt and Joan  Walsh with an official endorsement of Sanders.  Also, over here, In These Times, the Progressive and even The New Republic were at least minimally supportive, providing some balance to the predictable ridicule and contempt of the mainstream. Nowhere near what was necessary, but, in sharp contrast to the solid wall of derision from the establishment left media that Corbyn confronted,

4) The Far Right

It’s unclear how many UKIP voters returned to Labour, though at least some did with Labour gaining seats in its traditional strongholds in the North, as Paul Mason suggests on today’s Democracy Now. Both Corbyn and Sanders actively courted this constituency, refusing to concede these regions and those victimized by the post-industrial economy to the right. Clinton famously denigrated them as irredeemably racist “deplorables” as do elements of the the “hard” left (see below) now targeting them for “Nazi punching.” This, as I pointed out previously. is a suicidal strategy which will contribute to ensuring continuing right wing dominance of what should be at least swing districts, if not strong support of a Sanders type insurgency.

5) Socialist/Marxist “hard” left.

Self-defined independent socialists or Marxist organizations remain marginally influential on the left though probably more so there than here.  For years, the most important of these was the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which was gravely damaged by a sexual assault scandal in 2013.  This may have been  a blessing in disguise: Had they remained viable, they would have been invested in protecting their own brand possibly resulting in a rejection of Corbyn and a fracturing of the coalition.  After its implosion, a significant core of the SWP migrated to the left wing of the LP, functioning within Corbyn’s campaign.  In sharp contrast, the alphabet soup of left sects here were largely hostile to Sanders, maintaining a steady stream of villification of him as a “sheepdog” herding activist energies into a Democratic Party which, according to the longstanding criticism, functions as “a graveyard of social movements.”

6) Greens

It is notable that the sheepdog term was invented by a Green Party operative who, with some justification, regarded the Sanders insurgency as presenting an existential threat to the national GP. The Greens by and large served as a small but perhaps not insignificant obstacle to achieving the broad coalition which a Sanders victory required. In contrast, rather than embracing their role as spoilers, as did Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein,  British Greens stood down in many close local elections likely providing a crucial margin of victory for Labour in several seats.

7) Corbyn vs. Sanders Rhetoric

Both Corbyn and Sanders self-identify as socialists but are conspicuously and rigorously undogmatic banishing entirely the insular, off-putting and frankly ugly Marxist jargon of the verticalist left. Corbyn, in what may be his most beautiful speech (and yes, John Cassidy/New Yorker, many of his speeches are rhetorical masterpieces), states that he doesn’t care what you call his form of politics. “I call it socialism. You might call it sharing. It doesn’t matter.” (That’s a paraphrase-need exact quote). Sanders rhetorical styles is similar resulting in attacks from the hard left for not being “a real socialist.”

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The bottom line seems to me that Sanders had significant disadvantages which were not due to his campaign or platform both of which were similar in many crucial respects to Corbyn’s. Rather Sanders’s set-backs were imposed on him due to importantly dysfunctional elements within the left, such as it is.

We will need to deal with these if a comparable insurgency is to succeed here.

 

Violence and the Far Right: Chomsky Responds

Having received, according to him, “a flood of letters” from mostly young readers “confused” by his rejection of violence in responding to a resurgent far right, Chomsky has been required to send out what he refers to as a “form letter.” The text below  is being circulated with his permission:

Wrong in principle, and tactically self-destructive.  When we move to the arena of violence, the most brutal guys win – that’s the worst outcome (and, incidentally, it’s not us).  The right response is to use the opportunity for education and exposure, not to give a gift to the hard right while attacking fundamental principles of freedom of speech.

We’ve been through all of this before, for example, with Weathermen.  The Vietnamese pleaded with them to stop actions like these, understanding very well that each such act simply increased support for the war.  In this case, the motive is far less significant, but the consequences are very likely to be the same, and we can see that they already are.  That’s quite apart from the question of principle.  There could be a constructive response that would not simply be a welcome gift to the far right and those elements in the state yearning for a pretext for repression: to use the opportunity for education and organizing.

See the previous post for an expression of my views which I take to be consistent with Chomsky’s.

On Non-Violence and Double Standards

1) Violence or threats of violence directed at those exercising their right to free speech are deplorable. This principle applies whether or not we approve of the speaker or the content of what is being said.

2) The charge of a double standard with respect to acts of violence legitimately applies to the right and neoliberal center but also, unfortunately, to the left. Not only have many leftists endorsed “punching Nazis” some have acted on the assumption that it is justified to do so, one of these having been arrested for multiple assault during the Berkeley protests against a campus appearance by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Others actively supported or defended the disruption of right wing ideologue Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College during which the event moderator was attacked and suffered injuries.

3) The near certainty of an emboldened white supremacist movement and increased racist violence was one of the reasons many of us regarded it as profoundly important that a Trump presidency not materialize. Unfortunately, significant elements of the left did not take this potential seriously, arguing that the left “was under no obligation” to prevent it. Having failed to invest themselves sufficiently to head off a far right insurgency then, many are advocating violent means to confront it now.

4) The views referenced in 2) and 3) are based on a mistaken perspective with respect to what is necessary to confront the dominance of the political right and to motivate the overwhelming majority supportive of a progressive agenda to actively participate within a movement to advance it.

Violence has no role within the movement now nor at any time in the forseeable future and should be forcefully repudiated.

The Clintons’ Legacy: Lest We Forget

Now making the rounds on social media is a new essay by Rebecca Solnit typical of her oeuvre in that it consists almost entirely of attacks on an easy target, calculated to be universally applauded within circles which share her beliefs while sure to be entirely ignored by those outside of it.

In response, it is useful to recall an essay from some months ago by Nathan Robinson which will not be received with the same hosannas and genuflections. The reason is that it reminds us of something many of us would prefer to forget: that crucial pieces of the foundation for the politics of cruelty now being brutally exploited by the right were constructed by the Clintonite wing of the Democratic party. It was the Clintons after all who were a driving force behind the dehumanization and criminalization of a generation of African American youth and the subsequent mass incarceration epidemic which was their immediate consequence. Trump is doing nothing other than mining the same vein of violent hatred, albeit with a somewhat expanded range of victims.

As Robinson notes, a seminal moment in this moral and political regression was then candidate Bill Clinton’s return to his home state to execute a mentally impaired African American man, Ricky Ray Rector, done solely for the purpose of sending the message that he could be counted on to be “tough” on those whom his wife referred to as the generation of “super predators . . . needing to be brought to heel.”

To recall these facts does not make one lots of friends. But it strikes me that the awareness of them is a necessary condition to developing the kind of coalition which has the capacity to defeat the right.

One of the keys to building it involves recognizing the shift in Clintonite neoliberalism from then demonizing African Americans to, during the 2016 campaign, having postured as their defenders (when she needed their votes).  This might be seen as marking a sharp ideological reorientation. But in fact there is clear continuity in that the previous position was based on having consigned one group to “deplorable” status, namely, super-predator black youth. The only difference between Clinton 1992 and 2016 is that she chose to consign another, different, group to this status, namely, working class whites from the flyover states.

Contemplating the legacy of the Clintons is, admittedly,  a bit depressing.  But to do so is a useful exercise in that it shows us where the opening for a decent politics lies.  Namely, it is  one where no one is consigned to the status of “deplorable” and seen as, on this basis, deserving the screwing they get from the Clintons, Obamas and their kindred neoliberal spirits. Rather, everyone deserves a life of minimal dignity based on their needs and their abilities.

Imagine that.

Ro Khanna to Justice Democrats: “I Endorsed Bernie Sanders.” Did he Lie?

When President Pence is inaugurated will Chuck Schumer wipe a tear from his eye and announce in a trembling voice that “our long national nightmare is over?”

That’s a joke of course, but there’s a serious point and it is the obvious one. When Pence takes office following Trump’s eventual impeachment or resignation he will be supported by congressional majorities in both houses, not to mention Republican dominance of all levels of the judiciary as well as the great majority of states where, under Obama, Democrats have lost over 900 offices.  The nightmare, rather than coming to an end, will be just beginning. That’s the reality which no amount of triumphalism from Democratic Party operatives celebrating Trump’s demise should be allowed to obscure.

For what they will be celebrating will be a revitalized Republican brand setting the stage for subsequent victories in 2018 and 2020 and beyond.

If this scenario is not going to materialize the Democrats will need to show that they understand the principle that you can’t beat something with nothing.  And nothing is the only word to describe the technocratic neoliberals they have marketed and sold to an unwilling and increasingly restive party base for three political generations.  Most indications, most crucially in the form of the candidates they are fielding (including in my own swing district in the Hudson Valley) are, unfortunately, that they have learned nothing.

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While granting that, there are beginning to be small but possibly serious indications that the Democrats might have the capacity to break out of its dysfunctional, losing pattern.  If it does happen, it will likely result from well organized, politically savvy and articulate opposition both from the outside and inside of the party, reassembling the Sanders coalition as an electoral force in 2018.  The most promising of these seems at this point to be Justice Democrats, founded by Young Turks media maven Cenk Uygur.  The organization got a boost some weeks ago when it announced a merger with another one of these fledging organizations, Brand New Congress founded by former Sanders staffers.  The two will combine forces to develop and run competitive candidates for all offices from the local to the national level.

That the Justice Democrats are not without certain ambiguities can be seen in the first national office holder to join their ranks.  That is freshman Congressman Ro Khanna, who announced his membership in a Young Turks interview with Uygur.

Khanna would probably not be anyone’s first guess to join a dissident faction of the Democrats, or, for that matter, any progressive’s first choice.  His campaign to defeat long serving member Mike Honda was financed by a passel of silicon valley plutocrats including Sheryl Sandberg and Eric Schmit not to mention the most odious, Peter Thiel.  Just as problematic is a disturbing pitch to John Podesta from Clinton bundler Steve Spinner hyping Khanna as “a loyal supporter of Hillary Clinton” one who, unlike his opponent, has “come out for (the TPP)” and whose “donors can be a source of at least $50 million for the Democratic Party in national races.”

That said, Khanna says pretty much all of the right things in his interview with Uygur, and he says them compellingly in signing on to every significant aspect of the Justice Democrats excellent platform.

And he seems prepared to act on them: he has signed on as a co- sponsor of H.R. 676 (Medicare for All) and is working on a bill that will substantially increase the Earned Income Tax Credit funded either through deficits or through a “financial transaction tax, getting rid of corporate deductions, taxing corporate deferrals.” If the Dems are going to staunch their hemorrhaging of elected offices this is the basic platform they will need to adopt.

Furthermore, the almost complete absence of national Democrats willing and able to articulate the basic common sense of traditional New Deal liberalism puts us in the position of being beggars who can’t be choosers.  For that reason, I’m inclined to cut Khanna some slack.

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That said, there is one loose end which for me, and I suspect many others, significantly dampens the enthusiasm we have for this development.  In response to one of Uygur’s questions, Khanna explicitly references his having “endorsed Bernie Sanders” in the California primary.   Having done a fair amount of digging, I been able to find no indication that this is true and at least two direct indications of the opposite, namely Spinner’s email to Podesta mentioned above and a direct endorsement of Clinton in this statement issued in December of 2015.

As mentioned, I don’t have a problem with (Ro) Khanna’s past history or problematic funding base–provided that he continues to say and do the right things. What I do have a problem with is the apparent LIE that he told Uygur. Why doesn’t Khanna admit that he has rethought his previous commitment to Clintonite neoliberalism and now rejects it? If he does that, he will allay the suspicions of those who see his attempt to gain influence within Justice Democrats as a ploy by the party establishment to undermine a serious potential challenge to its dominance. If he doesn’t, the result is likely to be reduced enthusiasm and loss of membership for Justice Democrats, ultimately insuring that their challenge will fail.

UPDATE: Khanna responds on Twitter: “I was clear. I supported Hillary until Dec 2015 and switched to Sanders and supported him before June primary.”   Khanna did not respond to a follow-up question as to his public statements of his support for Sanders after December 2015.

Is Andrew Revkin the Judith Miller of Climate Change?

The Times’s appointment of climate change denier Bret Stephens to its op-ed page has provoked a fair amount of criticism with more than a few sufficiently outraged to cancel their subscriptions.

Those with long enough memories will find a bit rich that included among the critics is former Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin. It was Revkin, after all, who, when it mattered, routinely provided a platform for what was then called “climate skepticism,” whether by soliciting comments from climate change contrarians such as Roger Pielke, equating as equally “exaggerated” the views of Al Gore and George Will, or covering as a legitimate news story a Heartland Institute conference directly funded by the Koch brothers.

As Joseph Romm repeatedly warned, Revkin’s “he said, she said” reporting shored up the credibility of climate denialism, and while it is impossible to know how much damage it inflicted, it should be remembered that at the time, there was a split within Obama administration. On one side were those such as Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who bluntly forecast “a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children” if dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse emissions were not undertaken. On the other were those such as interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a long time promoter of the oil and gas industry invested in maintaining business as usual. That the latter side prevailed behind the scenes is apparent in the “All of the Above” energy policy which materialized resulting in intensified levels of fossil fuel extraction combined with delays in implementing necessary steps to a decarbonized economy.

In uncritically passing on climate denialist talking points, Revkin undermined the case for climate action by those within the administration advocating decisive action while strengthening the hand of those who opposed it

As such his role can be compared to that of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, whose now retracted New York Times stories provided crucial liberal cover within the newspaper of record for massive death and destruction unleashed in the Middle East.

While it would be wrong to portray Revkin as one of the chief villains in our tragic failure to contend with global warming, those such as Chris Hayes regarding him “a wise man” on the environment should reconsider their views. His receipt of numerous awards for his reporting should be seen not as validation but as “falling upwards”, rewards offered to elites whose abject failures have paved the way for the catastrophic future we are now contending with.

Why Wasn’t the Climate March Held on Mayday?

Bums me out that they didn’t make the climate march on Mayday. Here’s why they should have done so.

1) It would involve a de facto general strike. As Nelson Lichtenstein recently observed, all significant protests until the antiwar protest of the 1960s were held on weekdays to insure that there would be at least a partial work stoppage. That meant that the elites who call the shots (i.e. capital) would be spoken to in the language of diminished profits which is the only one they can understand. The coalition behind the climate march didn’t understand that fact. Or they have deliberately ignored it.

2) It would also establish a connection between, on the one hand, climate activism, which, as Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything, is fundamentally anticapitalist, and the long and frankly bloody history of labor’s inherent and irreconcilable relationship to capitalist exploitation on the other. That’s what Mayday is understood to mean to this day, although this is buried deep within the collective unconscious.

It’s a shame that this opportunity to establish the connection was missed, yet again.

 

Update: In a KPFK interview, organizer Jane McElevey also asks “why the climate change march wasn’t held on Mayday?”  The answer to that question may tell us a lot about why the left remains so profoundly dysfunction-at least, that’s what I’d suggest.